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A 24-room labyrinth in a Boyle Heights warehouse gives audiences a custom terror experience

A 24-room labyrinth in a Boyle Heights warehouse gives audiences a custom terror experience
Director Darren Bousman takes us inside his Halloween-timed horror experience “The Tension Experience: Ascension” in Boyle Heights. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

The first thing that happens when you walk through the doors of "The Tension Experience: Ascension" is that you're handed a recruitment document for a cult, masquerading as the O.O.A. Institute. Printed on top of the enrollment paper is your own face, smiling back at you.

A rosy-lipped receptionist brushes past her piles of disheveled papers and orange hard candies to clasp your hands. Everyone is so happy you've decided to come. Among the cluttered walls are several cheery propaganda posters, "I joined the O.O.A. for the community, friends and fun!"  for the elusive Institute (so elusive no one explains what O.O.A. actually stands for).

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In the next room a sullen man in a plaid sport coat stands almost adrift in a sea of photos. He takes your picture and whispers, "You can leave… it's not too late."

Finally you visit the "Comfort Room." Despite the familial furniture and jaunty elderly couple named Mildred and Leonard dancing together, nothing is comforting, not least the  vintage photographs with the subjects' eyes scratched out. This is the last stop before all hell breaks loose.

And that was just the first 15 minutes of the two-hour immersive theater event.

"The Tension Experience: Ascension," which opens in Boyle Heights on Sept. 8, is the latest addition to the rising tide of immersive theater that's rapidly growing in Los Angeles. Performance art, theater and even the classic haunted-house experience have recently been peppered with odd, exciting and even harrowing "immersive experiences" — forcing audiences out of their seats and into the act itself, for better or worse.

This could mean anything from working together with your fellow guests to break out of an "escape room," watching a witch from Shakespeare's "Macbeth" lip sync to Peggy Lee's "Is That All There Is?" at the New York show "Sleep No More," to sharing a mattress with a naked man who is holding your shoe hostage in "Blackout's" bicoastal house of horrors.

The rules are different in each event but one constant remains: popularity. There are (at least) seven competing escape rooms currently running in L.A., and Halloween will bring a bumper crop of haunted houses, including the annual haunted hayride and the "American Horror Story"-themed installation at Universal Studios Hollywood. It makes sense that "Ascension" is looking to fill the needs of those looking for more than the traditional scare fare.

So how does this cult-centric narrative stand out from the others? Because it's personal. Each guest will have a unique and intimate experience. It's tailor-made terror.

"Let's say I know you're scared of being alone and abandoned," explained director Darren Lynn Bousman, who masterminded "The Tension Experience," from the floral-patterned couch in "Ascension's" Comfort Room. "You would begin to be contacted by a character who would talk about her being alone and abandoned. They make personal connections with people based on the answers [you] were giving us." Bousman is cagey about revealing too many details about the undertaking, which has been quietly operating for most of 2016. In fact, this is the first time he has talked about his involvement in the project publicly.

The Tension Experience tour is a haunted house in Boyle Heights that goes all out, created by the director of "Saw II,""Saw III," and"Saw IV," Darren Lynn Bousman. (Los Angeles Times)

For seven months Bousman has been secretly constructing his 24-room labyrinth in a Boyle Heights warehouse while simultaneously puppeteering the actions of the mysterious O.O.A. Institute in the real world. What started as an online alternative reality game known simply as "The Tension Experience" will culminate in the 45,000-square-foot creation called "Ascension," because according to online O.O.A. propaganda, "You have to go through tension to feel ascension."

Bousman made his bones directing several films in the "Saw" horror franchise, but despite the box office success — the three "Saw" films he directed made $452 million worldwide — the experience left him cold. "By 'Saw IV' I was a cog in a wheel of a well-oiled machine," Bousman said. "It made me lazy and complacent because I knew that I was not going to fail. There was a safety net right underneath me [because I had] an amazing production designer, DP and actors. The challenge wasn't there."

So he pivoted and made a dystopian musical with Paris Hilton called "Repo! The Genetic Opera," which ultimately grossed a meager $188,000 worldwide. Even though "Repo!" found a small but fervent cult following,  Bousman himself was becoming disenchanted with the film industry. "I thought, 'I'm done, I can't do this anymore.'" Bousman said. "It was too hard to fight. I spent three years of my life [making a film] and then it shows twice in a movie theater and then it's gone? I went into a deep depression where I had to get away from everything."

