I love horror films. As a ruthless Capricorn, I’ve always believed that I would be the second-to-last person to survive in one. Not the final survivor — no. My hubris at having come so close to triumph would doom me in an epic failure at the last second. But my pragmatic nature would get me very far along — I would do whatever it took to survive, including sacrificing others if needed.

I wanted to put this theory to the test and found the means to do so in a NYC interactive horror-themed experience called THIS IS REAL. The show is no longer running in NY, but for those who for some reason don’t want to have the actual details spoiled, do not read on!

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THIS IS REAL was an interactive “Escape The Room”-style Horror adventure. Each participant was placed inside the setting of a ‘real’ horror film and given three lives. Anytime the killer killed you in the game, he would scream “DEAD!” and you lost a life. If you lost three lives, you were permanently removed from the game. You had to work with your fellow victims/participants to escape within an hour.

Who would sign up for such a thing?

My fellow sadomasochistic friend Lizzy and I got our tickets for on a cold weekday December night in Red Hook, Brooklyn. I arrived a bit early around 9:40 PM for the 10:00 PM show. There was a single, ominous sign on the door.

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The lobby was the street. It was 17 degrees Fahrenheit outside.

Soon enough, a greeter in an elf costume came out of the door. I remembered that the show had changed over to a Christmas theme because it was December. The elf-man looked like this (face blurred for privacy):

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He was in-character from the moment he walked outside, acting very gruff despite looking very cute in his elf costume.

“Cold outside?” he asked, knowing it was. “Or is it…bone-chillingly cold?” I laughed. We were the only two people there.

“Hmm…I guess when your limbs freeze off, you won’t feel the difference,” he mused. I nodded enthusiastically. We were the only two people there.

“Here’s some fucking forms for you to sign,” he said, shoving a disclaimer and waiver into my hands. It was a long list of things to do and not to do:

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“I don’t have a pen,” I said.

“Why don’t you sign in blood?” he asked. We both looked at each other for a second, then he handed me a pen.

After I signed the paper, I whispered, “I’m an actor too. Want to share a cigarette?”

He immediately dropped his character. “Yas, thank you so much!” he said, and we started puffing and chatting like real humans about life in NYC.

A couple of minutes later, the other participants showed up: two couples. My elf friend resumed being mean to each pair. I introduced myself to each. “My husband forced me to do this!” said both women, independently of each other. Their Bro-y husbands looked eager. One wore a “Make America Great Again” T-Shirt. “It’s going to be fun,” I said to one of the ladies named Valencia. “We’ll work together!”

Meanwhile, my friend Lizzy was nowhere in site — she hadn’t planned enough time to get to Red Hook. No subway trains run to Red Hook.

Another mean-elf came out, this one a lady, and she had a grey pouch. “Put your shit in the bag,” she said, “Keys, wallet, phone.” I did as she demanded. “You’ll get it after…if you live,” she added for emphasis.

The elf-man brought out a number of grey onesie jumpsuits that reminded me of Ghostbusters.“Fa-fa-fa-la-la, you’re going to die,” he sang as he helped me into my suit. I thought he had a nice voice.

The two elves blindfolded us, tied our wrists together in loose chords I knew I’d have no trouble getting out of, and put large headphones over our heads. One-by-one, they took us into the facility and led us to independent cells. Ominous out-of-tune Christmas tunes played on the speakers. My friend Lizzy nearly missed the boat but got there just in the nick of time to get tied up and blindfolded and put into her cell. They took the women to one side of the complex and the men to the other.

Through the iron bars of my cell, I could see an actress tied up and crying in a chair. A male actor in a Santa Suit stalked around her, taunting her. Only I realized that the actors weren’t actually making any sounds. They were somehow lip-syncing to an audio track playing in my headphones. I got my hands out of the ropes in five seconds, then took off the headphones. It was very surreal, watching the actors mouth words and open and close their mouths in silence. They must have been wearing earbuds to hear the track as well. I put the headphones back on, and sure enough — the woman was screaming inside the headphones. “This is a weird aesthetic choice,” the director in me thought, “But I support it.”

