As a seasoned haunt enthusiast I had become accustomed to the mazes and boo-scares that populated the Halloween landscape. Since my first visit to Knott’s Scary Farm’s Halloween Haunt at the age of 6 I found a certain comfort in the unknown. Murky fog and dim corridors are inviting to me. I feel at home in the dark with the monsters. The one problem though is that with the comfort level, the adrenaline rush of fear fades. A key component in scaring is surprise. The element of surprise is gone and we are left with the familiarity of the same old rhythm of the scare. Still, for those truly in love with haunts another passion kicks in. It is this drive that makes enthusiasts return to the dark and be put in uncomfortable, seemingly perilous situations. I had thought I had seen it all. Then Blackout arrived on the scene and the game changed.
Blackout. The name alone is synonymous with extreme haunts and experiences. I began to hear rumblings of something brewing on the east coast in 2010. Co-Creator Josh Randall and Founder Kristjan Thorgeirsson demanded that visitors be at least 18 years of age, had to sign a waiver allowing actors to touch them, and worst of all, had to go through the haunt completely alone. Blackout Haunted House was a pioneer in the haunt experience industry when they hit the scene on a lark in the summer of 2009. Now 6 years later, after 18 different shows in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago that included off season and special events, after inspiring countless other haunts and spawning even more copy cats that take things even further, the question is, ‘Where does it all go from here?’ Where indeed as I began to turn the questions inward and ask myself, ‘Why do I like this? What is it I expect to find buried deep in the dark recesses of a fully controlled, yet terrifying and mentally strenuous scenario?’
I decided to go straight to the source and speak with one of the men behind Blackout Haunted House, Josh Randall. I reached out to Josh and he happily agreed to sit and chat. Days later, a trim man with a cap, casual jacket, and jeans approaches me outside the trendy Foodlab in Hollywood. “Hey Norm!”, the man says with a bright smile and handshake. It’s Josh Randall the Co-Creator Blackout Haunted House. After we grab a coffee and a nosh we settled out in the back patio to chat haunts, influences, theatre and pretty much anything that came to mind.
To get the whole Blackout story I asked Josh where it all began. How did a classically trained theatre guy become the creator of such an infamous horror experience?
“Blackout started in 2009 as a summer theatre experience. ” Josh explained. “My (business) partner Kris and I had always been working in theatre together doing traditional pieces, Shakespeare, Chekov, but always with immersive, weird, avant garde things. Blackout was, essentially, born out of that.” Though classically trained both Josh and Kris were interested in taking the old classics and providing a new, edgy spin on them. They were into “very new interpretations of the classics.”
The two met just as Kris was getting his Masters in directing from Columbia. Josh had a BFA from New York University having studied extensively with the more untraditional, experimental theatre, deconstructing classical pieces. Both seemed in tune as neither had any interest in working in the traditional, proscenium border. Josh thinks for a minute and offers, “In retrospect, Blackout being created 5 or 6 years later makes perfect sense.”
Strangely enough it was never the horror genre that drove Blackout into existence. Showing its theatre heritage, the inspiration for Blackout came from the pure desire to make connection with the audience. “Blackout started as an experiment.” Josh laughs, staring off, remembering where things began. The stage scene in New York is a rather fertile ground for new ideas and this lent to the oddball idea of a haunt in the summer. “It suddenly took off.” Josh remembers enthusiastically. “It went through a few names though. First it was A Midsummer Nightmare, then we were NYC Halloween Haunted House, then NYC Haunted House, and then it officially became Blackout a year later.”
Where did the name Blackout come from? Josh squints, remembering, “The official title came in 2011, which was 2 years into us running. I think what we realized was that the success of that particular show was about mystery, and about what the audience member brought into it. So with that, the title actually worked intensely well. We wanted audiences to project, whatever their own fears were, onto that canvas that we provided. The name seemed to fit.”
From 2009 to 2011 Kris and Josh became the talk of the in-crowd in New York City’s Halloween scene. In fact, the 2011 season was when things really began to explode for the two. During that season they saw lines stretched around the block every night. Often times queues were forming well before Josh, Kris or any of the actors arrived at the theatre. Celebrities like Neil Patrick Harris, Pink, her husband motocross racer Carey Hart, Trent Reznor, and Jonathan Groff were all lining up to dive into the dark.
