Virtual Reality (VR) was the new hot item at San Diego Comic 2015. Legendary, SyFy, and Conan were all handing out the new Google Cardboard by the truckload. Legendary using it to promote the new Warcraft and Crimson Peak movies, SyFy using it to promote their new show The Expanse, and Conan using it to promote—well—himself. Much nicer VR headsets were used by video game companies to promote their games: Overkill’s The Walking Dead experience was shown on the StarVR headset and Sony’s London Heist shown on the Morpheus. Allowing full immersion, this medium is perfect for video games and promotional material. But, it is also perfect for something else that excels in full immersion—horror.
This is an avenue that has not yet been fully explored—only dabbled in. In March, SXSW debuted Catatonic, a five minute VR immersive horror short in which an audience member is actually strapped into a wheelchair and then virtually ushered through a maddening psychiatric ward. In May, Insidious 3 guided people into the further with part haunted house, part VR experience. And now at San Diego Comic Con, FX created a new VR experience inspired by The Strain, the vampire thriller from Carlton Cuse and Guillermo del Toro.
Promoting the start of its second season, The Strain VR Experience was part of FX’s Fearless Arena, which occupied the entirety of the grass in front of the Hilton. It caught my eye right away—probably due to the 100-foot poster covering the side of the Hilton, but also because it was one of the few outdoor horror offerings this year (Ash vs Evil Dead had the inside handled!). But every time I walked by, the line was capped or over two hours long. On the final day of SDCC, I got there early, and only an hour and a half line awaited me.
The wait was hot, but I did see Carlton Cuse himself come by. He thanked the line for letting him cut to the front and that he hadn’t had a chance to see it (although I am a The Strain fan, I had to proclaim my love for LOST to him). As we reached the front, we had to sign a waiver stating we were over 18, and then six of us entered a replica warehouse. Sitting on large barstool-esque seats, the Samsung Gear VR headset and headphones were placed on our heads.
This two and a half minute experience placed us in the center of the vampire apocalypse. After joining Kevin Durand (Vasiliy Fet in the show) on his mission, we found ourselves in the same warehouse we had entered and that a female was tied up at the other end, ready to be interrogated. However, it’s a trap! Vampires flooded in from all directions, and we stood helplessly to watch. The screen flashes black and now we are in a different location, watching vampires emerge while Kevin protects us from their hordes. We escape to the outside, only for a vampire to surprise us. Now infected, the seat pounds faster with our heartbeat, as Kevin walks forward, weapon in hand, ready to kill us. As we die, the experience ends and we are back in the warehouse.
The story and visuals were its standout strengths. The vampires looked straight out of the show, the sets were fantastic, and the ending was a nice twist. The seats were also equipped with rumble packs that rumbled in beat with the heart. However, the negatives were very apparent. Where Insidious 3 and Catatonic had you sit stationary for the duration of the experience (the latter creatively has a nurse push you through the experience, helping the immersion), this experience felt thrilling and fast-paced, but wasn’t—as you never saw yourself run or move. In situations where vampires were coming at you, you stood helplessly until Kevin saved you. To transition you from location to location, awkward black screens moved you. There was also a moment in a stairwell in which I looked down to see that I was standing midair between two sets of stairs. These flaws prevented me from feeling totally immersed, and thus from, feeling scared.
Virtuix’s Omni is already helping to cure this inability to self-propel yourself through a VR experience. By having real walking or running (in the comfort of your living room) translate to natural in-game movement, the Omni creates an unprecedented sense of immersion that cannot be experienced while sitting down. If this technology was more mature and The Strain’s VR Experience could have incorporated it, running from the vampires would have been infinitely more terrifying. It’s improvements like this that make me excited for the future of VR and horror, even if The Strain’s VR experience was not fully there yet.