In entertainment, an awful lot of stuff happens behind closed doors, from canceling TV shows to organizing music festival lineups. While the public sees the end product on TVs, movie screens, paper, or radio dials, they don’t see what it took to get there. In Expert Witness, The A.V. Club talks to industry insiders about the actual business of entertainment in hopes of shedding some light on how the pop-culture sausage gets made.
For six years, the psychosexual, horror-art experience Blackout has earned a reputation as the most extreme haunted house in the country, with stories and Yelp reviews both scaring away and attracting horror fans. Reviews from past years read like fetish porn: There are bloody tampons and other tempting edibles. There is simulated (or possibly not simulated) sex in a “rape dungeon.” There is graphic nudity, suffocation via plastic bag, and even some mild waterboarding. And in previous incarnations, fun-seekers were required to go through Blackout alone. This year (to some fan dismay) the experience changed to a group format, so thankfully I was able to convince my writer-photographer friend Danielle Bacher to accompany me to the Los Angeles location of Blackout, this year dubbed Blackout: House, located in a nondescript building in the already borderline creepy downtown arts district. To offer many specifics about this year’s horrors might spoil the fun, but I will say that you must be 18 years old to enter, you must sign your life away on a waiver, and that you’re given a “safe word” in case you need to quit partway through. (Many people do.) Immediately following the experience, I stepped outside to interview co-creators Josh Randall and Kristjan Thor.
The A.V. Club: What’s the origin story of Blackout?
Kristjan Thor: We started in 2009. We both did a lot of theater in New York City, and one July we decided that it would be kind of crazy to do a haunted house. We took a lot of stuff that we’d been doing in the avant-garde theater world and applied it to a haunted house. That was our first show. It was July, $6, and it was a short experience. But that’s when we started doing adult content, 18 and over, putting people through alone, and trying to make a haunted house that would really scare people. It played on psychology and your own fears, rather than the ghost and goblin standards.
AVC: Why did you decide to switch it up this year and go in groups?
Josh Randall: This is our sixth year, and when we started in 2009 it was a pretty unique thing to send people through a haunted house alone—
AVC: [Spits something out.]
JR: What you got in your mouth there?
AVC: Supposedly placenta and toilet water.
JR: Welcome to Blackout. So, we’re in our sixth year now, and since we started in 2009, you now see a whole slew of haunted houses incorporating the elements we created in 2009. A lot of haunted houses are now requiring a waiver, the guests can get touched, you can go through alone on certain nights. You can still do Blackout alone on certain nights. For us, we’re always constantly reinventing how we present the show. We thought this was a good year to try something radically different. The biggest, most radical change that we could possibly make is to not send people through alone.
AVC: How was opening night?
JR: Excellent. We had a really good time. There are a lot of new actors in this particular cast, so it always takes people a while to warm up. But we’re intensely impressed with the group that we put together for the show this year. They’re really going for it, really intensely. It was a great night. We had a lot of fun.
AVC: What’s the casting process like?
KT: The casting process is much more like interviewing than a classic monologue audition. We need to find people who are interested in the concept, and who want to try and do these really intense things. But we have a lot of people who are potential sickos, and those are the people we don’t want. So if somebody is like, “Yeah, I really want to fuck people up”—that’s not what we look for. If someone is a little more curious, and is like, “I think I kind of want to do this,” then that’s the kind of person we want to bring on board.
AVC: Have you always been into horror?
JR: Not really. We both like horror, and are both big fans of horror movies, but we were never really specifically focused on the horror genre. We did it more from an immersive, theatrical point of view. We never really considered ourselves to be a part of the haunted house community, until the haunted house community spoke up and were like, “Oh God, these guys are reinventing the community.” We were like, “Oh, we are?”
KT: We thought we were just making weird-ass theater.
AVC: Would you describe the Blackout experience as psychological or visceral? Is something psychological scarier than a chainsaw maniac?
JR: I think it’s a combination of both. One thing leads to the other. The more visceral it is, the more your mind goes crazy. Conversely, the more we’re able to attack your mind, the more you’re able to feel what’s happening.
KT: I think it’s important to note that nothing is meant to be too specific, so that your own visceral psychology can be employed. You don’t come out of a scene being like, “Oh, that was clearly the scene from Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” You want to be like, “Who is this lady doing this stuff?” Then you start filling in the gaps. The second you start answering too many things, there’s no fear left.
AVC: What are the brainstorming sessions like?
KT: They’re fun! The funniest thing about it is if we do it at a café or bar, we have to find a table really far away from everybody, otherwise they’d probably call the cops on us.
