Do you enjoy a really good scare? Where your heart is beating fast and you laugh nervously from being shocked and scared? Then you are in the perfect spot when you visit Dystopia’s dark entertainment experiences where visitors engage with zombies, psychopaths, monsters, evil prison wardens, really, anyonewho will give you a hard time.
I recently experienced “Fear the Prison”, set in the basement of Horsens’ old state penitentiary from 1853 which has been closed since 2006. Not so long ago, these cells were filled with real inmates and the jail run by real employees. Last week, I visited the jail basement with three of my students from a course I teach on playing with fear in media fiction.
Jonas Bøgh Pedersen comments on my use of the expression “haunted house.” The Dystopia experience is more than a haunted house, it is interactive live total theater where you, the visitor, is protagonist in a horror-themed story where you have a mission and must fight to survive.
I have tried haunted houses in the US and the UK – I use the expression “haunted house” to cover both traditional haunted houses and the now more common interactive horror experiences that may or may not have supernatural themes – and I was impressed with Dystopia Entertainment. This was as scary and immersive as my earlier experiences and is set in Denmark where horror is still a niche genre.
I met Jonas and asked him 8 questions:
- What is Dystopia Entertainment?
Dystopia Entertainment was founded four years ago by four people. 2018 is our fifth year. We are really just a group of twisted individuals who love to scare people. I love haunted houses, theme parks, and Halloween. We want to make the experience as immersive and realistic as possible, we aim for hyperrealism. Dystopia Entertainment is mostly based on volunteers. We have 500 volunteers in total and each entertainment experience involves about 200 people. We call it the Dystopia family because we share having a great time doing our entertainments. We have fun together. For some of our volunteers, this is also a social place and space, because some of them have troubled backgrounds and some don’t talk to their real families.
- How do you find your volunteers?
We started with our families and our friends and then expanded from there. We also found volunteers via Facebook, and some volunteers through my father, who is a dean (a priest, a Danish provst). We now do auditions where people come and audition for all roles, both speaking and non-speaking. My father is a dean and our first haunted experience, “Peter’s Nightmare,” was with my father’s confirmands in Hadsund deanery. In Denmark, most young people are confirmated (konfirmeret), but only few believe in God, so for the confirmands this was a fun experience, not a religious experience. We held “Peter’s Nightmare” in Vive church and in two barns and a forest between the barns, with Peter denying Jesus three times before the rooster crowed. My father is very progressive and has embraced Halloween. There were about 150 confirmands from the local area. I had bought a piggy mask in the US and this mask/character became our mascot. My father was the first Mr. Piggy with a chain saw, chasing victims behind his church.
- What is your favorite haunted house experience?
I loved “Generation Z” in London in 2014. It took place in the underground tunnels after a zombie epidemic and you had to find people, get electricity working, do stuff. It turned out that one in our group was an actor, but we didn’t find out until he was shot dead with blood splashing up on the wall. Very convincing! Our group was split up and we had to make many choices on the trip. It was really great, very interactive, very immersive, with people dying (those were actors!!).
- Is Dystopia an extreme haunt?
No. As said, I will describe us as interactive live total theater, a horror experience. If you want an extreme haunt, McKamey Manor in the US is the most extreme. This haunt has a waiting list of 10.000 and no one has yer completed the eight-hour long tour. Here, they feed visitors dog food, and they put you through the kind of torture that is used to train the special forces soldiers in the US army.
A few years ago, we marketed the Dystopia experience as extreme and a few people were disappointed that it was not extreme, so we don’t call it extreme. Instead, we are theme-based and each experience has its own story where the visitor has a mission. You can exit our haunted house experiences at any point if you raise your arms. Then you are escorted out immediately.
We’ve made several haunted house experiences. Our main experience is in Vejle, Jutland, in a big industrial building with 45 rooms. We call it “Dystopia Haunted House” and it is our post-apocalyptic home complete with fascism, chaos, mad scientists, and laboratory experiments.
Another haunted house experience we did was at Danish castle Koldinghus. Koldinghus was used by the Danish royal family when there was danger in Copenhagen, the capital, because it was far away. Koldinghus contacted us because they wanted to attract younger visitors and asked us to create an interactive experience. They had an intern writing a thesis on Koldinghus and communication of history, and we collaborated with this intern and with Koldinghus. This haunt was more of a puzzle solving experience with actors, CGI effects, and haunted house elements, based on historical facts from Koldinghus’ history. We also integrated technological elements like CGI ghosts. I personally favor technology and we try to integrate it as much as possible in our haunted house experiences.
We have also made a 5–k horror-themed obstacle run set in our site in Vejle. This year will be our fourth run. It involves zombies and other monsters too. Participants run through the forest and through our house. Thus, they also enter the Dystopia universe. There already exists a zombie run in Denmark where the participants sign up as either runner or zombie. In our run, you can only be runner, and we do the scaring.
Our latest experience is “Fear the Prison” (Frygt Fængslet) at Horsens jail. Here we use the site of the real prison and its unique setting and atmosphere. We have made an experience that combines the prison building with psychopaths, zombies, monsters, and what you would now have come to expect from a Dystopia experience. The visitor becomes an inmate and gets a number when starting the experience in small groups of four to five people.
- Why do you make haunts?
I can’t help it. I’ve been fascinated by horror – movies, theme parks, the Haunted Mansion in Disneyland – since I was a child, and I always wanted to be part of them. I love creating the Dystopia experiences. I love to see joy and terror in the eyes of our visitors.
Also, I enjoy using data and science to make our experiences as real as possible, using neuropsychology and technology. I have collaborated with Danish film scholar Mathias Clasen from Aarhus University about the facts and psychology behind our fascination with horror. His book Why Horror Seduces (2017, Oxford University Press) is partly based on research he did with his students at our site in Vejle where they interviewed our visitors.
- What would be your favorite next venue?
At the moment we are looking into several options so I can’t reveal the next experience. But I’d love to do a Dystopia haunted house at a hospital. There are some vacated hospitals in Denmark. Also, I would also enjoy doing a WW2 underground experience.
- Comments on gender and Dystopia?
More than half of our visitors are female, and also more than half of our volunteers are women. In my experience, men do not prefer horror more than women.[Indeed, during my tour of “Fear the Prison” two memorable actors were women, one a very convincing warden shouting at the visitors to line up in rows and the other a crazy inmate lying on the floor and clinging to my leg as I was trying to leave her cell]
- What is your vision for Dystopia Entertainments?
The concept of haunted houses and Halloween scares is still a recent one in Denmark, where horror is a niche genre and niche entertainment. However, today Halloween has overtaken fastelavn in revenues and popularity (fastelavn is a Danish Carnival custom where children dress up).
My vision is to show Danes how great the Haunted House Experience can be and what we at Dystopia can deliver. Also, I want us to incorporate still more technology to design an even more immersive and hyperreal experience. I want to really WOW our visitors and convince them their experience is so real, that they completely forget, they are in a safe environment.
Dystopia is owned by Jonas Bøgh Pedersen, Nick Hadsund, Tommy Salholt, and Ulla Varneskov.
Last: If you love haunts and terrifying places, you might enjoy this recommendable book by sociologist Margee Kerr about haunted houses and other horror experiences.