I turn to face a metal door, overcome with morbid curiosity as to what lies behind it. An unnatural purple glow reflects off the ornate patterns adorning its surface. I only have a few seconds to inspect the door before it slowly swings open, its groans echoing down the hallway behind me. A brass candelabra holding three lit candlesticks floats into my field of vision, leading the way into the room. I reluctantly follow, and recoil in disgust as I take in my surroundings. Massive cobwebs hang from the branches of dead trees that loom against the circular room’s stone walls. Four bloody, moss-covered human faces appear to be sealed into the wall itself. Above me, a light crackles with the distinct sound of electricity ebbing and flowing. With each surge in power, a new wave of light illuminates the horrifying scene before me. The faces in the wall begin to tell me a lighthearted tale about a vampire, which ends with them all giggling to one another. Their playful attitude sits in stark contrast with the room’s overall aesthetic, leaving me unsettled. Without warning, a woman in a red dress appears in front of me, staring directly into my eyes. “There you are,” she declares, “I’ve been looking everywhere for you.” Her lips curl into a disquieting smile, and she claps her hands together. In an instant, the scenery around me changes, dragging me even deeper into the nightmarish rabbit hole that is the Fearhouse.
Fearhouse 360 is a virtual reality horror experience created by Stacy Dawson Stearns, Jonathon Stearns, and Jason Schuler of Channel B4 Media and Doctored Pictures. The experience is split into three parts that viewers can watch independently or in one continuous, 19-minute sitting. Viewers can watch Fearhouse 360 from home on any device that supports 360-degree videos, but for the best experience viewers should use VR goggles and headphones. Footage includes graphic scenes of blood and gore, so participation is not recommended for anyone younger than fourteen. Participants play the main character in this story, watching from a first-person perspective as various actors guide them through the titular Fearhouse. The residents of this sinister mansion are delighted that the viewer will be joining them for dinner, but participants quickly realize that this isn’t a normal dinner party. Don’t expect a typical haunted house filled with jump-scares; Fearhouse 360 is more akin to a spine-chilling fever dream in which participants have no agency to change the narrative.
This experience seeks to curate a collection of haunted delicacies, intriguing encounters, and psychological horrors for its viewers. As viewers progress from one vignette to another, the experience begins to feel like a well-orchestrated descent into madness. Scene changes are abrupt and unpredictable, characters appear and disappear like apparitions, and familiar Halloween tropes share the stage with imagery that is uniquely bizarre and unsettling. A sense of foreboding saturates every scene in Fearhouse 360, keeping the audience on their toes. In one scene, a host of costumed characters stand around the viewer in a circle, clapping in unison. Their ranks include a ghostly girl in a white dress, a man in a red devil costume, and a hunchback in a cape. None of these characters are particularly frightening by themselves. However, this scene is periodically interrupted by premonitions in which the viewer stares up at these characters’ crazed faces as they prepare to eat the viewer. When these interactions with familiar Halloween characters are abruptly escalated into unfamiliar, high-intensity encounters, the effect is quite creepy.
Though Fearhouse 360 proves to be both innovative and ambitious, it misses the mark in a few key areas. The video itself is slightly pixelated, and while it’s not a blatant distraction, it’s noticeable enough to hinder the audience’s ability to suspend disbelief. Though the effort that went into creating such a complex and layered video is admirable, some of the visual effects still feel cheesy. The show’s progression through the storyline also has a tendency to feel erratic. At best, this created an atmosphere of chaos and unpredictability that keeps the audience on their toes. More times than would be ideal, however, the scenes are so random that they leave viewers feeling more confused than intrigued. Though all three chapters can be viewed back-to-back, chapters two and three have brief title scenes that temporarily pull viewers out of the narrative to announce the start of a new chapter, before placing them right where they left off. This immediately breaks the audience’s immersion in the experience.
The acting in Fearhouse 360 is an eclectic mix of styles ranging from subtle to over-the-top and exaggerated. Jason Schuler’s portrayal of Thunk, the hunchback, is reminiscent of a cartoon villain, complete with expressive gestures, animated facial expressions, and an evil laugh. J.J. Ryder gives a genuinely creepy performance as Rocco the Carnie, with traces of insanity spilling over into every contorted smile and frenzied gasp. Truly a master of subtlety, Nick Smerkanich’s calm and charming portrayal of the White Rabbit is able to instantly unsettle the audience. Ryan Masson’s performance as Cannes, a vampire, is also impressive; his unrelenting gaze and disconcerting facial expressions are some of the creepiest in the entire show. Stacy Dawson Stearns as Frau Klunch is the glue that brings the entire experience together. She switches with ease between being whimsical and foreboding, and in doing so captures the essence of the Fearhouse.
Every set in the experience is real, having been either found in nature, fabricated, or repurposed to become what it is in Fearhouse 360. This is impressive, as the finished product is so otherworldly that one’s instinct would be to assume it is all computer-generated. There are a few minor digital effects, but they are incidental and limited. The majority of the experience takes place inside the Fearhouse in a hallway lined with a dozen doors of various styles. The hallway itself feels rundown; the ceiling is crumbling, and both the walls and the floor are discolored with age and wear. Different vignettes take place behind several of the doors, each with its own unique set design. The penultimate scene in Fearhouse 360 takes viewers into a different part of the house, and, without giving too much away, the set and use of props work together flawlessly to create one of the most genuinely horrifying scenes in the entire experience. Background music and sound effects enhance the mood of each scene; the music is generally ominous and ambient, though there are also moments where parlor music, carnival music, and even silence are used effectively.
The use of virtual reality in Fearhouse 360 is what truly sets it apart from other immersive horror shows. What it sacrifices in tactile engagement it makes up for in its ability to immerse the audience in scenarios that cannot be recreated in real life. The beauty of having a video-based experience is that the audience can re-watch it as many times as they want. Fearhouse 360 is packed with details, and there is often so much happening simultaneously within each scene that it takes multiple watches to fully take it all in. The creators have worked tirelessly to ensure that there is always something new for curious audience members to pick up on in each journey through the Fearhouse.
Fearhouse 360 is an immersive horror journey that can be enjoyed from the comfort of your own home. This experience is perfect for anyone wishing to soothe their pangs of nostalgia for the Halloween season. Though its visual effects are far from perfect, Fearhouse 360 knows how to build and relieve tension in just the right way to get under your skin when you least expect it. The cast and crew are full of heart, and together they’ve created a horror experience that is both entertaining and unique.
This review originally appeared on Haunting.net on 11/13/19.