“What is most truly human about man”, wrote Jerome Singer, “what is perhaps his greatest gift derived from evolution and perhaps his greatest resource in his mastery of the environment and of himself, is his capacity for fantasy.”
The renowned American psychologist was deep into the study of daydreaming and its impact upon countless levels of our psyche. In the 1960s, long before the soul-draining avalanche of communication that engulfs us today, Singer concluded that the only problem with the much-maligned act of spacing-out was not doing it enough. If only I’d been familiar with his work when I was repeatedly and rudely jolted from my school-time reveries by snarling teachers in plaid and tweed.
Studies through the years that followed Singer’s have all found similar conclusions: fantasy fuels an inner freedom that is good for the soul. From the Brontë sisters’ imaginary lands to the groundbreaking moments of clarity Einstein and Newton enjoyed whilst gathering their thoughts – creativity to life-changing science – the mind’s meanderings have kindled plenty of the most memorable junctures in time.
And what a time for fantasy. Donald Trump’s unfathomable march to the Oval Office has been a moment of bleakness that to most of us remains fixed in the realms of Ballardian dystopia. Sheer fantasy – yet blurred into a reality we increasingly look to escape. In 2017, though, escapism needn’t remain solely in our minds. The eventual dawn of an authentic virtual reality at last seems tangible, technology having finally caught up with the quixotic minds of sci-fi writers; immersive gaming continues its ascendency; and the sort of all-engulfing real-world experiences run by pioneers like Secret Cinema have permeated parallel scenes and cultures.
So much so, that a clutch of high-end ‘travel designers’ are now transforming the escapades of those who can afford it – innovators like Niel Fox, founder of Based on a True Story (BOATS), taking clients who are more familiar with superyachts than easyJet on indulgent adventures that fuse itinerary-led travel with the sort of unimaginable fantasy that Jerome Singer could only have daydreamed of.
Think feeling all Bruce Willis as helicopters speed you from the roofs of skyscrapers; think dancing the night away with tribespeople on an uncharted tropical island; navigating snowmobiles across frozen Arctic lakes; or duelling mythical creatures in Ancient Greece. Really. Think the unthinkable – absurd reveries made real by hundreds of actors and months of meticulous planning. Think, as Fox calls it: ‘the antithesis of conventional travel’.
Fox’s outlandish escapism is the Secret Cinema experience on steroids; it is video gaming turned reality, attended by the sort of people who invest in video games as part of an extensive portfolio. It is the tip of an escapism iceberg. And as we know, some 90 per pent of an iceberg’s mass goes unseen. Choreographed to obscene detail, an experience like BOATS is months in planning and a logistical work of art; it also represents the lengths the human race is going to in order to escape itself. Is there something wrong with us?
Quite. We are in undeniably difficult times – Trump and Farage cackling at us through the lens of social media; prejudices we thought long-forgotten resurfacing with a vengeance; the natural world choking with humanity’s hands around its neck – and the vulnerability we feel from these types of experiences is a youthfully naïve one, as if a kind of inward regression makes these harsh realities go away, for a moment in time at least. “I think the mindset you get into taps into something from our childhood psyche”, admits Suz Mountfort, co-creator of London’s immersive dining experience Gingerline, in an interview with The Guardian. “Everyone wants to find Narnia – this is sort of the closest you can get as an adult.”
“Excitement and adventure – balanced against the fear of the unknown – is probably the fundamental travel dynamic”, asserts travel psychologist Michael Brein, who cites discomfort, romance, adventure, excitement, shock and fear as key protagonists in what we crave from travelling. From immersive dining, theatre or cinema, to the grand extravagances of the high-end travel designers, one thing remains constant: the host’s ability to balance those feelings. Entering into any one of these experiences involves relinquishing control. We want to be pushed – as Brein confirms, it is this notion we crave – but just enough.
Following its inaugural run in April, a new horror film festival in Oregan recently readdressed that balance. Pushing a little more than some may consider enough. Taking place at Timberline Lodge in Mount Hood, a lodge better known as the Overlook Hotel from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, The Overlook Film Festival (an immersive, four-day celebration of the genre) curdled the blood of its visitors to rave reviews. With live action performances written and performed by leading lights in theatre, festival goers found themselves led alone into foggy rooms, stripped of control in an overwhelming psychological experience – the very definition of Brein’s fear of the unknown.
“We want people to play at their comfort level”, explains Bottleneck Immersive’s Dylan Reiff, the designer of an immersive horror game that ran throughout Overlook. “If people want to give us their room keys and let the game seep into their experience at the festival in really invasive ways, that’s an option.” A hellish notion indeed, but one tempered with the knowledge that horror fans are likely to have a different comfort level to most.
What is your comfort level? Provoking feelings of adventure and a romance of the unknown, a new wave of tour operators are jolting their clients with a new take on the Magical Mystery Tour: companies like Jubel deal in the ‘surprise travel’ experience – the unknown acting as muse to those who’ve seen it all. Complete a questionnaire, pay your dues and turn up at the airport with an envelope that dictates your journey. A leap of faith that confirms an increasing desire to lose control. Are you comfortable stepping into the unknown?
“I soon realised”, wrote Strange Fruit author Lillian Smith, “that no journey carries one far unless, as it extends into the world around us, it goes an equal distance into the world within.” To travel is to feel, and in a world where social media has ushered in a new level of international homogenisation, travellers looking to reconnect with the world within are seeking more fanciful experiences.
MMOs (massively multiplayer online games) like World of Warcraft are allowing their users to explore assets of their personalities that have previously lay dormant, their intense escapism having even been cited as life-changing in the real world. “You’re in this world where it’s life and death”, explained a user to Ethan Gilsdorf in his book, Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks. “Adrenaline rush. You kill. It’s changed the way I interact with people in the real world. I am less patient. I am more forthright. It’s like breathing for the first time.” Are these immersive experiences allowing us to feel like we’re travelling for the first time?
Whether it’s dining amid a theatrical recreation of Twin Peaks; taking a ride into the unknown; or fending off zombies: one unifying theme here is that fantasy has been reengaged. It might be that years of craving authenticity and living-like-a-local have worn thin – that contemporary travel means the lines between traveller and local have been irrevocably blurred. It might be that every selfie backdrop has been exhausted. It may well be that repulsed reaction to the horror that plays out on rolling news. But, whatever it is, one thing is for sure: travel will never look the same again.
James Davidson is editor-in-chief of We Heart, an online design and lifestyle magazine that he founded in 2009 as a personal blog and now receives over half a million monthly views.