The killer continued torturing the actress, miming pulling out a couple of her teeth as she spit some fake-looking blood on the floor. He finished up and turned to us in our cages to say he’d be back to deal with us later, and if we leave our cages, he’d kill us right there and then. Then, he stormed out, with the sound of a door slamming in our headphones (but in reality, I noticed he closed the door pretty gently).

I heard an ominous voice in the headphones say, “TAKE YOUR HEADPHONES OFF NOW.” I did, and the real game begun:

My mind works at a thousand seconds a minute. “The broom,” I cry out to the actress. “What broom?” she says, playing the idiot. “That broom,” I say pointing to the only broom in the room, right next to her chair. “Use the broom to push the killer’s bag to me.” The broom and the killer’s bag are just out of reach of my fingers through the bars of my cage — it is just like a real horror movie! “I’m scared,” whines the actress. I think she isn’t used to someone figuring out how to fix the problem as quickly as I do. “Get it together!” I say, “Or we’re all going to die!” I feel like I’m doing a better performance than she is, and she’s getting paid. “C’mon!” I think, “This is real!”

She finally pushes the broom my way, and I finagle the end of the broom into the straps of the killer’s bag. I launch the bag into the reach of the Trump supporter in the cage on my right. He finds a set of keys and opens up all our cages, mine last (which I think is a bit rude). We scramble around the center of the room, wondering what to do next.

That’s when I hear the whistle — a whistle on the loudspeakers of the complex. “Hmm,” the director in me thinks, “This whistle is meant to metaphorically signal the coming of something.” No one else is paying any attention. “The killer!” I shout, “He’s coming back!”

Everyone panics and starts running back to their cages. “No,” I say. “We have to hide from him!” I turn to the actress. “Get in the fridge!”

“I’m too scared to get in the fridge,” she cries. The whistling is getting louder. I hate her for sticking to her script. “She’s gonna die,” I think, “And I’ve got no time to save these clowns.” I open the fridge, take out the giant penguin statue that was inside (for some reason), and close myself inside.

“GOT YA!” screams the killer, “DEAD and DEAD!” as he re-enters and kills both men, each losing a life-point in the game. There’s an ominous pause as the news of their deaths settles in. Then the killer growls, “Only Philip managed to survive…this time!” He grabs the actress and pulls her screaming out of the room.

I get out of the fridge. The men re-open their cages and walk out sheepishly. I don’t chastise them; I know it would be useless. I need to use their skills as best I can and discard them when they slow me down.

“Look in the tub,” I say to the Trump supporter, pointing to a tub full of filthy brown water. He walks over and grimaces. “Dude, I think there’s a key at the bottom, ”he says. “Reach in and get it,” I command, while scrambling around the room for other clues. I find a plastic bag of Tootsie Rolls tucked behind a picture frame, notice that the circuit breaker in the wall labeled A has a breaker that says B on it, and discover a pneumatic hose with a working flow of air when I press the trigger.

The Trump supporter dries the keys on his jumpsuit and hands them to me, the de facto leader of this group. Meanwhile, the other husband has been calling his wife’s name. “Valencia,” he shouts, “Are you ok, babe?” I hear some movement through the wall and faint sounds of her replying and not sounding like she’s enjoying a damn thing. Her voice seems louder near the air hose, where I notice there’s a key-shaped hole in the wall.

The whistle comes back on the speakers, and this time there’s no hesitation. “Hide!” I say. One man pulls out the fold-out couch and somehow hides himself inside, the other takes my hiding spot (the fridge), and I open a wall panel and slide inside.

The killer returns and let’s out a frustrated gasp. “Ah, I see you’ve hidden from me, my little Christmas pretties,” he says. I think it’s an odd choice to add the word Christmas to that Wizard of Oz reference. “Oh, but next time I come back, your hiding spots won’t work,” he says and leaves the room.

