Rage Rooms Explode

Called rage rooms or smash rooms, they are popping up—like the emotion that prompts them—all over the place. The idea is as simple as an old comic strip: Wham! Pow! You whack and shatter anything you like with neither apology nor consequence, then leave someone else to clean up the mess. Proprietors say the rooms are especially useful around the holidays—and in today’s political climate. Like we need more rage?

Rage on, and on, and on … (Credit: Bohdan Cap, courtesy of Scrapclub)

Still, I test the idea on several people, and their eyes light up.

Anger no longer even seems to need much of a cause; it just bubbles along, fed by streams of resentment or powerlessness or frustration. We tried escape rooms first—but there was no escaping it. Now we want to rent a special place we can flood with rage.

Granted, ours is not the only angry country. The first rage rooms opened more than a decade ago in Spain, then Japan, followed by rage rooms in Serbia, Argentina, the U.K.—and hundreds here. We do not resolve rage well. Other cultures treat the emotion with far more subtlety, notes a piece on National Public Radio: The ancient Greeks were careful to distinguish quick bursts of temper from long-lasting wrath. Mandarin has a word that mixes regret and self-hatred, used when you are only angry at yourself. German has a fun word, “backpfeifengesicht,” for a face that just begs be slapped. In India, there is the sudden flare of anger, “when eggplant hits the hot oil”; there is a clean differentiation between political and personal anger; there is a loving anger that acknowledges and contains marital exasperation.

Here, we just smash things. Several rage rooms have mobile units (I do hope they park well away from food trucks and day care) and offer packages for team building (this seems worrisome), “productivity training with hammers and bats,” and birthday parties.

In a New York rage room, the “couples therapy” package for about $100. What will get creamed as people smash things in a froth, and how much will be remembered tomorrow (meaning forever)?

There are BYOB options—Bring Your Own Breakable. Ritual is always useful, but personally, I find it more freeing to just casually toss away a memento from an ex, perhaps waiting until the trashcan holds the sloppy insides of a pumpkin, than to need to smash it to smithereens. Anger is a form of attention; it gives its object power.

Given the tantrums already on display in sporting arenas, online forums, and talk radio, I was ready to blame this trend on testosterone. But several owners have said that the vast majority of their customers were women. Well, okay, I get that, too. But will it help?

Anger is so often secondary, rather than the root of the problem. We are scared, or we feel slighted or exploited, inadequate or helpless or frustrated. Anger is a lot more fun to feel than any of that. A choleric friend once admitted that her bursts of irritation gave her “something to look forward to.” A blast of anger shoots you into the sky in a blazing arc of righteousness, letting you soar above all those hesitations, murky gray areas, and other points of view.

Quoted in one article after another, the participants in rage rooms seem … pumped. They are thrilled at the chance to express destructive rage without feeling guilty, dreading consequences, or cleaning up after themselves. More than that, they find the experience fun—and eminently sharable. One proponent says that rage rooms allow consumers to make a memory instead of buying a product.

These are the sorts of memories we used to bring up in therapy, not video with our friends. Does it really help to cherish them? By now I am muttering my thoughts aloud, rather loudly. What pisses me off the most about rage rooms is their contrived, commercialized nature. Before you can be spontaneous, you have to fork over cash and don overalls, face masks and gloves. Anger ought to be dangerous.

From the next room comes my husband’s voice, suggesting that I lighten up. “No one’s getting hurt, babe. It’s got to be better than repressing it.”

“Whatever happened to counting to ten?” I call back. “Or going for a walk? Or calling a friend? Or writing a letter and tearing it up?”

Anger scares me. When I was little, I am told, my version of a tantrum was to run to my room, climb into my crib, and go to sleep. I do not recommend such passivity; its upshot is that in adulthood, if I am seriously angry, I wind up crying in inarticulate frustration because I cannot (or dare not?) find words strong enough. Maybe it would help to smash something instead?

Summoning some raw frustration, I carry a chipped teacup outside, and hurl it at the garage. The dog looks at me strangely for the rest of the day. There was some satisfaction in that loud crack, that power to change something’s shape forever. But there are too many degrees of separation. What did that teacup ever do to me?

One rage room is called Axe Monkeys, which taps into the deepest reason for my fear. We call destructive behavior animalistic, yet in animals, as far as I can tell, aggression is purposeful and fleeting. Ours just builds upon itself. Primal and easily out of control, rage virtually guarantees unplanned consequences.

Which is precisely the appeal of containing it in a prepaid room. Since 2007, artists Joel Cahen and Wajid Yaseen have been staging something quite different: public Destructivist events on the streets of London, Amsterdam, and Newcastle, in which people smash up even bigger stuff. This is not mindless aggression, Cahen writes, but something far more thoughtful, a group act that emphasizes the unrefined individual in opposition to layers of manners and mannerisms and machine interactions. It is also fun, he adds: You are redefining the human-object relationship, and there is “what Lacan terms jouissance, in engaging with the destructive process.” I contact him, curious whether he would draw a distinction between Scrapclub events and commercial rage rooms. Absolutely, he replies. Scrapclub is a ritualistic group performance in front of an audience, and “the collective act absolves the rage,” whereas in rage rooms, “there seem to be no therapeutic angle to it. Stuff gets smashed, but you’re still seething on the inside. The rage rebounds within the walls. It’s an outlet, but it feels—masturbatory.”

Freud would adore all this cathartic and possibly masturbatory venting. But then, he thought we were all steam radiators, hissing and easily overheated. Of all his theories, that notion of buildup and escape valves seems toughest to dislodge. We persist in thinking of tantrum-style venting as a healthy release. One proprietor said she has seen clients “integrate rage rooms into their routines,” like a kale smoothie or a spin on the Peleton.

Science was supposed to settle all this. In 1872, Charles Darwin noted that “the free expression by outward signs of an emotion intensifies it.” In 1973, Albert Bandura went before the American Psychological Association (of which he was president) and begged for a moratorium on the use of venting in therapy. In 2001, an article titled “Does Venting Anger Feed or Extinguish the Flame?” noted a simple study in which, after an insulting remark, some people pounded nails for ten minutes; others did not. Far from being calmed, those who pounded nails wound up feeling more hostile toward the person who insulted them.

The 2001 research built on that study by comparing three experiences: ruminating on one’s rage while hitting a punching bag, hitting a punching bag only to keep fit, and doing nothing. Those who did nothing experienced less anger and aggression than either of the other two groups, whether they were punching to vent or just punching for exercise.

Since then, a long list of studies has shown that venting does not reduce aggression; if anything, it heightens it. By venting you are dwelling on the outrage, ramping up your biochemical response, generating enough emotion to guarantee that the anger will stick in your memory, spiraling into resentment, hatred, wounded martyrdom, take your pick.

What does help, according to the researchers, is expressing anger directly, to the person who caused the anger, in a situation where that person will not retaliate. But such situations are hard to come by—and they require some tricky negotiation. So instead, we have the rage rooms. Also the Do Hit Chair, a big stainless steel box that arrives with a complimentary sledgehammer. You pound the steel into the shape of a chair, then slump, exhausted and supposedly peaceful, into the contours you have created.

Societally, that seems to be exactly what we are doing. And we will be stuck for years, trying to wriggle into comfort on the contours our rage has created.