In March, I was blackmailed by a mercurial self-help guru after he took hotel room pictures of me with a prostitute. In July a member of an Illuminati-esque organization crashed a dinner party my wife and I were throwing at our home. In September, a serial killer called me with his latest victim, and forced her to wish me a happy birthday. Then in October, I was tasked with saving 91 families that had gotten themselves mixed up in some dirty business — only to inadvertently cause the death of every single one.
They could have been moments from a 1970s conspiracy thriller, or even an elaborate, narrative video game. But this is just my daily life in The Lust Experience.
Last year director Darren Lynn Bousman (Saw 2-4), writer Clint Sears, and producer Gordon Bijelonic debuted The Tension Experience, a nearly year-long project that combined an elaborate alternate reality game about a fictional cult in Los Angeles with an immersive theater production that ran during Halloween season. It was a creepy and unnerving piece of storytelling that put participants at the center of their own personal horror movie whose story could branch and respond to their choices in real-time.
This year’s follow-up, The Lust Experience, takes the same basic approach. Since March, a group of roughly 50 participants have been living inside a conspiracy thriller as part of their daily lives: tracking online leaks and messages, engaging with actors during phone conversations and one-on-one personal encounters across Southern California, and collaborating to piece together the story of a nefarious organization that is trying to wreak havoc across the globe. It’s all a lead-up to a 90-minute immersive theater event in December, dubbed The Lust Experience: Anointment, with another show serving as the story’s blow-out finale sometime in 2018.
But while I had experienced Tension largely as a standalone haunted house, this year I’ve engaged with the ongoing Lust alternate reality game almost as an extension of my real life. There have been mysterious No Caller ID phone calls and emails; clandestine meetings in LA bars and restaurants. Real-world friends have turned out to be sinister characters, with the narrative intruding into regular life so consistently that it’s created the unsettling sense of a fictional world that’s not running alongside my own, so much as it is layered right on top of it. If last year Bousman said his ultimate goal was to create a real-world version of David Fincher’s The Game, then this year the team has taken a big step towards actually pulling it off.
It would be fantastic — if I wasn’t so damn paranoid all the time.
That’s the inevitable result of participating in a show where characters and fictional events can reach into your daily life at any moment without warning. In June, two participants and I ended up meeting a character named Joyce Carlberg at a restaurant in the San Fernando Valley. Over the ensuing month that relationship evolved, with Joyce showing up at my house unannounced one Sunday evening. Later, she was abducted by a serial killer — which I found legitimately upsetting. While I was out of town for a film festival, the killer called me with a one-time-only offer to meet him and save Joyce, but I wasn’t in LA to take advantage, and I had to stand by helplessly as time ran out.
When I learned another participant had seen Joyce’s body several days later, the emotional response it triggered was impossible to ignore. At the time, I told my colleague Tasha Robinson about the character’s call, and she jokingly asked if I was concerned about running into him outside a screening. The truth is, I wouldn’t have been surprised in the slightest if he had shown up, particularly not after he’d paid a surprise visit to a player in Minnesota — and that’s precisely why the production is so intriguing.
“I think it all started around ‘desire,’” Sears tells me over the phone. The team wanted to move beyond the traditional horror themes they’d explored last year, and use the medium to tell a more emotionally impactful story. The name Lust has turned out to be somewhat of a red herring thus far, with the show less about overtly sexual topics and more about the moral compromises people are willing to make to get things they want. “The generalized anxiety that people have for, ‘who can you trust?’ and ‘who has your best interests [at heart]?,’” he explains. “I think there’s a lot of that going around.”
Broader themes include distrust of corporations, paranoia over the rapid evolution of artificial intelligence, and even good old-fashioned cultism. Within the storyline, nearly every facet of the world is influenced by a mysterious organization called the OSDM, which wants to datamine and collect as much information about the public as possible. Bousman, Sears, and Bijelonic have written themselves into the story itself as the patsies the evil OSDM has hired to be frontmen for the entire operation — just one more way the show blurs the line between fiction and reality. Players of the game have learned about OSDM’s ruse, however, leading to the rise of competing factions and rebel groups that want to take it down at all costs.
The essential idea behind this particular style of storytelling is that it is a persistent, 360-degree world without any real boundaries. Participation in the game is made up of small moments and fragmented interactions; a player may receive a strange phone call that introduces a clue to move the story forward, or find themselves breaking into a warehouse at night with a character to expose some sinister plot. That information is then relayed to the community via Slack channels and message boards, with the participants weaving themselves into the storyline in the process.
“One thing we pointed out, which I think people are starting to catch on to now: you have to be a reliable storyteller yourself,” Bousman says. “We have had so many times when we want to do a very big thing, that literally takes us days of planning. And someone will go online to tell that story, and they’ll say, ‘I met so-and-so at the coffeehouse; it was cool.’ Well, we won’t do that again with that person, because they’re the writer at that point. If they destroy it into a one or two sentence thing, it invalidates what it took us to get to that point.”
Many of these elements are familiar; alternate reality games and transmedia storytelling have been around since the 1990s, and immersive, site-specific theater is certainly nothing new. People banding together to take on roles as part of a fully-immersive narrative world will be familiar to anyone that’s taken part in a live-action role-playing game. But while LARPs may run for days at a time, the shared Tension and Lust universe has been going almost nonstop for nearly a year and a half, and most participants don’t play as some carefully-constructed character; they’re playing themselves. As an audience member, the sense of emotional investment and larger stakes that comes with that can be striking.
“I think right now, you don’t know what’s real and what’s not. This entire phone call might be scripted,” Bousman says. “We’re all online right now. I don’t know if you hear the dings in the background? That’s because we’re feeding each other what to say, because we’re being told what to say to you. Is that real, or not real? Is this in-game, or not? You have no fucking clue.”
The premise of the “mid-season” immersive theater show in December — which costs $150 — is that guests are invited to visit OSDM headquarters for a better understanding of how the group actually operates. Given that the waiver you’re asked to sign alludes to “graphic scenes of simulated horror” and “performance-driven fear tactics,” it’s safe to assume things won’t go well.
For all its immersive pleasures (and terrors), The Lust Experience alternate reality game represents an enormous investment of time and attention into something that is ultimately word-of-mouth marketing for the ticketed events — though the creative team is quick to point out that the immersive theater shows are also designed as stand-alone experiences that can be enjoyed by anyone. But the overall monetization issue is something that affects immersive theater as an artform in general. It’s often simply too difficult to run enough people through a theater or haunted house with any kind of one-on-one interaction for it to be profitable in a meaningful way.
The creative team hopes to change that, first by moving to a permanent, year-round theatrical installation, similar to how Sleep No More currently operates in New York. “We don’t want to keep doing a pop-up four-day event, or a 12-week event,” Bousman says. “The idea of the permanent location is that there is room for growth.” When I ask the trio if the line-blurring ARG theatrics will always be part of this world, they say that’s the way they’ve designed this universe to operate, and that the bleedthrough from fantasy to reality is unavoidable.
For a split second during the interview, I began to wonder which version of reality I’m actually in myself. Bousman makes a casual reference to “those we answer to,” and I ask him exactly who he means.
“They don’t want to be named, and I think that’s all we can say about it,” he deadpans. “Everyone has bosses. Even the one that thinks they’re the top has people they answer to. That’s all I feel comfortable saying. I mean, Clint, if you want to go out on a limb, you can.”
“I’d rather not.”
The Lust Experience: Anointment will run from December 14th through 17th. Tickets are available now.