Preview: Immersive Horror Experiences

Haunted houses, spooky attractions and the like, called “dark rides” by enthusiasts, have created immersive horror experiences across the world for more than a century. This culture is fading, however, and one artist and academic is looking to preserve these experiences through the emerging storytelling technology of virtual reality.

Joel Zika prepares to capture a haunted attraction for The Dark Ride Project, a VR archive of haunted houses, spooky rides and horror experiences from around the world.

Joel Zika is a lecturer in screen and design at Deakin University and is behind The Dark Ride Project, the world’s first VR archive of haunted attractions. He, along with fellow VR and horror enthusiast Jon Schnitzer (The Brain Factory), will discuss the state of horror and VR in a March 14 panel titled Immersive Horror Experiences.

Between Zika’s work with preserving the history of dark rides and Schnitzer’s knowledge of current VR trends, the panel is planning to go beyond the typical talk and discussion.

“We are both passionate about horror and technology, so we’ll be putting on quite a fancy multimedia show,” Zika said. “It won’t be your usual boring talk. We have different ideas about history and contemporary horror that we want to share with the audience and convince them to join us on our ‘hauntventures.’”

Zika interviews a rider of a dark ride. These unique immersive horror experiences are fading, and The Dark Ride Project looks to capture and archive the rides which have affected and still affect cinematic horror stories today.

Zika brings a unique perspective on how VR can create immersive experiences through his work on The Dark Rides Project, where he captures the disappearing dark ride culture.

“I’ll discuss just how far back the history of the dark ride goes [and] I’ll explain how most of what we know about being frightened in a cinema comes from old experiences like the dark ride,” Zika said. “I’ll also talk about what we can learn today about building new digital experiences. I believe that the dark ride is the earliest example of virtual reality and that it is still the best immersive experience going around.”

Meeting other’s interested in horror and experiential storytelling is one of Zika’s goals during his first time at SXSW.

If we have time, I’ll talk about all the amazing dark rides that we’ve lost across the U.S. and the world and what I’m trying to do to make a record what’s left of this amazing phenomenon…There are heaps of people that I want to meet and talk to about my story, maybe even take them on a virtual ride. – Joel Zika

Zika has spent more than a decade studying dark rides and how their experiences are created. In 2016, he combined his knowledge of VR with his interest in dark rides and created The Dark Ride Project to capture these experiences across the world.

“I’ve always loved horror and building immersive experiences,” Zika said. “I live and grew up in Australia, and our approach to this type of entertainment is very different. I went to art school and started looking at how the spaces of horror cinema were created. It led me to the dark ride, and it’s a history that not many people know about, but you can see its influence everywhere.”

By combining Schnitzer’s knowledge of where VR is now and will be in the future with Zika’s historical perspectives on dark rides, the panel will explore the state of VR and horror and how haunted experiences of the past still affect current and future horror media.

“Dark ride culture has disappeared over the last 50 years as amusement parks have shut down across the country,” Zika said. “it’s a sad thing, but in their place haunt culture has boomed with independent creators making haunted attractions for local communities and big budget mass audiences. Now whilst I know the history, Jon is the guy who knows the current state of play, so we are very excited to talk about where things are going and how the past can better inform that change. It will be a really nice duel of horror and haunt knowledge.”

Wednesday, March 14
12:30pm-1:30pm
Austin Convention Center – Room 6AB

Find out more: Immersive Horror Experiences

Images courtesy Joel Zika

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