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I was fascinated by this article in the New York Times about haunted houses — no, not real ones, but the theatrical funhouse kind that pop up around the country in the lead-up to Halloween. As Jason Zinoman writes, this spookhouse tradition is now drawing not just the usual carnival workers and the more recent Christian scaremongers featured in George Ratliff’s documentary Hellhouse but theater companies, writers and directors. Here’s Zinoman on the experience crafted by the Vortex Theater Company:

In terms of design and production, the Vortex’s “NYC Halloween Haunted House” — from the creators Joshua Randall and Kristjan Thor (he staged the imaginative downtown drama “Artifacts of Consequence”) — is far simpler and yet also scarier. It benefits from several smart dramatic ideas, like having an actress playing a mental patient remove just one of your shoes. It turns out that there’s something deeply unsettling about hobbling around with one bare foot.

But its greatest accomplishment is that most of the shocks take place inside your head. Giving away too much would ruin the fun, but imagine a Pinter pause dragging on for minutes, but instead of watching it from the comfort of your seat, you are living it. It’s an eerily quiet show with few costumes or props, although you do wear a mask.

Actors invade your personal space and treat you with barely more concern than a jailer would grant a prisoner. (There is, indeed, a jailer-prisoner scene.) But the most disturbing and truly thrilling moments come when you are alone completely, still and in the dark. It’s not merely a cheap trick. This production has a fairly consistent narrative and the way it evokes dread is more psychologically perceptive than most shows on Broadway.

It makes sense that theater artists would jump into this audience-friendly field, but why not filmmakers? Film has a much more vibrant contemporary horror tradition than theater. I’d love to see what Larry Fessenden, Dario Argento, Guillermo del Toro, and Oran Peli would do in a live situation. As a former theater and performance producer myself, I am filing this idea away for next year….

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