Rage rooms, the Zumba of 2016. A "cultural phenomenon" profiled everywhere from the Wall Street Journal to the Guardian. An insight into the frustration bubbling beneath the surface of the neutered modern psyche. A room where, for between 10 and 45 minutes, you'r allowed to break anything and everything you can. Padded protective wear and baseball bat supplied.
"Cathartic" is the word that comes up most often when people are talking about rage rooms. And it does seem there'd be something deeply satisfying about laying waste to a room. It's so far removed from the advice we're so often given for dealing with anger—do some yoga, try meditation, breathing exercises. Where these are all so passive, rage rooms feel active. You are doing something about how shitty you feel.
So I wanted to try one out for myself—to see whether they actually live up to the hype and also because, honestly, I'd had a pretty awful week at work. So I roped in perhaps the most chill person I know, VICE staff writer Kat Gillespie, for a visit to Australia's first rage room, the Break Room.
The Break Room's owner, Ed, tells us the idea for starting his own rage room came during a particularly stressful time at work—"I was literally working 13 to 14 hours a day... and I always had this fantasy of throwing my phone against a wall," he explains.
This is surprising, Ed rivals Kat for the appearance of calmness. But he says the stresses of his customers have since put his own in perspective. d shows us around the Break Room—shattered plates and glassware piling up on the far wall, shelves full of breakables, and complimentary pink baseball bats to smash it all with. There's pink everywhere actually, a choice Ed explains was deliberate.
The shade is called "Baker Miller" pink, and it's been widely used in prisons to reduce violent behaviour among inmates. Ed tells us he wanted to make a distinction between destruction and violence. Throwing a plate against a wall in a rage room, he says, "it's not a violent act."
This was something I'd heard before. Shawn Baker, who started Tantrums LLC in Houston, told me he's often asked if his rage rooms makes people more aggressive. "My answer is no. In fact, I see the opposite," he said. "Once people are through with their session they are tired, relieved, relaxed, and laughing."
Of course, this is all anecdotal. I was curious what science had to say about rage rooms and whether venting anger in short, controlled bursts could be a better way to deal with our feelings. And according to Dr Christopher Groot, an associate lecturer in the University of Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences, the research doesn't really back this up.
Dr Groot explained that the idea "emotions are something that need occasional venting or catharsis... and the notion that venting by smashing things is a healthy thing" isn't supported by science. Instead, he says, all the evidence suggests raging could actually make you angrier.
"To make a long story short, maladaptive things can feel good in the moment but are likely to be harmful in the longer term," he said. "Think coping via consumption of chocolate—perhaps pleasant and distracting in the moment but..." I let Dr Groot trail off, not wanting to know whether eating chocolate to feel better is maladaptive.
Dr Groot and his head of school, Professor Nick Haslam, pointed me to a widely cited paper about anger, written by Professor Brad Bushman. In it, Bushman and his colleagues investigated "catharsis theory" a treatment popular with 19th century Freudian psychologists that can be basically summed up as "just let it all out."
"For reducing anger and aggression, the worst possible advice to give people is to tell them to imagine their provocateur's face on a pillow or punching bag as they wallop it," Bushman wrote. "If followed, such advice will only make people angrier and more aggressive."
I asked Bushman for his take on rage rooms—whether he thought his seminal work on anger applied in this case, or if they are just a harmless past time. "People might love 'rage rooms,' but there is no scientific evidence that they work to reduce angry feeling and aggressive impulses," he replied. "Indeed, research shows that venting has the opposite effect. It is like using gasoline to put out a fire—it feeds the flame."
So all the evidence was looking pretty bad for rage rooms but, if you've visited one, it's hard to get past how great it feels to smash things. At the Break Room, Kat and I split a crate between the two of us—hurling donations, factory rejects, and op shop crockery against the brick wall.
As we watch Kat slamming vinegar bottles to smithereens through the reinforced glass, I ask Ed who the Break Room's typical customer is. He says the most frequent "rager" is a top criminal lawyer, someone who literally has other people's lives in his hands. Then there are the corporate groups, his bread and butter.
Ed says office workers love to smash up the office printer to a soundtrack of Kanye's "White Skinhead"—a Freudian slip that makes for a particularly horrifying mental image. "One company brought in an old MacBook Air. They claimed it on insurance," Ed recalls, holding up the laptop's twisted remains. "I'm not sure how legit it was."
"Seventy percent of our customers are women," he explains. "They have stressful jobs... they just need something to break the cycle." Rage rooms around the world reported this same gender split, with way more women than men visiting. "I think it's because women are raised not be aggressive," Shawn Baker from Tantrums in Houston said. "You can be as aggressive as you want. The more aggressive the more fun. And there is no judgement passed on you."
There was something in that, the freedom rage rooms give you to express how you actually feel without being labelled as "crazy" or "emotional." All the science may be against them but, hey, shattering some weird child's sculpture thing Ed had picked up at Savers did make me forgot how terrible I'd been feeling for the past couple of days. At least for a little while, until I realised on the walk home that I'd forgotten to bring my house keys with me.
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