On a quiet crescent in suburban Ottawa, Grace Roswell is seeing red.
Crowbar in hand, Grace is celebrating her 12th birthday inside the crimson-lined Vengeance Van, a rage room on wheels that shatters neighbourhood calm with explosions of glass and booming bass beats.
"It doesn't want to break," Grace says, staring down a porcelain angel that stubbornly refuses to perish.
"You might need a sledgehammer," offers Bren Walker, Vengeance Van's owner.
One triumphant swing and the winged seraph falls, decapitated. Grace allows herself a sheepish smile, her home-school stresses already flitting away.
The 'Vengeance Van'
In a year of periodic lockdowns and pent-up frustrations, the Vengeance Van has taken off as a novelty recreation service amid the COVID-19 pandemic, offering a high-energy outlet for letting off a little destructive steam.
Walker, 33, founded the mobile "rage cage" after his seven-year-old business hosting black-lit Nerf battles for kids and corporate teams shut down amid lockdown restrictions and physical distancing requirements. It's closed for the foreseeable future.
"I was about to lose my shirt," he said.
Walker mowed lawns and built decks while saving toward a 24-foot box truck. He transformed the interior with red particle-board panelling, armed it with "weapons" like golf clubs and lead pipes, then added speakers and protective gear.
Launched last summer, the Vengeance Van appears to be filling a pandemic-shaped void in the rage room market — Walker is fielding 20 to 30 calls a week.
"It's just been relentless," he said, noting bookings shot up after Ontario shut down in late November.
"We started off kind of as an experiment, and it just developed and developed … People are very angry, they're frustrated."
Some just want a bit of physical fun. Others covet a renewed sense of control — even dominance — amid the feeling of cloistered helplessness imposed by the pandemic.
"We get a lot of requests for construction material. `My ex works in construction … so I want to break drills and drywall,"' Walker said.
Demand is booming
Demand is so high that he's planning a sister ship: a mobile archery and axe-throwing truck — "Bow 'n Throw On the Go."
The smashables, plucked from estate sales or suppliers who would otherwise haul the items to the dump, run the gamut from ceramics to tables, televisions and the odd cuckoo clock.
"I liked smashing the mirror, because I liked how it exploded," says Grace.
"My favourite was the bottle against the wall," her mom, Danielle, chimes in.
A VCR and padded chair prove the most resilient foes, with Grace and her sister Emma, 13, recoiling slightly as their father, Darren, kneecaps the furniture legs with a hammer.
Ice Cube lyrics issues from the speakers: "You can do it, put your back into it."
For the Roswell family, it was about the release as much as the novelty.
"It's been a year now and there's been extra stresses and stuff. So to be able to get out and get some of that stress out and smashing stuff, it was great," Danielle says.
Spirits seem high and safety precautions protect the sisters as they launch a dinner plate and tea saucer against the pockmarked wall Frisbee-style, their eyes shielded by visored headgear.
"We've had little cuts and bruises here and there, but no one's ever been maimed," Walker says.
The weapons rack — from hatchet to Easton baseball bat — is sanitized after every session. Hairnets are provided, along with disposable gloves for those who don't bring their own.
Bookings cost $100 for 30 minutes and $175 for an hour, with the number of items at customers' disposal ranging from 35 to 55. Insurance is the main expense, as well as gas; an extra fee attends visits outside the Ottawa area.
Whether the catharsis helps with mental health is far from certain.
A healthy outlet
Patrick Keelan, a Calgary-based psychologist in private practice, doubts that violence against inanimate objects provides a healthy emotional outlet.
"The notion of catharsis with aggressive behaviour" is not supported by research, he said, warning of the potential for "harmful effects."
He said studies suggest that aggressive activity begets more of it, instilling habits of hostility rather than releasing it like a valve.
Keelan cited the concept of an "anger iceberg," where surface acrimony belies deeper causes that should be confronted head-on, such as frustrations at work or at home. He suggested more productive ways to vent include physical activity like martial arts, football and other sports.
"If it's a one-time thing that's in good fun 'I don't have a problem with it," he qualified.
Kevin Bennett, a psychology professor at Penn State University and a fellow at the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health in London also discourages the idea of rage rooms — stationary or mobile — as a therapeutic prescription.
"I don't know of any counsellor who would say to their patient, `You're feeling anxiety and frustration, I want you to go out and smash wine bottles and glass tables and you will feel better in the long run,"' Bennett said.
"The good news is, for most people, it is a reasonable way to spend an evening. It's probably fun," he added.
"I would love to try it, to be honest."
Back in Ottawa, Grace feels her birthday wish was worth it.
"I've been less active because of the COVID restrictions," she says. "But this really helped."
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