Review: Give Up the Ghost - Halloween 2019's Must-See Experience

Give Up The Ghost is interactive theatre at its haunting best, inviting "recently dead" audience members to weigh the moral consequences of intervening in the world of the living.

Curious what awaits you on the other side of the chasm separating Life and Death? Then come along with us...if you dare! For we have crossed the River Styx into the Land of the Dead, where our soul was weighed in the balance. Our penchant for bestowing mercy or extracting justice was judged on the basis of our unseen intervention into the lives of mortals. Whether our choices were right or wrong, they were our own, determining our final disposition in the Afterlife. Had we other opportunities, would we have chosen differently? Perhaps, but we do not regret the choices we made, nor the consequences they yielded...

October is supposed to be devoted to Halloween Mazes and Rides, but with theme parks driving most independent haunted houses out of the Los Angeles marketplace, haunt-seekers must look elsewhere for their autumnal chills and thrills. Immersive Theatre - with its emphasis on dramatic, often interactive forms of terror - is a great alternative, and of the many options available for Halloween 2019, Give Up The Ghost registers so highly on the PKE Meter that it is virtually off the scale. Though not a traditional scare show, the interactive play offers an ethereal voyage into limbo, where the audience become disembodied spirits, spying upon the living.

Give Up The Ghost Review: Welcome to the Afterlife
Give Up the Ghost Review
The living attempt to contact the dead. Will you respond?

Dead but earthbound, you check into a church, where you are given a ticket granting access to scenes you will witness later. Inside, in a room acting as a central hub, you learn that your existence on the earthly plane will continue until your final destination is determined, based on your penchant for justice or mercy - your preference for meting out punishment or forgiveness. First, your heart is literally weighed in the balance, the outcome determined by your response to hypothetical questions. Then you are invited to roam the confines of the church, where your interaction with mortal lives will test your hypothetical answers.

Here, time seems to flow without restriction: you will experience many events in what seems like an hour, but it is hard to say how long these events last in the physical world. As you move among them, the living cannot see you, but they may sense your unseen presence.  You may even touch them but only gently, on the forearm or hand, or you can reveal yourself by moving objects. Gratuitously frightening mortals is discouraged.

Access is unimpeded to rooms on the ground floor, where activity is ongoing. You and other earthbound spirits may converse with an unfortunate soul apparently trapped for eternity after committing suicide. You may tease a team of ghost-hunters, who can hear you rattle chairs and rap on walls; they can also see your shadow cast on the wall in a field of laser lights. Elsewhere, in a dorm, college students play with a oujia board, which you may use to spell out answers to their questions.

These are mere diversions; the true testing ground is upstairs. To access these scenes, you must present your ticket to silent shadow guides, who lead you - alone - to visit these recurring moments in time, which play and replay so that every soul may experience them separately. These are fraught with violence, melodrama, and death; with no guide but your own conscience, you must decide whether and how to intervene - whom to help, whom to hinder, whom to...kill?

At the end of each experience, the shadow guides will punch your ticket, marking it either for justice or mercy. At the end of your stay in limbo, the results will be tabulated to determine how you will spend the rest of Eternity...

Give Up The Ghost Review: Judgement or Mercy?
Give Up the Ghost Review
An earthbound spirit lends a comforting hand to one of the living.

Hollywood Gothique has not experienced enough interactive theatre to claim any great level of expertise, but our past impression has been that the interactivity is largely illusory. The audience may be asked to find a clue or solve a puzzle; however, their ability or inability to do so seldom affects the outcome - a helpful character will eventually intervene to get the story back on its predetermined track ("Have you looked for the key in the drawer by the mirror?").

Not so with Give Up The Ghost. Here, interactivity is integral to the experience; in fact, it is the experience. Literally nothing of consequence happens in the open-ended ouija and ghost-hunter scenes unless you make it happen. The dramatic scenes staged upstairs have their own narratives, but your intercession is crucial, because the stories are less about the characters than about your reactions to the characters.

In a sense, these vignettes are like thought experiments used to gauge people's sense of morality, but in another sense they are quite different. In a hypothetical thought experiment ("Will you pull the lever to switch a train onto a track where it will run over one person instead of two?"), the situation is clear, and consequences are are uncluttered by ambiguity (there is no worry that suddenly switching tracks will cause the train to derail, killing everyone on board). In Give Up The Ghost, the situations are clouded by a messy human factor that does not allow for simple mathematical reduction such as "Will you take one life to save two?"

Instead, you are thrown into situations where the context is muddled: Was the death murder or self-defense? Was the poisoning deliberate or accidental? You can eavesdrop on the living and converse with the dead, but how will you know who is telling the truth? You are not given time to reach firm conclusions or contemplate the philosophical ramifications of your decisions. You must act on outside appearances and internal instinct. Who seems guilty? Who seems innocent? Will you comfort the victim or kill the perpetrator?

In a sense, there are no right or wrong answers - only choices.  How you choose says less about the situation than it says about you, forcing you to reveal to yourself your own inner moral compass.

Give Up The Ghost Review: Conclusion

It is sometimes said of a book/movie/play that "what you put into it is what you get out of it." That is nowhere more true than in Give Up The Ghost, which demands that you put yourself into the situations. The downstairs diversions are fun, but don't get sucked into spending too much time there; otherwise, you will not experience the full range of dramas in the upstairs rooms.

Not every scene is a gem. The suicidal man downstairs is an exercise in frustration, since he seems in need of help but there is little you can do for him (he has to remain in place for the duration of the experience). The scene is almost anti-interactivity, since any attempt at aid is met with a derisive, "If it were that easy, would I still be here?"* Only when you move on to the other scenes, especially upstairs, will you feel the full weight of responsibility for your actions - or inaction.

With its limbo-like setting (staged in a church, no less!), it is perhaps inevitable that Give Up The Ghost evokes the aura of a religious experience, as each soul makes decisions that determine its final resting place. When your ticket is finally tabulated, you are divided into four groups, and bid farewell from the earthly plane, sent on your way with a final libation and a benediction.

Without being doctrinaire, the experience feels spiritually uplifting, even exhilarating, like grace filling one's soul; in secular terms, one might call it therapeutic or salutary. "Restorative" bridges both viewpoints nicely - a sense of renewal. Or in language used in both psychoanalysis and the dramatic arts, Give Up The Ghost provides what few interactive plays ever do, a genuine emotional catharsis. If you want to feel something deeper than a simple scare this Halloween, go see Give Up The Ghost.

Footnote:

  • I am informed that there is a solution to the trapped man's predicament. Clues and hints will be added to future shows to make it less "difficult."
Give Up The Ghost Rating
5

Bottom Line

Give Up the Ghost dates scheduleWe cannot recommend Give Up The Ghost highly enough. If there is one event you must see this Halloween, this is it.

Give Up the Ghost continues at  First Christian Church of Whittier on Friday nights through November 1 (November 8 and 15 performances have been cancelled). Performance start 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.