Anatomy of a Scare

By Roby DuncanOctober 31, 2023

Anatomy of a Scare
HAUNTED HOUSE CONFIDENTIAL: THE ART AND ORIGINS OF THE SCARE with KRISTEN PHILLIPS, Philosophical Research Society, Los Angeles, October 26, 2023

I’d never been to the Philosophical Research Society before: the PRS is one of those little slices of L.A. cultural history that’s so deeply embedded in stories of the city that it’s easy to miss in person. I knew PRS hosted events, but had only ever heard of their denser, loftier offerings: talks on Buddhism, panels on magic practice, and workshops on harmonics and healing, so finding out they were also making space for magical variety shows, monster movie screenings, and DJs like Cut Chemist came as a surprise. Tonight’s offering: A 90-minute look at the history and secrets of how the sausage of scares is made, a behind-the-scenes look at haunted houses given by designer, sculptor, and horrorista Kristen Phillips.

I’d expected some sort of grand Masonic hall to go along with the place’s storied reputation of esoteric book collections and a legendary mystic founder, but instead I got Hollywood Halloween perfection: cotton cobwebs and stacks of staticky bunny-eared TVs flashing clips of bygone black-and-white B-flicks, complete with old-school William Castle–style gimmicking. The seasonal wallpapering of camp over decades of occult myth and history was the perfect setting for a talk about the history and practice of setting up haunted houses in houses that might actually be haunted.

Phillips’s presentation was a slow-burn mix of spoken autobiography and haunt history, accompanied by a visual tour leading from the first mentions of ghosts in Mesopotamia to the steam-and-mirror–powered specter shows of the early 20th century. The talk was a hydra ready to sprout a dozen other talks at any moment, slipping with effortless ease from one topic to the next. Akkadian exorcism ritual readings? Check! Spirit decoys and ghost wives? Check! Learn that the origins of our “Trick or Treat” traditions came from Depression-era attempts to stop rampaging 14-year-old boys from burning down their hometowns? Check! The real core of the talk, though, its meaty center, was not the accumulated whats of history but the hows of haunted houses, gathered through Kristen’s many seasons spent producing and running Terror Behind the Walls at Philadelphia’s famously haunted Eastern State Penitentiary.

Not only did we hear stories of the massive lift required to organize and “scarify” over 100 cast members, safely build sets within massive and decrepit historical buildings, and ultimately provide Grand Guignolesque “hot and cold showers” of terror and amusement for an unpredictable and sometimes violent stream of guests; we also got a peek behind the curtain at the concepts that help inform the structure of the scares. Labyrinth designs over 3,000 years old and Escher-like triangular grid tessellations inform the layouts and paths guests take through these spaces, while the sense of isolation is preserved by pacing guests to prevent the formation of inadvertent “conga lines.” Hidey-holes and false facades are planned and constructed to scare and disturb enough to titillate but not enough to upset or traumatize. Phillips went on to discuss the growing sensitivity and care given to respecting the contexts in which haunted attractions are held (Terror Behind the Walls is now “Halloween Nights,” an overdue recognition of the real horrors suffered by actual inmates of the prison over the decades) and the negative impacts that poorly thought-out scares can have on vulnerable populations (moves away from murderous “psychos” and straitjacket aesthetics). Through it all, tying together these expensive and complex tricks and costumes, we learned of the most primal and critical tool used in a haunt: the artful deployment of darkness to arouse, confound, and terrify the guests. That the last portion of the talk was given in the pitch black of the auditorium with only classic campfire flashlight-beneath-the-chin lighting drove the point home deliciously, and was a fantastic closer to a great talk. Now all that’s left is to find some haunts to hit!

¤


Photo by contributor.

LARB Short Take live event reviews are published in partnership with the nonprofit Online Journalism Project and the Independent Review Crew.

LARB Contributor

Roby Duncan (he/him) organizes things for a living, builds them for a hobby, and breaks them for fun. Sometimes, along the way, he conjures words from blank pages through the power of applied migraines.

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