The Haunted Palace Brat Productions' latest creation is equal parts play, tour and torture chamber
by Lauren F. Friedman, for Philadelphia City Paper
You enter a 10,000-square-foot warehouse in South Philly and proceed through 13 dim rooms, knowing only that, along the way, you can expect to encounter illusions, puppets, blood, a horde of insects, a masquerade ball and plenty of themes borrowed from Philly’s own Edgar Allan Poe. Are you game?
Brat Productions’ newest piece, Haunted Poe, walks the line between full-scale haunted house and edgy Poe adaptation. Michael Alltop, who came up with the idea, and Madi Distefano, the director, offered different perspectives on the production, but both agreed: This shit is going to be absolutely terrifying.
Leave the kids at home. Seriously.
City Paper: Where did the original concept come from?
Michael Alltop:Every time Halloween rolls around, I’ve thought about doing something with Poe that was scary, that was more than just reading the stories. I had an idea: Theater plus haunted house equals new experiential event for a large audience. But the scale of this is beyond anything that we’ve ever attempted before.
CP: How is this show different from what you’ve done before?
Madi Distefano:It’s really scary. It’s not just a series of creepy images from Poe and people reading creepy stuff. There are some scares in here that I personally would not be able to handle.
MA: The Insectarium is breeding cockroaches for us. We might have as many as 5,000.
CP: What kinds of developments have you seen since you began working?
MD: Once we started putting things together in the space, that’s when we were like, how do we do this? What comes first? And it’s doubled in size. It’s like we ordered a medium, and we got an extra, extra large. Why live life at full price?
MA: I think people who enjoy haunted houses will be entertained, but I also think that people who stay away from them because they may seem cheesy or cheap — there will be something for them too. I heard this phrase: “a thinking man’s haunted house.”
MD: It’s an everyman’s haunted house! I feel like coming at it from the other side, too, with Brat’s mission being to create new theatergoers. … They have a preconceived idea of what [theater] is, but they hear about this awesome haunted house that’s really scary, and they go with their friends, and then they realize: Oh, this is theater! Theater’s not what I thought it was.
MA: There’s this event-ness to the production that has nothing to do with sitting in a plush chair, getting a coat check and not being able to talk.
MD: You don’t watch it. You experience it.
CP: Without giving away surprises, can you tell me what the experience will be like for the audience?
MD: Small groups of people will be going through a set of chambers, and in each chamber, a different story [is] explored through a different medium. Some of them are environments, and some of them are spectacles and some of them are events that the audience attends. There’s a masked ball.
I just wanted to make a whole lot of scary shit. And beautiful, beautiful stuff — because with Poe, there’s horrific and grotesque, to be sure, but beautiful, too. And that’s so important.
CP: It sounds like you’re taking a lot of things that people might expect from haunted houses, but doing away with the clichés. Was that something that you thought about?
MD: Honestly, I think that most haunted houses rely almost exclusively on someone jumping out at you. That’s why haunted houses have these twists and turns, because you know something’s going to jump out at you — you just don’t know what. And sometimes you’ll round the corner and … wait, no one jumped out at you. But ah, they’re behind you!
The team has mined Poe’s work for more than just that one thrill. A lot of the intricacies of the design lend themselves to other possible scares than just someone jumping out at you.
CP: Can you tell me about the space?
MD: It’s a big 10,000-square-foot warehouse. We have built 13 theaters and 13 sets.
CP: How much Poe is in the show?
MD: If someone is a fan of Poe, a good portion will be recognizable to them. Otherwise, they’re just terrified and experiencing things. I don’t want people to think they’re going to a lecture, and I also don’t want people to think they’re going down a slimy hallway.
CP: Do you both like haunted houses? Do you like being scared?
MA: I love the anticipation of being scared … rather than when the scare actually happens.
MD: I can’t even handle the scary movies that my 14-year-old daughter watches. I am not a fan of haunted houses, and I am having so much fun creating things that I know would make me so terrified.