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Letting off steam in the Big Smoke: Rage rooms make their Toronto debut

A vase meets its match in Battle Sports' rage room.

A visitor tests out Battle Sports' facilities.

Break Stuff, a song by the rap-rock outfit Limp Bizkit, was released in 1999, but over 15 years later it could still serve as the rallying cry for the latest form of anger management therapy to find its way to Toronto: the rage room. 

The need to blow off steam has been around since Aristotle coined the term ‘catharsis,’ around 335 BCE (in Poetics, he compared the effect of watching a tragic play to that of a laxative). But since the Great Recession, there’s been a distinct uptick in the number of dedicated venues you can go to act out physical catharsis. In 2008, Japan made headlines by opening up placidly-named venues like “The Venting Place” where frustrated businesspeople could go to throw plates at a wall. Around the same time, Donna Alexander opened a makeshift rage room out of her garage in Dallas, Texas. When strangers started showing up to use the facilities she decided to expand it into a business and opened the Anger Room™ in 2012. A year later, two teens in Novi Sas, Serbia opened a rage room of their own, presumably fuelled by their own experience of teen angst. Shortly after, rage rooms started popping up in Italy, Argentina, and now, Toronto.

At Toronto's Ye Olde Dandy’s, you can indulge in a ‘table flyppery’ service, where $10 buys you one flip of a table and the chance to Hulk out (at least until August 29th, when the pop-up business is set to close). And at Battle Sports, you can spend half an hour in their dedicated rage room, where you can spend $20 for the pleasure of smashing ceramic objects with blunt force weapons. As the business' site proclaims, it's  "a facility where you can let your hair down, gear up, and rage out."

Rage rooms predicate on the concept that there’s plenty to be angry about. And whether you’re following the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag chronicling seemingly endless instances of police violence against black people, or gearing up for another sure-to-be-tiresome Canadian election season, there seems to be more than enough discouraging news to keep these rage rooms in business. Somewhat ironically, rage rooms claim to relieve stress and anxiety –  the juxtaposition that all of these violent activities are supposed to lead to a preternatural sense of calm.

“Toronto has a reputation for being a high stress-city,” says Tim Cheung, proprietor of Battle Sports. Beyond the Rage Room, Battle Sports also features a 40-foot archery range, and the opportunity to shoot your friends with foam-tipped arrows playing something called Archery Dodgeball.

“I grew up in Vancouver and studied in Montreal and find that the culture in those cities is so much more laid-back," observes Cheung. "Toronto is all about your career and getting ahead in life. It just seems like Torontonians complain a lot more about work and life than other cities.”

He might be right. In Toronto I’ve found myself increasingly impatient of others in public spaces. Especially as a cyclist, the number of times angry epithets scroll across my brain in neon letters per day is truly alarming.

As a prime candidate for rage room therapy, I wanted to see if these services actually lived up to their claims about relieving stress, leaving you feeling like the star of a particularly jaunty laundry detergent commercial.

Battle Sports is nestled inside a nondescript strip mall in North York, about an hour’s transit ride from downtown. Inside, the colour scheme is yellow and black, like a giant caution sign come to life.

Before entering Battle Sports’ rage room, I had to sign a waiver form acknowledging that; “The rage room may result in injury, worsening of an existing medical condition, or death.” I suited up into a flimsy cotton painter’s jumpsuit in men’s size XL, strapped on a goggle helmet, and slipped into some work gloves, also men’s XL. (It appears the rage room is not built with petite women in mind.) Lined up outside the door were a selection of weapons to use at my disposal: a tennis racket, two golf clubs, two baseball bats, a shovel, a hockey stick and a crowbar.

Cheung has given me the standard five items to destroy: three mugs and two plates, plus an additional garage sale cherub ornament for free. (“Would you like something else? How about an angel.”) I picked out a golf club and closed the door, then placed a mug on the pedestal and gave it a whack. The mugs smashed artlessly, flying into big chunks on the floor. It felt awkward, like I wasn’t angry enough to be there. But the minute I experienced the elegant physics of a plate shattering beneath my club, I hit my stride. I started to feel tingly all over and picked up the pace. Line it up. SMASH! Line it up. SMASH! Soon I was in a whacking trance. I kept smashing and smashing, eventually turning my attention to the floor where I continued to club each leftover bit of ceramic, not pausing until every last shard was ground into a fine powder.

“You were very thorough in there,” Cheung remarked as I stepped out of the room.  He had watched my outburst remotely. Since only one person is allowed in the rage room at a time for obvious safety reasons, people who come in groups must rely on security camera footage of their friends' destruction.

Watching people let out their rage in public places veers towards the “horrifying” end of the human spectrum, but doing it in a controlled environment felt unexpectedly good. I was able to leave behind my buttoned-up persona and just go nuts. In the moment, consequences were completely irrelevant to the perverse euphoria of smashing everything in sight.

“From childhood, we’re taught to protect things, keep things whole, and not to break things. The rage room goes against all of that. It’s a very new experience to be in a place where you’re encouraged to break things. There’s definitely a novelty factor to it,” Cheung explains.

Matti McLean, a a co-owner of Ye Olde Dandy’s, feels similarly about the business. In June, he told the Toronto Star that the table-flippery “is a place where you can come be violent for fun.” “A lot of people joke about flipping a table, so we wanted to live the joke and take it a step further. You can flip a table full of chocolates, flowers, board games or whatever you want,” he says.

As I walked away from the strip mall to catch the bus home in the evening light, I was instilled with confidence, and dripping with swagger. That 10 minutes of intense exercise had released the kind of endorphins that my sluggish “I prefer reading at home” brain doesn’t often get to experience.

Psychologists may warn that rage rooms are a “destructive” way to let out anger, but smart entrepreneurs have tapped into the idea that maybe what Torontonians need is the permission to lose control. Besides the therapist’s office, there are precious few places in our culture left to vent. Some of us have friends and partners to share our private grievances with – but not everyone. Turning to businesses that allow the more high-strung among us to uncork the pressure of the daily grind might be one approach to a saner society. 

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