“Do you understand the rules?”
“Do you know the safety word?”
“Do you have any previous medical conditions,
such as epilepsy or other seizure disorders?”
“Then stand here, arms by your sides, and don’t
A fish-eye lens stared back at me as I planted myself in front of the sliding wooden door and fought back another wave of panic. I shouldn’t be here, at this place with the black trash-bags on the windows and the waiver I had to sign swearing I was 18 years old and the sawdustsmell of empty rooms. I had watched my friend stand here moments ago, and then get snatched into darkness by a man in a gas mask; at this point, I felt very very far from okay. Looking back on that endless breath, before the door slid open and a black-sleeved arm yanked me forward by the neck, I can still be very proud that I did not cry or wet my pants.
And that was the worst moment of Blackout NYC. Honestly. I was roughly shuffled by stagehands through shadowy corridors and thick black curtains, manhandled like the littlest kid in a fifth-grade class. A woman in a bloodstained dress did something truly unpleasant with a “used” condom right before my eyes, and later, after I had been masked, told me to “remember her” as something wet dripped down the front of my shirt. Someone put a plastic bag over my head and then vigorously made out with it—and kind of me—for about five minutes. I had a surgical mask pulled across my face, I was chained to a wall, I shared a sweet little dance with a genitally-redefined man in ballet shoes, and from beginning to end I felt calm, alert, and sometimes curious. But I was never really scared.
Which is odd because I am a scaredy-cat. Just the other day I screamed when a washing machine turned on behind me. The problem was not so much my mettle as it was Blackout’s strategy. First of all, something went wrong for me on my little journey: although most patrons are cycled first through one floor of “horrors” and then sent downstairs for a second tour, I got sent through the first one twice by mistake.
A young woman in stagehand black screamed at me to go to the door I’d walked through five minutes earlier, and rather than get kicked out for speaking, I followed her orders and spent a bored five minutes going through the same twists and turns. What was creepy and intriguing the first time around was predictable at best and hokey at worst during round two. Even when Blackout doesn’t make mistakes, it is clear that their “disturbing” routine isn’t much beyond initial shock factor.
Apparently, previous incarnations of Blackout were not quite the same. Reports of digging through vomit, sucking on tampons, and most
significantly of being waterboarded, played into a much more visceral reaction than anything I encountered.
But this year, it seems that someone in charge might have gotten cold feet. Everything I encountered was icky, and strange, and sometimes creepy; never for one second was it truly terrifying. More than anything I felt as though my boundaries were being purposefully violated, and not in a cool or challenging way. Really, from pushing my hand into a rusty bucket of obviously fake blood while a woman squatted and moaned over it, to strapping my hands down and blasting punk rock in my ears, to a masked man asking me “what got me off” while twisting a thin black rope around my neck—it was all play-acting, a semi-fantastic obstacle course where I was put through my paces. Nothing made me forget I was a participant in a performance; nothing took me by surprise. At one point, I was told to scream. I screamed and rolled my eyes at the same time.
Two moments stand out as exceptions to the rule. I had a pair of pliers shoved into my hand and then was flung into a small room with blood-smeared walls and eerie grey lighting. A young woman cowered in the corner, screaming and moaning. Slowly she turned to me, her whimpers bubbling out of a mouth choked with thick red blood. “Did you do this to me?” she gasped, and then began to shriek the words over and over again, grabbing the pliers from my hand. Suddenly, she threw open the door, pushed me out, and slammed it behind me. It was all so fast, so gruesome, and so chilling, maybe because instead of feeling manipulated and patronized, I was just locked in a room with a crazy person holding pliers.
The other moment was at the end of the first cycle. I was hustled through a black curtain and left to stand in pitch blackness—until someone grabbed me and threw me down onto a mat of foam rubber. As a woman, this scenario triggered something primal, a deeply-taught fear of what happens to girls when someone with large, rough hands stands over them in a dark room. The whole night was about uncomfortable, aggressive sexuality: I was tied up, caressed, breathed on, and taunted more times than I could count, but nothing else felt quite like I was living through a nightmare.
Blackout NYC is where fear goes on its day off. You’ll get a casual showing, but if you actually want to be scared, I suggest exploring the Columbia or Barnard tunnels at night or saying something rude to Mike Tyson. There lies terror beyond knowing.