Can traumatizing yourself make you feel good? That's one question that horror documentary "The Blackout Experiments" asks, but never satisfactorily answers. Director Rich Fox spends much of his film painting a portrait of the emotional haze that thrill-seekers go through before and after participating in Blackout, an aggressive haunted house-type attraction. I've never participated in Blackout, but based on "The Blackout Experiments," I can tell you that it's an intense, aggressively confrontational and deeply disturbing recreational experience. Participants are physically attacked, tied up, screamed at and sometimes even branded.
Still, despite its obvious unpleasantness, Blackout leaves some participants wanting more. Fox is most interested in the people—many who remain nameless. His subjects include Russell, a middle-aged man with no nuclear family to speak of, who has been through the wringer, and now sees the world through hyper-sensitive eyes. There are other characters in the film, and some of them are fairly articulate, but Russell is the most well-developed of Fox's subjects. He participates in a by-invitation-only survivor's group, sharing his experiences with fellow Blackout participants. He's also been through four separate trials in Blackout.
Before we go further, I should probably say: I'm still not sure how to process "The Blackout Experiments." Normally I'd take that uncertainty as a good sign, but I'm not so sure. Fox takes great pains to replicate the feelings and sensations that Blackout participants go through. He films his subjects talking about their experiences in talking-head interviews that present them in a pitch-black room, harshly front-lit by what looks like a single light source. And he presents Blackout footage in snippets, creating a disorienting effect. Fox is not just reporting what it's like to go through Blackout—he's simulating it in order to allow viewers at home to make up their own minds. Is Blackout a cathartic experience, or a funhouse for jaded masochists?
Russell gets us closer to answering that question than anyone else in "The Blackout Experiments." His commentary is guarded, but his drive to do more is intriguing. Russell is forced to read a script, one that makes him sound like a sexual submissive talking about his dominant lover. In these prepared speeches, he declares that he is a willing participant who gives permission to his captors to do whatever they want with him. They then tattoo him, scream at him, bind his hands, and make him participate in various degrading acts.