“Run, you piece of shit! AAAHHH!”
When asked what he was most scared of in life, horror filmmaker John Carpenter famously said, “We’re all afraid of the same things. What scares you is what scares me. Horror is the most universal emotion we have. We’re born afraid.” In broad terms, he is right. Many of the things we fear in life are fears we share with our humanoid colleagues: death of a loved one, being alone, living life unhappily. But if we’re going to really break down the things that make us afraid on the individual level, those triggers become much more pronounced. Fear of failure. Fear of intimacy. Fear of being prisoners within our own mind.
For those people out there who have a firm grasp on what scares them — and are willing to share them — they have an outlet to confront those fears head-on in a controlled but chaotic environment of their own choosing.
“Blackout,” created by Josh Randall and Kristjan Thor, isn’t just your local haunted house where high school students wear a jumpsuit and threaten you with terrible dialogue as you walk disinterestedly by. “Blackout” invites participants into a location that’s been specifically tailored to them in which they are systematically tortured physically and emotionally. (Participants pay for this privilege, by the way.) Said participants sign waivers freeing “Blackout” of all legal ramifications, should something go wrong. These waivers also apparently include clauses that allow “Blackout” personnel to enter your home without your knowledge or permission and find ways to haunt your life. All rights to comfort, privacy, and expectation of being treated like a human being are suspended. Why any full-brained person would ever agree to take part in such an experience isn’t made immediately clear, but as time goes on, the “documentary” (sorry, I’m not convinced) grapples with convincing reasons to explain why, letting their participants do all the talking. (“Blackout” creators, confusingly, allow behind-the-scenes footage to be shot, and sessions to be captured, but refuse offers for sit-down interviews. That they consistently keep in touch with our filmmakers via voicemail to alert them when more sessions will be taking place, also, doesn’t quite jive with their hesitance to remain removed from peeling back the curtain and letting their work speak for itself.)
Told through the eyes and with the words of a few past and current “Blackout” participants, each person bravely admits the things in life they are most scared of during interview segments and video diary entries — which is when The Blackout Experiments is most successful. Even if dialogue or character exchanges sometimes feel slightly prodded, their fears and their befuddling willingness to be a “Blackout” participant allows a glimpse into the kind of people they are and shows that the audience’s inability to rationalize in the same manner as our subjects only proves them to be more interesting. But it’s when the doc focuses on their letting a camera crew capture them at their most vulnerable and embarrassing is when the “why?” of The Blackout Experiments becomes hazy. Participants are stripped naked, forced into coffins either alone or with others, and are made to feel like unwitting rapists or murderers as they interact with staged living set-pieces. To experience “the most extreme immersive horror experience in America” for yourself would be one thing, but because the audience serves as a witness and not as a participant, this extreme horror experience amounts to nothing more than blindfolded people being forced to fist raw chicken while “Blackout” personnel scream profanities in their best “SWEAR TO ME!” Christian Bale Batman voice. What’s supposed to be a visceral, terrifying, “traumatic” experience comes off as rather silly, dangerously close to a “hardcore” student film. (The Ghost Adventures-style post-production tampering and gimmickry — staticky cameras, glitching sound effects — don’t help in making the documentary feel legitimate or without agenda.)
There is one significant scene in the final act which calls all claims that this is a legitimate documentary into question, as it appears obviously staged and too perfectly captured. Whether it’s an act of pure fiction or a lousy reenactment of a previous event is irrelevant, as the insincerity of this moment robs the audience of any catharsis. Because this scene is meant to explain why anyone would ever willingly (and repeatedly) take part in “Blackout,” the entire documentary feels rendered useless, with no goal having been achieved that it couldn’t obtain without leaning on an artificial epiphany to accomplish it.
The Blackout Experiments wants to scream at the fearful in the dark, but in the dark, it never sees the audience shrugging back.