"Touch Me Thursdays" and "Blackout Nights": Interactive Events For Halloween Viewing

News   "Touch Me Thursdays" and "Blackout Nights": Interactive Events For Halloween Viewing
 
A self-confessed easily scared writer ventures into the haunted houses and beyond of New York.

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Halloween in New York means something different to everyone, whether it be parties with friends, office costume contests or the decades-long tradition of the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade. For those who are more theatrically inclined, there are plenty of seasonal interactive offerings (and year-round favorites) to visit or revisit to mark the occasion. The offerings in this piece range from conventional houses (Blood Manor and Times Scare) to interactive theatre pieces (Sleep No More and Then She Fell), but all have one common component: atmosphere.

Traditional scares this fall come courtesy of several of the city's seasonal haunted houses (or "haunted attractions," as some prefer to be called), and Times Scare, which operates year-round. The haunted house experience, for those like myself who are easily scared and have generally shied away from the format, typically lasts about 20 minutes and is filled with elaborate themed sets, confined spaces and costumed actors who aim to provide rapid-fire jolts of terror. Typically, the rules of the attraction prohibit visitors from touching the actors and vice versa, though there are noted exceptions. I'm in the category of haunted house visitors who scare fast and scare hard, so visiting three haunted houses for the purposes of this piece – Nightmare: New York, Blood Manor and Times Scare – tested my personal limits in the face of fear and provided a chance to confront what is, for me, a kind of fear of fear.

For those who tend to shy away from haunted houses in favor of theatrical events, there are options out there that make for excellent October viewing. In the past several years, theatre-making pioneers like immersive company Punchdrunk (Sleep No More) and Third Rail Projects (Then She Fell) have sought to push the boundaries of traditional theatre in new directions, combining atmospheric and opulently-designed production elements (especially elaborate walk-through sets), with elements of more traditional theatre, particularly when it comes to narrative, which is much more of a presence in immersive theatre than in any haunted house. The running time of these pieces tends to be longer and allows audiences to linger and consider their surroundings more deeply (in direct opposition to a haunted house's forward propulsion of its guests). Scary moments are typically less present in these two ongoing pieces, which don't strictly have to be viewed during the month of Halloween, though there are eerie moments to be found.

Whether you're looking for a quick, scary trip to a haunted house or an atmospheric theatre piece to savor, and whether you're an easy scare or a hardened pro, Playbill.com has suggestions for you to find something atmospheric to mark the occasion of Halloween this year. Click through to read.

The Haunted Houses
Nightmare: New York

For a scary night out on the town, Nightmare: New York adds a real sense of place to their take on the traditional haunted house genre. The attraction's themed rooms utilize people, places and events from old New York as fodder for its thrills, ranging from Typhoid Mary's sick bay and the ghosts of the Dakota apartment building on the Upper West Side to a tentative walk through a 1980s-era New York City subway car inhabited by antic gun-wielding actors. The attraction is designed with the city as its muse; it celebrates both the urban legends that have become part of the city's lore, like alligator sightings in the subway, and the more commonplace scary elements of New York – like rats and cockroaches, which, truthfully you don't need to visit a haunted house to encounter. While Nightmare has its share of scary moments and features a particularly disorienting segment in its second half that threw me for a real loop, it's also not strictly the most panic-inducing of all the city's offerings. Nightmare gets points for mostly avoiding the haunted house tropes of actors in Halloween masks and neon set pieces, but its New York-themed attraction is more a creepy ode to the city than a genuine chamber of horrors. Those seeking a more intense experience can opt in by asking their greeter in the attraction's lobby to add a red "X" to their forehead. The marking serves as a signal to the attraction's nightmarish inhabitants that you're willing to be touched by the actors; it also means you're willing to be separated from your group and generally given the full-on Nightmare treatment.
Nightmare: New York runs Sept. 26-Nov. 1 at the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural and Educational Center, 107 Suffolk St. Tickets range from $20-$60. A special Gay Night will be offered Oct. 22.

