'Tis the Season to Be Frightened

Tucked into an unmarked, abandoned-looking storefront on 27th Street, the Vortex Theatre Company’s NYC Halloween Haunted House is a far cry from the corn mazes and hay rides typical of Halloween fright fests. But urban legends can be just as frightening as pastoral ghost stories, and NYC Halloween Haunted House proves you don’t need to take the LIRR in order to get your Halloween thrills. Back for its second year, NYC Halloween Haunted House aims to terrify each participant, individually. Like Theater for One, the project that pairs one audience member and one actor together for the duration of a monologue, NYC Halloween Haunted House is a solo experience. Unlike Theater for One, however, Haunted House gleefully forgoes any pretense of democratic exchange. Participants are left alone and unguarded, at the whim of the haunted house and its cadre of creepy performers. Make no mistake: the cards are stacked in favor of the house.

Created by Josh Randall and Kristjan Thor, NYC Halloween Haunted House is a stellar example of artists making smart choices with the resources at hand: they place sensory deprivation high on their list of scare tactics. Consequently, the special effects at play don’t constitute spectacles in and of themselves. Instead, Randall and Thor cleverly use their special effects to heighten participants’ sense of isolation. The sound system plays ominous white noise. A fog machine obscures participants’ vision. So does the lighting design, which mostly ranges from dim to pitch black.

House rules state that there is to be no talking by participants during the Haunted House experience, which lasts about twenty minutes (screaming, however, is encouraged). Participants can’t even alert performers to their mental state by gaping in terror or grinning in delight: everyone is required to wear a surgical mask for the duration of the experience. Last year, at the height of the H1N1 epidemic, the masks signified pathogen panic and the threat of a mysterious disease. This year, thankfully, those significations have dimmed, but the masks are still plenty creepy. For one thing, they tend to make wearers uncomfortably conscious of their own breathing. In the context of the haunted house, of course, they also free the wearer from the burden of communication, allowing participants to more fully internalize the tantalizingly unnerving experience. (The white masks may also aid cast members in spotting participants in the dark.)

To reveal much more about the NYC Halloween Haunted House would spoil the fun of it. Suffice it to say that the cast members do an admirable job of balancing their dual roles as wardens and shepherds. They give participants the chills, but also clear instructions about what to do next. Managing the whole event and its steady stream of participants is an enormous challenge, but the Haunted House is up for it, efficiently moving participants from a group holding cell through their individual journeys around the house. For the truly frightened, the Haunted House takes a cue from BDSM play: calling out a safe word will bring the experience to a halt. And there is something in the house to frighten everyone.

What are you afraid of? The dark? Weird noises? Rape and murder? The NYC Halloween Haunted House has something for you…

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