Highschool theatre department stages immersive horror double bill with pro results
Among Los Angeles Halloween Haunts that act as non-profit fundraisers, Halls of Horror presents a surprisingly professional veneer. Although created by high school students, the annual production is part of the curriculum at the Theatre Department of the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, which educates not only aspiring actors and playwrights but also set and costume designers. In effect, there is an entire team studying the artistic and technical skills needed to produce a horror-themed immersive theatrical experience; consequently, the high school origins are apparent mostly in the youthful appearance of the cast.
Now in its fourth year (five if you count a year off during the Covid pandemic), Halls of Horror is back on home turf after haunting a San Gabriel high school last year. LACHSA occupies Building #20 on the campus of Cal State Los Angeles, which provides ample indoor and outdoor space for the annual double bill of immersive plays. This year’s offerings are The Mine and The Carnival, which complement each other by taking different approaches in terms of both form and content.
Halls of Horror 2023 Review: The Mine
The Mine is a the live-action equivalent of an intense short story with a killer conclusion. The linear narrative fits neatly into a claustrophobic setting that could have served as a traditional Halloween haunt: a descent through a cursed mine shaft in search of survivors. As much fun as that would have been, the experience is enhanced by the theatrical element, which begins while you wait in line. Costumed characters issue cryptic warnings about the mine. A mother begs you to find her daughter, lost within its depths, while someone else mocks her optimism, insisting that the missing girl is long dead.
Two guides show up, take you down an elevator and into the mine. Their characterizations are straightforward but effective: one wants to push through to the end no matter what; the other is ready to bolt at the first sign of trouble, and the signs keep coming. Human remains suggest the search may be hopeless, as does a partially disemboweled woman who garbles a few words before passing away.
Pushing deeper into the mine, you enter a ghastly chamber of horrors where wounded members of a previous search party gasp out a warning about a fearsome Wendigo who overpowered them. Eventually, you find the missing girl in a candlelit chamber suggesting a makeshift shrine to the Wendigo. But is the creature real, and can you save the girl? The answers to your questions will be drowned in screams echoing through the tunnel as you flee….
Production design does a good job of simulating a subterranean setting, and shadowy lighting helps sell the horror, especially the climactic appearance of the Wendigo. What sets this above a simple walkthrough is the lean, well paced story, aided by the two leads who sell the dynamic between their characters. Ironically, despite their widely divergent responses to their peril, they come to not dissimilar ends when a twist ending turns their rescue mission on its head. It’s a good example of how a clever touch can turn a simple tale into an effective shocker.
Halls of Horror 2023 Review: The Carnival
The Carnival is more ambitious in narrative structure, depicting key scenes to the entire audience in between branching off for one-on-one interaction with the characters. (The narrative strategy is borrowed from Downtown Repertory productions like Fangs!, whose writer Devon Armstrong mentors the LACHSA theatre program.) Apparently set during the Roaring ’20s (judging by the costumes), the story begins with a big tent performance that goes wrong when a dancer mysteriously chokes to death. The Master or Ceremonies tries to pass this off as an unfortunate happenstance, but reactions among the performers suggests they suspect something more sinister.
Starting in a large tent, The Carnival moves through several outdoor sets suggesting a traveling circus parked at their latest location, with different characters in their own carts or wagons. This provides opportunities for creepy close encounters in between the bigger scenes advancing the narrative. (We got to sit with a ventriloquist whose talking dummy seemed constantly about to blurt out that everyone in the carnival was doomed at midnight.)
Although the broad strokes of the carnival’s secret becomes clear by the end, the details remain elusive, perhaps by design. The large cast does an effective job portraying their escalating panic as the hour of midnight approaches, but among the screams and lamentations, the dialogue sometimes gets lost, leaving certain questions unanswered. Apparently, doom can be averted by finding a replacement for the dead dancer, but failing that, the MC does something else that – while gruesomely shocking – doesn’t really seem to address the problem.
We enjoy enigmatic supernatural mysteries, but The Carnival may be a little too cryptic. Nevertheless, it ends on the right note, with an overlooked, apparently innocuous character revealing his/her true identity at the end, providing just enough resolution to make the story work.
Halls of Horror 2023 Review: Conclusion
The Mine and The Carnival are a study in contrasts. The first goes for the jugular; the second is more subtle. The Mine is straightforward storytelling with a guaranteed hook: rescue the missing girl. The Carnival is more intricate, revealing its secrets slowly, ending on a whisper rather than a scream. The latter earns points for ambition, but The Mine ranks among the best scare experiences we have seen this Halloween season.
The two mini-plays have a combined running time of twenty-five minutes. That may not seem like much, but quantity counts less than quality, and no one will be disappointed on the latter score. Allowing for parking and standing in line, you could enjoy both within an hour, with time leftover to visit the snack table, where you may encounter free-roaming characters – possibly performers wandering from The Carnival or lost souls escaped from the depths of The Mine.
Ultimately, Halls of Horror is a high school play, but it is not just for friends and family; its combination of theatrical and haunted house elements should appeal to theatre-goers and haunt-seekers looking for something more hand-crafted than the off-the-rack decorations and effects seen at more commercialized Halloween events.
Halls of Horror: The Mine & The Carneval
1 – Avoid
2 – Not All Bad
3 – Recommended
4 – Highly Recommended
5 – Must See
Two entertaining immersive plays for one ticket price is a great deal, and the money goes to a good cause (raising funds for LACHSA’s theatre department). The Carnival is a good mini-example of interactive theatre, and The Mine induces as much fear as any haunted house walkthrough. Combined, they add up to a highly recommended Halloween event.
Halls of Horror continues on October 26-28, with performances starting every half-hour from 6:30on until 8:30pm on Thursday and until 9:30pm on Friday and Saturday. Both plays are included for a single ticket: $25 for general admission, $40 for VIP. Los Angeles County High School for the Arts is located in Building 20 of CAL State LA. The address is 5151 State University Drive in Los Angeles. Your GPS will get you to the right building, where you will find paid parking next to the permit-only parking for LACHSA students. Get more information here.