The Biggest Mindf*ck in Los Angeles

Saw franchise architect Darren Bousman’s The Tension Experience: Ascension is an immersive game debuting Sept. 8 in L.A. And it will mess you up.

The first flash of panic struck as I blindly tiptoed my way through the labyrinthine compound of The Tension Experience: Ascension, a black hood over my head, straining to make sense of the barely perceptible sounds I could make out over my own muffled breathing. What had I gotten myself into?

Minutes later an unknown hand yanked the hood off and I found myself blinking into a room eerily bathed in pure white. The cacophonous din of strangers stationed at desks filled the air so loudly I barely understood the stocky man glaring at me, barking at me like a drill sergeant, directing me to take a seat to begin my “processing.” I sat where he instructed and smiled at the white-haired woman with a kindly face and nervous eyes across from me. She began asking me a series of questions, logging my answers into a computer. They were strange questions. Invasive questions. The last one horrified her so much, she barely squeaked it out in a whisper: How often do you masturbate? Which hand?

The notion of surrender in the age of the internet is a thorny one when you think of all we pour into the digital ether just to participate in 21st century life. Strip that concept down to something more primeval and unsettling and you get The Tension Experience: Ascension, the ambitious new immersive theatrical experience opening Sept. 8 in L.A. from horror filmmaker Darren Bousman.

Bousman directed three of the Saw flicks and knows a little something about subjecting people to horrors beyond their wildest imaginations. For months now, across 45,000 square feet in a rundown Boyle Heights air horn factory, he’s been secretly building something designed to be more than just another of the many haunted houses that pop up every Halloween, the escape rooms that have skyrocketed in popularity over the past year, or the immersive scare experiences like Blackout and Alone that are designed to exploit your most visceral fears.

The Tension Experience, a 2½-hour live theatrical concoction perhaps most closely compared to New York’s Sleep No More, is something like all of those things rolled into one. It’s told in three acts that unravel the mysterious motives of a cheerily sinister cult called The O.O.A., and seeded with clues for participants who will each walk away with their own unique experience—and one entirely dependent on how much they give themselves over to Bousman and his creation.

“I hate Halloween shit,” explained Bousman as we toured the space after my “processing,” on the second day of rehearsals. “I hate when people go to a haunted house and it’s decorated with plastic skulls. I want people to feel uncomfortable. The whole thing is called ‘tension’ because the idea is to create tension. No one jumps out at you; you’re not going to be face-to-face with blood dripping down walls. But I guarantee you will be unnerved, you will be uncomfortable, and you will constantly look for some sort of emotional support from your friends. You’re going to be put in situations where you’re going to have to make really uncomfortable decisions.”

The Tension Experience is not your typical immersive horror theater. First, as Bousman says, it’s not trying to scare you with gore or horror movie frights, although all five senses are intended to be tested. Unlike most haunt-type attractions, Tension sends participants through in small groups—no more than nine at most—and separates friends from one another, forcing strangers to live through the feature-length live narrative together.

At times you must solve challenges or interact with any of the 40 or so actors in the 24-room compound; at others, you might be separated from the group and taken away to act out an individual experience by yourself. Bousman likens it to being the star of a movie that’s constantly in motion around you, the narrative already plotted out in ways you have to discover, and he crafted it as if it was a movie, hiring industry crew and co-scripting so much dialogue and story with writer Clint Sears, each actor might have up to four separate scripts to memorize.

There’s also a bit of “Choose Your Own Adventure” to the lengthy experience. “Every room forces you to rely on nobody but yourself,” he said ominously. “And every choice dictates your future.”

At the core of this overlying narrative is the cult known as The O.O.A., whose recruitment offices serve as the first “room” in the experience. Located in a dimly lit industrial neighborhood off the I-10, the O.O.A.’s receptionist greets newcomers into a recruitment office adorned with Christmas cards, candy bowls, vintage magazines about the future, and recruitment posters with slogans like, “Let Go And Give In.” Inside a holding room resembling a 1950s hunting lodge you can get comfy and peruse everything in sight, from antique anatomical and medical periodicals to the bowl of dates that look like they’ve been there for decades. Framed portraits hang on the walls, the eyes scratched out.

