The posters looked innocent enough, really.
Colourless posters, produced from a black-and-white printer with the image of a smiling woman wearing some sort of contraption over her eyes. FREE VIRTUAL REALITY EXPERIENCE is written over the poster’s top in large, white letters, and other than that, the only real information given is a date, time, and location.
It’s the promise of a virtual reality experience that makes me hesitate before the poster. Now, I don’t know a whole lot about virtual reality – my ability to keep up with the latest technologies has always been abysmal, but I will say that I’m very interested in what virtual reality is capable of, particularly as a video game fan. So when I see the poster, only one thought crosses my mind: “when else am I going to get a chance like that?”
And besides, who can argue with a price like free?
So the day comes, and I make my way to the location, really not all that sure of what to expect. I wonder if it’s going to be busy. I wonder if someone will have to assist me with the equipment. I wonder how long it’s going to take. I don’t really wonder about the things I’m going to see.
When I get there, I’m the first of five people to arrive. They’re still setting up the equipment, so we wait outside in the hall, watching as a camera crew unpacks their equipment near us.
“I hope you guys don’t mind,” one among the camera crew calls to us, “but we’re doing a project on virtual reality. Is it okay if we film you?”
Nobody has any disagreements.
Then, finally, a representative of the event walks out into the hall – a small, pretty Asian woman with a quiet voice, only a little bit older than I am.
“Now, we only have four headsets,” she says, “so we can only take four at a time.”
As I was the last person to arrive, I’m more than happy to let everyone before me go ahead, but I follow them into the room anyway, curious to see the equipment for myself. It’s hard to say if they lived up to my expectations, simply because I didn’t really have any expectations. Still, they look like nothing more than goggles with cell phones set into the fronts, the audio coming out through regular headphones.
I watch as those who came before me walk up to their own headsets, each of them provided with a single person to assist them. That’s when I hear the explanation of what we’re actually here for for the very first time.
I don’t mean to overhear it – it wasn’t said to me. Rather, it’s said to the young man next to me, the one who’s being assisted with his headset.
“The video that you’re about to watch contains some very graphic content. Are you alright with that?” the woman assisting him asks, as she’s already sliding the heavy goggles over his eyes.
“Um…” the boy says, “what kind of graphic content?”
“You’re going to be experiencing life from the perspective of a pig in a slaughterhouse. Some of the images are going to be very disturbing, so if you want to stop at any point, you can. But if you make it all the way to the end of the video, we’ll give you five dollars.”
I freeze, dread coming slowly upon me, and all I can think is, “what have I gotten myself into?”
At that point, as the headsets turn on around me and all I can hear is the muffled, quiet sound of pigs squealing, I consider leaving. I consider turning around and walking out, because they can’t stop me, can they? They would have to understand if I said that I couldn’t handle it, that the idea of personally watching a pig be slaughtered is just too much for me. They’d just have to…
But then there’s that other part of my mind, the small, excited child that says, “but… but… virtual reality… when else will I get this opportunity?”
So I sigh and give in, and I wait for my chance to watch the pig slaughter.
At that point, a few more unsuspecting victims have trickled into the room, and I try to explain to them what’s going on in a whisper. It isn’t long, however, before the Asian woman with the quiet voice approaches us and asks us to wait out in the hall.
“The video’s almost finished, and some of them might start to cry. We want to give them as much privacy as possible.”
I smile understandingly and step out into the hall, all the while wondering, “what in the hell have I gotten myself into?”
Out in the hall, I talk to a couple of my fellow victims, admitting to them that I’m a bit nervous about this.
“Yeah, I am too,” one of them says with an awkward little laugh, “but I can’t imagine it’s too bad. It’s probably just like those videos on the internet… have you seen those videos on the internet?”
I say that I have, but omit the part where I always turn them off or look away before they’re finished. I may watch a lot of horror movies, and I may have laughed at a lot of very gruesome scenes in film, but all of that is just fantasy. You aren’t actually watching people die there, you’re just seeing the collective talents of a group of artists all aiming to make it look as real possible. But this… this is real…
A girl from the group who went in before me walks out then, not looking at anyone. She’s all alone, walking fast, and though her head is kept down low, I can tell that she’s crying. And for the very last time, I think, “what in the blazing Jesus have I gotten myself into?