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Photo by Michael Blase

Blood Manor
For those seeking more intense screams, Blood Manor delivers by playing by the book. Ostensibly, the attraction is a kitsch-fest. Upon entering the attraction, which is on the second floor of an otherwise quiet building, a black-lit hallway painted with creepy neon markings awaits. After queuing up for the experience, a body-painted ruffian sets forth the ground rules before you're led into the manor. Unlike Nightmare: New York, there is no set theme. The rooms are modeled after various horror tropes: a bloody butcher shop, a surgeon's operating room gone wrong and a haunted bordello are just a few. The attraction features a giant (and rather convincingly scary) animatronic werewolf, as well as a disorienting 3-D maze. Though the attraction features familiar haunted house elements, like strobe lights, lasers, a walkthrough area in total darkness and a room full of hanging bodies, its committed actors provide a number of truly visceral scares. One moment, a creepy-cute living doll with a scarred face encapsulated by broken porcelain entreats you to stay with her and play forever. The next, a demented clown is running straight at you, or a chainsaw-wielding maniac is coming for blood. What Blood Manor lacks in design it makes up for by doing what it does best: taking the traditional haunted house experience to the next level. Those seeking more intense experiences should know that Blood Manor offers "Touch Me Thursdays," where patrons can elect to be touched from the shoulders up and below the knees upon signing a special waiver, and "Blackout Nights" Nov. 7-8, when patrons can experience the attraction with the aid of a glow stick in minimal lighting.
Blood Manor runs Oct. 3-Nov. 8 at 163 Varick St. Tickets range from $30-$60.

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Times Scare
Most New Yorkers and tourists who have walked through the theatre district in recent years will know exactly where Times Scare is. Based on its exterior, I figured the place would be a kind of year-round tourist trap and that the haunted attraction, The Haunt, would be underpopulated with, at best, middling actors. What a shock I was in for that Times Scare is perhaps the scariest and most well-constructed of the three haunted houses I visited for this piece. Upon arrival, visitors are greeted by a creepy hotel concierge who explains the rules and entreats guests to turn off their phones by means of a witty feigned phone conversation with Satan. You're then led up a dark set of stairs and let loose in a haunted hotel area, where a taunting bellhop follows, muttering. The attraction is kept very dark, which only lends to the terror of the place as a whole. There are far fewer actors at Times Scare than in Nightmare or Blood Manor, but they are all entirely terrifying. After winding through the hotel section, a mental hospital warden provides a warning about her "children," the mentally ill that she cares for, before sending you into an utterly panic-inducing asylum. Within the asylum, I found myself struck with absolute terror as a man holding a very loud, very realistic chainsaw came rushing at me at full speed in semi-darkness, prompting me to just about run through the rest of the house, grappling for the exit, anxious for the entire experience to end until, shaky-legged, I emerged back into the Times Scare lobby. Given my assumptions about the place, Times Scare, which left me hoarse from screaming, ended up doing the best job of all scaring me to pieces.
Times Scare's The Haunt runs year-round at 669 Eighth Ave. Tickets range from $22-$27.

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The Immersive Theatre Experiences
Sleep No More

For some people, a haunted house is just not the right pick. If your tastes tend more toward Hitchcock or Shakespeare than the "Saw" movie series, Punchdrunk's immersive theatre piece Sleep No More might be a more fitting choice this October. To be absolutely clear, Sleep No More is not a haunted house. Based on Daphne du Maurier's (and, subsequently, Alfred Hitchcock's) "Rebecca" and Shakespeare's Macbeth, Sleep No More takes place at Chelsea's McKittrick Hotel, a converted warehouse space that was formerly an abandoned warehouse. Visitors partaking in Sleep No More will spend the duration of the experience, which takes about two to three hours, wearing a ghostly white mask. Audience members are asked not to speak and may roam freely throughout the McKittrick's nearly 90 rooms instinctually, with no predetermined order. Sleep No More's greatest virtue is this self-guided nature. Virtually no audience member will see the same rooms or experience the same scenes in the same order as any other. Unlike a haunted house, elements and scenes from "Rebecca" and Macbeth, typically in the form of dance-based movement or intricately choreographed visual segments, make up a good part of Sleep No More. It is possible to piece together plot elements, and the show's scenic and costume design is truly stunning and very detail-oriented. Though Sleep No More isn't directly Halloween-themed (blood and other eerie elements feature, but not overtly) and there are no jumpy scares, the show still makes for excellent October viewing if only for its macabre themes and immersive, environmental staging, which is truly transporting. In addition to the show Sleep No More, the McKittrick is also host to a decadent Halloween-themed party each year.
Sleep No More has been running since 2011 at 530 West 27th St. Tickets for Sleep No More range from $80-$170 and are currently on sale through Nov. 30, with special events priced differently.

