8:15PM. November 29, 2014. Saturday night. The dinner rush was well underway at the In-n-Out restaurant on Whittier Avenue. Nearly a hundred people were eating or waiting for their burgers and fries under the bright fluorescent lighting when I stepped in.
For just a second, it seemed that everything stopped except for the kitchen workers in the back. This likely had more to do with my state of mind than reality, but I hadn’t quite adjusted to real time yet.
A man in a checkered short sleeved shirt pointed at me. “Um, hey man. You’ve got some blood on you.”
I looked down. My jeans were spattered with red drops and my purple Washington Huskies shirt had red handprints smeared all over it.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “It’s not mine.”
I’d interviewed creator Adrian Marcato about H E R E T I C after meeting him at a few horror conventions. I had nearly attended the last H E R E T I C event: P A R A T O X I C, but the event had to be closed early.
“I’ll make it up to you,” he’d said. “I’ll more than make it up to you with Midnight Killer.” He promised an event unlike any other extreme haunt.
I followed the event on its Facebook page and began to get e-mails. Slowly, information about the event emerged. First, a time: 6:45PM on November 29th. Next, instructions on what to wear (nothing that I didn’t want completely ruined) and a safe word (“lunatic”).
A few details began to appear. The central character would be a serial killing psychopath named Lucas Merrill who owned a knife that he called “The Slave.”
A few days before the event, a series of short videos began to appear on the H E R E T I C Facebook site. Each was 15 seconds long. The first showed a view of a late night freeway drive through a rain/blood soaked windshield while a song reminiscent of a 50s romantic ballad by Fabian played. The second showed “The Slave” being washed in a sink. A third was even more ambiguous and dark, with an old country music murder ballad soundtrack.
Final instructions provided a location: a cheap motel in Monterey Park. I was given a room number and instructed to bring my phone to the meeting. I was to arrive at exactly my appointment time.
I left the San Gabriel Valley at 6:00PM. It was already night, and an inbound storm threw an extra blanket of dark clouds over Los Angeles. On the freeway approaching the hotel, I was nearly wiped off the road by a group of racing tuner cars. My stomach was in knots, and I had no idea what to expect.
I parked a couple of blocks from the motel. I was early, so I took a walk around the block. The temperature was starting to drop, and I was glad that I’d worn a long sleeve shirt under my Huskies tee.
At 6:45 promptly, I walked up to the second floor and knocked on the door of the designated room. Nothing happened for a while, then the blinds of the window shifted a bit. A man’s voice barked out “What is your name?” I answered and the door opened.
The room I entered was decorated in mid-century motel seediness.
A giant blonde man in a black suit glowered at me. He had a cell phone in one hand and he pointed me over toward a veiled woman in black in the corner of the room. “Over there,” he muttered in an accented voice. He then began to have a conversation in Russian on his phone.
The woman in black had contact lenses of different colors in each eye. She handed me a release form to sign and conducted an interview. “Do you have any medical conditions that we need to be aware of? Do you understand that this is an extreme simulation? You may be forced to ingest a substance. Are you alright with that?”
When the release form was signed, the Russian shoves me up against a wall and frisks me. “What’s this?” he barked.
“My phone,” I answered. “I was told to bring it with me.”
After he was satisfied that my phone and keys were all I’d brought with me, he nodded at the woman in black. “He’s clean.”
The woman told me to open my phone’s GPS app and enter an address. “Someone will be waiting for you there,” she said. “You’ll need to knock three times when you get there.”
I stepped out into the night. It was getting colder.
By the time that I’d had this meeting, others had already been sent to the address. More would follow me. Managing this type of a live event is a maelstrom of logistics and timing. Throw in the possibility of police intervention (they were contacted six times regarding the event), practical effects, and traffic; it’s unlikely that any attendees had exactly the same experience. There was no listed run time for the event. You were in for as long as you wanted to be. The only way out was to say the safe word or leave the simulation at the end of the story.
The GPS directed me to a small apartment complex a few miles away in Montebello, an East Los Angeles suburb. After parking, I walked down the sidewalk. A young woman dressed in black walked a large Samoyed toward me.
