By Timothy Haskell and Paul Smithyman
Produced by Psycho Clan
Off Broadway, Immersive Horror Experience
Runs through 11.2.19
133 Greenwich Street
by Asya Gorovits on 10.3.19
Participants in I Can't See. Photo by Russ Rowland
BOTTOM LINE: Psycho Clan’s new multi-sensory horror experience, experienced blindfolded.
“This is decidedly NOT, we repeat NOT, a haunted house" states the website of I Can’t See. Nevertheless, the idea of going through an immersive horror experience blindfolded seemed rather scary to me at first. Upon arrival at Optecs, a fictitious clinic/research facility, we are greeted by a creepily smiling staff in lab coats. With a sleep mask, a second blindfold to ensure that no ray of light goes through, and a headset, we're instructed to prepare for a horror that will take place entirely in our imagination. Each person or group is given a sour “pill” and so begins the “download” of the experience into our brains.
I Can’t See is designed by Timothy Haskell and Paul Smithyman of Psycho Clan, the team behind the extreme serial killer experience This Is Real. Their new horror event is inspired by W.W. Jacobs’ classic ghost story "The Toll House" and invites the audience to a fun and creepy night out with friends. The voices in your head will address you by name (I was "Sam"), making it clear you are “playing” a character. Although playing might be a stretch since, for the majority of the experience, you will helplessly cling to ropes, banisters, and other objects placed under or in your hands by unseen facilitators.
Here we are at the carnival. Somebody hands me a stuffed animal while cheery carousel music accompanies a conversation between "my" friends. And now, holding a rough rope, we walk through the fun house; the floor beneath my feet wobbles to my immense pleasure, and I can’t stop giggling even though I don’t see any funny-looking reflections (a brilliant non-literal translation from the visual to tactile). A snake boy “licks” my neck at the circus show, spiky plant life brushes against my arm, while at the bar… I don’t even want to tell you, so as not to ruin the surprise.
I Can’t See reminds me of those DIY “haunted houses” you might have created as a kid—a blindfolded person would stick their hand into a pot of cold spaghetti ("brains") or be given a peeled grape (an "eye"). I Can’t See tricks you using similar sensory attraction, but with even cleaner products. And while you are offered a poncho, not wearing it will provide for the fullest experience. But definitely wear comfortable shoes and clothes, as you will be prompted to move around, sit down, and stand.
Besides the various textures that touch you or that you touch, a bit of wind, a little water, and even smells come into play. But for some reason, only the gross ones. The creators of I Can’t See proudly call the show “sensory assault,” but I can’t see a reason not to add a few pleasant smells of the fairground (like popcorn) alongside those of a dirty dive bar or creepy old mansion. (One's taste buds are also engaged in two scenes, but not in any violent or dangerous way.) Expanding the smell palette would certainly add to the atmosphere of each location, as well as help to enhance the contrast between the fun, joyous beginning and the mortifying finale.
I Can’t See has its scary moments, but most of them are fed to us through the marketing materials and onboarding process. Of course there's also the fact that we are deprived of our vision. It's amazing how much I, as a sighted person, am used to relying on sight to get around. So an experience designed around storytelling through non-traditional means of touch, smell, and taste is exciting; I would recommend I Can't See to anyone who is interested in immersive theatre. The audio narrative and sound design (by James Lo) is on the more traditional side, but does its job in keeping the story together, so those who are new to immersive experiences will be comfortable too. I just wish the fact that we are sightless was woven into the narrative.
If you're nervous about the immersive part, I generally felt safe and had fun, even when I was a bit scared. The only time I felt real discomfort was when somebody pushed me against the bar—ever so slightly, but with their entire body. GIven that we are entirely in the hands of the facilitators, this feels way too intrusive and unnecessarily intimate. It seems as if anything that might come off as "unsettling"—even physical contact—gets reframed as “playing pretend." But Psycho Clan would be good to remember that their audience—who are blindfolded—might be more vulnerable than they would imagine. It is also strange that there is no safe word or any other reliable way of communication. My recording didn’t work for the first few minutes of the experience and I couldn’t tell if my signals for help were misunderstood, ignored, or missed.
(I Can’t See plays at 133 Greenwich Street, through November 3, 2019. The running time is 45 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Tuesday through Saturday at 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10 (you must enter during your allotted time slot). Tickets are $45 until 10/17; $50 after that. Student rush tickets are $20 with ID (ages 12-15 must have parent; under 12 not admitted), and can be purchased 30 minutes before the show. For tickets and more information visit at nightmarenyc.com.)
I Can’t See is by Timothy Haskell and Paul Smithyman, based on "The Toll House" by W.W. Jacobs. Produced by Psycho Clan. Production Design by Paul Smithyman. Sound Design by James Lo.