Creep L.A.'s Lore shows that licensing a popular property may be good for business but not necessarily good for art.
Theatrical horror experience offers sinister settings, intimate interaction, and frightening folklore, but only fans of the source material will fully understand what they see.
Creep LA Lore Review - Introduction
When Creep Los Angeles made its debut for Halloween 2015, its website prominently displayed the quote: "I'm not afraid of werewolves or vampires or haunted hotels. I'm afraid of what real human beings do to other real human beings." This interesting sentiment has dramatic potential, but it is a little discordant with the Halloween season, a time when we surrender our collective imagination to fantasies of ghouls and ghosts in exchange for the thrill of a good scare.
The problem with this "realistic" approach is on view at Creep L.A.'s current immersive theatrical horror experience, Lore, based on the Amazon Prime series of the same name, which in turn is based on Aaron Mahnke's popular podcast. The show claims to uncover the real-life truth behind the folklore of vampires, werewolves, and witches (though how the 20 hours of research Mahnke does per episode can authenticate the reality behind events in the 16th century is an open question).* Regardless of authenticity, adapting Lore into a Halloween attraction proves problematic: we get a séance without ghosts, coffins without vampires, and lots of talking about what happened off-scene. The result feels like a teaser for the Amazon series, offering tantalizing glimpses but not fully dramatizing the stories for fear of spoiling the TV episodes. Which is too bad, because some of those glimpses are rather amazing.
Creep LA Lore Review - The Action
Eight participants embark upon the one-hour experience at scheduled half-hour intervals. Checking in, you are given a souvenir Creep Los Angeles handkerchief to tie around your face like a bandit, reminding you not to speak inside. The gag is uncomfortable; fortunately, its point being made, it is soon removed. Inside, down a flight of stairs, is a waiting room, where a slim bald woman with a vaguely dominatrix aura appears, sits, and reads from a book. Is this building intrigue, or is the delay merely a matter of timing the group not to catch up with its predecessors?
A long walk down dark corridors, illuminated only by dim candlelight, with shadowy figures visible through windows to adjoining rooms, brings you to a small hovel where a man sits before a typewriter (presumably Mahnke). Another lengthy pause ensues, allowing time to peruse the copious notes pinned to the walls, though the uneven illumination reveals only brief phrases about folklore, its themes, and impact. Apparently, you are about to embark upon a journey to see some of the stories come alive before your very eyes.
Eventually, you move on to wooded area, like something out of a fairy tale - though considerably darker and more demented than anything in the Brothers Grimm. Characters emerge and engage, seeking assistance in their lunatic behavior: gathering sticks into a bundle, which appears to represent a lost child. Threatening figures separate participants from the group. A madwoman dances intimately before whispering in your ear, "The day will come when you cannot outrun the things you have done!"
Who are these people? What is this all about? Surely an explanation will be forthcoming...
Instead, you move on to a cabin, where a woman is accused of being not herself but a fairy changeling. Unfortunately, the only solution for this predicament is to burn the changeling to death, in order to break the spell so that the real woman can return. Before the execution can be carried out, a character directs you to exit the scene by crawling through the fireplace...
And so it goes - scenes without exposition or endings, as the audience is pushed forward from one location to the next. Much of what follows consists of monologues describing events that are not staged: a woman in a shack recounts her son's obsession with a strange doll; the headmistress of an orphanage tells children about a homicidal maniac in a rabbit costume; a weary man stands over three exposed coffins and recalls the plague (or was it vampirism?) that decimated his village.
Later, you encounter a well-meaning but fanatical lobotomist, who selects one from your group for treatment. There is also a spooky séance, and at times you will be separated from your fellow travelers - sent down dark byways for more personal encounters with sinister characters lurking in the shadows. Those who survive will eventually find sanctuary in a small pub - actually, a makeshift bar, where you can decompress from the experience and share experiences with other survivors before heading back outside into the urban horrors of real-life Los Angeles.
Creep LA Lore Review - Analysis
Creep LA's Lore is an anthology of fragmentary vignettes, whose background is known only to those familiar with the show or the podcast. Without the exposition, the scenes are intriguing, but their significance is blurred. For instance, the changeling scene (based on the real-life tragedy of Bridget Cleary) comes across very differently without its historical context: it plays like an archetypal horror story, teasing the audience into guessing whether the accused woman is a fairy or not; the real story is about an unfortunate woman murdered by her crazy, superstitious husband.
As its title suggests, Lore mines legends and tales for horror stories that feel convincing, because they actually happened or because they were told and believed as if true. The folkloric element lends distinctive element to the live experience - at times, the settings and atmosphere suggest an adult fairy tale - but in Creep LA's version of Lore, the idea that we are seeing the reality behind the myth never becomes apparent. If anything, the "reality" mitigates the potential of the folklore, robbing the stories of potential twists and leaving many of them without climaxes.
Since Creep LA: Lore portrays the "real" stories, you won't see ghosts materialize at the séance. The woman accused of being a changeling will not at the last minute reveal she truly is a fairy with supernatural powers. And don't expect Count Dracula or Lestat de Lioncourt to appear in the plague village's cemetery, though you may be asked to lie in a coffin. (Been there, done that - at Delusion: His Crimson Queen last Halloween.) Speaking of lying down, during the rabbit story, you and the seven other guests are expected to repose on four beds; do the math, and you'll realize this leads to some awkward sleeping arrangements if you attend with your significant other. Even more awkward, the teller of the tale keeps moving; lying on the cramped bed with no pillow, it is impossible to track her movements without suffering neck strain.
As is often the case with interactive productions, your level of enjoyment depends somewhat on the extent to which you get involved. If you prefer passive observation, stay home and watch Amazon Prime; otherwise, jump in and dance with the madwoman, clasp hand with others around the séance table, toss that creepy old doll out the door, or lie down on the operating table and wait for a lobotomy. The visceral thrill of participation helps erase any qualms about the storytelling.
Creep LA Lore Review - Conclusion
Creep LA: Lore features good performances and strong production values. Some of the vignettes are amazing. But we think that the live production would have been improved by being unfettered from the Amazon series - allowed to pursue its own ideas to their own ends. Instead of Aaron Mahnke, the writer should have been a Sutter Cane figure (from In the Mouth of Madness), whose work literally summons horrifying fantasies into reality. (This would also have justified the fragmentary nature of the individual episodes, which could have been explained as "works in progress," awaiting a final draft.) Instead, Creep LA: Lore is bit like Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood - a live-action commercial for a popular franchise.
Creep LA: Lore continues through November 12 with performances on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 7pm to 11pm. The location is: Magic Box LA at the Reef, 1933 S. Broadway Boulevard in Los Angeles. Note: The entrance to the event is on Hill Street, the opposite side of the block from Broadway. The website is creepla.com.
- To be fair, many of the Lore podcast's stories are of more recent vintage, with contemporaneous newspaper accounts to back them up (e.g., the Bridget Cleary case).