L.A. Haunts: Taking On the ‘Alone’ Experience (the Horror Attraction, Not the Lifestyle Choice)
In the month leading up to October 31, Grantland editor Emily Yoshida, a person who knows no fear, has been visiting as many Halloween attractions in the Los Angeles area as will fit into her schedule. This week, the final installation of her terrifying journey: the full-contact existential horror of
Los Angeles Itself the “Alone” experience.
I’m still bad at being scared, but I hadn’t thought very deeply about how and why that is since that first night at Halloween Horror Nights. After writing about that night I felt like I had navel-gazed it to death, and then in the following weeks I was presented with very few variations of fear mechanics on which to chew. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that most Halloween attractions traffic in stress, not fear — ways in which to keep you in suspense or on your toes, with your evening basically unfolding as a repetitive series of peaks and valleys: build, “scare” moment, adrenaline rush, then wait in line for half an hour and return to zero. Ad infinitum. It kind of surprised me that so many people pay to do these things year after year, as fun as some of them can be. Don’t they learn how it works? Doesn’t it ever get dull?
I guess, if you really like the aesthetic of horror attractions, “learning how it works” doesn’t really put a damper on the fun, just like “knowing how alcohol makes you feel” doesn’t make drinking it less enjoyable. Still, when I told people about my haunts mission over the past month, I would say, half-jokingly but secretly sincerely, “I figured it out” or “I think I cracked it.” It’s part of a larger joke I have with myself about the gamification of learning and information absorption and how depressing it is if you just like to learn things but don’t actually like things.
Anyway, to my surprise, it turns out not everything exists to be conquered. Sometimes you’re just trying to find a way to hang out for a while in some good lighting with music that suits your needs, while interacting with other humans in a way that feels intimate enough to sustain your attention, but not threatening.
We are still talking about haunted houses.
HAUNT NO. 5: THE FINAL HAUNT: ALONE [AN EXISTENTIAL HAUNTING]
Location: Undisclosed location, downtown Los Angeles, California
Cost of Admission: $45 for admission, $15 for “VIP Front-of-the-Line” upgrade, which is not really worth it unless you are one million minutes late like I was and don’t want to be sent to the end of the priority queue.
Pitch: From the website:
ALONE is a site-specific, immersive and artistic exploration of fear, loneliness and self preservation. It’s a thirty minute walkthrough experience which you may only enter alone, and where you become a willing victim to your own inner demons. Borrowing the structure of a typical haunted house, but ditching the blood, guts and psychotic clowns with chainsaws, ALONE explores the deepest regions of the bizarre, and places you as a participant in your own nightmare.
A full immersion event which you can only enter by yourself.
Your body will move and be moved through our space.
Just you. Alone. In the dark.
What is this? “Alone” is a fear-oriented maze, built out of what I’m guessing was some vacant office/loft space above some storefronts in the Santee Alley area of downtown Los Angeles. Like the more well-known extreme haunted house “Blackout,” there is an extensive release form you sign that says you are willing to be touched, get wet, have face paint put on you, and all manner of invasive interaction. Unlike Blackout (from what I understand — I have never been to Blackout), none of these interactions has much to do with typical horror tropes, and the moments where Alone skirts that line are its weaker spots.
A good way to explain Alone, without getting into too many specifics, is that it’s kind of like walking through a series of unsettling tableaux that might have been early drafts of the Black Lodge sketched up by David Lynch before he settled on red curtains and zigzags and the man from another place.
Why on earth would you do this? I love to learn!
Is there a safe word? Yes. If you say “together” once, an actor will come to you and ask you if you really want to leave the maze. If you say “together” again, you will be escorted to an exit.
Did you ever consider using the safe word? No. I think the existence of a safe word in these things is mostly just another way to scare you by implying that one might be necessary.
Is Alone using the word “existential” correctly? Actually … yeah, in a kind of basic, existence-precedes-essence way. The experience and its design are pretty minimalist, so you’re forced to think a lot about your body moving through a narrative-free, contextless space. Alone doesn’t try to teach you how to feel, at least in most of the rooms. Most of the discomfort is self-generated, which means it’s harder to shake.
