Traditionally, Halloween is the evening when the veil separating this world from the next is rent asunder, allowing the dead to stalk the land of the living. Several cemetery/historical tours in Los Angeles take advantage of this concept to entice visitors with the promise of bringing the past to life, with graveyard inhabitants rising from their resting places to relate their stories to the living. Although these efforts typically eschew horror for history, the Voices of Pioneer Memorial Cemetery is a welcome exception, embellishing its history lesson with layer of atmosphere that enhances, rather than diminishes, the authenticity of the experience.
Almas: A Day of the Dead Celebration uses the approach that the Voices of Pioneer Cemetery established with their 2010 Flashlight Ghost Tour: visitors are taken on a circuit of the small graveyard, stopping at various tombstones to hear a series of monologues delivered by the ghosts of those buried there, while in the background the restless dead wander, mourning their loved ones or enacting vignettes depicting how their lives came to an end. The actors are all drama students, their youthful appearance explained away as a preference by the dead, who manifest as they appeared during the prime of their lives.
Several of the stories are heartfelt and moving, telling tales of lives cut short before achieving their full potential. Although largely new, this year's production does include some carry-overs: a Jewish woman decries the injustice of being denied burial in a Catholic cemetery; a man recalls dying in a flood after a dam – certified safe by William Mulholland – broke. In one new (or at least, unremembered) bit, a ghost explains why so many tombstones are missing from the cemetery: he stole them to use as ballast in his car, to avoid flying off the roads when racing at illegally high speeds.
The background activity by the wandering souls fills the gaps between each soliloquy. One episodic vignette is wonderfully sustained throughout the walk around the grounds: at various times, two drunken goofs are seen in the distance, playing Russian Roulette; you tense in anticipation of a fatal gunshot, until you are distracted by the next monologue; only at the very end of the tour do you see the final result.
As in 2010, there is only one set constructed in the cemetery, this time depicting a small Mexican pueblo, in keeping with the "Day of the Dead" in the title. This ends in a section with "walls" made of clear plastic wrap, which the ghosts scrape -like fingernails on chalkboard - to unnerve the living, providing one of the few instances of direct fear-mongering.
Halloween 2013 also sees the introduction of some overt humor. The highlight, inspired by the fact that Edward D. Wood filmed a portion of Plan Nine From Outer Space in Pioneer Cemetery, is a deliberately goofy live recreation of the film, including a model flying saucer swung on a string and actors portraying Vampira, Tor Johnson, and Bela Lugosi's dentist (who doubled for the actor after his death). Best of all is the actor portraying the Amazing Criswell, who appears only as a head inside a television box.
The new production does falter in one or two places. Though supposedly emphasizing history over horror, Almas: A Day of the Dead Celebration does not feature that much actual history; at times, it resembles a polemic directed at the living in general and modern life in particular.
The Voices of Pioneer Memorial Cemetery is a collaboration between the San Fernando Valley Historical Society and the Los Angeles Mission College Drama Club to raise money to maintain the cemetery. That issue creeps into the text at several junctures: some ghosts advise the living to select a graveyard with a permanent trust that will guarantee upkeep in perpetuity; others lament the neglect of their surroundings and/or berate the living for failing to properly honor, respect, and remember the dead. The sentiments are certainly valid, but they seem a bit misdirected at an audience who have specifically show up for fundraising event that will benefit the cemetery.
Working on the premise that the dead are opinionated past the point of caring what the living think, Almas: A Day of the Dead Celebration goes a step further, featuring several verbal rebukes against the living, which eventually grow somewhat tiresome. Presumably these monologues are supposed to represent a collision between viewpoints of the past and the present, but after hearing a ghost berating contemporary women for not getting married and having babies as soon as biologically possible, you start to feel as if you have wandered into a Tea Party meeting by mistake.
Despite these diatribes, Almas: A Day of the Dead Celebration remains a distinctive and remarkable cemetery tour - probably the best mix of history and horror that we have encountered in Los Angeles. This is definitely not for hardcore haunt-chasers seeking intense scares, but it does provide a supernatural aura suitable for both Halloween and Day of the Dead. Walking the grounds and listening to voices from beyond while phantoms flit among gravestones, you may start to tell yourself, "The Dead really do come alive at Pioneer Memorial Cemetery."
Almas: A Day of the Dead Celebration continues on November 1-2, with performances starting at every hour 8pm, 9pm, 10pm, 11pm, and midnight. Pioneer Memorial Cemetery is located at 14451 Bledsoe Street Sylmar, CA 91342. Bring a flashlight and wear walking shoes. Shows performed rain or shine. No one under age 7. No photos .Call 818-970-1286 for more information, or click here to visit their website.