Give Up the Ghost Interview: Turning the Tables on Traditional Haunts

Give Up the Ghost, a new interactive theatrical production making its debut this Halloween, turns the tables on traditional haunted house attractions by casting the audience as the haunters instead of the haunted, moving among the living and influencing their lives. Expanded from One Last Thing Before You Go, a 2018 Hollywood Fringe Festival Production, Give Up The Ghost was created by Kirsten Hageleit & Aaron Vanek, who are staging their production inside the First Christian Church of Whittier, under the supervision of television producer Jenni Powell (The Lizzie Bennet Diaries).

Hollywood Gothique interview Aaron Vanek to get a better understanding of how disembodied spirits interact with the living in Give Up the Ghost. Can a ghost touch a human or vice-versa, and how disturbing is the contact? Read on to find out…if you dare.

Hollywood Gothique: Explain the origins of  One Last Thing Before You Go, which grew into Give Up the Ghost.

Aaron Vanek: My wife Kirsten and I saw Waking La Llorna by Optika Moderna in San Diego in late 2017 or early 2018. We both loved the experience but also had an idea to do something similar, something interactive where the audience can choose to go in one narrative direction or another. This stems from our extensive larp (live action role playing) background, where players are constantly improvising in specific settings along certain guidelines. We had already produced Fallen Stars at the Charity Sale for Hollywood Fringe Festival 2017, which was an adaptation of a Nordic larp called Fallen Stars. We enjoyed Fringe and thought it would be fun to do something original. By the time we drove back to Los Angeles, we had the general outline for One Last Thing.

Give Up the Ghost dates scheduleHollywood Gothique: What made you decide to expand it into Give Up the Ghost for Halloween 2019?

Aaron Vanek: It was mostly the 42 people who saw One Last Thing, which was a one-audience member show. They almost universally loved it, but many wanted it to be longer; it was only about 20 minutes. Also, it's difficult to break even financially (impossible?) with a one-person audience unless you charge a premium price, so we wanted a show that was both a) longer and b) larger audience. However, we didn't want to lose the power of the one-person experience. Our compromise for Give Up the Ghost is a hub-style setting, with four scenes that anyone can visit at any time, and six guided scenes for small groups (up to five) including two solo audience scenes.

Hollywood Gothique: What if any elements from the previous production of have you altered, added, or deleted?

Aaron Vanek: Give Up the Ghost is much, much bigger, a lot was added: thousands of square footage and about ten times the cast. We still have the One Last Thing scene (hint: it's a one-person scene, led by the "yellow" lantern), though the entry into that scene has become the general on-boarding with some modification. We kept the same general rules from One Last Thing: participants cannot be seen or heard by the living (actors), and participants can gently touch actors between fingertip to elbow, and move one object at a time. We also keep the general premise, which is: what do you do in a moral or ethical quandary? What is more important to you, say, honesty or comfort? Justice or mercy?

Hollywood Gothique: How would you characterize Give Up the Ghost for someone wondering whether it's like Delusion: Interactive Theatre or Creep L.A.?

Aaron Vanek: We haven't had time to see either this year, sadly. But comparing it to their past shows, Give Up the Ghost allows for freedom of movement; you can stay in one scene the whole time if you want, or you can return to scenes, or avoid scenes that might be upsetting due to their content. Also, participant action (or inaction) might change what happens in the scene entirely. Our approach is to provide an environment where you can discover things about yourself. Our vision, if any, is just to encourage people to engage, to interact, to do something (however small). Although it is entirely possible for someone to just observe the entire show without any interaction, and it should, hopefully, still be enjoyable.

Hollywood Gothique: How would you estimate the scare factor (if any) compared to other Halloween attractions? Is it more likely to induce shivers or screams?

Aaron Vanek: That's hard to answer, because what is frightening or disturbing is different for each person. I'd say we have more of a dread/disturbing/troubling/lingering factor than a Boo! moment. In general, this isn't a jump-scare experience; no one will be jumping out at you with a chainsaw (that was my first haunted house, back in college). But the content might be disturbing or upsetting—it has been to some people already. If that is the case, we have a Caretaker (actor) whose duty it is to comfort the afflicted. So if someone is disturbed in the experience, they can back off and regather themselves before continuing. We are not fans of binary safe words - that is, participants have to endure everything the creators shove into their faces, or say a word and leave the experience. Instead, we offer trigger warning cards if people want to know ahead of time which scenes to avoid (and those are optional, so if you want to go in without spoilers you can) as well as being able to step out of a scene, or take a break between scenes. We are very big proponents of informed consent.

