I Can’t See — A Multi-Sensory Approach Is a Fresh Twist on Immersive Horror
A thin sleeping bag is all that separates me from the creaky wooden floor I’m sitting on. I can feel the nylon twist beneath me as I readjust, turning in the direction of the banging noises coming from the hall. My friends chuckle nervously, reassuring one another that ghosts aren’t real. A crash of thunder interrupts their anxious chatter, and an abrupt downpour of rain reveals a leaky roof right above our heads. What did we expect? Abandoned houses aren’t exactly known for being well-maintained. Attempting to soothe our frazzled nerves proves to be an exercise in futility, and we soon realize one member of our group is no longer chiming in. I reach over to check on him, and come in contact with his lifeless body. I realize that if I don’t get out of this house soon, I’m going to be the next to die. Finding my way out, however, is easier said than done, because no matter what I do, I can’t see.
I Can’t See is a 45-minute immersive horror experience created by Timothy Haskell and Paul Smithyman of Psycho Clan, and inspired by W.W. Jacob’s short story The Toll House. The experience takes place in lower Manhattan on the ground floor of an otherwise ordinary high-rise. The premise of the show is that each audience member has volunteered to partake in a sophisticated horror simulation created by the fictional company Optecs. This simulation offers participants the opportunity to face their biggest fears. The catch, however, is that audience members will not be able to see. Participants are blindfolded, and the narrative is told via headphones plugged into a small, portable remote receiver. Actors lead participants from scene to scene, and supplement the audio using props and light-to-moderate physical contact. No one under the age of 12 is admitted.
The goal of the experience is to build tension and evoke fear in a novel way. Oftentimes, immersive horror experiences use terrifying or foreboding imagery to instill a sense of dread. I Can’t See does just the opposite; they create a sense of terror by taking away the audience’s ability to see what’s coming next. There is a strong emphasis on engaging the remaining four senses (especially hearing and touch) to immerse each audience member into the storyline, in which they play the role of the main character. Each audience member experiences the same narrative, with agency to determine their personal ending with one final, critical moment. Although participants move through the experience in groups of up to five, each individual feels as though they’re experiencing the narrative alone.
The primary component of the set is a series of guide ropes of various textures, referred to as “umbilicals.” Participants use these umbilicals to guide themselves through each scene, until an actor leads them by the hand to the next set of umbilicals. I Can’t See also experiments with different floor textures, seating types, and hanging set elements in order to cleverly recreate each scene’s environment. In one scene, the floor sways from side to side as audience members try to find their footing, recreating the experience of walking through a funhouse at a carnival. In another instance, participants must push through long stretches of artificial hanging vines and leafy branches, mimicking the way it would feel to navigate through dense underbrush in a forest. The set itself is fairly simple, but plants just enough of a seed in the audience’s mind to allow their imaginations to run wild and fill in the gaps. Allowing audience members to fully build out the set in their own minds is an act of creative brilliance.
Though the premise of the show is innovative, the execution occasionally left something to be desired. At times, the use of props felt more gimmicky than authentic; some moments felt like the high-production equivalent of sticking your hand in a bowl of spaghetti guts at a Halloween party. Within each scene, it also wasn’t always clear at what point the audience was supposed to stand still and focus on the audio instead of continuing to follow the “umbilicals.” As a result, audience members may find themselves physically bumping into or being bumped into by other participants in their group. Finally, though the audio warns audience members repeatedly at the beginning of the experience to avoid dying, the life-or-death moment of choice within the simulation is over and done before most participants even realize what’s going on. The show’s reliance on only one make-it-or-break-it moment as a gauge of whether or not a participant survives the simulation has the potential to leave a bitter taste in the mouths of guests who otherwise had a fantastic experience.
Barring these few points of improvement, I Can’t See is successful overall in immersing audience members in the story’s world from beginning to end. From the moment participants step into the lobby until the moment they’re rushed outside, the actors are relentlessly in character as Optecs technicians. During check-in, orientation, and debrief, each actor is just friendly and intense enough to make participants slightly uneasy. During the show, the ability of the actors to match the audio with appropriate touch and use of props in real time was impressive. Their precision is monumental in the show’s ability to fully immerse participants in the storyline.
I Can’t See labels itself as a sensory assault on every sense except sight, so participants can expect to encounter a variety of tastes and smells — both pleasant and unpleasant — at several points throughout the experience. Participants are never force-fed, and food allergies are addressed at check-in. The audio, designed by James Lo, is the cornerstone of the experience, and does an effective job of combining ambient noise with dialogue in a way that helps participants forget they’re wearing headphones. Participants’ tactile experience is also an important piece of the puzzle, and though audience members will never come into contact with something that will cause pain, they can expect to get somewhat wet.
I Can’t See is psychological immersive horror in its purest form; its strength lies in its ability to immerse audience members in a world they can only see in their mind’s eye. It offers audience members the opportunity to play the protagonist in a unique experience that feels like Bird Box meets Black Mirror’s “Playtest” meets The Toll House. Though there are still some wrinkles that need to be ironed out before the show can fully achieve realism in how it engages the audience’s senses, they’ve laid a strong foundation that can only be improved upon in years to come. I Can’t See provides a fresh take on a familiar genre for seasoned haunt-goers, and is also a fun alternative for individuals who scare too easily to participate in more intense, graphic haunted attractions.
This review originally appeared on Haunting.net on 10/29/19.