Everything in the room, Bousman says, “is here for a reason”—including the elderly actors who interact with you, invite you to play games, and prepare you for the creepy vibes to come.

The sinister intrigue of the sitting room is nothing compared to the psychologically taxing challenges that follow. Some might be affronted by the physicality of the experience, which requires participants to be 18 or over and to sign a waiver before entering. Others will find the emotional vulnerability it demands to be the most difficult. As we moved through the white processing room Bousman was hailed by his choreographer, Paradox Pollack, a trim man in a pleated samurai hakama who was ready to run through one of the project’s more risqué rooms.

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Pollack, a choreography expert who also works on Marvel blockbusters and taught Tom Hiddleston how to move like Loki, is one of several collaborators Bousman brought over from his last film/theater hybrid, The Devil’s Carnival: Alleluia. (Musician Emilie Autumn, who is also developing her own work into an immersive theater project, is another.) He ushered us into the Red Room, where an intensely sensual scene unfolds that I won’t spoil here. Suffice to say they were still ironing out certain logistics before opening day—like how to deal with sand getting into the crevices of sticky naked body parts.

“The whole point of this is to take you out of your comfort zone and force you to be present,” said Bousman. “I think most of us are not present in our daily lives. We’re on our cellphones, on Instagram. This forces you to not be on your cellphone and to interact with people in very uncomfortable ways. And each scene is more uncomfortable than the one before.”

In order to get the most out of the experience, I realized, you have to willingly submit to it. You must choose to strike down your walls, risk exposing your deepest secrets and thoughts and desires, and lay it all bare to a cast of living, breathing, human strangers—without knowing why, or how that knowledge might be used against you. For fun, remember?

In some ways that’s much scarier than being confronted by violence, sex, or other horrors brought to life by the more extreme immersive experiences out there, because it forces you to examine the act of exposing your own freedom or fear as a choice in itself. It illuminates the reality that you are in control of the information you surrender to the world—whether you’re online or sitting across from a nice old crazy lady in a processing room.

“The commentary we’re making is that we willingly give up information to be distracted on our phones, or whatever,” said Bousman. “The other thing is that we don’t make you do anything. The people who participate are doing it willingly. Everything is done by free will.”

“This was not about me trying to make something that would scare people,” he insisted. “This was about my own therapy—what would force me to be present, what would force me to be in the moment?” He paused. “These are all things that my wife at one point has told me to do,” he laughed. “‘You need to look in the fucking mirror!’ Oh! That’s a good room, we’re going to do that…”

The most curious thing about The Tension Experience is that thousands of people have unwittingly been a part of it for nearly half a year. It began as an online alternate reality game (ARG) that Bousman and a few collaborators secretly launched in February, masking their identities from the public to see if users would bite at an intriguing occult mythology regardless of who was behind it. The gamble paid off. Disseminating a simple graphic with a hidden phone number, Bousman and Co. hired a woman to answer the number for three days, 24 hours a day, to invite interested participants to schedule a “consultation” with the O.O.A. Institute.

“Most people would hang up right away. But 50 people called us, gave us a phone number, and said yes—and the next day we texted them to say, ‘Be at this ZIP Code. One hour before the event you will be given an address,’” Bousman explained. Watching the event unfold via security cameras, he masterminded a live scenario with hired actors that planted the seed for the ARG to go viral. He created a cryptic website, sent out several coded messages a week, and used social media to craft an unusually involved conspiracy narrative that hooked the most hardcore users—and all for free.

