For some people, the name Darren Lynn Bousman brings to mind the Saw franchise and his horror filmography. For those who love immersive experiences, myself included, I immediately think of Darren as a pioneer in immersive entertainment that is pushing the art form in new and exciting directions. Over the last couple of years, those in Los Angeles got to experience The Tension Experience and The Lust Experience, including it's all-year-running ARG (alternate reality game). This year, he's back with Theatre Macabre, along with producer Gordon Bijelonic and writer Clint Sears, creating an innovative venture with a new story that promises near-endless possibilities. 

I recently had a chance to catch up with Darren Lynn Bousman to learn more about Theatre Macabre, and also got his thoughts on immersive entertainment, virtual reality, and learned about the challenges that these types of experiences face. We also have a brand new trailer for Theatre Macabre and a chance for you to win tickets to the opening week.

You've had a lot of success with The Tension Experience and The Lust Experience. How did this idea come about, and why Theatre Macabre? Why did you decide to go in a new direction and with a completely new theme this year?

Darren Lynn Bousman: The idea for this started a few years ago when I became extremely desensitized to film altogether. There was so much politics in moviemaking and it became un-fun. You basically have to sell your soul to get a movie made, and it might take five years to find the financing and a year and a half to get the movie made, and if you're lucky it comes out in the next two years, or in some cases like Mother's Day or even St. Agatha, years upon years before it comes out.

And it got to the point that I was fed up, depressed, and angry, and so I had to kind of go find myself. I went all over the world from New York to Japan to Germany, and I started doing these really weird experiences.

It started in New York, actually, with Sleep No More, and then I went to something called Then She Fell (which was also in New York). It led me on this weird adventure of discovering these immersive theaters that I can tell you changed my life. And the reason why they changed my life is that, as a filmmaker, I am trying to capture your interest in 90 minutes and it's passive. You don't do anything. You sit there and you watch the movie. Images flicker on screen and hopefully I have your attention, but you might be checking Twitter or Instagram. Or if you're at home, you might be changing your baby's diaper or walking the dog and pausing it 15 times.

I realized that going to the immersive experiences forced you to be present. You could not pass the buck, you could not look at your cell phone or try to do a million other things. You had to be there and in the moment. What that did, for me, was it forced me to not only be present, but to pay attention. And it made me connect with people on a much more visceral and guttural level than any movie ever had. With immersive theater, it forces you to be in the moment.

And then you decided to create an immersive experience of your own…

Darren Lynn Bousman: So, I started this thing called The Tension Experience, which was my kind of attempt to break people out of this cycle of being on social media and not having attention spans. We launched it, we had no idea if anyone was going to buy tickets to it, and it became this cult phenomenon that lasted not only the run of the show, which was about 13 weeks, but a year leading up to it. We had an online ARG, Alternate Reality Game, that allowed people to become very much immersed in this world, just like The Game.

And so we loved Tension, but it was so dense, the mythology was so overwrought, that it would be hard for a person who did not follow the story to walk into the middle. That would be like asking someone, "Hey, there's this great show called Lost. It's on the sixth season. Come watch it with me." You're gonna be lost.

So, we made a sequel called The Lust Experience, which was kind of a continuation of the Tension storyline, but it kind of pushed the audience even further away because it was even more dense. However, it attracted someone to basically partner with us and move us up. We partnered with Joe and Anthony Russo, who had a little film that came out this year call Avengers: Infinity War.

Yeah, that movie title sounds familiar…

Darren Lynn Bousman: So, they partnered with us and they're in the middle of taking Tension to Las Vegas right now, where they're partnering with a casino, which is awesome. So, it'll be one of the big shows in the casino. The business side of it is going to take a long time, so while that brand is tied up, I got together with my partners Gordon Bijelonic and Clint Sears and we said, "Let's figure out a new IP [intellectual property] and do it again!"

And so it's kinda like starting over a little bit because we're doing a whole new thing called Theatre Macabre. Where I think Tension was kind of extreme and Lust was very extreme, this is kind of in the middle. Theatre Macabre is still hard R, in fact you have to be 21 to go into it, but there's no crazy mythology that's going to take you out of the story. We're not going to tie you up and waterboard you, so there's no extreme nature to it. But it is the most intricately designed and choreographed show that we've done, where there are endless possibilities when you walk through the door. Anything can happen based on your choices as a participant.

