I've always been a fan of haunted houses, at least in theory. I say in theory because I'm always a little disappointed with the level of scares these places actually provide. They have to appeal to a wide market that includes younglings, so the punches are always pulled.
So imagine my delight when Josh Randall, the creative director of the Vortex Theater Company, emailed me to let me know his company was putting on an off-season haunted house called "A Midsummer Nightmare" that is designed to "bridge the gap between scary as an amusement and something that is actually scary as hell."
Read about the whole experience after the jump...
There are a few rules in place that make Midsummer Nightmare a very different haunted house experience than you're used to: First, no one under 18 is admitted, which allows them to get away with some incredibly graphic scenes that you certainly won't see in any of your standard Halloween houses. Disgusting, weirdo sexual stuff. No actual nudity or anything (aside from a young actor's skinny bum with a snake coming out of it... or going in, there was some debate), but there are some things here you would be shocked to see in an R-rated movie.
The second rule, and the one that really sets this house apart from others, is that YOU MUST WALK THROUGH ALONE. That's right, no giggling with friends and playing tough with wisecracks--it's just you and the ghoulies. Oh, and a couple shots of whiskey, offered at the entrance to steel yourself against the horrors that await.
"The horrors" might be an overstatement, however. As fresh as the scenes presented in Midsummer Nightmare are, they still fall prey to the same basic issue as other haunted house scenes--they aren't scary. There is a sense of division in haunted houses between the audience and the performers--as if the scenes were merely interesting dioramas in a twisted natural history museum. The visitor is an observer of terror, not a participant in it. But watching people act scared or pretend to do something strange or gross is not scary.
Not to say there are no scary moments in Midsummer Nightmare, they just don't involve staged scenarios splashed with fake blood. The beginning of the experience is extremely well-conceived and indisputably terrifying. You are told before you go in that you will have a flashlight, but what you actually get is a keychain with an LED so dim you could point it at your feet and not see them. Indeed, it dawned on me as I stepped into the darkness that the light wasn't meant to help me see, but to help me BE SEEN. This kind of thing makes me very nervous.
Very soon into the walk your flashlight is confiscated and you are ordered to sit in a pitch black room. There may be others sitting in the room as well, but there isn't enough light to tell if they are other patrons or performers. You are left to imagine what's in the darkness around you, and just when you think your eyes are starting to adjust they set off a flashbulb in your face which not only blinds you but fills the darkness with all sorts of colorful phantoms, residual impressions left by the bright light. The time in this room had me so scared I was clenching my fists and teeth and making crazy faces--until I realized the performers had night vision goggles and then I tried to tone it down a little out of embarrassment.
I don't want to give away any more of what's in the house. It's a pretty short experience (as all haunted houses are, at least in New York) and I don't want to spoil too much because this is something you should definitely make it out to if you're at all interested in this kind of thing. While it remains tied to some of the conventions of traditional haunted houses, it puts you face to face with some grotesque scenarios you've never seen (or imagined [or wanted to imagine]), and introduces some brilliant new elements that make it well worth the $6 to get in. It deserves to be supported because it is an important stepping stone to my dream haunted house, one that doesn't rely on detached observation but immersion in an experience the visitor doesn't know the boundaries of, a house that demands more of its audience than simply "look." A Midsummer Nightmare makes some big strides towards this type of experience. I can't wait to see what Vortex comes up with next year (fingers crossed!).
"A Midsummer Nightmare" runs through June 13th at the Sanford Meisner Theater. Tickets can be purchased at www.midsummernightmare.com