But as the ARG grew in popularity, the mystique of who exactly was behind The Tension Experience came back to bite Bousman. Because of the sensitive nature of certain questions the O.O.A. admins asked of their participants—like, say, How many times a week do you masturbate—and personal information that participants surrendered in order to get the full-service experience of getting creepy messages at home or at work, some in the immersive/horror community began to question the safety of The Tension Experience and the trustworthiness of its shadowy organizers.

“People thought it was real,” said Bousman, who until this week has not publicly acknowledged his involvement in any part of the project. He also acknowledges that Scientology was one organization that inspired the fictional O.O.A. “People would get upset. We had the cops called on us numerous times because they thought we were a real cult! We got turned over to something called CultWatch. I collect occult paraphernalia and I have all these books on cults. So I was pulling phrases from them, and it was crazy. I would say 10 percent of the people involved thought it was real.”

But Bousman insists that, while the skeptics had no way of knowing, the Tension ARG was always safe to play. He says they’ve hired undercover cops to monitor the pop-up live events he staged across the country, and have had to call the police themselves after receiving death threats of their own.

He even went to great lengths this summer to ensure no outside parties were jeopardized when overeager participants tried to help one of their own locate a secret object hidden in Kansas City for a target participant who was unavailable to retrieve it. Helpful users posted on Craigslist and Reddit offering $100 for anyone who could make the trip. But the organizers were watching.

They secretly sent an operative to fetch the message, then delivered it to the intended participant, posing as a stranger who took the Reddit offer and spinning a story that they’d been confronted upon arrival by a sinister smoking man in a suit—“and that became fact,” smiled Bousman. As for digital privacy, he says, if anyone wants to opt out their file will be deleted immediately.

While the ARG was more like a real life version of the movie The Game (in that, according to Bousman, “we fuck with your life”) it’s only the first part of Bousman’s grander scheme—and The Tension Experience live installation is a crucial second component. It’s also a reflection of Bousman’s creative response to the challenges of being a working filmmaker.

“As a director I’d become so desensitized to these movies,” he said. “I have had huge successes and huge failures. I want to do things that no one else can do. I want to do things that other people would be like, ‘You’re fucking crazy.’”

Film can be an increasingly frustrating world for an independent filmmaker, even one with studio cred whose Saw franchise installments brought in a combined $450 million worldwide. “I spent five years making Abattoir and it still hasn’t come out,” he said of his most recent horror film. “Five years of my life. And that also means it’ll be five years before I get critiqued, before I hear how it actually affected people. This is more immediate.”

It’s more immediate, but it is also riskier in new ways. Bousman was able to land financing for the entire operation as a multimedia pitch based on a script he’d co-written a few years ago, inspired by his love for immersive experiences like Blackout and set in the world of next-level attractions like these. He credits Gordon Bijelonic for putting the project together. “He heard the pitch on a Friday night, and after two hours of me verbally vomiting this whole idea he smiled and said, ‘I’m in.’ On Monday he had it financed.”

In nesting one avenue of storytelling within another, they’re charting new territory. One revenue stream will lead into the next—and that once the open-ended run of The Tension Experience is over, the compound will become his movie set. Ticket sales, he says, will go toward his film budget. While he won’t divulge how much it’s taken to get The Tension Experience up and running, Bousman admits it’s more than most haunts cost to produce but less than he spent making his indie musical The Devil’s Carnival. But its success will depend on ticket sales, and at $125 a pop tickets are pricey.

At most, Bousman can figure on 50 to 60 participants per night, “so the break-even point is hard,” he admitted. “But we’re creating a franchise. I want to make the Cirque du Soleil of immersive experiences. This is the first one. This is Tension Experience: Ascension. Then I want to do The Tension Experience presents: Adrenaline. Then I want to do The Tension Experience presents: Lust.

“This is basically a beta test in Los Angeles to see if I can create this method of ARG-experience-movie,” he added. The potential for popularizing new forms of storytelling is intriguing to say the least—if Angelenos and genre fans will bite. For those who are up for the challenge, consider this sample O.O.A. recruitment question and see if you’re ready to experience this: When was the last time you had a finger in your butt?