“Give me your shit,” she smiled. I handed over my phone and keys, which she put in a plastic bag. She wrote my name on the front with a Sharpie and said “Just a minute.”
She walked away and spoke into a walkie-talkie. After a moment, she turned back and told me to go upstairs.
I climbed the stairs and stood outside the door. A sense of anticipation built within me. I nearly rang the doorbell, but remembered the directions that I had been given. I knocked three times.
Time broke down at that point. I waited for either a few seconds or about a minute. The door opened and a young woman greeted me. “Hi, I’m Sasha!” A fine mist hung in the air, diffusing the light and giving the apartment a definite romantic atmosphere.
Sasha had short blonde hair. She had a warm, inviting smile. She seemed genuinely happy to see me. She took my arm, invited me in, directed me over to a sofa, and offered me a drink, which I declined.
“Oh, wait,” she said. “This isn’t the song I wanted.” The song playing from the dining room was the 50’s romantic ballad from the Facebook video. She got up to change the music. As she stood, I saw that her back was covered with a colorful tattoo.
In the moment that she was gone, I glanced around the apartment. The realization that this was an elaborate ruse shook me. I experienced an out of body feeling. I began to perceive the event as a movie. My eyes were the camera that was recording the event and my brain was a recording medium.
I focused on details. There was a mirror by the door. In the top left corner of the mirror was a small smear of blood. I looked down at the couch. The slipcover was a waterproof cover.
“Never mind,” Sasha said. She came back over and sat next to me. “You look just like your picture,” she said.
A moment of confusion in my mind. Where had she seen my picture? I realized that this was just part of the script.
“I’m kind of nervous,” she said as she leaned in.
“Why are you nervous?” I asked.
“You know how it is. People seem to be one way on the internet, and they could be something else.”
I shrug. “I’m just me.”
A crashing sound from the back of the apartment interrupted our conversation. She looked back, panicked.
“What’s that? Is there someone else here?” she asked. She got up and stepped into the hallway. She began to scream.
Sasha was thrown to a wall by the one of the largest man I have ever seen in my life: Lucas Merrill, the Midnight Killer.
I’m unable to describe him beyond being a force of violent nature. His personality seemed to shift without warning. In one moment he could be friendly and jovial, then he would abruptly become hostile with no provocation.
He grabbed me, flipped me over and threatened me. I didn’t resist. He bound my hands with duct tape and wrapped it around my mouth, gagging me. He slapped my head and began to wrangle me around.
As he did this, I realized that he was directing my attention where he wanted me to look. And I realized this was part of the performance: the composition of “the shot.”
I wasn’t really scared. After all, he was a demon that could be exorcised with a single word or a few nods of my head. That’s when an idea became concrete in my head: “There’s no way that I’m tapping out of this. I’m in this for the whole ride.”
He raped Sasha in front of me. Her face was right in mine and she held on to my arm. She apologized. She told me she was sorry.
He told me I was dirty and needed to be cleaned. He picked me up with no effort and shoved me down the hall. My feet slipped out from under me. The floor was slick with blood.
I was dragged into the bathroom and shoved into the tub. There was another woman in the tub. She was crying. He slammed the glass door closed. She begged me to help her. “Why won’t you talk to me?” she pleaded. I tried to speak, but the gag wasn’t coming loose.
It was here that I began to try and loosen my bonds. My fingers were stuck together and I was beginning to become uncomfortable. The tub was too small for two people.
Sasha came back in. She said she had a plan. She was going to distract him and we were going to make a run for the door.
The other girl wouldn’t stop crying. Sasha tried to shut her up. “You are still alive,” she said. She had a point. We got out of the tub. Getting out of a tub while your hands are bound with duct tape is not easy. My worst bruise of the night occurred at this point.
When we exited the bathroom, the apartment was filled with a thick, foggy haze. I couldn’t see five feet in front of me. In addition, I wasn’t wearing my glasses. The fog combined with my astigmatism to create flares from every light source. The effect was extremely cinematic.
I didn’t get much of a chance to appreciate it. Sasha ran off to the side. I was meant to run straight ahead for the door. I didn’t. It seemed like a bad idea.
