This week, I learned through Facebook about Blackout Haunted House, an interactive theatrical experience in New York City and L.A. Their website advertises a terrifying experience for participants, who must be over 18 and must go through the haunted house alone. The experience includes “crawling”, “physical contact”, and “sexual and violent situations”. What?! Sexual situations? This did not sound like a typical haunted house to me. I started to read the reviews posted on the website, and became more and more disturbed. Here are a few that stood out to me:
“After being immersed in rules and regulations, and signing away your very life, you’ll be thrown, literally, into absolute darkness, at which point the terror begins. Sexual violation? Abuse? Torture? Nothing is off limits for the insane carnival of Blackout, the only haunted house we know of where the only way to make it through is to allow physical contact with the actors themselves. It vacillates between off-putting and terrifying… particularly when you have to stick things in your mouth… “
“The scariest haunted house in Manhattan. Expect to crawl, scream, get stapled, painted, and well – almost raped.”
“thrill seekers at Vortex Theater’s Haunted House are guaranteed to experience ‘graphic sexual and extremely violent situations,’ by foot or on their knees. ”
Another reviewer offered this reflection on the experience:
“Dude kept pouring water on my face when the bag was on my head, I couldn’t breathe, much less “bark like a real dog!” I was sucking wind and wet bag was clogging my mouth and nose, and I was hyperventilating.”
At an emotional level, I found myself revolted. It is one thing to enjoy being scared, but it is another thing to enjoy a simulation of the experience of being physically and sexually terrorized. There are people who are willing to PAY ($50 for 15 minutes) to participate in an experience where you feel like you are “almost raped”!? I can only imagine how victims of sexual assault and torture– who have experienced terror and violation that is life-altering– would feel about this trivialization of their experience. How did we get to this point as a society that mimicking these experiences has become a form of entertainment?
Once I got past my initial shock reaction, I was able to process this event from a more intellectual perspective. As a media researcher, I concluded that the Blackout Haunted House was an excellent illustration of the massive desensitization of our society. Desensitization refers to the decreased responsivity (both physiologically and emotionally) to a stimulus as a result of repeated exposure. It is well-documented effect of long-term exposure to media violence (for a review, see the chapter “Do Violent Media Numb our Consciences?” in the book The Development and Structure of Consciousness). In other words, the more violent media you watch, the less it scares you, revolts you, or elicits feelings of empathy. Subsequently, the more intense a violent depiction has to be in order to elicit these reactions (which many individuals find thrilling and enjoyable). The danger is that desensitization actually affects brain activity and has been repeatedly linked to higher levels of aggression and less empathy for real-life victims. For example, experimental research with college men has shown that exposure to a few as two sexually violent slasher films lead to reduced levels of empathy for a victim in a portrayal of a rape trial (Linz et al, 1988).
In light of this research, the appeal of Blackout Haunted House in our violent-media-saturated society is easy to understand. I predict that if I surveyed people standing in line for tickets that every one of them would report that they were habitually exposed to violent media. But understanding it doesn’t change my feelings- it still makes me shake my head in sadness.