“We have to send the key to the ladies,” I say, after finding the key doesn’t work on any of our locks. I bang on the wall between our rooms. “Lizzy, can you hear me?” I shout. “Yes! Philip!” she replies, giddy, sounding like she’s having the time of her life. I take the set of keys, put them in the key-shaped hole in the wall, and grab the pneumatic hose.

“Don’t hold your breath,” I say to the Trump supporter, knowing how insane I sound but really enjoying the script I’m writing in this horror film. Then I blast the key through the crack in the wall with the air hose. It makes it to the other side — I hear a cry of triumph from the ladies. “Now, send our key through the wall!”

“We broke the key,” shouts Lizzy back.

“What?!” I shout.

“We broke the key somehow!” shouts Lizzy, this time her voice much closer and coming from a door-shaped partition in one of our walls. Suddenly, she and the other two women burst through partition. They rush to hug their husbands; Valencia is covered in a sheen of sweat. Lizzy runs to me and hands me the bottom half of a key.

“How?” I ask.

“I think we broke it off trying to open the doors in our room. We’re fucked!” Lizzy says, face flushed with joy.

The whistle comes back over the speakers. “Everyone hide!” Lizzy and I shout in unison.

We get into a variety of hiding spots in our room, but the killer is cleverer this time, as promised. He rips open the wall panel I had offered up for Valencia to get inside. “DEAD!” he screams, followed by, “And…you’re coming with me!” He grabs Valencia by her wrist and drags her through his door to the room, which locks behind him. My last glimpse of Valencia: her eyes are bugging out and she is speechless.

“What are we supposed to do?!” says her husband, panicked.

We hear the killer shout somewhere far in the facility, “Time for you to sing, Valencia!”

“This game is nuts,” says Valencia’s husband.

“Sing!” the killer says, but instead we hear Valencia shout, “This shit is too real!”

“You have to save her,” I tell Valencia’s husband.

“Sing! the killer screams, and this time I hear Valencia sing “A-B-C-D-E-Fuuuuck Me! Get me out of here, Walter!”

I rally the group through the passageway the girls had found to our room. We end up in their starting room, which is similar to mine and also containing a mismatched circuit breaker on the wall. I rush back to my starting room, grab the breaker labeled B, and zoom back over to fit it into the circuit with the name B scrawled on it in the girls’ room. The second I put it in, we hear a sound effect of electricity shorting out, and a secret door in the wall opens up!

In the distance, I hear Valencia singing a tortured rendition of ‘Happy Birthday.’

“Where’s Lizzy?” I ask, corralling the group before we move on.

“I’m in the wall!” shouts Lizzy, from inside another wall. “I went in here to try and find another passage!” I notice there’s a small opening four feet up in the wall, about big enough for an Oompa-Loompa to enter. Lizzy’s face pops into the opening. It doesn’t look like one was supposed to go inside this hole.

“What the hell?” I say. We try to hoist Lizzy out from the wall, but she’s stuck. “There’s no time!” I sigh, not knowing whether or not that statement’s true. “Help her,” I say to the Trump supporter, and I leave my companion behind, stuck in the wall. “Another casualty in the race to survive,” I think. I grab Valencia’s husband, and we race ahead to save Valencia through the newly unlocked door in the wall.

We enter a brand new room, where Valencia is handcuffed to a wall and on the verge of real tears. The killer is nowhere to be found, but instead I meet a new character…The Gimp. I see a tall, overweight man in a gimp outfit, reminiscent of the one from Pulp Fiction. He is huddling in the corner, crying into his sleeve, and holding onto a set of keys that I believe hold the key to both Valencia’s handcuffs and our escape from the complex. “I didn’t want anyone to get hurt,” he whimpers. But when I approach him, he hisses at me. I back away.

“He likes candy,” whimpers Valencia. “The killer told me…he…he likes candy.”

