Arts / Performing Arts

Houston’s Scariest Secret Haunt is Anything But Another House — Inside the Rabbit Cage

Immersive Theater Project Uses Psychology for its Frights

BY // 10.17.19

A group of actors come together to make a fall haunted house experience above a bar with a mysterious history. Instead of becoming masters of their own creation, they find themselves guided and directed by an ancient entity experimenting in a new kind of terror.

This might sound like the latest fright flick set for a Halloween release date or the next American Horror Story season, but instead this is the story of Rabbit Cage, the latest immersive theater project from Dinolion productions. 

While Houston, and Texas in general, possess theater companies serving almost all theatrical inclinations, only a few companies across the state specialize in the kind of immersive theater found in New York and London that allow people to leave their seats, if seats even exist, and wander through the action of a play. In Houston the video and event producers, Dinolion, has become one of those few companies creating immersive theatrical experiences on a regular basis. 

While I’m usually a fan of any immersive art experience, Rabbit Cage’s rule that only one person can enter at a time, alarmed the scaredy cat in me. I don’t even like one-on-one workouts with a trainer at the gym. But my inner curiosity-cat just had to know more. So in the very broad daylight, I entered the Rabbit Cage site, the shadowy upstairs rooms of Axelrad Beer Garden, in search of Dinolion co-founding director, Jeromy Barber.   

Dinolion: Rabbit Cage, Jeromy Barber
The mastermind spirit behind the Rabbit Cage haunt is Jeromy Barber. (Photo by Tarra Gaines)

Axelrad has hosted Halloween haunted houses for several years now, but when they asked Barber about making an experience that merged fright space with immersive theater, he knew immediately he wanted to create an “anti-haunt,” one without jump scares, strobe lights, chainsaws and scary clowns. Instead, he would ground the experience in the actual situation, a group of artists constructing a haunted house experience.

But what if something happened along the way of putting up the jetsam of the haunted decor, the doll heads, scary wigs and masks? What if they encountered some ancient malevolence along the way?

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“We’ll make the premise that we were going to put on a haunted house, but then these other things happen. Rabbit Cage lives in a horror logic, a sinister being who’s taken over a haunted house,” Barber explained as gave me a backstage preview of the haunt, but he noted: “It’s all psychological.” 

While their previous works like Red House and Lionshare had certain spooky qualities to them, the rules of Rabbit Cage take the experience to a new nightmare level. Participates must sign a release form and voice their understanding that the experience includes nude actors and they’ll be asked to drink a small amount of alcohol, or nonalcoholic substitute.

Participant will also likely be touched, though never sexually, required to kneel, dance and answer personal questions of a metaphysical nature. An actor might also wash them with water and essential oils. 

Rabbit Cage follows the traditions haunted house experiences — dark rooms filled with ghostly images — but its foundation is built on a meta-concept of making a horror experience about the creation of horror.  While ushered through rooms, visitors won’t discover knife-wielding serial killers but instead hidden hints of a story about a powerful possessing spirit with a deceptively ordinary name of Tom.

Rabbit Cage’s Haunting Influences

Barber explained that when thinking of the premise, he was influenced by stories of certain new age spiritual practices especially ones of mediums channelling inter-dimensional entities, like Abraham-Hicks. The entity would then conveyed life advice to followers. In Rabbit Cage, the higher being is not so helpful, and uses the haunted house actors to do his own bidding. 

Once each audience of one climbs the darken stairs, they’ll be led by a stage manager (actress Amy Blackwell) into the first room and later guided by other characters–murderous, ghostly or both — along with the occasional masked rabbit. During the 35 to 40 minutes immersive experience, they’ll encounter a separate scene in each room echoing traditional horror tales, but also elements of theater, including monologues, choreographed dance and even an ambient soundtrack from Black Kite’s Vicki Lynn, and multimedia artist Guadelupe Rocha. 

Each room also ritually prepares the participant for a possible encounter with Tom. 

“If at any point, you’re uncomfortable or feel out of control – it’s not a violent piece – but you can say “terminate”and we will pop you out the backdoor,” assures Barber for anyone too overwhelmed at becoming part of the performance. 

The more Barber described Tom and the creepy but sometimes subtle ways he’ll make his presence known during the show, the more he sounded a bit like a tyrannical, demanding director doing whatever it took to get the best performance out of his actors, or in this case subjects. 

“Yeah, I’m fine with that,” said Barber with a laugh, at the idea of Tom as a kind of “inter-dimensional director.”  “I think I have that reputation in general, so I’m fine with that.” 

Barber also admits many people might come for a good psychological scare and not necessarily pick up any threads of a larger story. Still, he hopes by comparing their perspective with others locked for a half hour in this cage, they might discover deeper levels, perhaps inter-dimensional theater levels, beyond the frights. 

“We have the [Axelrad] balcony as our own. I don’t know how long people will hang out, but my hope is that they talk to each other and think about it. If they say: ‘No those are just arbitrary scenes like a haunted house would have,” I think that’s fine, but there is a bigger story. What I really want is for them to go home, think about it and say: That felt really weird that I opened my heart to that.”

Rabbit Cage runs every Friday and Saturday at Axelrad through November 2.

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