I stand with my back to the living room door, eyes closed. There is something here with me, trying to make contact, trying to move through me. It’s whispering in my ear, sending little jolts of electricity down my spine. I can almost feel the door pulsating ever so gently. Surely just my own breathing, my imagination getting the better of me. After all, I live here and I am sure I’m by myself. Well… Almost sure.
It’s been about a year since I’ve last written an impression of an immersive theatre event I experienced. Turns out an airborne pathogen can be quite destructive to all things we know and love – stepping into unknown situations with only the doubtful certainty you’d live to see the other end, being in dark rooms with strangers, intimate face to face conversations, the sensation of being touched. And sadly, there’s not even the opportunity for me to assemble an immersive horror preview for 2021, with so many unknowns still in front of us.
Obviously, necessity is the mother of all invention, and our current predicament has seen a big rise of online experiences. Obviously, I am thrilled that a lot of artists found ways to still delight us with narratives and experiences. Personally, I dabbled with two or three of these, and while they had been produced with a lot of thought and definitely were a good time, sadly, they somewhat failed to provide me with what I truly seek in immersive entertainment – an escape from a mundane reality. Peering into a story through a computer screen, interacting through social media or zoom sessions, it all resembled my day-to-day a bit too much to really transport me. I want to feel, to believe myself into actual situations, and maybe to feel just the tiniest hint of danger. What came closest to all of that this year was Darkfield Radio.
— Mind, while the current season is over, and I won’t go into too much specifics, I can’t avoid talking about certain “mechanisms” of the shows. At their best, these reveals might enhance your paranoia, but they could be considered spoiler territory. Decide for yourself. —–
Darkfield is probably best known for their shipping container shows. Submerging their audience in complete darkness, with impressive 360 degree binaural soundscapes played through headphones as the main star, Darkfield has toured three different shows in the UK, USA, Mexico and Australia. This year, they launched Darkfield Radio, an app that allows you to experience their stories from the comfort of your own home. The idea is simple – you buy a ticket on their app, you are provided with minimal instructions regarding the setting you should find yourself in, and when the time comes, you plug in your headphones and are ready to go. Three different experiences were released: Double, Visitors, and Eternal.
Each of these has its own distinct theme, but there’s no mistaking a similar vibe, a connection in how the shows feel or play out. Imagine something like Black Mirror episodes, existing next to each other, not necessarily being part of the exact same universe, but most definitely elements of a whole. Double revolves around the Capgras delusion – a psychological condition where one believes someone close to them has been replaced by an identical imposter. You sit at a kitchen table, in front of a loved one, and close your eyes. How sure can you be of that image you have of someone in your head? Visitors deals with the concept of longing for touch – quite poignant in times like these. A deceased couple desires connection, and feels woefully ill at home in the world of the living. Finally, Eternal centers around the quandary of eternal life, and definitely turns up the creep factor a little bit, by having you experience the whole all by yourself, in the very relative comfort of your bed.
The technology used can only be commended. I did not use fancy headphones, just a pair of regular old earbuds, and the sound was as realistic as anything I’ve ever heard. It’s superbly effective at making you doubt whether you really are alone, or whether whoever is doing the show with you isn’t messing with you. I could swear someone was moving through the room. it’s amazing how Darkfield Radio can shape and transform your own house into something eerily familiar, yet so very wrong. At times, your brain is so convinced the sounds are real you can even begin to feel the physical manifestation of the sound – as any ASMR fan will be able to tell you, those nearby whispers can turn into very real shivers down your spine. Even more unnerving, a rustling of a blanket can very quickly turn into the sensation of those blankets actually moving ever so slightly. There’s always this hint of doubt, the sensory part of your brain screaming that it just might be real – and that’s the magic of Darkfield.
Add to that (and it is here we land in slightly spoilery territory) that Darkfield Radio has the ability to give you and your partner different snippets of audio, can feed different participants different bits of info, or can hand out different instructions – and all of a sudden, that rocksteady knowledge that there absolutely cannot be any movement in the room is obliterated. It’s this idea that had my mind racing the most, and I believe a lot of possibilities are left to be explored.
Apart from the audio trickery, the majority of the show is led by monologues or dialogues, which have the tendency to be a bit hard to follow. The characters always start from a position of knowledge, talking amongst each other or directly to the guest – and you’re left playing catch up. There’s a bit of puzzling everything together to do, the dialogue can loop back and repeat itself, contradict itself, dripfeed new tidbits of info – and after the shows had concluded, I couldn’t have told you the exact specifics of what it all had been about. That said, the general concept was always clear, the tone and vibe were laid out and made sense, and Darkfield Radio really did a good job of creating twenty-minute-long audio pieces that kept engaging me and never felt boring. Specifically based on the concepts the shows explored, I emotionally resonated most with Visitors, and could actually feel a connection with the characters. The way this show ended was the most memorable moment for me – out of all three.
In conclusion, I very much think all three shows were well worth the admission price. The stories Darkfield Radio is telling, and especially the very specific way they do it, were able to elicit a range of responses – from a genuine, tender connection to me cringing away from the source of some very, very creepy sounds. Importantly, all stories took me to a place and immersed me – and felt way more immediate and personal than any webcam show ever could. I really look forward to in person immersive entertainment, and to exploring dark rooms far away from my own home – but Darkfield Radio has a staying power, something I’d gladly experience again between those actual adventures. Colour me very intrigued to find out which tricks they have up their sleeves in season two.