Halloween has come and gone, and during this year's extended spooky season I explored well over a dozen different haunted houses, terror trails, and other scary attractions. And while I was amused, startled, or even disgusted (in a good way) by my adventures, none truly disturbed me ... until now. A Study of Dreams, my final adventure of the Halloween season, was an adults-only interactive experiment that didn't simply strain my comfort zone to the breaking point – it sent me home with wet pants.
A Study of Dreams, which concluded its sold-out limited run last weekend, was the latest immersive role-playing experience from Pseudonym Productions, who previously presented The Republic, When Shadows Fall and last Halloween's Catharsis. Creators Ricky Brigante and Sarah Elger applied the lessons they learned from their prior efforts to A Study of Dreams, creating a more personal and accessible offering.
"We wanted to continue the same level of unique interactivity and engagement that simply cannot be found with any other experience in Orlando," Elger told me afterwards, "while simultaneously breaking boundaries and taking people out of their comfort zones to see how far they are willing to push themselves for self-discovery and acceptance, masked under the guise of entertainment."
To that end, their latest show dispensed with the elaborate pseudo-Platonic backstory that underpinned their earlier shows, in favor of a new storyline inspired by Dr. Frederik van Eeden, a real-life contemporary of Freud who coined the term "lucid dreaming." Pseudonym also abandoned the humid industrial warehouses they formerly occupied, and instead set up shop inside an undisclosed Thornton Park residence, which was transformed with black sheets and fog machines into a low-tech limbo. After signing a legal release and learning the emergency "safe word," players were shuttled to the venue blindfolded and fed a foul-tasting "tincture" before being led into the "dream realm," where a series of scripted scenes played out around them in a lounge-like environment.
Most of my 90-plus-minute visit was spent sucking back baby bottles of beer fed to me by Tabitha (Elger), the sardonic bartender who knows everyone's secrets.
"Last year we also discovered we love running a bar," explains Brigante. "Especially during Catharsis we found the themed bar environment, rich with story and character, was an opportunity for us to endlessly play with our guests and entice them to play back." While imbibing, I interacted with Dr. van Eeden himself (Sam Matuszek), as well as Daniel (Robert Cunha), the doctor's eager acolyte, and Daniel's anxious wife, Olivia (Hillary Shurtleff), whose dreams are haunted by a tattooed siren known as Isabelle (Marlee Johnson).
During my time in the bar, I bantered with performers and fellow patrons about free will and infidelity; witnessed an impromptu trepanation; and helped our guide, Limbo (Leo Uhakheme), make a fatal decision during the finale. But while I enjoyed the performances in the main room, especially from the fearless female cast members, it wasn't until I was summoned into the side rooms that I realized how far Pseudonym was willing to push the interactive envelope.
Each player was presented a choice of paths during the evening; I chose to follow Isabelle down the more "depraved" route, and got more than I bargained for in a pair of intense, intimate encounters that broke through my usual bubble of critical detachment. In the first room, a masked masturbator made me examine his scrapbook of gory pornography, where I found my own face inserted among the stomach-churning snapshots. In the second, I was asked to strip to my underwear and sit inside a running shower while a half-naked woman writhed against me, with others watching us.
As invasive as these interludes were, Brigante insisted that "we don't include anything 'extreme' simply for shock value. It's all driven by the story we are telling and the themes we are trying to convey." I can't say that the experience taught me "to live your life to its fullest and not be hindered by who you think you should be," which Elger said is the company's core objective. But it was, as Brigante said, an "entirely memorable visceral experience" that left me shaken and soaking, something no other similar attraction can claim.
The experiment has ended for now, but Elger and Brigante are actively seeking investors for a permanent location, and plan to produce more small pop-up experiences until then. Like their previous productions, A Study of Dreams suffered from some logistical and logical flaws, but Pseudonym's willingness to explore the extremes of interactive entertainment has attracted a loyal following. Personally, I'm willing to take another dive into whatever Pseudonym dreams up next ... but I'll be packing a change of dry clothes.