Can faking my death in a 40ft shipping container heal my anxiety… or am I just deluded?
I’m obsessed with plane crashes. I don’t know when the fascination emerged, but in the last few years I’ve spent hours trawling the internet for info on Air France flight 447, pontificating about an Atlantic article I read about MH370, and listening to a podcast called – you guessed it – Plane Crash Podcast.
Although I wouldn’t say I exactly have a fear of flying, I do spend 13-hour flights anxiously jolting awake at any sign of turbulence, and did once tell my friends that although I’d booked a holiday to Bali, I didn’t expect to actually make it there.
Because I wasn’t a plane coward as a kid, it’s hard to tell if this fatalism is inherently built into my nervous system, is a natural byproduct of my increasingly anxious transition into adulthood, or is because of my extensive research into plane crashes. As the age old question goes: which came first, my flying anxiety or my unhealthy infatuation with plummeting to my death?
With all this in mind, I decided to go to Nottingham to partake in an immersive experience called Flight, which uses binaural 360 degree sound, sensory effects, and total darkness to (kind of) convince you that you’re in a doomed plane. The experience is the brainchild of Darkfield, a theatre company created by Glen Neath and David Rosenberg that creates unsettling experiences for its audiences, each one of whom is centred as the protagonist of an eerie narrative. The group’s previous work – all staged in pitch-black shipping containers – includes Séance, which led audiences through an unnerving ghostly encounter, and Coma, which got visitors to lie down and “slip into a collective dream”.
Despite telling my colleagues at Dazed that I’m taking the afternoon off to undergo a simulation of a plane crash, when I speak to Flight’s co-creator Glen Neath, he asserts that, in fact, this is not a simulation. “It’s a theatrical experience,” he tells me over the phone. “We don’t try and put you into another world. With Flight, the first question we asked ourselves was: ‘Everyone knows they’re not on a plane, so what can we do to counter that and still make it feel live?’”
Instead of being on a plane, around 30 people are ushered into a 40ft shipping container outside Nottingham’s Lakeside Arts exhibition space. Everyone’s ticket is swapped for a ‘boarding pass’, and those who have come together are forced to sit apart in an attempt to enhance feelings of fear and anxiety – a rule my boyfriend smugly recited when offered the chance to sit next to me. The space is convincingly designed to look like a plane, with rows of three seats, tiny TVs dropping from the ceiling, and a safety notice that shows two versions of your flight: one where you survive, another where you die.
This duality is the central theme of Flight. As the experience’s description says: “Flight explores the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, taking audience members through two worlds, two realities, and two possible outcomes to their journey.” The many-worlds interpretation implies that there are an infinite number of universes, and that every possible outcome of a situation is physically realised in one of these worlds. The most famous example of this is Schrödinger’s cat – a ‘thought experiment’ in which you have to imagine a cat in a box. If something that could kill the cat was placed in there with it, you wouldn’t know if the cat survived until you opened the box, meaning that the animal would be both dead and alive until the lid was lifted. The many-worlds interpretation adds that even once the box was opened, the cat would be both ‘dead’ and ‘alive’ in different branches of the universe that are, according to our friends at Wikipedia, “equally real but can’t interact with each other”. The premise of Flight is basically the same as this, and even references Schrödinger a number of times during the performance.
Once everyone has settled into their seats, a glitching safety announcement is made via the tiny TVs, with words like ‘dead’ finding their way into a routine broadcast about the drinks trolley. The shipping container is then plunged into total darkness – except for a short return to light which offers nervous visitors the chance to leave – and for the next half hour, you have to use your imagination, 360 sound, and a bumpy seat to pretend you’re on a plane that’s going down.
The flight starts fairly normally: distant conversations, a phone ringing, and the creepily realistic feeling and sound of take-off. My favourite bit was when a number of babies started to cry and the flight attendant’s calm voice said over the tannoy, ‘please could all the babies stop crying’, and they just… stopped. But then things took a turn – with no warning, loud screams burst through my headphones. Shortly after that, all passengers were asked to move seats – not the IRL ones sitting in the dark, we only had to imagine moving seats – as the pilot muttered something about an explosion. A little voice then whispered in my ear that I was in a safe seat, and that in another world my partner is already dead – I thought maybe this was tailored specifically to me, or at least my row, and that my boyfriend in the row behind had already experienced his death. But as it turns out, everyone got this false sense of encouragement.
There were more bumps, screams, and weird machinery sounds, then the pilot returns us to the premise of Flight. He says: “There are many other worlds in which this plane lands safely, and we only have a conscious experience of those worlds where we survive. So it’s impossible to die in a plane crash; we will only ever be aware of surviving.” Although I’d heard of Schrödinger’s cat and the theory of alternate universes, I’d never thought of it in the context of a plane crash, and it’s actually weirdly reassuring. The idea that I’ll only know I’ve been in a plane crash if I survive instantly made me feel better about the whole thing. I mean, obviously I’d be dead, but I won’t know that I’m dead, which makes the pill a little easier to swallow.
“There’s a strangely optimistic feeling to the end of Flight, because you’ve come out of the other side of it, and there’s a sense of: now go and live your life” – Glen Neath
Before the flight came to an end, it reached its crescendo by way of what felt and sounded like a sharp descent – probably into the ocean – which swapped suffocating darkness for flashes of light piercing through the plane’s windows. By this point, I’d not only accepted my inevitable, imaginary death, but actually felt less afraid of crashing in reality – though I’m sure this wouldn’t be the case when actually faced with the scenario – because, for me, the biggest fear of crashing (aside from death) is not knowing what it would be like. Even though Flight wasn’t meant to simulate a crash, hearing the sounds of a falling plane and the screams of passengers facing their demise did take away some of the fear of the unknown.
“There’s a strangely optimistic feeling to the end of Flight,” agrees Neath, “because you’ve come out of the other side of it, and there’s a sense of: now go and live your life.”
While Neath might agree with me on my post-crash elation, when we spoke before my trip to Nottingham, he warned me that Flight wouldn’t act as immersive therapy to cure my flying anxiety. “I actually don’t like flying myself,” he explained, “but, you know, you’re not on a plane. This is art, so I wouldn’t think about curing yourself from the fear of flying.” Obviously I ignored him and still attempted to use Flight to heal my inner demons. Except, not really, because what actually happened – in Neath’s words – is that I spent half an hour “in a box in the dark with a group of strangers”, and my imagination did the rest.