What did it smell like? Mostly? Plywood. Which was kind of a comforting “this is the thea-tah!” thing to focus on if I started to get too disoriented. Some of the actors had breath/body odor issues, which can take you out of the moment. Yes, that’s right, people get close enough to you that you can smell their mouths and armpits.
Personal Boundary ViolationWatch (NOW WITH NEW, REVAMPED RATING SYSTEM): 8 out of 8 anonymous cuddle sessions
What did you learn about yourself? Hoo boy.
First, part of that pitch above is inaccurate: You do not enter Alone alone. You enter in a group of five, after spending what seemed like an interminable amount of time waiting in a mucky alley inhabited by real cockroaches and trash heaps. You are escorted into a freight elevator in what is stressed as a “very specific order” and whisked upstairs to begin your Alone time.
But I should back up — this is all after you have walked several blocks of the deserted Flower District at night after finding the elusive parking lot and possibly parking mistakenly at one point in a separate haunted attraction altogether. I’ve lived in downtown L.A., I’ve spent a good deal of time walking through Skid Row at 3 a.m. — I’m not saying this to sound like some kind of badass, it’s just that at this point I find this part of town more depressing and dismaying than frightening. If you set aside your empathy, it can also be gorgeous, in an ’80s-dystopian-thriller kind of way. (This attitude would come in useful later on, it turned out, in a completely ingenious part of the experience that is too good to spoil in this blog post for the five people who might go before Alone’s last night on November 1.)
It was the walk to the event site that kind of started me thinking about being an only child, and how easy it is to slip into a kind of video-game-esque pretend land in which you are the lone wandering heroine. Without knowing how my clothes were going to get ruined, I had opted to wear all black — long-sleeve tee, leggings, and boots, and a leather jacket — so I actually did kind of look and feel like I was ready for some kind of modern-horror LARPing session. I know I keep bringing up LARPing as it pertains to haunted attractions, but there is some kind of agreed-upon game of pretend that has to happen in order for an experience like this to really sing, I think. It’s like any other game: If one side isn’t playing, then the game ceases to exist.
So anyway, once you’re brought up the elevator, a woman with a British accent greets you and welcomes you to the “Enola Foundation,” which, as I gather, is some kind of cult seeking “a brighter tomorrow.” She has you fill out a brief questionnaire that went, as memory serves:
- Have you ever had an out-of-body experience?
- Have you ever taken psychotropic drugs?
- Have you ever joined a spiritual organization?
- Have you worn any copper jewelry in the last month?
I answered yes to two of the four questions and handed back the clipboard. (And in case you’re wondering, ew, no, I would never wear copper jewelry.) We were then led into a dim room surrounded by gauzy white curtains, and a woman in vaguely Sikh garb led us through a yoga session as a medium-loud drone hummed at us from all sides. We were still in a group — me and four fully grown, large-ish men, and I was killing it in the yoga department. I also love a good drone, so I was in a comfort zone of sorts. Then, with really no warning at all, I watched as all four of my fellow yogis were hooded and dragged through the curtain in a split second. I heard two of them cry out. It is totally crazy to hear grown men cry out in fear!
The room turned red. The instructor beckoned me forward and took my hands. And this is kind of where I feel I need to break this narrative, because I’m not about to give a full walk-through of this thing, but do you kind of get what this is about? It’s about nailing a plethora of nightmare feelings in an indirect, slow-burn way. And for the most part, it’s pretty well executed.
Of course, I was eventually hooded and dragged away as well, and this is where the learning started. A warning: This is about to get super deep, and I know I am opening myself up to a lot of armchair psychology, but why else would I subject myself to a month of this stuff, right?
