ETA, 4pm 15 October: The director of the show / company, Emma, has been in touch to say that the event in Christchurch has been handled very, very poorly and unprofessionally and is not indicative of what the company normally does, and that the remaining shows are being cancelled and refunded. (A friend of a friend has since received a cancellation email citing a ‘personal emergency’.) She has asked that I cut some information below relating to the show’s content – you can see where. I posted this blog to facebook, and she is also making individual contact with the people who have complained extensively about the show in the comments underneath.
At the same time, prior to Emma stepping in, the company itself seems to be pretty poor at dealing with negative feedback. Some people on facebook have said that their negative reviews of the show have been deleted, that they’ve been banned from the company’s facebook page for making complaints, and that their private email complaints have been dealt with extremely rudely. There’s obviously a form email that gets trotted out by someone in the company, as they all look much the same, and put the blame on the customer, not the product, and refuse refunds. One woman has shared a screengrab of a message received from Hunted Interactive Experience threatening legal action for slander for calling their show a scam. You know you’ve hit a certain level of ridiculousness when the Internet Lawyers have been summoned!
ETA 2: A news article about it on stuff.co.nz with a pretty impressive facebook conversation about the shows in other centres! Also the producers seem to have stopped answering people’s emails and want to blame the actors, not the organisation. Stay classy.
Dark Lake, a production from Perth-based company, Hunted Interactive Experience is the single worst piece of theatre I think I have ever seen – so bad that I’ve spent the morning trying to work out if it’s a William Castle-style scam.
The show is billed as a hugely popular interactive horror experience (over 18000 people frightened in the last four years! over 38000 likes on facebook!). Here’s the company’s pitch:
Nobody quite knows what’s wrong with Dark Lake. Inexplicable things happen there. People go missing. People go there after dark, then come out…strange. Changed, somehow. People see things, they hear voices…No one knows what’s causing the pervasive air of menace around this place. Rumours of hauntings and unquiet spirits abound.
I love horror. I love theatre. I love horror theatre. THIS IS MY JAM.
You buy your tickets – an invitation to a scary little girl’s birthday party – months in advance. You receive strongly worded emails in bad fonts full of warnings, guidelines and exclamation points, emphasising that your psychological well-being may be at risk (pregnant women be warned!) and that any deviation will result in your $40 ticket being voided. You’re guided towards a secret location. You’re told to wear sensible shoes as you might need to run. It’s like being admonished by an officious mid-level office manager whose interests are label makers and passive aggression. Nonetheless, this is all part of the shtick, and generally I am a big fan of horror-themed hucksterism; this sort of thing requires suspense and buy-in, and there’s a lot of pleasure in anticipation.
The Christchurch leg of the tour is based at The Groynes, a lovely park and recreation area a little north of Christchurch – an area that was once rural, but which is now a part of the creeping urban sprawl that is slowly gobbling up satellite towns and vomiting up over-priced boutique subdivisions with a pleasant rustic outlook.
It’s Friday the 13th. We toddle down a dark road to the check-in point, watching people who’ve just completed the experience drift back to the car park. We arrive at 9:15, as the ticket says that if we get there after 9:20 we won’t be admitted. It’s a clear, mild night, and despite an amber smudge of light pollution to the south we can see the stars. Groups of eight are being let in at loose intervals by a very, very young host with Alex DeLarge eyelashes and a clipboard. We are kept waiting in the dark until 9:45, unhappy at what seems to be disorganisation but happy that it’s not raining. We spend our time chatting to the other members of the audience and listening to bursts of screams and laughter from the dark. Some laminated bits of paper allude to a girl disappearing in the 1970s. A woman near us identifies herself as a nervous giggler; we also have, combined, a nervous screamer (Kirsty), a nervous farter (Annie), and a nervous swearer (me). More anticipation. We’re finally let in. The host, who keeps calling Annie ‘Anne’, offers a speedy, less than coherent spiel about weird somethingorothers happening, we may not come back, spooky times, okay? We move across the water via a bouncy suspension bridge into the darkness and find ourselves back there less than twenty minutes later wondering what the fuck just happened and why we bothered leaving the house.
I have a lot of conversations about the appeal of horror, partly out of personal curiosity, and partly out of professional interest. I intermittently give talks or keynotes on horror, and I’m currently trying to flog the book on women in horror I wrote, and it’s the go-to question from interviewers and audience members. I have a loose theory that a lot of horror fans and audiences are completists, and that very often even the worst of films, or other horror products, will still find active audiences because there’s something in the genre’s emotional, affective appeal that makes it worthwhile. Sharing a scary-but-safe experience is pretty good time, and even if the product is a bit wonky, people can be quite forgiving if there’s at least one thing to like. (See: the VHS boom of the 80s, the current VOD glut of shady horror, the ongoing appeal of fun cut-rate horror mazes.) I don’t mean, in any way, that horror audiences are rubes – more that horror can be a lot of fun, and fun takes many forms, from the sophisticated to the bottom of the barrel.