The Asian woman with the quiet voice steps into the hall and invites two more people to come inside. So I follow her without a second thought, claiming a chair and a headset as she gives me the same spiel that I’d already heard her give the boy before me, ending as it did before with, “and if you make it to the end of the video, we’ll give you five dollars.” It’s at that point that I realize what this is: not a test of strength, not a chance at experiencing a wonderful new technology, but a challenge. If I can make it to the end of the video, then I get a shiny five dollars that, realistically, will probably go toward laundry – but free laundry!
And so, promising myself that no matter how bad things get, I’ll make it to the end of the video, I press play.
The video starts in a modern farmhouse, showing us the pigs in their tiny, inhumane pens. Its a terrible image, but it’s one that I find difficult to focus on, because my mind is simply too preoccupied with fears of what’s coming next. And, on top of that, I’m just so enthralled with this technology that I’ve never used before but always wondered about. I turn around, and the screen doesn’t end – behind me, there’s just more farm, as though I’m actually in the environment. I look down at where my legs should be, and there’s just a pig standing where I am. I am a ghost, a floating consciousness hovering above the scene. I don’t get over the shock of it until about the same time that the scene changes.
The video’s narrator explains to me that we’re now in the slaughterhouse proper, and he describes briefly the sort of images that I’m going to see, but I don’t think my mind fully processes it. I don’t think I even realize that that was what he was saying, until two pigs enter the room and I watch as they receive electric shocks to the back of their necks. “Oh,” I think, “that’s what he was saying.”
I watch as the pigs convulse, horrified to realize that they’re still blinking, that they still haven’t died. A man pulls their twitching bodies from their pen then, and stabs each of them in the sides. As I’ve said before, I’m a big fan of horror movies, so of course, that’s the first thing that comes to mind as I watch the pigs continue to twist and writhe, spilling endless sheets of blood, so much that it’s almost impossible to believe that there was even that much blood in them. I’m struck by how pink and fleshy they are then – like little people, I think. With their backs turned to me, lying on their sides like that, they can almost be mistaken for people.
My hands are shaking, I realize. They’re still gripping the goggles, still grounding me to the fact that I’m not actually there, but they’re shaking.
That scene is the longest part of the whole video, dwelling on the image of the pigs’ bodies long after they stopped twitching, when their little sides are just barely rising and falling with their cruel and unfair breath. Thankfully, that scene was also the worst part of the video. After the pigs are dead and they can no longer feel any pain, the rest of the video is dedicated to skinning them and preparing the meat – which is difficult to watch, don’t get me wrong, but only because I’ve been privileged enough to not have to do that part for myself. Really, it’s no different than what would happen on a family-owned farm, or after a hunting trip, or in any scenario at all where you plan to eat meat and therefore, must prepare it. The worst part of the video is over. The poor creatures are dead.
When the video ends, I pull off the goggles, and the Asian woman with the quiet voice is there to greet me. She asks me if I made it all the way to the end of the video, and I tell her that I did, upon which she wants to talk to me about it. It’s a very odd experience, because on the one hand, I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t know what to say that will do what I just saw justice, and anything I can possibly do to describe it feels like an understatement. But at the same time, just ignoring it feels wrong too. It just feels like one of those things that should be followed with respectful silence and thought, rather than discussion.
At some point, I wound up with a plastic cup of warm tea and a soft, vegan cookie to help calm me down (and, of course, the shiny five dollar bill that I definitely earned). I’ve found myself in a group of people, first discussing what they saw on the video, then discussing veganism (the overwhelming consensus being that it’s the only acceptable diet, and though I’d consider myself a socially-conscious omnivore, my brain is still too frazzled to argue at this point), and then somehow, they started discussing drug use, particularly the use of mushrooms. I don’t really have anything to contribute to this conversation, my only personal experience with intoxication being a very brief dabbling with alcohol, but I find it interesting to just sit there and listen to their perspectives, to get to know people who I might not have even met otherwise. In that moment, despite the graphic video and my brain that still can’t process anything more difficult than “I got my money and a cookie, yay”, I feel completely at peace, completely satisfied with this environment I’ve found myself in.