In a country where it’s said anything can be had for a price, I haven’t given much thought to parting with my cold hard cash in order to be psychologically tortured. To have people scream at me, gag me, call me filthy names, force me to take off my clothes and run blindfolded through a dark room while being told what a hellish loser I am. But there are, it turns out, people who are indeed willing to not only voluntarily go through the experience but to pay money to do so. Introducing The Blackout Experiments.
I learned about this in a documentary film a saw recently entitled, appropriate enough, The Blackout Experiments. The film follows a group of participants – “survivors,” they label themselves – while they speak of their experiences with Blackout and talk about what makes them become borderline obsessed/addicted to it. And yes, one man’s therapist wife, whose speciality is treating addicts, told her husband he was indeed as hooked on Blackout as an alcoholic is to booze. Yet Blackout, according to those who indulge, is not so much a harmful addiction as it is a cathartic experience to confront and overcome one’s deepest psychological fears. A true transformational process. As one participant in the film stated, “Blackout has the ability to change you if you let it. You learn what you’re capable of.”
As we get to see what goes on in the haunted house that is Blackout, a pattern emerges. Every participant is really there to confront his or her fears, and what exactly those fears are sets the stage for the Blackout experience. Participants want something truly powerful, something they’ve never experienced before. The film’s primary subject, Russell, stated, “I think deep down I want something intense enough that pushes me to the point where I want out but that I choose not to.” After a pause he adds, “That almost sounds like I want to overcome something.” And that, in fact, is what he does want, or at least what “survivors” say is the entire point. They want to overcome their fears.
But is this really what it takes for that to happen? Is there no way to conquer those demons other than being repeatedly degraded and humiliated by strangers? It seems from the film that many would say there isn’t. They’re like phoenixes emerging from the ashes, survivors of the fire and better because of it.
Naturally, the whole thing had my Lady Smut mind delving into sexual parallels. There are those who claim humiliation is the surest path to arousal. Being called a filthy whore, told to lick someone’s boots or clean whips with their tongue. The S&M part of BDSM once – although no longer – considered pathological, has similar psychological outcomes for participants as those who go through a Blackout experience. S&M participants have reported lessened states of anxiety after engaging in sadomasochistic sex, and researchers say there’s science behind this related to how the body restricts blood flow to certain areas of the brain during S&M sex. The result, for some participants, is a feeling of “oneness,” and an actual altered state of consciousness.
That all sounds groovy, but I’m not jumping on that Blackout bandwagon. One guy in the film, who was the experience’s only detractor, said he’d gone through Blackout a number of times until it reached a point where he felt it had morphed from helping him overcome fears into what he called actual abuse. He claimed he’d been slapped and had feces stuffed in his mouth, and that session had gone far beyond the point where it helped him. Yet like a druggie who experiences a terrorizing hallucination, even those who said they thought Blackout might have at one point or another “gone too far” still came back for more. It wasn’t until the end of the film in which we saw the guys who run Blackout actually make the participants kick the habit and swear off the experience forever. One guy said it was if it had been decided that they’d “graduated” from Blackout and there was no longer anything from it that they could learn through more sessions. But the participants were hard-pressed to want to give it up. One woman said she felt like it was a rejection.
Speaking of those guys who run the sessions, their names are Kristjan Thor and Josh Randall. They only spoke for a few minutes at the end of the film, but what they said was interesting. Josh stated that the point of Blackout was to give something to the participants that was “undismissible (sic).” If we push ourselves to the limit, he says, it allows us to learn certain truths about ourselves. That’s why people pay money to be tortured. An interesting side note: the two guys state that the concept was born out of wanting to make a wildly new haunted house experience, something no one had ever done before. But the concept grew, eventually becoming something far beyond its haunted house immersive theater beginnings into a deeply meaningful experience for a lot of tortured souls.
If anything, it’s certainly it’s a conversation starter. Are you ready to take the Blackout plunge? Let us know your thoughts in the comments, and be sure to follow us at Lady Smut. We promise it won’t be torture.