While surfing online one day last February, Derek Stevenson, 26, stumbled upon a Reddit post that led to the TheTensionExperience.com.
The site, which he called “creepy,” contained a simple puzzle that he completed. It then instructed him to enter his email. Stevenson had played alternate-reality games before, where he solved online puzzles or went on scavenger hunts, and expected this to be more of the same. But then, about two months later, he was prompted to fill out a lengthy questionnaire on his personal life.
After he did, he received an email from an organization called the OOA Institute that began with an ominous, “You don’t know me but I know you.”
Over the next few months, Stevenson, who lives in Los Angeles, solved for clues about the mysterious “cult” he had gotten involved with, with other players online and in person. He met up with alleged members on LA street corners, where he was bagged, dragged away, and forced to hand over his mobile phone. He traced calls from the supposed cult to a Sony lot, and showed up there, unprovoked, with flowers. Stevenson even threw parties and organized meet ups with other players on the forum, which the OOA occasionally found out about and supplied a round of drinks for.
And so, the world of “Tension” started to take hold for Stevenson and the other players long before they physically stepped foot in it. ”For a long time when I first started this, I wasn’t sure if I’d really joined a cult or not,” he said.
After months of hype, tickets went on sale for an immersive event called “The Tension Experience: Ascension.” Stevenson went one week after it opened in September. At the show, audience members were brought into the OOA and interacted with actors, who sometimes appeared to be ordinary participants, as they worked their way out of a maze, and tried to ascend further in the cult.
It was designed—from separating groups of friends and asking intrusive questions down to the use of a degrading safe word (“coward”)—to push boundaries and make people uncomfortable.
At the end of the showing, the mastermind, Darren Lynn Bousman, revealed himself to the audience. ”I was speechless,” Stevenson said. “The whole thing was a crazy thing that I can’t believe I did.” For Bousman, it was the connection with an audience that he’d always dreamed of.
The road to ”Tension” began about a decade ago, when Bousman felt demoralized by his job—coordinating the intricate and bloody deaths of his fellow human beings on camera.
A film director, Bousman had taken over the Saw film franchise—where flawed people are killed in brutal and ironic ways by a moralizing psychopath called Jigsaw and his followers—in 2005. Saw II was his first big movie, but the work was nothing like it appeared on screen. It was monotonous and drab, even comical at times. “Most people would probably be bored to tears if they had to be on set at one of the Saw movies,” Bousman told Quartz. “It’s just doing the same things 100 times.“
After shooting Saw II, III, and IV back to back, he tired of a being a cog in the Hollywood machine. “Once again in my career I was becoming bitter,” he wrote in a blog post, alluding to an earlier period, between film school and landing the Saw franchise, when he was similarly disillusioned and wrote a mean-spirited script called The Desperate. (That was how he first earned attention from Lionsgate, which produced Saw.)
As in that period in his life, Bousman said once more, ”I had to do something dangerous.” He wanted to recover the rush that came from exploring the darker side of humanity. Last year, in a 45,000-sq-ft warehouse in Los Angeles, California, he did. Bousman, with producer Gordon Bijelonic, masterminded a live experience that was part haunted house, part escape-the-room game, and part immersive theater.
He transformed the warehouse into the headquarters of a nefarious cult called the OOA Institute. More than 50 actors and countless crew members brought the production to life, using what they’d learned about the attendees to blur the lines between reality and fiction.
The script for the show, adapted by writer Clint Sears, clocked in at more than 400 pages because of the many directions the storyline could take. (An average film script is around 90 to 110 pages—around one page per minute of screen time.)
Theatergoers had to hand over their phones and personal effects at the door, which was yet another way to alienate participants during the production. ”It’s called ‘Tension’ because we’re making you uncomfortable,” Bousman said. “This was a psychological mind-fuck. It doesn’t work if you’ve got your cellphone with you.”
In a digital world, where movie magic can be dissolved with a text, plunging viewers back into reality, Bousman became addicted to a theatergoing experience that forced audiences to unplug and be present. He wanted to push that further by making them part of the narrative.
“We’re looking for raw emotion,” said the futurist Faith Popcorn, founder of the consulting firm BrainReserve, who said that creators like Bousman are tapping into a larger, societal shift, that includes other odd experiences, like crying rooms in Japan and rage rooms in Dallas, Texas (paywall), where customers can pay $25 to destroy things, unfettered, for five minutes.
It’s also in the portrayals of rampant violence and sex in science-fiction and fantasy works like the TV show Westworld, in which people live out their dark, twisted fantasies. Aside from the robots, Westworld is a lot like “Tension” in that it makes the spectators central characters in a story. Only in this case, the spectators are not characters, but real people.
“We are very small ghetto version of that,” Bousman said, of the HBO show. “But my hope is that this will be something that’s a living, breathing, changing piece of art.”
“Tension” also harked back to the oddball films that Bousman made after the Saw series—campy horror musicals like Repo! The Genetic Opera and The Devil’s Carnival that few believed in but he and his team. Repo! nearly ended upon the cutting room floor because the backers didn’t want to release it. So Bousman and his cast and crew embarked on a 20-theater North American roadshow in 2008 and discovered, firsthand, that the film had a cult following. Audience members came to the rock opera dressed as characters from the movie—in full dress, makeup, and even tattoos.
In 2012, he organized another roadshow on a larger scale, this time for The Devil’s Carnival, which led to some seriously devoted fans. “It became this eye-opening experience,” said Bousman. “The whole purpose of art or filmmaking is connecting to the audience and we figured out this new way to connect with the audience by making it an event.”
For Bousman, his latest project was a rebellion against everything cinema had become in the digital age: disconnected, formulaic, and devoid of emotion. “People have forgotten the power of connection, the power of being present, the power of having a real human interaction,” Bousman said.
And, from a practical perspective, it relied on multiple revenue streams—tickets to the live event were $125, then there was merchandising, and a film is on the way—which made it easier to fund. ”To me, that’s the future of entertainment,” he said.
Roughly half of ticket holders to “Tension” went back a second time, Bousman said. The entire run of the 12-week show was sold out. (It counted high-profile theatergoers like Anthony and Joe Russo (paywall), the brothers behind Captain America: Civil War, and Neil Patrick-Harris among its fans.) Kristin Brown, 26, traveled alone nearly 1,500 miles from Corpus Christi, Texas to see the show, despite her mother’s insistence not to attend this cult thing. But after spending months of obsessing over “Tension” from afar, Brown—who co-hosts a horror podcast—said “there was no way I’m missing this.”
Devotees like her and Derek Stevenson, the man who wasn’t sure if he had joined a real cult, were invited back for a free, final showing in November. “These actors were such a big part of my life,” Stevenson said, when it was all over. “You have withdrawals for a little bit. You miss it.”
A follow up to “Tension” is already in development. It’s another live experience called “Lust,” which is now being teased online. Pre-production on the original movie, co-written by Scott Milam, also starts in March.
Bousman described it as a Reservoir Dogs-esque thriller about four friends who carry out a heist on Halloween around an immersive-theater production. It’s being filmed in the same Boyle Heights warehouse that the experience took place in.