The man sitting across from you averts his stare when you reluctantly make eye contact.
Then the woman next to him tilts her phone at an odd angle toward you. Is she taking a picture? A video? A few minutes later, someone else gets up from their seat just to stand uncomfortably close to you. Why?
In a big city, even something as simple as a morning commute can inspire the deepest feelings of paranoia.
As someone who’s lived in a big city for nearly 10 years, I don’t need to read studies in order to understand the correlation between urban living and schizophrenia or mood/anxiety disorders. A multitude of situations (including commuting) trigger feelings of paranoia and anxiety within me every day: Wading through large crowds, walking down the street alone at night, and experiencing a constant barrage of noise are just a few of the many daily “big-city experiences” that affect my mental health. People truly aren’t lying when they mention immense feelings of loneliness among throngs of people.
When you’re surrounded by thousands of humans at all times, every action, choice, and regrettable decision is fully open to public scrutiny, allowing feelings of guilt and shame to easily permeate within you. Personally, I constantly alternate between thinking everyone is judging me and thinking no one cares about me at all. Which is true? Which is worse? At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter, does it?
Last week, I was invited to an event called the Guilty Party at Public Hotel that teased an experience that would elicit all these feelings.
When I arrived, I was led downstairs into a dimly lit bar where I met a man claiming to work for an anonymous tips site. “Have we met before?” he asked. “You look so familiar.” I tried to laugh it off: “I don’t think so..." But he insisted we had met last Thursday. I already felt uncomfortable, but before I could really react, two women sitting at a nearby table pulled me over and told me about a new Bushwick restaurant where you have to eat an entire pie and read slips of paper at the bottom of the tin. Their slips read: Would you rather do something bad or rat on a close friend? When they asked what I would do, I reluctantly chose the latter. “You have such an innocent face,” one of the women said. (Dubious…) “I don't think so," the other whispered in my ear. "I know you’ve done something bad…”
I was then dragged into a hallway by a guy claiming I was the "one he’s been looking for." He immediately took a picture of me with his phone — which is when my paranoia really started kicking into high gear because who likes getting photographed by a stranger? — and he told me I have beautiful eyes (aww). “Have you heard the expression ‘The eyes are the window to the soul’?” he asked. I nodded. Of course. Then, taking my hand and tracing my palm, he said, “That’s not true. It’s all in the hands. And you’ve got blood on yours" (eeek).
Right after, a man and a woman approached me and started dancing with me before grabbing and kissing each other in front of me while laughing. Not gonna lie, it was actually kinda sexy...until they covered my eyes with my hands and whispered, “We know what you did,” slowly pushing me into a crowd of other dancing people. (Sexiness: gone.) I was spun from person to person until, finally, I was left by myself. I turned around to see the entire room of people staring directly at me, strobe lights accentuating their motionless bodies and unblinking eyes. I was officially super creeped out and feeling paranoid AF.
Was there an actual party, or would my anxieties be challenged all night? Leaving the gawking dancers behind, I ran into a bouncer-looking guy who inspected my hand, which now had an inky symbol on it. How'd that get there? He wiped it away and put the napkin in a small chest as if it were my admission fee. “Don’t worry,” he said, “we’re all guilty here. Enjoy the party.” I descended the stairs and parted a red velvet curtain to reveal another room with a bar. I paused in the middle of the room for a while, scoping out the environment to anticipate any more shenanigans, but that’s when I noticed posters for Search Party Season 2 and, oh, hey, that’s Alia Shawkat in the corner! Surely Alia wouldn't harass me, right?
The interactive theatrical experience had ended, but I still felt anxious. Uneasy.
The image of the dancers staring directly at me, illuminated in strobe light, still flashed in my mind. For all intents and purposes, I was free to enjoy the party, but my hands were still sweating and heart still rapidly beating. The event’s attempt to psychologically freak me out had worked. Too well.
Although the whole experience had been staged (by the amazing Punchdrunk International, the same team behind Sleep No More), it still had a claustrophobic effect that exacerbated those paranoid, guilty feelings I often have. Spoiler alert: It was also designed to perfectly parallel the psychological state of the characters of Search Party Season 2, who have to re-assimilate into their vapid Brooklyn lives after committing a terrible crime. Although satirical, the show taps into the very real anxieties of living in an urban city, giving the characters’ situation a sense of relatability — but, you know, hopefully many of us haven’t killed anyone.
Like this event, Season 2 will tackle these heavy emotional states while also making us laugh with the same kind of dark humor the show is known for — which, take it from me, is a lot more fun to watch on TV than experience IRL. And if you haven’t seen Season 1 yet, you should probably just stay inside and binge it on the TBS app now (commercial-free and unlocked!). Because, after all, you never know who’s watching you outside.
Header by Sarah Stone and Marjan Farsad