Hollywood Gothique: What is the level of interactivity?  Is the audience along for the ride, or do they influence the outcome?

Aaron Vanek: Very interactive: the audience not only chooses where to go and what to see (within some limitations, like audience size) as well as engaging with actors to alter the narrative; the choices the audience makes or doesn't make affect their ending as well.

Hollywood Gothique: Looking at your production from the business end, how is an interactive theatrical experience like Give Up The Ghost more viable than, for example, a traditional haunted house attraction?

Aaron Vanek: I'm not sure about that. Traditional haunted houses seem more viable because they have a higher throughput—more guests per hour. We top out at 50 per 80-90 minute show. A traditional haunted house can move groups through much faster. We will see what happens come November.

Hollywood Gothique: Is there any chance Give Up The Ghost could be extended beyond November 15?

Aaron Vanek: It is possible, but we have to discuss that with the location, First Christian Church. We are not affiliated with them; we are just using their building. We can't go beyond 2019 because the church is being converted into low-income senior housing—this is the only chance to see this show in this amazing, 95-year old space.

Hollywood Gothique: Are there any other advantages that your type of show has over haunted houses?

Aaron Vanek: From a business perspective, I don't think so. [Laughs] Personally speaking, though, I find experiences like this—where I can do things of my own freewill and receive the effects of those things—much more memorable and resonant within my psyche. Transformative? Maybe. Kirsten and I toured four or five haunt demos in a row at the last Midsummer Scream, and I confess I barely remember any of them. But that's me—other people love the thrill and excitement of being spooked. I guess a traditional haunted house is more fun; ours is more informative, reflective, and philosophical. We operate under the idea that not all experiences (or haunts) are for all people, but there should be something, somewhere, that appeals to everyone. Give Up The Ghost is what Kirsten and I want to experience and haven't quite found yet—though some immersive shows come close!

Hollywood Gothique: With the proliferation of interactive plays, is it a challenge to stand out from the others? Will this become a bigger challenge in the future?

Aaron Vanek: Yes, this is the challenge. We aren't the only attraction where the audience is a ghost this year; I know of at least two others [including The Shadow Space]. There also seems to be an experience gap in the immersive audience, like a level gap in role-playing games: those who have a lot of experience in the immersive realm are well versed in the tropes and methods used, so they can quickly work the structure and move rapidly through the plot. It's the same way that veteran escape room attendees can work together to solve puzzles in a room. But someone who hasn't experienced an immersive show might be confused, thinking "Where am I supposed to go?" without realizing that they decide where they want to go or what they want to do. So a stand-out show could be one for beginners, or it could be an "advanced" one for experienced attendees, or maybe it's somewhere in between.

Give Up the Ghost posterHollywood Gothique: Could Give Up The Ghost become a Halloween perennial, or would you rather present a new production next season?

Aaron Vanek: Great question. I want to see how this one goes first—it's our biggest production ever, so I want to do an autopsy afterwards before reincarnating it or making another. I know we won't have the location, but the concept can certainly repeat. On the other hand, I am an itinerant creator, only in the last few years have I been revisiting old...haunts (creations). What I find myself doing, though, is recycling concepts, techniques, tricks, props, etc. So it might not be Give Up The Ghost that returns next year, but it might be something in the same vein from Spectacular Disaster Factory.

Performances of Give Up the Ghost take place on Friday nights from October 4 through November 15. Each performance runs 80 minutes, with shows starting at 8pm and 10pm. Tickets are $80. Use the discount code GOTHIQUE to get $20 off. The venue’s address is 6355 Greenleaf Avenue in Whittier, 90601. Get more information at: aaronvanek.com/ghost.

Steve Biodrowski, Administrator

A graduate of USC film school, Steve Biodrowski has worked as a film critic, journalist, and editor at Movieline, Premiere, Le Cinephage, The Dark Side., Cinefantastique magazine, Fandom.com, and Cinescape Online. He is currently Managing Editor of Cinefantastique Online and owner-operator of Hollywood Gothique.