As someone who's done Sleep No More quite a few times, even the synopsis for Theatre Macabre has me really excited because, because it sounds like it will offer that feeling of exploration and different rooms and performances, but with more customized and variable experiences.

Darren Lynn Bousman: You can go at least ten times without seeing the same thing. I'm a huge fan of Sleep No More and the McKittrick Hotel. It’s the highest bar [for immersive theatre.] What I try to do differently, is you can't change Sleep No More. You can go 65 times and see something new every single time, but it's always the same. You're not going to alter Lady Macbeth or the witches. There will always be the witches, and they will always go to the rave and repeat the same thing.

The difference with Theatre Macabre is you can alter it. I'll give you just one small example. So, there are ten people that walk in, there is the possibility for 20 different narratives. But let's say you make choices and you're on the narrative of let's say, a serial killer.

So, you're on this track and the serial killer might give you a choice and say, "I want you to take this pill and put it in her drink right there." If you choose to put the pill in the drink, thus killing her, the story alters because she's no longer in it, and now everyone has to deal with the consequences of her not being there.

But you can say, "F--k you," to the serial killer and you could say, "I'm not doing that," and you don't poison her, and then she remains for the rest of it and the whole story alters because you didn't do what he wanted to. Now imagine that times ten, because there are ten participants going through at a time.

So, your choices directly affect everything that happens: who lives, who dies, who the good guy and bad guy is, who the victim is, does the victim rise to become the hero, or does the hero fall to be a villain? These are all choices that you will make inside the world of Theatre Macabre.

As someone who loves these types of experiences, that definitely sold me.

Darren Lynn Bousman: Well, the hope is I sell others, because it's the most intricate thing we've tried to pull off. And I'll give a big shout-out to Clint Sears, who's writing it right now. The script is hundreds of pages, and he just sent me a rewrite on the first act. A feature film is 95 to 100 pages and the first act of Theatre Macabre is well over 150 pages. That's just Act One, and it gets a lot bigger in Act Two and Three. By the end of the show, you're looking at a thousand-page script because of all the alternatives that could happen.

That’s really incredible. So, obviously, people who actively take part in immersive experiences are going to be attracted to this. But what do you think it’s going to take to get others to become more aware of and excited for experiences like Theatre Macabre?

Darren Lynn Bousman: I wish I had that answer because it's a frustrating time for us right now, because these things are not cheap to pull off. In fact, it is outrageously expensive to do one these. In the case of what we’re doing [for Theatre Macabre], let's say we have 40 actors. That's 40 actors every single day, rehearsing for weeks at a time and then doing shows. Then you have security, and you have security cameras, and you have insurance and a place to rent. And then we have alcohol there, so the bar tabs. I mean, the more you stack up, the more expensive it becomes.

So, I think people are accustomed to one of two things. They're accustomed to haunts, which might charge $25 to go do a 30-minute scare house where people jump out and scream "boo" at you. Then on the other hand, you have something like Universal's [Halloween] Horror Nights, which [can] charge [you over $100]. And again, it is a cool environment where hundreds of thousands of people go and you're kind of corralled through like sheep.

We are neither a haunt, nor are we Universal's [Halloween] Horror Nights. And I think what sucks is that's the two comparisons people give. "Oh, are you guys a haunt?" "Are you like Universal?" No. We're neither. We are in a completely different world than what they do.

So, I think the number one thing people have to understand is that we're not a haunted house. No one's going to jump out and scream "boo" at you. We're more akin to Westworld, and I think that maybe one of our faults this year is we should not have come out during Halloween. Because I think that immediately makes someone think, "Oh my God! It's a haunted house." But then they look at the ticket price, and the ticket price is expensive and they’re like, "Holy shit! $150 for a haunted house! No thank you. I'll go to a haunted hayride."

That’s an interesting comparison,  because if someone knew they were going to spend a night at Westworld for $150, people would be lining up for years to experience it.