Dark Lake strikes me as an example of the way that producers might exploit the generosity and forgiveness of horror audiences, and in doing so get away with charging a bit of money for a really sub-par product. Here’s how the experience breaks down. For your benefit I have bolded the things that would be important in a bad 90s point and click adventure game.
- You cross the boingy bridge, and follow a muddy path. There are fairy lights. Is this Dark Lake? Where and when are we? Who cares. Down the path!
- There’s a jack in the box, because jack in the boxes are creepy, yeah? A laminated piece of A4 tells you to wind it. Pop goes the weasel! Here’s a tattered birthday party invitation. It’s tattered from overuse, not to be creepy. Why is there a birthday party at a weird lake in the dark? Who is the girl? Why are we here? Is this a story? Who cares. Down the path!
- A [REDACTED] tells us that [REDACTED]. It’s hard to make out what he is saying because his diction is very poor and he is all over the place. There’s some muttering about [REDACTED EXPOSITION]. We all look at each other. Who is he? Why’s he here? Why are we here? Who cares. Down the path!
- There are bad things on the path, but shine your torch at them and they will go away. These bad things are people wearing black sheets and $2 shop fright masks who will roar at you and try to make you scream. Why are they here? (My guess: to re-set props.) Who cares. Down the path!
- There’s a [REDACTED] with very bad make up. She is a [REDACTED]? I can’t make out what she is saying because she isn’t projecting and she mumbles. She is looking for [REDACTED] maybe? Can we help her [REDACTED]? Why? What is going on? Is there some narrative we’re missing? Someone steps to the side, and she tells them to be careful not to fall in the lake. (Later on I hear that other people have fallen in the lake. Oops.) Who cares. Down the path!
- There is a [REDACTED] on the ground. Is this is [REDACTED]? In it is another laminated A4 sheet. A bit has been cut out of it as that instruction is no longer pertinent, I think, but no-one’s bothered making a new one. It says [REDACTED]. Is this a puzzle? [A REDACTED ACTIVITY THAT’S NOT REALLY AN ACTIVITY]. Why? What’s the point? Who cares. Down the path!
- There is a [LOT OF REDACTED STUFF INCLUDING AN ACTIVITY AND AN UNSAFE PROP]. What’s the narrative? [REDACTED]. What is going on? We look over our shoulders hoping for something behind us. Is this supposed to be a story? We learn nothing about [REDACTED CHARACTERS AND SITUATIONS]. [REDACTED PERSON] [REDACTED ACTION] their [REDACTED THING] (RIP [REDACTED]), pretends to guzzle some [REDACTED] from Countdown (complete with $5 sale sticker) that they are obviously sick of (they don’t even put it in their mouth), and tells us [REDACTED]. Run! I refuse to run because it’s slippy and I strained my back a week ago and I don’t plan on injuring myself for this. Does this make any sense? Who cares. Down the path!
- It’s the [REDACTED] again. They are [ENGAGING IN A HEALTH AND SAFETY VIOLATION WITH A BOXCUTTER]. Secure your pilots! No one can make out what he is saying, or what it has to do with anything. Is this just starting? Who cares. Down the path!
- We pass the jack in the box. Huh? We’re at the boingy bridge. We’ve been around a little loop track. It’s been 15 minutes, maybe 20 at the most? (We entered at 9:45 and were back in the car by 10:12.) The host congratulates us on finishing alive and invites us to write something in the visitor book. What? We all stand around a little baffled. I read the disappointed comments and write something rude.
Ordinarily when I watch something I don’t think is very good that I am not reviewing I go home and don’t think about it any further. In this case, the quality of the production made me angry enough to want to write something about it.
Dark Lake is so poorly produced it’s insulting. Just about everything it promises in its promo material is misleading or incorrect. It’s clearly making bank, given the number of people going through, but its direction, action and acting are woeful. It has no narrative, no clear characterisation, no themes, and no context or justification for anything that happens. Its production values are laughably poor. It has not thought about what an experience feels like from the perspective of an audience. It does nothing with its interesting setting. It discards its own set up. It is neither immersive nor really participatory. It is a cheap grab bag of cut-rate horror iconography. It is horror by people who don’t understand or care about horror, for people who deserve better. It is theatre by people who don’t understand theatre or audiences, for people who perhaps would ordinarily avoid the theatre. It gets by on the goodwill of an audience who love anticipation as much as experience. To call it amateur hour would be very rude to talented, hard-working amateurs.
It’s apparent that the company quickly removes bad reviews or complaints from their facebook page. The few reviews I found online that didn’t just recycle the press release were generous, and, inexplicably, were very willing to wave away all manner of sins because a) there were jump scares, b) it’s challenging for the actors to act outdoors (??? this isn’t a charity) and c) you have fun with your friends in spite of the show. This in spite of seems to drive the company; what a business model!
On our way in the groups leaving were silent and subdued. Good sign, we thought! Spooky! Not really. As we headed back to the car past new arrivals, Kirsty whispers ‘goooooo back while there’s still timeeeeeee!’ You might forfeit your $40, but unless you’re a masochist I think that that’s the better deal.