I can’t tell you how long we’ve been in the back of this van. The hoods over our heads block out all but the brightest of light. We’ve been told not to speak, and I’ve lost track of counting the streets a while ago. Every so often, we stop, I can hear the van door slide open, and someone getting out. Then we’re moving again. Classical music blares in the background, distracting and disorienting me. I know Fiona is nearby, but I can’t reach for her.
Then we stop, and my mask comes off, and the madness begins.
So starts The Tension Experience: Ascension.
The Tension Experience is a new haunt for 2016, and as such we were a bit hesitant about attending (having been burned by untested events in the past, we generally prefer to go places that have been established), however with good word of mouth, we decided to give this one a shot.
Tension all about mystery, and the fact that I’m not going to give away any serious spoilers about it probably won’t help you get a serious idea of what it’s about, but I’ll do the best I can. What I can say is that it isn’t a traditional haunt, it’s more a part of the growing field of immersive theater, where you sign yourself up to be a part of an interactive experience, where you’re part of the show. Some of these shows push you more than others, while some you’re just along for the ride.
Tension is one of the ones that pushes you.
From the very moment you park in their dingy-looking parking lot to the moment you’re in the van, to the very end of the show where you’re standing, confused and talking about just what the hell happened with the rest of the people in your group, it is an experience that gets in your head and tweaks it in every way it can, for better and for worse.
The story is layered and in depth, but ultimately unnecessary to the actual experience. As attendees, we’re brought into the cult of the OOA. It’s a quasi-religious organization, and if you check out their website or any of their real-world experiences they’ve been holding since about April, you’ll get a lot of story. I mean, a lot of story. It can be a bit daunting, and a bit intimidating, but know that not much of it really matters in the long run.
And… all right, I’m going to get to my complaints about the show before I get to what I really loved about it. This is a new show, and a lot of that shows. They make a lot of promises, like it being an immersive experience customized to your personality and actions, and when there it feels like a fairly linear (if often non-linear) experience where your choices don’t mean much. A lot of tantalizing story possibilities are brought up, without resolution, like a frightened woman sneaking me a note at show’s beginning that had information that never came up again. They rely a little too much on shock tactics (overwhelming each of the five senses in fairly unpleasant ways in one section) and had several long, empty stretches where we were just sitting in blind silence. While disorienting at first, it got boring in a hurry after a while. As well, and this is just a personal phobia thing, if haunts could stop cramming things in our mouths in an effort to seem more extreme, that’d be very appreciated, thankyouverymuch.
As well, if you’ve got problems with nude strangers, or changing your own clothes in public (long story), this may cause some issues.
Now, complaints aside, I want to say that I really like this show. At nearly two hours in length, it has a way of overwhelming the mind and getting into your head, creating a feeling of intensity and paranoia like I’ve never felt before in a fictional setting. Perfect example: more than an hour into this experience, I’m a mess, I’ve been covered in things and had all sorts of things done to me, and I look at myself in a mirror. I don’t see myself anymore, I see this haunting, intense face, the face of a guy who’s survived a horror movie. After the experience is over, Fi and I get home, and we still wonder if we’re in it, knowing rationally that we haven’t been followed, and yet still full of paranoia. I write this article the next morning, and I still have a weird feeling like I’m being watched.
The non-linear portions of the show, where groups are split up, encourages conversation afterward as you find out what separate and unique experiences you and your friends had, as well as the strangers you were with. It creates an odd sense of community in this way, when we’re left to clean up after the show together, talking with people who were strangers hours before like they’re close friends due to this bizarre, shared experience.
As well, all my complaints about how the show physically tests you aside, I found a lot of the experience of it pushing boundaries to be both fascinating and thrilling. I was uncomfortable, the people around me were uncomfortable, and yet for two hours I was able to forget about the world and feel like myself because of how much it pushed me.
And at least one of the plot twists, which I won’t share, has me both deeply amused and feeling betrayed all at once.
Well done, Tension. Well done.
So, while it is imperfect, The Tension Experience: Ascension is still an exciting and different new immersive experience, and one I would highly recommend for people who are willing to push themselves.
-- Matt Carter
(We know there's a lot of Matt Carter's online you could spend your time with, so thanks for hanging around this one!)