Sure enough, Lucas emerged from the mist straight in front of me and grabbed me. He threw me to the floor.
By this point, I had lost all sense of time. What happened next could have taken five minutes or fifteen. Lucas’s friends arrived at the apartment. They were men dressed as women and they kissed and ran their hands all over me. Sasha was killed. Lucas threw me against her body. He slapped her ass and then my head. “This,” he slapped her “is the same as this,” he slapped me.
The men were getting turned on by all of this. Lucas snapped for some reason and turned on them. He murdered them while I watched. As this happened, a movement from behind caught my eye.
At first I thought it was the other captive from the bathroom, but wasn’t. My vision was completely unreliable at this point. Was she wearing a veil? I couldn’t tell. She wore a red dress. Not a veil, but there was something wrong with her face. She moved freely around the killing. Lucas did not seem to notice her. A thought entered my head that she was not from this place.
“We’re going for a ride,” Lucas declared. He grabbed me and wiped my face off with a filthy rag. He forced me outside and down the stairs. We travelled around the back. He alternated between threatening me and joking with me.
He pulled me over to a U-Haul that was parked on the corner. “Give me a minute,” he said as he unlocked the back. He opened the back. The truck was full of people. Bound and gagged like me.
I wasn’t prepared for the sight of all those people in the back of the truck. I counted six or seven. It was hard to tell because of the hanging plastic tarps and the blood.
I was shoved into the back. I became aware that there was more than one person standing outside the truck. I tried to avoid kicking the woman who was lying in the back of the truck, but I couldn’t help it.
“Roll, motherfucker!” shouted one of the men outside the truck. I rolled in and the door slammed shut.
In the darkness, I could hear someone crying. A man’s voice began to whisper. He was saying that everything was going to be alright because he had a plan.
The truck started up and we sped off. We were thrown around as the vehicle sped through the streets of Los Angeles. The driver accelerated and broke fast in order to cause the maximum amount of discomfort.
I counted the turns, left and right. I counted the stops. When we came to our final destination, I was pretty sure that we were back where we started.
I heard voices outside the truck. Someone was calling for Gloria. “Have you seen Gloria?” I heard him ask. After some muffled responses, he continued walking down the street calling “Gloria! Gloria!”
The door opened and Merrill stepped back in. “I heard somebody talking,” he laughed. “Who couldn’t keep their fucking mouth shut?”
He walked around, sizing each of us up. I was fairly sure that the guy next to me, the man with the plan, was part of the simulation. He didn’t have a gag. I was sure that the woman in the corner with her throat slit sitting in a pool of blood was in on it, too. Everyone else, I assumed was a fellow attendee.
Merrill bent down to throttle the man with the plan. The woman who I had kicked sprang up and brought a collapsable baton down across Merrill’s head.
“Run!” she shouted. I took off. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw one of the guys from the front of the truck being helped to his feet. I jumped out of the back of the truck as the struggle in the truck continued.
The guy down the street was still calling for Gloria.
I ran toward the main street where I had parked. By now, the blood and sweat had worked my duct tape gag loose. With a little more effort, I was able to work my left hand free of the bonds.
I noticed that the guy who had been helped to his feet was beside me. “Is that it?” he asked.
“I think so,” I said. “I’m not sure.”
“Where are we? Where’s the main street?” he asked.
I pointed down the street toward a building with a well lit parking lot. “I recognize that Chinese restaurant. We need to go down here.”
We head down the street and see that the woman with the Samoyed is handing the other participant’s belongings back to him. We approach and she reaches into her purse and pulls out the plastic bags with our keys and phones.
“Is that it,” the man asks again. “Game over?”
She nods. “That’s it. You’re safe now.”
After the simulation was over, I wandered the street of Montebello for a while. I tried to sort and process the events, and I found myself wondering if Midnight Killer was even the strangest event that was going on that evening.
This is, after all, the land of the Black Dahlia, the Night Stalker, and the Manson Family. Weird, strange, and violent are currents that run deep through Southern California.
I felt a tremendous feeling of relief. I had passed through without giving in.
It was not a rushing sense of euphoric joy, but of more of a focused calm. I felt hungry and alive. I needed food. I got in my car and went to the In-N-Out.
