I slammed the aluminum bat into the laptop. Pieces of the shattered screen bounced on the metal table. Whack! Whack! Whack! The keys popped off. The display detached. Each time the bat landed, a satisfying crack echoed throughout the room like gunfire. I felt a surge of adrenaline. My heart raced and sweat pooled in my gloves. I lunged at a mannequin lying on the table, but one of my feet slipped and my legs splayed out into a split. The view from the floor was one of busted concrete, plastic shards, and broken glass.
It was just another Friday night at the Wrecking Club, a “rage room” in Midtown Manhattan, where patrons pay to demolish all sorts of things. My friend Annegret Falkner, a neuroscientist who studies aggression at New York University, had agreed to join me. We took an elevator down to the basement and met our destruction waiter (his actual title) for the evening. On the menu: large-screen TVs, computers, a load of dishes, and a half-dozen other items. We chose a standard package—two laptops and a bucket of plates—for $60. Suited up with helmets, safety goggles, and tactical jackets, we entered one of the Wrecking Club’s small, windowless rooms. In less than 15 minutes, we’d reduced the devices and dishes to tiny bits. I ordered a second round.
The place had a decidedly nineties vibe. Atop a piano in the hallway was a framed still from the 1999 movie Office Space—the scene where three coworkers give a printer a slow-motion beatdown. Loosely inspired by the cult film, rage rooms started popping up ten years later; among the first to open, in 2008, was the Anger Room in Dallas. At least a dozen similar facilities now dot the globe: there’s the Break Club in Buenos Aires, Argentina, a Rage Room in Toronto, and the Break Room near Melbourne, Australia. At the Wrecking Club, the atmosphere felt less like a gym than a designated location for behavior you can’t get away with in public.
Windmilling with bats or crowbars for 30 minutes might qualify as aerobic exercise. But is there any credible evidence for destructo-therapy? That’s why I invited Falkner along. She has examined the activity of single neurons in mice when they attack each other, and she told me about the hydraulic model, a theory popular in the 1960s, which posits that the drive to be aggressive accumulates over time. Her findings were consistent: something builds up, almost like a hunger, and the neural activity associated with releasing it may leave you feeling sated.
No doubt some humans find aggression rewarding, even pleasurable, just as some of us derive satisfaction from carbs or cardio. But rage rooms appear to be tapping an even broader demographic, designed to appeal to almost anyone.
While pummeling inanimate objects might serve as an escape valve, little evidence supports the notion that the controlled violence we engaged in is useful therapy. “It’s a cycle,” Falkner told me. “You get sated. But it reinforces your desire, which is why I think it isn’t therapeutic. Even exercise hasn’t been shown to be a therapy for aggression.”
Brad Bushman, a psychology researcher at Ohio State University, told me that using a rage room to reduce anger is “like using gasoline to put out a fire.” Angry people love to vent, Bushman said, and while that catharsis feels good, it’s not the best coping strategy for someone prone to flying into a fury. But Christie Rizzo, an associate professor of applied psychology at Northeastern University, argues that for most of us, decompressing in this manner is probably harmless. “It’s just designed to be something fun,” she said. “Though I wouldn’t want people thinking, This is going to help me with that problem I’ve been having with my anger. You’re going to be wasting your money.”
I hadn’t gone to the Wrecking Club to cure pent-up aggression. I was drawn to the transgressive novelty of rage rooms—the same reason I suspect most of its customers pay to pound on electronics. It’s an escape. And if nothing else, I had a blast while it lasted.