JR: I think Kris and I have become a little desensitized to the content over the last several years, in terms of the places we allow our own minds to go. A lot of times we’ll be sitting talking about really horrible stuff, and forget that there’s a group of kids sitting right next to us. But it is a lot of brainstorming. We come up with tons of different ideas, and all of those start taking shape into the concept of whatever particular question we’re asking that year with the show. Slowly, it just kind of falls into place.
AVC: Are your tastes extreme across the board with film, music, and literature?
JR: For me, yes, very much so. I think that the concept of creating a show like this was definitely born out of the idea to affect people in the way that I couldn’t be affected. I feel very desensitized to a lot of horror movies and haunted houses. Even when Kris and I were working on more traditional theater like Shakespeare or Chekhov, we were still pushing the bounds of extremity in those particular confines. I think horror sort of allowed that to just explode.
KT: I don’t know that “extreme” is always the word. I like when people are trying to do something new and different. There’re a lot of things that are really subtle that I’ll just be blown away by. The danger with the extreme thing is that at some point I can’t physically hurt you, and I don’t want to. That’s something that we run into a lot. People are like, “More! I want more!” We like the extremity, and have done a lot of really extreme things, but we also like to do things that are new, interesting, and pushing different kinds of boundaries. It’s dangerous to get pigeonholed. While I enjoy a lot of extreme art experiences, it’s not just about getting throttled.
AVC: So this is an art experience?
KT: It’s much more performance art than haunted house.
AVC: Where is the line? What aren’t you able to do?
KT: That is the million dollar question.
JR: We have to maintain a legal and safe event. For us, the boundaries come when we’re talking to the police, the fire department, and our insurance company. We have to create an event that is able to go national, to play in New York, Chicago, Miami, or anywhere else that we’re going. If you start crossing lines and making things illegal, you’re not able to expand as a business. I think that’s something that we are constantly talking about.
KT: I think it’s also important to say that the line for us is sometimes doing things that are surprising in other ways. Just putting someone in a white room and having them sit there for an hour is actually a really extreme thing. That might be really surprising and exciting for certain people. We’re trying to always do that. Whatever is new. There’s a lot of negative pushback with people saying things like, “This isn’t what you guys are about.” We have to do new things that are surprising in other directions.
AVC: What’s the most extreme reaction you’ve had over the years?
JR: We’ve had insane reactions. Panic attacks, seizures, crying, laughing, and people getting angry with us and trying to fight. You name it.
KT: I think one of the most extreme, when I look back on it, is that we’ve gotten emails and letters from people saying, “I haven’t been able to sleep for three days. Literally every corner I turn, I think you’re everywhere.” I think that’s kind of an amazing thing. The extreme thing that can happen here is that you faint or have a panic attack. If three weeks later we’re still in your head, that’s pretty amazing.
JR: On the more positive side, we actually get a lot of emails from people that have had really cathartic experiences—that this has helped them through certain things. Everyone asks us, “Do people shit their pants?” or, “How many people throw up in your haunted house?” To a certain extent, there are a lot of positive reactions that come from it, too, and they’re almost just as extreme.
KT: One of the most amazing nights was after Hurricane Sandy in New York. We reopened for people who wanted to come. It was super slow, but we had this one girl come and she was just not able to get through it. Her friends kept buying her ticket after ticket, and when she finally made it through without calling out the safe word, there was a group of about 20 people in the lobby waiting for her. Even I was getting teary eyed. There was crying and hugging, and one of the actors came out and gave her a big hug because she had literally tried to go through his room like five times. He came out and was like “Congratulations!” It was this really loving moment in this horrible place. It was really amazing to see.
AVC: Have you been to some of the other extreme houses, like McKamey Manor?
KT: We have not been to McKamey Manor. I think Josh was on a panel with one of the guys, but I think the safe thing to say is “no comment” on a lot of that stuff. That stuff is more physical and rooted in the world of gore and goblins. It’s like Saw. I mean, we do crazy shit. It’s a tone that we appreciate, but the stuff that those guys are doing is just not our style. We love that it’s out there.
AVC: What’s the most satisfying scare you’ve had in your life?
KT: I can tell you exactly where it was. When I was training in New Zealand in high school for extreme outdoors stuff, I had to go to the shitter in the middle of the night, on the side of a mountain. These guys bum-rushed me, pulled me out of the shitter, and basically bagged and tagged me. They ran me through the woods in the pitch black, freezing cold. I had no idea where I was going.
AVC: Was this a hazing thing?
KT: Yeah, kind of. I had no idea it was coming, and it was scary as all shit. It’s kind of like when we’re working with the actors—we have them running through the hallways. Every time we do it I think of that moment.