As I ate my meal under the luminous cloudy sky, more victims were thrown into a truck full of madmen.
The day after the event, I got in touch with three other attendees through the Midnight Killer Facebook event. I wanted to know how other people’s experiences compared with my own. They agreed to share notes with me, and to talk about what Midnight Killer meant to them. Mary Ellison, 49 and Rebecca Horist, 26 were referred to me by Jaimee Rossi, aged 29. All of them consider themselves fans of horror films. Ellison and Horist both reference the “Saw” films and their message of redemption through suffering.
Ellison was the first person to go through the simulation that night, at 5:00PM. She described the motel room where the initial meeting happened as having “a freshly fucked scent” that “smelled of condemnation.” I’d have to agree that the room’s seediness added to the perceived feeling of danger. In fact, as Ellison and Horist point out, the anticipation of the event plays a huge role.
Ellison said “My feelings up to the event are a mixture of sexual longing, intrigue, edge of your seat mystery and wonder and lastly undeniable actual terror. It is the stuff of nightmares when your imagination takes over. Your Facebook feed is littered with terrifying videos, revolting photographs, and true crime stories. The actors taunt you weeks ahead of time with middle of the night phone calls, unnerving questions and knowledge of a shocking amount of personal information, which they will ultimately use against you in their personally customized treatment. It is a secret society.”
Mary Ellison was thrown into the bathroom tub like I was, however there was no second captive. Instead, she came face to face with the apparition in the red dress. My perception was wrong. It wasn’t a woman.
“The door was open so I could see this dreadful creature lurking at me the whole time. He was an emaciated senior citizen in a provocative red mini-dress. His arthritic fingers and disgusting nails reminded me of Nosferatu. Then someone who I flat out cannot remember comes in and forces me to inhale something from a cartridge I do not recognize,” said Ellison.
I was not forced to ingest anything. Ellison did not experience the “sexual serial killer gender fuckers” that I did. She also seemed to have more interaction with the occupants of the truck than I or Rebecca Horist did. Jamiee Rossi did not experience Sasha’s rape. In fact, Rossi’s experience was unlike anyone else’s.
Rossi entered the simulation at 8:45PM. While he was being bound and gagged, he heard another voice calling out. It was his friend who had gone through ahead of him. She begged for help, telling him that she had said the safe word and that they had not released her. Sensing a test, Rossi tried to get her to say the safe word. She did not. Instead, he was released from the simulation.
Confused, Rossi stepped outside and talked with Marcato. Marcato said that he was informed that Rossi had used the safe word. Rossi insisted that he had never said the safe word. He insisted that he would never say the safe word, no matter what. Rossi was then inserted back into the simulation at a later point in the timeline.
In the back of the U-Haul truck, Jaimee Rossi became the man who broke the Midnight Killer.
Rossi was thrown into the van so hard that his shins bled as they hit the deck. “The truck door slammed shut, and that’s when I knew the fun was going to begin,” he said.
According to his recollection, “Several people jumped all over me slammed my face on the bed of the truck while another was hitting me with an unknown object and another jamming their fingers underneath my rib cage! That seriously fucking sucked. One if the worst things that I’ve felt EVER.”
“They proceeded to duct tape my beanie over my eyes and kept covering my nose and mouth to suffocate me. Smearing blood all over my face. I continued to get roughed up and they began to cut the back of my pants off. What happened next should stay between us…”
Rossi goes on to describe all manners of tortures inflicted upon him. During this time, several other participants are thrown into the truck. All of them call the safe word. Rossi does not.
“I then got flipped on top my back and a shirt got placed over my faced and they began to pour water all over my face while one is digging at my ribs. Have you ever had someones fingers literally underneath your rib cage?” he asks.
“This happened 4 or 5 times before the door opened once more and another victim got tossed inside. They took their attention off of me and began to work on him. They made him say “Jamiee Rossi is one tough mother fucker.”
“He said that a few times as he was being slapped and he said the safety word,” said Rossi. “Once more I was left with these psychopaths and they began do everything all over again, trying to make me say the safety word. I told them that I’d never say it and this had to be clear to them by now.”