Nicholas Bruder and Sophie Bortolussi
Nicholas Bruder and Sophie Bortolussi Photo by Yaniv Schulman

Then She Fell
Another long-running immersive theatre piece, Then She Fell, though not directly Halloween-themed, makes for an atmospheric October visit. Though its approach to theatre is somewhat similar to Sleep No More's, Then She Fell is an intimate "Alice in Wonderland"-themed show that leads an intimate audience of 15, alone or in small groups, through a maze of mostly hospital-themed rooms on a journey to discover the secret truth behind author Lewis Carroll's relationship with Alice Liddell, the real-life inspiration for his famed character. Those who grew up with Carroll's strangely absorbing books, or any number of film or stage adaptations of his stories, will likely respond to the show's interactive approach at exploring the stories' darker themes in a more tactile way. Audience members, upon arrival, are greeted by nurses in a reception area, given a strange cocktail, and handed a ring of keys they may use to unlock doors and other locked objects throughout the space. Audience members might see a crazed dance from the Red Queen, here a pill-popping madwoman, or be asked by the Mad Hatter to choose an appropriately silly hat or transcribe a letter at breakneck speed. In another room, one might be asked to help the White Rabbit paint a white rose red, or be left in a room full of curious framed animal prints with a strawberry-flavored cocktail and a pile of letters to sift through. Then She Fell, which runs about two hours, is also distinctly not a haunted house, but its topsy-turvy environs and sense of exploration do make the show a more structured, story-based alternative to a traditional haunted attraction, especially for those who shy away from scare-based events.
Then She Fell, which played Greenpoint Hospital in 2012, has been at its currently location at The Kingsland Ward at St. Johns at 195 Maujer St. in Williamsburg, Brooklyn since 2013. Tickets range from $95-$200 and are currently on sale through Dec. 28, 2014.

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Photo by Adam Jason Photography

Further Suggestions
Blackout

For those seeking an even more intense, psychosexual haunted-house experience, Blackout is said to be the place to go. In previous years, visitors have been asked to sign a waiver acknowledging that there will be physical contact from the actors, a need to crawl through parts the space, adult sexual content, exposure to water and strong odors. Visitors had previously been asked to experience Blackout alone. This year, very few details are known yet about this year's haunted house, but its website states that "you will not walk through alone." Something tells me this statement is inherently ominous.
Blackout runs Oct. 9-Nov. 8 at 225 East Houston St. Tickets are $35.

Green-Wood Cemetery
Brooklyn's Green-Wood cemetery is home to a number of events and tours throughout the year, but "A Spirited Stroll Through Green-Wood," taking place the weekend before Halloween, is perhaps the most appropriate. The walking tour, led by the cemetery's staff historian, Jeff Richman, will visit the gravesites of a number of notable New Yorkers. Green-Wood's catacombs, which are usually closed to the public, will also be part of the tour.
Green-Wood Cemetery's "A Spirited Stroll Through Green-Wood" will take place on Saturday and Sunday, November 25 and 26, from 1 PM-3 PM at 500 25th St. in Brooklyn. Tickets are $20 ($15 for members).

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Horseman's Hollow
If you're willing to travel outside of New York for Halloween thrills, Sleepy Hollow is the place to go. About an hour north of the city by car or on Metro North's Hudson line, the town is, of course, the setting of Washington Irving's classic short story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," which tells of a headless horseman who taunts easily-spooked schoolteacher Ichabod Crane during a wooded ride. Horseman's Hollow, a haunted event that uses Irving's legend as its inspiration, takes participants on an outdoor and indoor journey through a series of haunted scenes before ending at the horseman's lair.
Horseman's Hollow runs Friday through Sunday evenings starting Oct. 4 and ending Nov. 1 at Philipsburg Manor, 381 North Broadway in Sleepy Hollow, NY. Tickets are $22-27 (Historic Hudson Valley members receive a $5 discount per ticket).

The Great Jack O'Lantern Blaze
In Croton-On-Hudson, also in the Hudson Valley area, is the Great Jack O'Lantern Blaze, a more family-friendly event featuring more than 5,000 hand-carved jack o'lanterns against the backdrop of Van Cortlandt Manor's riverside setting. Acrobats and circus performers will also be on hand to add to the spirit of the event, which has become a perennial favorite and is now in its tenth year.
The Great Jack O'Lantern Blaze runs Oct. 4-Nov. 16 on weekends and some weeknights at Van Cortlandt Manor, 525 South Riverside Avenue in Croton-On-Hudson, NY. Tickets are $16-$25 (Historic Hudson Valley members and kids under 3 are free).

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Richard Patterson is a critic and editor for Exeunt Magazine as well as a playwright and lyricist-in-training. Visit him at therichardpatterson.com and follow @broadwaygayby on Twitter.

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