ThisIsReal psycho

How do you like to spend your free time? Do you enjoy solving puzzles? Making new friends? What about hiding out in a fridge full of dead cockroaches, concealing yourself from a masked, hammer-wielding killer that’s hunting you down?

If you’ve ever wanted to experience your very own horror movie you could go to a haunted house…or you could check out This Is Real, a new horror experience from the mastermind behind the legendary Nightmare New York. Anyone who’s watched movies like Hostel or Saw has an idea in the back of their head of how they’d react if they were placed in some madman’s lair and forced to escape, and this experience allows you to see what you would really do in the situation.

A Nightmare in Red Hook

I signed up for a 9:00 P.M. performance, which I soon started to regret when I realized where it’s located. This Is Real is set up inside a warehouse in Red Hook, one of the few areas of New York City that isn’t easily accessible by subway. It requires either a bus or a long walk, which should set the mood quite nicely.

Sadly for thematic purposes, Red Hook has been gentrified there and back, and isn’t nearly as scary as it once was. On the way there, I passed two women talking about yoga and a small batch whiskey bar. There’s a Citibike rack out front.

Still, it was located in a dirty warehouse. I met the hosts outside, a couple of people wearing odd, almost Victorian-era outfits and and makeup. Their headlamps shined into the faces of my fellow participants as we introduced themselves and signed a release form that absolved them from anything that could happen to us. We all suited up in full-body jumpsuits and sealed all of our possessions away in a locked bag. A couple of people in my group commented on how nervous I seemed and I’ll blame that on my time with the nightmarish horror experience, Blackout (you can read all about that over here).

When it comes to extreme horror experiences, I’m very much an amateur. While I’m a lifelong horror movie fan, that was the only immersive experience I’ve done, and it truly rattled me and had me nervous that I was in for another mind-breaking situation. But it turns out I had nothing to fear: This Is Real is far more theatrical and silly – it’s very much a horror-themed escape room, not something built to punish you.

(From here on out, I’ll be talking about some minor spoilers. If you want to go into this experience completely fresh – and that’s probably the best way to do it – stop reading here and go buy some tickets.)

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Survive and Escape

The concept is decidedly simple. You’re locked up in a warehouse. You don’t know how you’ve made it there, but you’ve been blindfolded and tied up with your hands behind your back. You’re placed in a cell and have headphones put on your head that allow you to hear everything going on…and then you’re just locked in there.

I’m not sure if you’ve ever had to untie your hands while they were behind your back, but it’s not easy. At first I laughed, but then I got increasingly nervous as weird sounds and screams started to come from next door. It was a really clever way of getting you in the right mindset, since you start to feel panicky right away. Once you do manage to untie yourself and take your blindfold off, you’re treated to a scene of horror straight out of a torture porn film: a masked killer tortures a man sitting in a chair.

Soon, the killer leaves the room and it’s up to you to escape. You’re really going to have to work with your cellmates (up to eight people can do this at one time) to escape, and it’s here that I snapped into place and started immediately working to get us out. Horror movie fans will certainly be more mentally prepared for the experience, as anyone familiar with the likes of Motel Hell and Frontier(s) has considered this scenario before.

It turned out that my knowledge of horror video games was even more of an aid, because this basically played like a live-action version of one. Resident Evil-style puzzles abound: keys marked with letters so that you can more easily know what they open (or do they?) and secret objects that grant access to the next room. There also were many moments where you are forced to find a secret hiding space to evade the killer, who alerted us to his return by whistling merrily when he came to open the door. There’s something utterly thrilling about peeping through a vent while a mask-wearing insane person stalks after you.

There’s a lot of twists and turns along the way, along with a number of performers and effects, but I managed to actually survive the night and make it out alive. I was lucky that I was attending with a bunch of pros. I know there are roller coaster enthusiasts that travel the world trying to find new coasters, but it wasn’t until that day I learned that there are immersive theater aficionados as well. One guy had flown in from L.A. just for this experience and the other two had gone to This Is Real last year.

But it wasn’t nearly as scary as I had thought it might be. The scene you wake up to is certainly unsettling, but it’s far more theatrical than some of the immersive horror competition. Plus, there’s the fact that you can “die” up to three times before being kicked from the game. Everything resets when someone dies and they might give you a hint of what to look for next if you’re truly stuck. It’s an exciting and frantic game with a great theme, but nothing that will terrify you past reason.

When it works, it works wonderfully. There were some clever puzzles and a ton of locked doors, and there was one sequence cleverly staged behind a wall that was utterly compelling and made me feel like I was truly in a horror movie. We were all sweating our asses off while running and hiding and it really does give you a far better trapped feeling than any other escape room I’ve done. Of course, it only gives what you put into it, but some people really get into it and that can make all the difference in the world.

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Roll Credits…

The cast dropped their acts immediately after the experience was done and talked about what it’s like to do the show every day. The crew apparently has a big problem with people panicking and destroying pieces of the set, and they told me that one time a guy apparently crawled out of the ceiling and hid on top.

It was hilarious to see how nice they were after chasing us all. On the bus home from Red Hook (again, there are no subways in Red Hook) I saw two of the actors, and wondered if the experience had truly finished. Maybe they’re not done with me yet…

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This Is Real originally premiered last year and sold out of its run in a mere six hours. This year, it’s an open-ended run. You can pick up tickets at thisisreal.nyc.

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