Just east of downtown Los Angeles is Boyle Heights, a neighborhood that is a proud home to 100,000 residents. But in one corner of this bright community sat a dark secret: an eerie, blood-soaked warehouse that left visitors numb from horror. Though there are many disturbing and frightening haunted houses, they’re also a dime a dozen. The Tension Experience wasn't just an immersive theater show, or clever alternate reality game, or a haunted house in Boyle Heights - it was a life-changing amalgamation of all three.
So just what was The Tension Experience? It was an ARG and immersive theater experience rolled into one, a deeply psychological ride that left participants questioning what's real and what isn’t. According to the narrative, it was also home to the OOA Institute, a scheming cult with wickedly ulterior motives, and visitors doubled as initiates undergoing incredibly punishing indoctrination. The OOA cult’s haunted house left more than just an impression - it made guests paranoid, afraid, and possibly even emotionally and mentally scarred.
The Tension Experience was incredibly successful due to one crucial thing: visitors gave them their personal information, which they then used to haunt them even before the experience happened. They often got creepy phone calls filled with haunting songs, eerie laughter, or even lurid silence.
They even "requested" in-person meetings or scavenger hunts where they lurked nearby and observed what happened. Some said that on the day of their experience, they were pretty much abducted - a bag thrown over their head before they were shoved into a van, eventually being released in the parking lot in front of the location itself.
All of it left visitors constantly looking over their shoulder, paranoid about being followed, watched, and psychologically taunted.
As long as a participant was all in, the whole experience was tailored to them, based on the information they gave and the choices they made at the experience itself. And that wasn't limited to just one particular day - things happened in the days, weeks, and months leading up to the experience. Participants could be ordered to find a package, or be interrogated.
These events help hooked an individual into the actual experience, because they were psychologically weaker from the outset. And then, at their most vulnerable, the cult confronted them wielding their greatest fear.
Darren Lynn Bousman is perhaps best known as the director for Saw 2 through Saw 4, and the cult favorite Repo! The Genetic Opera. His vision for The Tension Experience was really about deeply involving the audience in the story. By participating directly with the actors and the set, they became more invested in the story than if they watched from chairs.
And he was right on the money: becoming emotionally involved is what made the experience psychologically terrifying. In other words, being in the Tension Experience was a bit like starring in a Saw film, except all of the torture was far more psychological, and a lot less physical.
Most other immersive experiences are a one-shot thing. You go, you explore and experience, and then you return home with all sorts of crazy memories. In this one however, participants were asked a series of questions long before they even stepped foot in the warehouse.
They were sent an official OOA Institute Processing Form, which asked deeply personal questions such as their blood type, if the government had files of their fingerprints, or if they had life insurance. Even worse, participants might have been asked to meet with an OOA Institute member for an interview - though most said it was more of an interrogation.
All of this information-gathering resulted in the experience being customized around an individual and their worst fears. They returned home with all sorts of crazy emotions.