Still, the pair had no clue of the effect they were having in the haunt community. It wasn’t until Blackout made its appearance at the Transworld Halloween and Attractions Show in St. Louis in 2012 that they realized they were having any effect at all. Josh explains, “We went to Transworld and people just did not know what to make of us. It was one of the best ‘throwing a rock in a puddle’ experiences ever because, on a very personal level, it showed us how very different we were and how interested people were in that difference. People in that community were just not used to what we were doing.”
Days before the show actually opened, the Blackout team was setting up their modest booth amongst the other over-the-top vendors touting fog machines, blaring sound systems and garish lighting rigs.
“It was funny too when we were setting up the booth, before the show opened, I put the sign up. Other haunt owners would walk by and then ask, ‘You guys are real? I thought this was a joke!’,” Josh remembers, “In a convention that was purely consumer-driven we rented a booth and set up, what was basically a performance piece over the weekend and used it as nothing other than that. It was very voyeuristic. There was an actress, there was a T.V. set, keys, you know, it was typical Blackout. People just didn’t know what to make of it. People were yelling, “What are you selling? What are you doing there? There were jams in the aisle because people would just stand there watching.”
The pair realized that, in an industry about which they knew very little, they were the stuff of legend without even trying. Josh explains, “It was very clear to us after that show just what was happening. After that we pushed it 10,000 times harder in that direction.”
Since then it has become a standard for Haunt venues, big or small, to have a night or particular maze where you have to sign a waiver where people can touch you or you go in alone. Far from being upset at the imitation Josh excitedly offers, “It’s awesome as far as I’m concerned, it’s great! But it does mean that, from a Blackout point of view that the game is changing for us in terms of continuing to push things forward. Now it’s not so unique.”
The Blackout shows are not just a pastiche of really shitty situations. Josh confirmed, there is a definite theme and meaning behind everything that they do. After that statement he fell short of explaining anything stating, “It’s not about our meaning. We have a very specific set of moods, effects, technical rules that we will place on ourselves from show to show. Then there are themes that are put on top of it that the content sort of becomes developed from. But the point of it is to create something that becomes universal to a certain extent. So, as an organization we don’t have a desire to tell stories, we have a desire to allow you to tell your own story in our environment.” Josh continues very honestly, an artist assessing his own work: “When Blackout works, and it doesn’t always work, but when it does work I find that people put so much narrative and so much theme into it.” Citing how people listen to an album he explains, “I do that. I listen to an album and I don’t really care so much about what the writer was going through when they were writing the album, it’s kind of how it strikes me and how it developed in me. Ultimately the goal is to sort of allow the audience to create as much narrative as they possibly want. But, without a doubt, Kris and I have a very specific set of moods, themes, technical rules, requirements…”
The trappings that they give themselves are an exercise, a sort of a puzzle. Explaining further Josh stated, “As directors we say ‘What are the rules of this particular world?’ and we try to maintain them. Some people would look at and compare the shows and say, ‘oh Blackout‘s Blackout. But, when I look at the shows, I am considering the colors, how much fog was used, the sound, how loud the sound was, the kind of sound. We make very specific choices.” Again though, Josh brings it back to the whole point of the experience, reminding me saying, “Why WE choose them is irrelevant. By making that choice it is specific enough to have a response to it. But, without a doubt, Kris and I have a very specific set of moods, themes, technical rules, requirements that change for each show.”
When pressed on what they are trying to achieve by putting people in these uncomfortable situations? Josh wryly asks, “Well, What do you think?” I then brought up the infamous scene from the 2012 Halloween show in New York known as The Condom Hallway. In this scene the guest just had one shoe removed and were shoved into a hallway filled with cameras and dim T.V. monitors. As the guest made their way though the dimly lit corridor their one bare foot met with gooey condoms strewn about the floor.
