Why are we drawn to the dark side?

Is the ‘immersive’ industry too reliant on suspense, thriller tropes and horror? If so, why? And is it time for a new dawn?

Going to the theatre is fun. Well, on the whole it’s a bit boring, isn’t it? You get the odd flash of modern brilliance (Jerusalem, Chimerica), the occasional burst of stylish wonder (Warhorse, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime) and, from time to time, the toe-tapping stupendousness of a comedy musical about a corpse that won us the war (do I even need to say the words Operation Mincemeat?), but often I find traditional theatre can be arse-achingly dry. A feeling perfectly immortalised by the “I’m going to pretend I’m watching Heat” scene from Peep Show - we’ve all done it.  

So when I discovered immersive theatre, my mind was blown. Here my attention wasn’t drifting as I tried to engage from the gloom - and Victorian discomfort - of a West End seat. My viewpoint wasn’t flattened by the prism of a proscenium, instead the narrative was mine to discover, the set my own to explore. I wasn’t watching a world performed before me, I was in one. And by being in this world, I got to feel the emotions explored within it much more potently.

But the emotions we’re invited to experience in the majority of immersive shows are usually on the darker end of the spectrum. And it would be remiss of me to not put a BIG DISCLAIMER here that our initial quartet of Swamp Originals (Isklander, The Drop, Saint Jude and The Alter) would all be similarly described as ‘dark’. This is partly what’s prompted me to consider this recently, what should we make next..?

If you look at the most popular immersive attractions in London over the past year you’ll see that you can fight zombies (OTHERWORLD), witness the fall of Troy (Punchdrunk’s The Burnt City), escape an alien invasion (War of the Worlds), sink into the eerie audio of a crashing plane (Darkfield’s Flight) experience the grim history of the Tower of London (The Gunpowder Plot), watch a murder trial (Witness for the Prosecution) and step foot - pun intended - into the world of the Saw franchise. (If you haven’t seen it [SPOILER], he saws off his own foot).

Now, there are excellent experiences in London that have been crafted with, and genuinely elicit, delight. I’m thinking about The Crystal Maze, Monopoly Lifesized, immersive potion making (cocktails) at The Cauldron, dinner theatre at Gingerline or Mamma Mia! The Party. But rather than narrative-led theatre, these are competitive socialising experiences, or drinks-focussed experiences, or, in the case of Mamma Mia! The Party - where I’ve heard that you’re challenged to sing as many ABBA songs as you can whilst waiters force you to chug an entire pitcher of sangria, orange slices included - a competitive drinking experience! (citation needed)

So what’s behind immersive theatre’s predilection for tension, suspense and the uncanny? In thinking about this I’ve come up with 3 potential reasons why we love working on the dark side. Maybe there’s more, maybe they’re all wrong, but let me know what you think.

1. The Thrill of Chills

Might it be because audiences enjoy getting as close as they can to encountering terror within the safe confines of a theatrical venue? Much like a rollercoaster, or a ghost train, your stomach can be reacting in one extremely visceral way, while the tiny nerd voice at the back of your brain can soothingly pant ‘it’s ok, it’s not real, remember?’. Theatre has seen a good amount of success with horror, think of The Woman In Black (which ran for 33 years), Ghost Stories, The Pillowman and everyone’s favourite, the casting phenomenon also known as the-play-that-we-all-know-yet-no-one-has-ever-seen: 2:22 A Ghost Story.

Being scared is something we’ve long sought out, and where horror films are great; being genuinely afraid in the theatre is amazing. Hearing an entire room shriek because a rocking chair starts moving on its own is wonderful, bonding even. And, unlike cinema, you have no idea how that rocking chair started moving on its own! It’s magical. Imagine then, being in a pitch black, warehouse-sized room in an immersive theatrical experience where ‘the scary thing’ (this time probably not a rocking chair) could be anywhere, could be all around you. Suddenly you’re nearing rollercoaster levels of apprehension and adrenaline.

2. The Power of Fear

Does it help sell a show? Fear-based marketing is of course an old and grimly reliable way of making consumers buy stuff (or vote for you). And drumming up literal fear is a technique which has historically been used to great effect when selling tickets.

As long ago as the 1930s movie execs would hire audience plants to sit in cinemas and scream during showings of their films. In 1959 when veteran producer William Castle was promoting his horror film ‘The Tingler’, starring mustachioed vampire of camp Vincent Price, Castle wired a number of seats in the auditorium with an electric charge. He could then quite literally shock unsuspecting audience members with volts of electricity in a bid to cause a contagion of fear and thus push more people to discuss, and ultimately go and see, the film. Perhaps the most famous of these stunts is the legend that ambulances were parked up outside multiple screenings of ‘The Exorcist’ in 1973. Whether they were real, a tabloid story, or a marketing stunt dreamed up by the film’s creators is unconfirmed, but the tale itself has gone down in history and people flocked to see this terrifying movie that was making people vomit, faint and generally end their Saturday nights in A&E - a job previously left to booze alone.

I would argue that in 2024 we are slowly becoming numb to traditional fear-based marketing techniques. Every day we are now bombarded with anxiety-inducing “LAST CHANCE TO BUY!” and “TIME IS RUNNING OUT!” messaging. Maybe it’s not just me in a constant general malaise partly fuelled by those stories that come out every Christmas revealing that Black Friday deals are actually more expensive than when buying at other random days throughout the year. Worse than finding out Father Christmas doesn’t exist? Who can say!

3. Are we maybe just being lazy?

Let’s be honest, genuinely eliciting an emotional response from an audience member is a big deal. Crying at the end of ‘Dear Bill’ in Operation Mincemeat, being made dizzy by the Lynchian uncanny of Punchdrunk’s beautifully rendered worlds, or struck silent by Mark Rylance as Rooster Byron. These are rare, amazing, often bodily things. Maybe creeping people out, or spooking them, or putting them on the edge of their seats, is actually the quickest way of engendering something at least similar.

If immersive has the power to more deeply engage audiences with the show’s themes and emotions, where are the immersive comedies? The heady, sweeping romances? The romcoms? What about a fantasy epic? Documentary? Mockumentary? An immersive musical (no the immersive entrance to Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club doesn’t count) ? We’re a city full of hugely creative immersive theatre makers, but are we limiting ourselves by neglecting to explore more varied genres - maybe ones from the more joyful end of that spectrum? In a world where anxiety is at an all-time high, existential dread seems permanent, and constant uncertainty seems to be our bedrock, isn’t this exactly what the world needs right now?

What does an upbeat immersive theatre show look like? Guys & Dolls at The Bridge (which I admittedly haven’t seen) is supposed to be joyous, and surely the upcoming Paddington Immersive show will capture our imagination as buoyantly as the films have.

Perhaps i’m being an idiot and there’s loads more on offer that I haven’t found, so if you think I’ve missed something let me know, in the meantime we’re going to have a think about what an immersive comedy could look like...I know we’re all thinking it: Peep Show - The Immersive Experience. I call dibs on that, but for now I’m going to go and watch ‘Heat’... AKA head back in for the second half of ‘2:22 A Ghost Story’. Which I will also be starring in from next week as ‘Jenny’.

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