The Valley of Hollows—the latest interactive theater show from immersive storytellers Delusion—opened in Los Angeles just in time for Halloween season. It’s Delusion’s eighth year being a part of the city’s haunt scene, and io9 was invited to check out this year’s production. We also spoke with director Jon Braver about the show’s impact over the years, his brief Disney stint, and the future of the company’s highly sought-after shows in other mediums.
Delusion’s LA Domination
I’ve been going to Delusion productions since hearing rave reviews for 2012’s The Blood Rite (which was produced by Neil Patrick Harris). Between Halloween Horror Nights, Knott’s Scary Farm, the big neighborhood displays, and the obvious proximity to Hollywood, LA is a big haunt town—so Delusion has sort of defaulted into seasonal fare, since its shows run throughout the fall and thematically most have been horror. The Blood Rite was unlike anything I’d ever experienced; Delusion shows are theater productions with interactive elements that put you inside a horror movie, or at least that’s what it feels like. That first year, I jumped into an open grave, got taken by ghostly characters (I was with a friend, and they were horrified), and saw a very realistic demon burst through a set after a summoning ritual. It was immediately my favorite thing to do. The sheer adrenaline and chance to live out out horror-movie dream roles made it the best—especially the part about going with friends and sharing the frights.
Talking with io9, Braver discussed how the shared experience is intentional and important—and is even informed by his childhood. “I was a big role playing game guy. [I played Dungeons & Dragons] back in the day and just creating stories with friends, kinda like Stranger Things—that was my autobiography,” he said. “And then the big shift was when computer games came in and they’d have adventures. That was so much fun to experience with my friends, we would play these games together—the very early stages of a communal gaming kind of thing. I lived in Chicago and there [was] this place called the Botanic Gardens across the street from where I lived, expansive gardens that would guard the buildings there. We would just play these games and then we’d go create these stories in these gardens. We would trespass, hop over the fence, sneak around, get the guards to come chase us, and create these stories and then do scavenger hunts. And just to see just my friends’ reactions, going on these adventures together, playing those games, bringing them into the real world—that was so intoxicating, just to create them.”
My own journey into The Blood Rite felt just like that. It was as if my friend and I were breaking into a real haunted house and survived a full horror narrative that we’d never forget. Every year since has just leveled up the show as the Delusion fanbase has grown, which is definitely what Braver had in mind. “That’s kind of what I’ve been doing since the beginning. [If you] put people in uncomfortable situations [of] shared trauma… nothing brings people closer than that. I think that’s it—hiding under a bed with a giant spider coming towards you, [you] make friends real quick.”
What’s This Year’s Story About?
In previous years, each Delusion play has been based around the location Braver and company were able to acquire to fit their productions, which often require moody architecture, many rooms for story flow, rigging for stunt work, and space for the crew behind the scenes. Last year, in partnership with Thirteenth Floor Entertainment, Delusion took over a mansion deep in Pomona, CA with an interesting real history the group wrote some haunted fan-fiction for. Titled Reaper’s Remorse, the 2021 show was Delusion’s first production post-lockdown; it introduced Esther Phillips, the owner of a collection of artifacts of the greatest value to those who gave up their very souls to be a part of it at her estate. In the story, you’re there to see if you can get the gift of eternal life, which turns out to be more like eternal damnation tethered to her home. It came to a vague resolution, ending with Esther bidding you farewell—but really, she got what she wanted from you as soon as you stepped into her home.
This year, her story continues. “She’s a cult leader now. There’s just a lot of mystery, a lot of lore behind her story that we’ve created here. In [last year’s story set in 1953], she poisoned her guests to go collect souls from the house, and then she disappeared. And now her disappearance is like fuel [for] the whole mystery of what happened, and [why] her grounds are haunted,” Braver said, going on to explain why he set the new story in the cult-obsessed ‘70s. “People from the last 20 years have come from around the world to die on her grounds to get the gift that she would give—but nobody’s seen her. There’s this line in the show where, like, ‘We are all Esther Phillips’ is just, is that really Esther Phillips that you’re seeing or not? So there’s some wonderful, haunting ambiguity to it that I kind of dig, and I’m probably expanding the story. I can’t help but do that.”
State of Immersive Entertainment
Delusion’s influence continues to grow with a steady fan base of LA locals—including industry folks like Midnight Mass director Mike Flanagan. The company has grown to inspire so many other experiences since its debut; a recent New Yorker piece gave rise to speculation that Disney Imagineers may have taken inspiration from it for the interactive aspects on the Star Wars-themed Galactic Starcruiser at Walt Disney World. (“In L.A., there’s some interesting horror-based stuff,” Executive Imagineer Ann Morrow Johnson was quoted as saying.)
When asked his thoughts on the piece essentially citing the work Delusion has been a huge part of, Braver recalled his own time with Disney. “It made me think about when I was hired by Disney Imagineering to kind of reimagine something like Jungle Cruise or other attractions, to make them like more yes immersive,” he said, likely referring to the D23 Expo 2013 Jungle Cruise play test that briefly opened as the “Adventureland Trading Company” experience at Disneyland the following year.