What drives them to come up with this stuff? Do Kris and Josh just sit around and think of fucked up shit? He chuckles, “I mean a little? There’s a lot more to it, but you come up with things that are effective. Then it becomes a question of ‘Does this fit into this world?’ and if so ‘How?’ and if so ‘Why?’ If you can kind of answer all those questions then you throw the scene into the mix. After that it becomes about perfecting it from a physical execution standpoint.”Josh sits up in his chair and leans forward, “You talked about the condom hallway. I’m not gonna tell you what it is, but it was a very specific firsthand experience that Kris and I shared as best friends 10 years before Blackout was even created. That idea came from something that was kind of translated into, ‘You know what would be gross?’ But then, during that scene…” He paused for a minute then changes direction saying, “Look. I couldn’t care less about the hallway. It was what happened before and what happened after. It was nothing more than a transition from one scene to another.”
Relating to the whole creative process Josh began to laugh, “It’s funny what people remember,” He offered. “but that is what you learn in execution. That hallway was nothing more than a transition from one scene to another, and then you realize, ‘whoa people are talking about that hallway a lot.’ and there’s a reason. It’s because what sets it up and what happens when they walked through it and what happens after means that it was put in context for them and they got it. What’s so great is that was set up. It wasn’t just you walking down a hallway. You were thinking, ‘Who was that bitch that took my shoe? Where is my shoe? Is that a light at the end of the hallway? Are these used condoms? Is that lubricant on the bottom of my foot? Is somebody waiting for me at the end of the hallway?” People don’t talk about it but there were also these cameras and televisions that were showing you walking down the hallway, that was the only light. There was a lot going on in that hallway. There is so much that went into creating that one moment and it’s awesome because people reduce it to nothing more than ‘The Condom Hallway!'”
How hard can Blackout push though? Once the pinnacle of physical and psychological terror, the outfit is being quickly outdone by other haunts willing to exploit the gimmick, sacrificing the substance that once validated it. What does this mean for Blackout? Josh simply states, “Well, it means we will have to continue to innovate.” Nowadays you have all of these haunts creating these extreme experiences and, really, we’re theatre guys. We are just trying to create an experience that people will respond to.
Where’s Blackout headed? “Um, you know, Blackout is in a very interesting spot.” Josh said, pensively looking down. “We have the opportunity for massive amounts of expansion, but obviously that is not where Blackout lives. It lives in the dark recesses of the individual, but when you have something that is that creatively successful you want as many people to see it as possible. So how do you meld all those worlds and allow Blackout to continue down the road of innovation?
The conundrum takes its hold on our minds and we sat, thinking for a minute. Josh broke the silence, reflecting, “We had no desire to change things. We didn’t realize we were doing it when we did. But now that it has changed I don’t think Blackout has much a place in this world anymore. Blackout doesn’t need to “compete” with the other extreme haunts.” As a fan of Blackout a fear began to grow in the pit of my stomach. Josh continued, “Where does that take an actual live experience? What city? How big? How small? Invite only? Massive crowd pleasing, whatever? Different mediums? Different countries? All of that is being explored. We want to further develop the Blackout experience to the point that it can reach more people, and ultimately do something that nobody else is doing.”
What was Josh saying? New ways to experience Blackout? New mediums? His message was becoming as cryptic in meaning as a hallway littered with used condoms. He enthusiastically continued, “We are beta testing stuff. We feel really strongly about this. It’s undeniable people’s reactions to it and it’s undeniable that there are hundreds of thousands of people that would sign up in two seconds for what we are about to do.”
“For us, Blackout isn’t the end all be all for Kris and I creatively. We both have other projects, we both have other interests creatively. Neither of us dreamed that we’d would be working in horror. Don’t get me wrong I love it.” Then Josh, almost as if to calm the fear that was obviously beginning to pour over my face, he assured, “Blackout is not going away, it’s evolving.”
“…When you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.”
Then it began to come into focus. Recalling the original question I asked myself at the outset, I realized why I actively seek out what will make me uncomfortable. I realized why Josh and Kris toyed with an artistic idea and put artistic rules and constraints on themselves. We all take ourselves to the edge in an effort to learn more about who we are. We test our boundaries and limitations to explore our subconscious, to understand what we would otherwise ignore. That is why haunts, mazes, and fabricated danger were created. It is fear without the consequence in order to greater understand what makes us tick. Blackout was created to explore artistic boundaries in physical, theatrical and psychological realms.
Josh Randall and Kristjan Thorgeirsson have created a monster. A monster that has grown to inspire countless others, online communities, and the gathering of an otherwise disparate grouping of people in search of one thing; the understanding of ones self and a greater understanding of humanity in general.