Looking for relief or possibly motivation,  Bousman stumbled upon "Sleep No More," and it changed everything. It set Bousman on a year-and-a-half voyage consuming immersive theater around the globe including "The Drowned Man," "Blackout" and "Delusion."

"I was inspired more than I was in any film I was making because I felt a connection," Bousman explained. "I felt a connection to the actors, I felt a connection to the set." And now he wants to channel that feeling in his own, unique creation. He turns to the pile of vintage books and periodicals strewn across his theater set and points in the direction of an anatomical reference book. "If you went through the magazines clues will fall out. It's a living puzzle," he exclaimed, mere feet from a literal pile of half-done jigsaw puzzles.

"The Tension Experience"  Facebook page began with one singular image post. Hidden in the image was a collection of numbers. If you could decode the numbers, the O.O.A. hotline was revealed. Once dialed, a woman would give out an address, a time and a date. The location was an abandoned warehouse where an actor  waited for each caller to show up for their consultation.

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Producer Gordon Bijelonic, director Darren Bousman and production designer Derrick Hinmanhave sit in the Comfort Room inside their massive house of horror. "The Tension Experience: Ascension" takes up an entire city block in Boyle Heights.
Producer Gordon Bijelonic, director Darren Bousman and production designer Derrick Hinmanhave sit in the Comfort Room inside their massive house of horror. "The Tension Experience: Ascension" takes up an entire city block in Boyle Heights. (Kirk McKoy/Los Angeles Times)

"It was an extremely uncomfortable scene," Bousman said. "We had the cops called on us twice; it really violated a lot of people. [the actor] didn't touch them, it was just a conversation. The next day the phone blew up, hundreds of calls came in. That led them down a rabbit hole, they would follow clues in the real world."

And like that, the O.O.A. Institute was born. Bousman and his co-writer Clint Sears started churning out pages of cult mythos and leaving clues, even dropping a full character diary in a Los Angeles public library for fans to discover. As the "Tension Experience" message boards filled with conspiracy theories and genre fans, so did their theatrics.

The complicated online back story shouldn't detour those who haven't been partaking in the real world shenanigans. Both Bousman and producer Gordon Bijelonic insist that guests don't need to know anything to enjoy "Ascension" cold turkey. Times photographer Kirk McKoy certainly didn't. Despite arriving unintentionally uninformed of the proceedings when the petite actress playing Mildred threw up her hands and yelled, "Dance with me, Kirk!" the two started two-stepping.

Same goes for our rousing game of "Two Truths and a Lie," where Mildred revealed that she had "never taken the life of a human for fear or for pleasure." Neat. (Oddly, most of the rather large cast of "Ascension" seemed to be made up of actors pushing 70.)

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Like any good bizarro immersive theater experience, "Ascension" comes with its own set of rules. You can't even purchase a ticket without the warning, "Before deciding to move forward take a moment and reflect if you are truly ready. This is a door that, once opened, may never be closed again and the light you seek has blinded many stronger than you ..."

But the real honest-to-goodness rules are as follows: All participants must sign a liability waiver before entering.  Even if you arrived with a friend to the event there is no guarantee you will stay with that person throughout the experience.  Each experience is about two hours long and guests must be 18 or older and should be prepared for occasional bits of nudity.

It's an odd arrangement of no-nos, but that's half the fun, and it differentiates "Ascension" from tropey horror traditions he's hoping to avoid. "I don't want to herd people through like cattle," Bousman said. "Every year I go to Universal Studios Horror Nights -- those aren't scary to me because I can see two people in front of me being scared.  It doesn't feel individual to me. I did not want that here. I want it to feel that it's for you, that you walked into your own film and you are the lead actor."

However, the most important aspect for Bousman isn't the casual nudity or more shocking moments of horror. Instead he wants folks to focus on the, ahem, tension the show creates. This is all about the slow burn. "It's to put you in an uncomfortable place and force you to be active, and force you to be present," he said.

That's the message behind "Ascension." To challenge the public to live in the moment and put down their screens — something Bousman knows he's also guilty of. "I see my world through Instagram now because I put everything up there. 'Oh my kid did something so cute,' instead of enjoying that moment of my son doing something cute, I have to show it to everyone else. That's not present. This is a whole commentary on being present and putting down the phone."

'The Tension Experience: Ascension'

Where: Boyle Heights

When: Opens Sept. 8

Admission: $125

Twitter: @MdellW 

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