When they say you “will be moved” through the space, they mean it — a lot of the time you are being grabbed by someone from behind and forced through an area, several times while a hood is held down over your head. And weirdly, these moments were the most peaceful for me. Someone else determining where I was supposed to go and what I was supposed to do was an incredible relief. I thought at one point that they should offer this service as a form of therapy, because it really makes you let go of a lot of automatic tension and worry that you’re used to hanging on to every day. Sure, the person steering you might push you out a window, but in the unlikely event that happened, there was nothing you could have done to stop it. You are a feather in the wind. You don’t have to make sense of anything.
So you weren’t scared of being hooded and pushed around, tough guy. Were you scared of other actors touching you? Mostly no, as long as they were a recognizably human form. I actually had fun interacting with some of the humans there — it was like a kind of Dadaist mystery dinner. Something about the space encourages you to explore things that make you uncomfortable, so I spent a lot of time trying to make eye contact with the actors.
Were you scared of the darkness/sensory deprivation aspect? There was a lot of crawling through pitch-black tunnels, and I was mostly afraid I was going to bang my head on something. (I did actually end up banging up my knee pretty badly in a tunnel at the tail end, so I was jumping around going “Oww oww oww” while some giant shrimp-like creature crawled across the room toward me.) There are also several points during which someone shines a bright light in your eye, briefly blinding you, but that was just a fun little temporary sensory alteration, like visual whippets or something.
Did you fuck up any part of this experience? Yes, twice. The second time was when I pushed through the wrong curtain and accidentally arrived at the decompression lounge (sponsored by Dos Equis) a few rooms early. I was quickly redirected by an attendant, but due to my getting lost, and the aforementioned knee injury, I was a little out of the proper existential mind-set in the final leg of the maze.
The first time was when I got an email in the week leading up to my Alone experience, telling me to go to a location on Sunset Boulevard for information about the Enola Foundation. I didn’t go because I am a super busy, career-oriented woman, but I later learned that if you do go, you get a token that opens up a different path in the maze. I kind of wished I would have made the extra trip, but I’m also kind of glad I didn’t, because the point at which I was asked for the token came right before what was, by far, the most unpleasant thing that has happened to me during my entire L.A. Haunt tour.
OK, so I’m about to tell you about the time I got legitimately, nausea-inducingly scared in a haunted attraction, and it’s going to sound like someone telling you about their weird random dream, and I completely understand if it’s totally unrelatable. But this was my goal, the entire reason I set out on this journey to begin with, and I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you exactly how and why I ended up losing my shit.
I was sitting in an empty bar, across a table from an old man who was telling me about his dead friend. He had such a quiet voice that I could barely hear him, but I caught something about it not actually being a suicide, and something about “all the egg sacs” they found in his face. I listened and nodded politely in the way you do when you’re at a noisy bar and can’t really hear what the other person is saying. Then he started to sing his friend’s favorite song — Kyu Sakamoto’s “Sukiyaki,” to which I happen to know the words. So there I was, singing Japanese oldies with this man, and kind of laughing, when, without warning, as so many of these transitions were, I was grabbed and shoved into the next room, and sat down onto a sagging sofa next to a pile of old toys and a stuffed pig.
It was darker here, and my eyes didn’t adjust right away, but as soon as I had been sat down I felt something large and soft bump against my right shoulder. I turned and was immediately face-to-face with a life-size ET doll. And I cannot tell you why, but in that moment I felt the entire bottom of my stomach drop away, and I screamed.
I instinctively backed toward the other end of the couch and started to feel something crawl across my arm. I looked back to my left and, naturally, of course, the stuffed pig had come to life and was crawling onto my lap, its little beady eyes and snout burrowing toward me. I screamed “JESUS FUCK NO. FUCK NO,” and leapt to my feet. I didn’t know if I was supposed to stay in that room or wait for further instruction, but I had to get out of there. That was one of the worst things I’d ever seen in my life. I fumbled toward some black curtains and ran through them, because I was very, very scared.
So in the end, you got scared by ET and a toy pig? Yes, in the end, I lost my fucking shit over ET and a stuffed pig.
Did you “crack it”? Not remotely. But bring on all the existential horrors you’ve got, Los Angeles. I could do this all year.