“Ah,” I think, and take the bag of Tootsie Rolls out from the packet of my jumpsuit. “Would you like some candy?” I ask the Gimp. The actor nods his head, licks his lips, he takes a step toward me, and that’s when I see it. It’s a lever on the wall that says GAS on it. Next to it are two gas masks. I carefully hand the bag of candy to the Gimp. He tears into the Toosie Rolls as I shimmy around him to get next to the lever.

“Wait,” says Valencia, “I think you’re supposed to give me that mask before you…”

Before she can finish, I pull on one of the gas masks and throw the lever. White smoke fills the room. The Gimp makes a big show of gasping for breath and spasmodically dying. I look through my gas mask to see the entire gang of survivors assembled next to Victoria, everyone shell-shocked and staring at me. I’m reminded of the gang from Scooby-Doo. We hear a crackle in the speaker and look up.

“You’re all DEAD!” says the killer over the speaker. “Except Philip! He was the only one wearing the gas mask! And he just gassed you all!” The killer cackles madly into the speaker.

“Sorry,” I say in response to the combined glare from everyone, including Lizzy, who I’m glad got out of the wall. I toss the keys over to Valencia’s husband, who quickly finds the smallest one and frees Valencia from her handcuffs. She rubs her wrists and stands up. “Well,” she says, “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

We walk back through all the rooms to the boys’ original room and find the final locked door to escape the facility. Valencia’s husband makes his final mistake, which is to hand the key-ring back to me for some reason. It has twenty or so normal-sized keys on it, and the second I try the first key on the door, the world explodes into madness:

Violin strings out of some Hitchcock hell blare over the speakers. Multiple strobe lights pulse from every corner of the room. Admist the cacophony, I can hear the faintly increasing sound of the killer’s whistle.

“Hurry!” screams Lizzy, the whole crowd of people pushing up against me.

“Not that key! Try the other one!” shouts the Trump supporter.

“Hold on,” I say, fumbling. “I’m trying.” None of the keys are working. This really feels real. My hands are shaking. My premonition of my fate in a horror movie clouds my confidence. I had predisposed that I would get this far, nearly to the end of the experience, only to die at the last second. The strobe lights are blasting, music and sound effects are roaring in my ear, and I know my worst fears are coming true. The whistle is blaring in the speakers. I get to what is the final key on the key-ring. The killer’s door to the room slams open behind us.

“DEAD!” I hear the killer shout. I put the key into the lock.

“DEAD!” the killer shouts. I turn the key.

“DEAD!” the killer shouts. The key turns in the lock.

“DEAD!” the killer shouts. I push the door open.

“DEAD!” the killer shouts. I leap through the open door.

“NOOO!” the killer screams, as my body flies into a brightly lit room, with the elf-lady from the start waiting to take my picture.

“You lived!” she squeals. “You didn’t die a single time, Philip. Congratulations!”

I am heaving, short of breath. I try to smile. I turn around to see five angry participants staring me down inside the room, all of them dead. The killer is gone.

“Let’s take a group photo,” the elf-lady says.

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I later found out that I was one of four people in over 500 performances who didn’t lose a single life in THIS IS REAL. I also found out that the ladies did somehow manage to break the key and almost ruined the entire escape — someone behind-the-scenes had to press a button to allow the girls to get into our room. Lizzy was not supposed to go in the wall either, and they corrected future versions of the experience to discourage thrill-seekers from climbing into the wall. I later went out on a couple dates with the cute man-elf from the pre-show and invited him to terrorize my audience in-character at The Sparkle Zone, my monthly variety show in NY.

And despite not making any new friends on my adventure, I had a wonderful time, and learned that, truly, I would excel in a horror movie.

Let’s hope I never need to do so.

Written by

Performer, storyteller, teacher - living in NYC and traveling worldwide (www.philipmarkle.com). Artistic Director of The Brooklyn Comedy Collective.

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