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The Claws in Our Mind

Who do you trust, and how do you decide where to place your trust? When should you follow your heart, and when should you ignore it? These questions circulated throughout my mind attending Claws, an immersive, interactive one-on-one phone call. As a volunteer for the Etcetera Hotline that helps with “life’s inevitable ‘everything else,’” a solo participant receives a phone call from a teenaged boy who has trapped a monster in his closet, and the piece asks them to guide him and make decisions in an hour-long horror story.

I love a good, tight piece of short-form horror, and Evan Neidan’s story and writing of Claws felt very much in that spirit. The structure fully explored a contained premise and relevant questions that arose from fully following the piece through to its culmination. There was room to improvise and converse, but a delightful amount of self-containment to the piece itself. Elements of the structure also reminded me of iconic video games I’ve played that have compelling, binary choices with consequences that can be debated narratively and thematically. In my experience, I had an aspect of figuring out exactly how to interact as the piece progressed, such as how much to let the actor tell me the full story versus interrupting to ask clarifying questions, or how much to respond when prompted versus coming up with my own prompts. This didn’t detract from the experience, though, and felt natural to a phone call between two strangers, one of whom is in distress. Given the skill of the actor Vincent D’Avanzo, I also suspect that any option is perfectly fine for the show.

During the experience itself, I found myself engaging on a narrative level -- what advice do I give the person on the other end of the phone, what details can I sleuth out about the situation, what is the best decision to make? Given the focus on advising someone in a more dire situation than myself, I focused on their emotions more than my own. And, immediately after the phone call, I didn’t expect it to leave me thinking quite so much. I rejoined my group of friends in bright daylight, and relaxed the afternoon away. But, as I’ve found happens with good horror, falling asleep at night my mind returned to the piece, and thinking about my experience during it. And this is where the questions I’ve been ruminating on because of it really came into play.

In days following the experience, I spent more time unpacking my experience. Had I been manipulated by a character? How so? How could I do better next time -- if I found myself in a next time? The way the piece stayed on my mind and grew my engagement beyond the phone call, as well as the way these questions related to the story’s specific narrative and broader ideas around trust and relationships, were my favorite aspects of it. They were prompted by conversations that happened in the story, which probed questions about specific relationships within the narrative and within my own life. Within my answers, I felt free to bring up my own ideas and go into detail or be shorter and more closed off if I wished.

The piece also left me thinking about the structure of one-on-one immersive projects like this. For one, there’s an intimacy to the nature of a phone call and sharing a conversation just between two people. Where it might be more difficult to share personal or serious thoughts in a group setting, the individualized setting meant I could share whatever I wanted. I was also left thinking about how much of my consumption of interactive media is through social engagement -- debating choices made, discussing with other people the corners of the experience I might have missed, and debriefing with people during and after the event. In Claws, I was given a more complete sense of agency over the show than I would have in a multi-person interactive performance, but perhaps at the cost of having others to share it with. After this show, I was left thinking, “I wish I had someone to talk to about it.” Given the show’s themes, this made sense, and possibly led to the longer, more reflective thoughts I had about the show in the following days.

On the whole, Claws lingered in my mind in a way I found thought-provoking, and the experience design felt smart in its engagement of the horror genre. It left me thinking about trust and manipulation in relationships. For anyone concerned about the fear level, I’d suggest listening to the trailer on Candle House Collective’s website for a sense of the style and content, though with the understanding that interacting with the scenario during the phone call may positively or negatively affect the amount of horror. The onboarding email suggests participants set up in a dimly lit bedroom with headphones, so the setting one attends the show in also can be used to increase or decrease the terror.

-Sabrina Sonner, Literary Lead

Editor’s Notes: This review was written after experiencing Claws by myself in February. I participated in their lottery and received a free ticket (separate from my work with Last Call Theatre). Often a waitlist or lottery is the only way to see the show, as they sell out quickly. More information can be found on the show’s website.

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