“The truck door opened once more and I sat up, got my handcuffs taken off and they congratulated me saying I’m crazy and one bad mother fucker and that I’ve been in there for over two hours. I got out of the truck and looked back . IT REALLY LOOKED LIKE A MURDER SCENE.”
The night was not without setbacks for the H E R E T I C team. They have issues with the police whenever they stage an event, for fairly obvious reasons. The fact that this went on in a residential neighborhood is still stunning to me. The team had to modify several events as the evening went on because of traffic logistics, to avoid disturbing the neighborhood and to avoid arrest. As far as I can tell, the only part of the story that I did not participate in was the return of the Russian at the end to provide exposition that Lucas Merrill was now a prisoner of a serial killer hunting party called VICIOUS CIRCLE.
However, they remain an incredibly focused and tight-knit team that are determined to deliver unique experiences for their clients.
I asked Horist what drew her to attend Midnight Killer and she said “The story, but also once I emailed, I liked how big they are on keeping everyone safe- the actors and participants. Safe words AND gesture. The lady who checks you in even said it won’t go past you not being able to do one of the two- the actors do know once it has gone too far and when to stop.”
Trust is a huge factor in participating in an extreme event. I’m going to be very honest here: IT HURTS. I still have bruises on my arms and legs nearly a week later. And I didn’t even get a very extreme version of the simulation. It’s harrowing physically, mentally, and emotionally. What I found from everyone that I spoke to, is that they trust Adrian Marcato to deliver an extreme experience and to see them safely out the other side.
Marcato inspires trust and loyalty from attendees and his performers. I asked all three attendees about their feelings after the event and every one of them would want to repeat the experience. In fact, Horist wanted very much to become one of the performers. According to Ellison, “The threshold bar of my fear/pain tolerance increases each time. My feelings up to the event border on obsession. Yes, I will do it again because the gift of Heretic is fleeting and found nowhere else in the world.”
A week after the event, I wondered if everyone had got what they came for. Mary Ellison certainly did. She said “The only thing that I was unhappy about is that it didn’t last longer.”
Rebecca Horist agreed that the event could have been longer. “I was a little surprised they did the rape scene- that was unnecessary. But overall, I was not scared. But the acting was well done.” She continued “Now I want to act with them.”
I asked her if she would do a Midnight Killer event again. “I would do a solo night where they only focus on you. You are the only guest the entire night,” she said.
That is a possibility. H E R E T I C is currently running a series entitled XPERIMENTS that is single patron. The event is custom tailored to that patron’s fears and desires. It lasts for four hours with a short break between two hour blocks.
In fact, the number of events that Marcato is planning has exploded within the last week. Midnight Killer was the first H E R E T I C event that had a cover charge. All of the group’s previous events had been invitation only and free of charge. Judging by what occurred on November 29th, they have been fairly successful at learning from their previous efforts.
Mary Ellison makes it a point to attend any H E R E T I C event. She said “The suspense is addictive and will enter your dreams at night. This kind of mind- fuckery is unbelievable, innovative, cutting edge…breathless. Each hint of what is to come builds higher and higher to an apex of fear and excitement. All the while you are isolated and impotent to do anything about your situation…kind of like BDSM predicament training. All of the special effects are first rate professional. I have never seen an open gash pulsate like that; it was so real I nearly puked. The actors are method and passionate about what they do. They will push your limits and make you feel loved all at the same time. Gestalt Theater at its finest.”
Jaimee Rossi was thrilled with the outcome. “It’s what I was expecting,” he declared. “To get destroyed and to see what my body could endure. I have much respect for Adrian Marcato. They delivered.”
As for me, I got what I wanted: an event that was completely unlike anything else. It was far more intense and graphic than the Blackout event that I attended last year. It was like being a character in a movie. There were moments of genuine shock and surprise. Even though it was billed as a “serial killer simulation” and a “grind house” event, I found that thematically it had more in common with the works of David Lynch.
Over a week later, and the sense of quiet euphoria has yet to pass. My dreams have become more vivid and meaningful. It really got in my head in the way that Mary Ellison described. I find myself wondering how the story will continue. What visions await me if I continue the story? Will they find my breaking point?