“Today is Hope’s birthday,” writes Richard Chambers on his blog, Hope is Missing. “She is 23 today. I sang happy birthday this morning to a picture of her and couldn’t get all the way through.”
“Hope” has been missing since June. Chambers started the blog out of frustration shortly after her disappearance. Police had no leads; Hope’s mother, one of the last people to see her alive, wasn’t any help; and his wedding date was fast approaching. The feeling of helplessness in his posts is overwhelming. It’s also false.
“The police have be [sic] involved and it feels like they are moving so slowly,” he writes. “It feels like they aren’t taking it seriously. A friend suggested that I start this blog both as a way to spread the word and also as a way to feel like I had some control over the situation.”
Hope is Missing isn’t real, and neither is Hope. The site is part of an alternate reality game centered on the film Head Trauma – but it’s real enough to fool a causal observer. If there wasn’t a disclaimer posted at the top of the page you just might believe Hope really was missing – and want to help find her.
“This is something I’ve been playing with for 10 years,” says Lance Weiler, the creator of Hope is Missing and director of the film Head Trauma. “Maybe you shouldn’t always believe what you see. Just because you read something somewhere doesn’t mean it wasn’t just a press release. With Hope is Missing I’m drawing from previous work and interest in that idea of ‘What is truth in the digital age?’ Even Head Trauma plays with perception; plays with what is reality.”
“This Kind of Mobius Strip”
Weiler got his start in the film industry working as a production assistant and camera operator. Over the years, he’s worked with a number of directors, learning the tricks of the trade and making short films of his own on the side. He released his first feature film, The Last Broadcast, in 1998.
The Last Broadcast, according to Weiler, “tells the story of a public access TV crew for a paranormal variety show.” The show’s producers, following up on a tip about the legendary Jersey Devil, call in an expert on paranormal phenomena and a psychic and trudge off into the woods, cameras in tow. “Four go in,” says Weiler, “one comes out alive. And he’s blamed for the murder of the other three.” The film, told in documentary form, recounts the efforts of the survivor to clear his name and prove what really happened.
Weiler created a website for the film while he was still writing the script. This was in 1996, back when most websites contained little more than pictures of cats. The site contained transcripts of 911 calls, court documents and interviews with characters from the film. It was posted as if the events depicted in the film actually happened, like an alternate reality game, before there were alternate reality games. There was even a Flash-based comic version of the film.
“It all became this kind of mobius strip,” says Weiler. “All these parts were feeding each other. … I eventually wanted to bring it to where I have right now, where it was more of a game. I was always looking to engage the audience in new ways.”
“I’m Creating a World”
Back at Hope is Missing, Chambers has received a collection of camcorder tapes in the mail from someone calling himself Deep Throat. After he uses the internet to discover Deep Throat was the name of the infamous Watergate informant (and a porn film) and borrows a camcorder, he watches the tapes and makes a startling discovery.
“ALL THE TAPES ARE HOPE’S!!!!” Chambers writes. “I almost fell out of my chair when I placed the first tape in the camera. And there she was – Hope was on screen. … What’s strange is that there is footage of someone watching Hope. It’s creepy. … The police don’t want me to show anything to anyone especially not online.”
Chambers receives a strange, garbled recording of a woman’s voice paired with images of some sort of code interspersed with a fleeting glimpse of Hope’s face. “I can’t make out much in this recording,” he writes, “but I’m sure that the voice must be Hope!”
“They’re wild times right now in terms of storytelling,” says Weiler. “I’m approaching all my work in a new way – I’m creating a world. It’s not just enough to create a script anymore.”
Weiler is an old-school media manipulator for the new media age, a post-modern P.T. Barnum. I’ve managed to catch half an hour with him on the phone, delayed a week because he was traveling to LA for a “mash-up” screening of Head Trauma. Next week he’s off to London. After that it’s back to work on the script for his next film (“it’s in the horror genre, very visceral – Lord of the Flies meets 28 Days Later“) and negotiating a deal for his new television series, which he can’t tell me about – yet.
“I kind of have a full plate,” he says – the understatement of the year.
“You Don’t Have to Play the Game”
Head Trauma was shown on 17 screens across the country last year and released on DVD almost immediately. After that, Weiler took the show on the road, showing the film in front of live audiences with a live band performing the film’s score and characters from the film emerging from the audience and calling viewers on their cell phones. Weiler calls it “Horror 2.0.”
“I think in some ways horror’s become a little bit pat,” says Weiler. “You always know when the scares are coming. What I was interested in doing was the idea of taking certain types of pervasive technology and having scares come from all over the place … taking something that’s classically passive and communal and throwing in an element of music, technology and scares.
“In New York, for instance, [audience members] were able to remix media through ispot and unlock clues, and when they were in the theater, the musicians and DJs would rescore the movie live, and characters would come out and scare people and people could use their cell phones to interact with the film. … But after they left, the movie would follow them home and lead them online. We could call them and text them. …We had all these different touch points where you could interact with the film – not just a passive screening.”
At the website, audience members are able to interact with the film even further, and even speak to the hooded kidnapper. He asks you questions over the phone, and your answers dictate what you see on the screen. Then he asks you to tell him something no one else knows about you, and when you do, he replays your words, in your voice, back through your computer, taunting you.
“Sometimes ARGs are dense and take a quite a bit of time to get into,” says Weiler. “With this we were doing media-integrated gameplay. You can enjoy it at multiple levels. You could dig as deep as you want, but you can just look at the web videos if you want. You don’t have to play the game.”
If you do want to play the game, prepare for the launch of a second installment after the first of the year. To date, over 2 million people have joined the search for Hope, with points of entry springing up practically everywhere users congregate online. There’s even a wiki.
“The Language of Storytelling Has Changed”
“We live in a remix culture, an on-demand culture,” says Weiler. “Media consumption is changing, and because of that media creation is changing. Everything now has become decentralized, controlled by the end user. When that happens it’s about discoverability. It’s all about empowering that user and finding ways to interact with them, and the language of that storytelling has changed.”
Meanwhile, at Hope is Missing, Chambers is at his wits end, and Hope’s mother is in the hospital, in a coma after a failed suicide attempt. Tips are streaming in, and Chambers is considering dropping out of school to search for Hope full time. He receives suggestions from audience members that Hope’s abduction is startlingly similar to a scene in a film from last year, in which a hooded figure abducts a young woman. The film, according to tipsters, is Lance Weiler’s Head Trauma …
Wheels within wheels.