Darren Lynn Bousman: Absolutely. There’s just a misconception about what these things are. On something like our event, there are two bars inside it, and the drinks are part of the ticket price. So you have to  look at it as a “night on the town,” not a "I'm going to a haunted house."

It's also much bigger when you get inside than just an immersive theater. We book live musical acts, and there are different things taking place that I think the price is justified. People just need to take the risk, jump in, and see it. I think that most people that walk in and see it come back again and again because they realize it's the furthest thing from [a haunt.]

Yeah, I think it's one of those things where once you do it, it can be life changing, like what you said about your experience with Sleep No More. It’s unfortunate, because people are so excited about VR [virtual reality] and AR [augmented reality]. I think the technology will eventually get there, but they can’t beat what you are doing with alternate reality in real life. It’s so much more real and immersive.

Darren Lynn Bousman: I just did an interview with someone about VR and they asked me if I would be willing to take these to the VR world and I said, "Not really, because it's the opposite of VR." [With] VR, you put a helmet on and you pretend to be on the moon or wherever. I want people to leave their mundaneness, actually walk in, and really interact with these fantastical characters.

What makes immersive so amazing is, let's just take the Saw film for example. So, you could sit and watch Tobin Bell say these words as a creepy puppet and you can watch a disgusting bathroom. Or, imagine you were standing next to Tobin Bell as you feel his breath on you. You can smell the perfume of Shawnee Smith. You can smell the disgust and feel the bathroom and realize that you have two hours to either side with Tobin, side with Shawnee, side with the cops, and you are altering everything that's taking place.

So, I think the ability to actually be in the environment and have all five senses kind of triggered is what makes this cool.

Can you tell me more about the story behind Theatre Macabre and where that came from?

Darren Lynn Bousman: In Paris, in the late 1800s all the way through the mid-1900s, a theatre operated called the Grand Guignol. It really was torture porn before torture porn was [a phrase.] It was shock theater, where these aristocrats would pay money, go sit in the theater, and they would watch people killed in front of them. It was basically all the social taboos laid out onstage. These aristocrats would laugh and basically take their ties down a little bit and watch these horrible miscarriages of justice play out in front of them on the stage.

But, there was a huge petition from church groups and all these people saying, "This is sinister, this is sick, this is satanic. Shut down the Grand Guignol!" And so what happened was lore started forming that people were really being killed on the stage, that they were masking the actual murder with these theatrics. The theater ran for almost a hundred years, and when you look at some of the stories that came out of the Grand Guignol, it's amazing.

So, our story basically takes place in an alternate universe of the Grand Guignol, [at] another theater, where its clientele are aristocrats who come and watch people get tortured. Now, you as an audience get to go backstage and see what's really happening and who really is being hurt and who are just actors. And each one of these stories leads you on an adventure.


Theatre Macabre starts on Thursday, October 4th and is already selling out quickly, but we're giving away a pair of tickets for the opening weekend. If you live in the Los Angeles area and would like to attend, send an email to with the subject line "Theatre Macabre" and your name, guest name, and mailing address for a chance to win!

More about Theatre Macabre:

"For nearly 70 years Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol terrified audiences with on-stage tales of madness, horror, and hilarity. Inspired by that grand tradition is THEATRE MACABRE, a new two-hour immersive production from the creators of The Tension Experience that invites audiences inside a mysterious theatre house where nothing is what it seems.

Once audiences step inside the doors of Theatre Macabre, they’ll find themselves in a fully-realized alternate reality. Across multiple floors, theaters, and nearly 20 different environments, they will encounter a world of sinister characters, each of them ready to talk, entertain… and terrify, if necessary. But what happens behind the scenes at Theatre Macabre can be even more disturbing than what happens on-stage, and as each audience member explores the world they’ll have the opportunity to unlock their own personalized, interactive storyline — where their fate will be determined by their own choices and actions.

Simply watch a play… or help secret assassins. Track down hidden jewels… or extract a confession from those who have wronged you. Side with the hero… or betray them and watch them hang.

Who will you become at Theatre Macabre?"