We talked about “immersive” and how that has become a buzz word; the concept has evolved into inspiring interactive “experiences” and has been used to describe pop-up advertising activations for film and TV (as seen at places like San Diego Comic-Con), social media photo rooms, product displays, escape rooms, VR mall stops, and artistic installations to varying degrees of understanding. “I mean it has its place, but it’s not my bag for sure,” he said, before clarifying further. “The way that interactive stories have kind of taken shape is… it’s still a battle. I still see it from when we started in 2011 till now. Larger companies want to get in that game, but then when they start seeing the numbers and they’re like, ‘Oh, you know, maybe not’ because operations usually comes in and says, ‘Well, we can’t get a thousand people through in an hour now.’ No, we really can’t. If you really that intimate nature of these kind of experiences but you also want 10,000 people to come through—those two things can be difficult to achieve. I found that they love the idea of it, but not the reality.”
People come back to shows like Delusion because they know the intention is based in the art of story, as well the company’s knack for creating participatory entertainment with the maximum response from its audience. “Delusion’s been able to still be profitable. They’re not cheap tickets and there’s a reason for that,” Braver said. Like other ARG immersive experiences tied in with genre (even the big sci-fi franchise one folks mistake for a hotel), the company’s shows are deeply involved productions. General audiences might have difficulty understanding that these experiences act as sandboxes for audiences to come play in—especially when confronted with the price tag. Anyone not in the immersive ARG and LARP scene might scoff at the ticket cost, but they also might not pick up on the finer details of the production. “It’s like the only way you can have that smaller number is to charge more,” Braver said. “It will always be about a battle of art and commerce, constantly.”
Coming Soon From Delusion
After we journeyed through this year’s run of Valley of the Hollow, where we dealt with trippy nightmares going in as cult de-programmers who encounter Esther’s haunted form, we got the sense that if the company remains at the same Pomona mansion there could be more of this particular story to tell. When asked if that was the plan, Braver responded, “It’s not the end of the show. But is it going to be a trilogy? I can’t really answer that right now. I think that there’s more to tell for sure.” That said, he added, “It’s really the locations. I had an idea to remount some shows, but when I see the new venue, I kind of shift direction. I get inspired to try something else. You start to write something else and then it just becomes that.”
Braver has created the blueprint of an LA standard for ARG interactive experiences, but is also aware that it could be keeping him there more than he would like. The stories he’s created have lit a spark in the director’s mind for expansion, even if it means ending Delusion’s West Coast fall engagements. “This is great, at this point we’ve written eight shows now, and it’s like, who knows? It might be time to remount those or to focus on other things. Who knows if we’ll have a Delusion next year. I don’t know,” he admitted. (When asked how much he meant that, he said, “We’ll see. That’s why I always tell people, ‘just come to the show,’ because you don’t know if it might be the last one.”)
Beyond the interactive theater realm, there are other mediums he’s looking at exploring—including “TV and the podcasting world to have these stories linger and people from around the world can see it.” He elaborated. “The podcast that’s in early development, I’m writing it right now. That one is kind of based on the 2016 show Crimson Queen which was a vampire show; it’s [got] that kind of vibe to it. And then there’s a film that’s written that’s sort of in the pre-production stage, so that should happen, [based on] The Lies Within show, the author one.” (The latter was previously adapted into a VR tale in collaboration with Skybound.)
“There’s just a lot of other stuff we want to do as well, too. Doing a new show every year, writing a new show every year, it’s literally like you’re just making a movie every year. It’s not easy, I will say,” Braver said.
The Future for Delusion’s Company
Without the talent of his crew and actors, Braver said, the show wouldn’t be what it is today; they propel the stories and essentially hold the hands of guests through it. “You’re herding cats and telling a story. It’s a really weird, delicate balance to do all that. We work with all the actors and in terms of the standard blocking [of] where we think the audience is going to be, where we want them to be, and things to say to them to keep the narrative going. People will ask a lot of questions and they’ll be able to answer some of these questions—at least pull them back into the main narrative of the story.” Braver shared of the behind the scenes operations.
He’s built his teams to be able to experiment, to best serve that aspect of the production. “I [have] just kind of been doing it for many years. I can tell if this person is going to be able to handle it from the audition process, I can see if this person has the charisma and the endurance to keep that up, because you’re doing it every 10 minutes nonstop. You get some pretty belligerent groups sometimes—people are not really playing along properly. For the most part, people seem to be really into it. And the actors are incredibly talented people and they just love it to death. This is some of the most fun acting you can do as an actor. You’re constantly being trained in new groups, you’re always on, always on.”
There is another side to this part of Delusion, evidenced by the fact that former company members are currently seeking improved protocols to be put in place due to the unpredictable nature of the show. The former employees—who were not fired, but left the production of their own volition—are not calling for a boycott of the production; rather, they want the company “to fix the problems that have persisted for too long and request accountability and transparency,” particularly when it comes to actor and participant safety.
io9 reached out to Delusion’s team for a comment; Braver’s official statement was as follows: “For every season of Delusion, despite the old venues we occupy, we obtain all required city permits and insurance to operate and do everything in our power to provide a supportive and safe environment for our cast, crew and guests. We remain transparent about the nature of these old venues and address any issues as they occur with expediency. Overall, the safety of our staff is extremely important to me and Thirteenth Floor Entertainment Group. I have spent most of my professional life as a Hollywood stuntman, so I’m always taking employee safety into consideration in every scene.”
Delusion: The Valley of Hollows runs though November 20, 2022, tickets tend to sell out quick but you can check on availability here. For more information about the anonymous cast and crew call for safety to be improved, follow their Instagram for updates.
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