Guard Down: What It Was Like To Participate In Immersive Horror Theater

On a balmy Saturday night in Los Feliz, I walk into the basement of a church wearing practical shoes and pants I don’t mind crawling in.

Despite the fact that I am a highly anxious person, I am about to embark on “Alone: An Existential Haunting.” I sign a waiver consenting to be put in tiny rooms, get wet and be “aggressively touched.” None of this makes me comfortable, but apparently that’s the point.

Welcome to the world of immersive horror theater. There will be no clowns and no chainsaws, just a lot of ambient music, riddles and some freshman-level philosophy.

The basement is painfully fluorescent and populated with people I imagine to be some local D&D enthusiasts. I think I see Marla Singer, and we might start discussing blood parasites.

My adrenaline mellows as we wait a painstaking 45 minutes until the experience begins. (Poor management does not a frightened participant make.)

At last, we are individually called into a dark room, like we might be receiving some grim STD results.

I am touched (not yet aggressively) on the shoulders as I enter a very dark space. I think I might get a massage. I don’t. He tells me to crawl. I do.

Now, I am in a dark room with some Soderbergh-esque ambient music. There is a screen with a fuzzy rainbow image. A female performer scampers across the room and starts banging on a table. My immediate reaction is to laugh nervously and start talking to her.

Where do I go? Is this a door? I like your outfit. Do I have to crawl again?

I take her persistent banging as a sign that I should shut the f*ck up. Finally, she pushes me (aggressively) toward a door.

In the next dark room, a handsome man who is highly skilled at eye contact sits me in a chair, and starts smearing what I hope is non-comedogenic face paint across my t-zone.

When he’s done, he just stares at me, which is apparently a cue to go out the door.

Now, I am back outside the church, where I find my friends who have willingly embarked on this journey with me. They also have face paint everywhere, and I realize we all look like we’re playing some sort of hipster color war.

They’ve already deciphered a clue that leads us about six blocks away to some DIY crafting studio. (Is it DIY if you have to go somewhere else to do it?)

When we arrive, the Eastern European woman in charge tells us to “please wait down the street” as she finishes with the last group. I feel a little like we’re at Six Flags, waiting for the car from the Riddler’s Revenge to return to the station. I think about Dippin' Dots.

When it’s our turn, we are seated in front of three fish tanks, which are flanked by tea candles. Our Russian shaman tells us to look at the fish in their “boxes," and try and understand what they might be feeling about their confined situations.

She urges us to apply this as a metaphor to our lives. She starts assertively giving me life advice. I voice my concern about the proximity of the candles to the fish tanks, and I suggest maybe their water is getting too hot.

My friend deadpans her with a statistic about suicide in prison. We are released.

The route from the crafts studio to our next destination (a bar, thank God) is littered with the types you might expect to find in East LA at 1 am. We weave around crazies and crack addicts, and I see a man up ahead fervently pushing a street broom across our path.

Upon closer inspection, this man is more “extra from 'Newsies'” and less “give me your wallet,” so I suggest maybe he is a plant. Indeed, he is muttering some more enigmatic phrases that will help us on our journey.

At the bar, we get french fries, bourbon and another clue from a sad looking brunette sitting in the corner. Fortified, we get in an Uber and head to the Department of Water and Power in Downtown LA.

There is an Asian couple shooting engagement photos at our destination, and I’m sure they are in on it. They are not. This aspect is fun and a little like "The Game" with Michael Douglas, but with less gunplay.

Another Eastern European individual (Are they outsourcing this operation?) finds me and my teammates, and tells us it’s time we split up. (For an experience called “Alone,” I wasn’t alone a whole lot.)

He gives us another ambient track to listen to on our iPhones, and we are instructed to walk through a very long traffic tunnel. Something about the solitude, greenish lights and wind synthesizer actual puts me in a pretty existential mood.

Well, until a tunnel dweller claws at my feet, and I suddenly am supremely aware of the fact that I am a young woman alone in a tunnel in a bad part of town.

Our next clue comes from someone dressed very convincingly as a homeless man, and he grabs me by the shoulders, shakes me and touches my arms with his grubby hands. He has bad breath. I am ready to go home.

He directs me to a pirate-themed bar (the one from "500 Days of Summer"), where I drink more booze and meet a lovely young thespian who unfortunately did not remember all the lines she was supposed to say to me. This took me out of the experience more than anything that night.

When light encounters an object, one of four actions occur.

I sip my drink.

Diffusion, reflection… wait, no. Refraction, absorb... I'm sorry. It’s been a long night.

We exchange knowing glances, and silently communicate we are tired and ready to be done with the evening. She escorts me to the final activity.

Much like the first moments of the night, I am thrust into a dark space and manhandled like a tourist on a Chinese subway.

I hold hands with a very attractive woman who is also good at eye contact. She gives me a big hug and a stale Chips Ahoy! cookie, and she says she “rainbows" me.

All in all, the evening was more entertaining than your average night out.

It’s clear "Alone" is attempting to traverse a more sophisticated, intellectual landscape than the haunted houses of yesteryear. Instead of preying on our basic fears with sharp teeth and cheap scares, "Alone" encourages its participants to dig a little deeper, to varying levels of success.

At its best, the experience forces you to step out of your comfort zone.

Sometimes, that means engaging with your city in a way you normally wouldn’t. Sometimes, it means divulging childhood memories to a complete stranger. Sometimes, it’s just the synesthesia experienced by an atmospheric musical track.

At its worst, "Alone" can be a bit laughable. It’s pretty easy to see the wizard behind the curtain. But with some improved managerial skills and more studied performers, "Alone" could be on its way to opening the minds of the anxious and jaded alike.