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“Don’t worry. The Lust Experience isn’t about sex…”
Those were the ill-fated words I told my girlfriend before we walked into the arms of a psycho-sexual cult. Ninety minutes later, I found myself shaved and naked on a bed in front of dozens of people in a terrifying Eyes Wide Shut-inspired occult ceremony.
We’ll get to that later.
In truth, up until that point, The Lust Experience was about everything but sex. Two years ago, Saw II-IV director Darren Lynn Bousman, writer Clint Sears, and producer Gordon Bijelonic created a Los Angeles-based immersive theatre event called The Tension Experience. For the uninitiated, immersive theatre has become the latest craze in the arts, sort of akin to playing a live-action role-playing game a la David Fincher’s The Game or HBO’s “Westworld”. It’s a long-form alternate reality experience that hits your life like a thunderbolt, where you are an active player in a cast full of dozens. If you’ve ever wanted to be your own Sherlock in a complex mystery or feel what it’s like to be the protagonist in a horror film, look no further. There have been other notable immersive theatre experiences, like Sleep No More or Then She Fell (both based in NYC), but Bousman and Sears have taken the medium to the next level, and made all of Los Angeles the playing board.
In The Tension Experience, players were introduced to the OOA, a mysterious Illuminati-like cult that recruited members into its organization for nefarious purposes.
You would form relationships with leaders, cultists, detectives, and whistle-blowers, choose where your allegiances would lay, and try to piece together an elaborate mystery that blurs the lines between fantasy and reality. I was one of the original players to be inducted into the game…when a mysterious email appeared in my inbox out of nowhere – and life has truly never been the same since. The last two years have been like living in a daily conspiracy thriller, and without sounding like an insane zealot, the trials and tribulations have truly changed who I’ve become as a person. If you like your thrills passive or are too scared to step out of your comfort zone, this isn’t for you. These experiences test who you are as a person and go full tilt into your psyche.
The Lust Experience continues the narrative (think of it as Season 2), but don’t let that deter you. In truth, this experience feels like it has no beginning or end. You can join whenever you like, and it’s entirely up to you how deep you want to explore the rabbit hole. Players interact through forums on the official website (www.thelustexperience.com), and come together to share clues and conspiracy theories. Sometimes you’ll receive strange ominous phone calls or instructions to meet a character somewhere. Some active players have even been participating out of state (one even had a cast member show up in her doorstep across the country!). How much you get out of the experience depends entirely on how much you put into it.
It all culminates each year with an elaborate ticketed experience that Bousman and Sears put on in the heart of downtown Los Angeles. And that was where I found myself at The Lust Experience: Anointment – on what would become one of the weirdest nights of my life (and considering the last two years, that’s saying a lot). Over the ensuing two hours, I was put in some truly insane scenarios that looking back, I still can’t believe I followed through with.
During the mid-season event (yes, we’re only at the halfway mark), groups were welcomed into the halls of the shadowy secret society for an evening of sin and depravity. But we weren’t there without purpose. An eccentric whistleblower named Morgan, head of an Anonymous-like organization, sent us in to gather information so that we could hopefully one day expose the cult. Upon arriving at the compound, we signed waivers and were instructed “not to touch” the cast. They could, however, do whatever the hell they wanted to us. My girlfriend and I were instantly separated and I was led into an eerie lounge, full of attractive half-clothed people in an environment which can only be described as Eyes Wide Shut meets Saw.
I was approached and flirted with by several cult members (some very aggressively), asked to recount how I lost my virginity, and witnessed very strange and psycho-sexual behavior from the 40+ cast members who led us through the halls. Members of our group were often pulled away for God-knows-what. I drank wine and was fed fruit. Our group engaged in trust and confession exercises. Lots of clothing was removed. Throughout the night, we were forced to engage with dozens of bizarre (and clearly unhinged) characters, many whom asked deeply personal questions and did everything in their power to make you face down uncomfortable scenarios.
If this sounds like some cheap fetish experience, it’s wasn’t. There was a dark and ominous feeling to the experience that, even at its most sensual, never became arousing. I found my adrenaline racing the entire time, in no small part due to the crazed performances by an incredible cast.
Themes of power, control, addiction, and obsession were brought right to the forefront…
…and Bousman and Sears clearly pulled every string they could to push us to our mental limits. And just when I thought they couldn’t push the show any further, the other shoe dropped…
Sabrina – the de facto cult leader and enigmatic woman at the core of Tension/Lust – selected me as the “Chosen One” for the night. I was blindfolded and taken away into a shower. Ten minutes later, I found myself shaving off all my body hair, then was made to parade around fully nude in front of my girlfriend and several other women. I was oiled up and groomed, prepared for an ominous “ceremony” by an amazing actress who read me like a book, then hooded and put on a bed in front of the cast and players. I won’t recount what happened during the ritual or the chaos that ensued, but I walked out an emotional wreck. Before I could even process it all, the following morning I received a message, and ended up storming the compound with an army of whistleblowers hellbent on exposing the cult.
If this sounds insane, it truly is, but there’s also great care and safety put into the production. The design and acting are all top-notch, and you ultimately decide how far you want your experience to go (your compliance or refusal to do certain deviant things would change how the narrative unfolds for you). Other players experienced far less extreme things, others more, and some different experiences entirely. That’s the beauty of The Lust Experience – no two people will have the same story. And as much as you come to feel that safe loss of control, you’re ultimately the one who decides your own path.
The craziest thing is that this all just feels like the warm-up exercise during my two years on Bousman and Sears’ rollercoaster. I never know when my phone will ring and spin my day into chaos. I never know when a character might show up in my life unannounced or if real-life friends are in on it. I’m not even sure that writing this article won’t carry some in-game repercussions. That’s an incredible feeling to have during daily life, and I know that wherever these paranoid-filled Experiences take us, they won’t be boring.
The Lust Experience is continuing into 2018 and brave souls can join in on the fun by visiting their website.
– David K.