Urban Death Haunted Theatre Review

Urban Death Tour of Terror 2013

You may think you have experienced every type of Halloween fright that Los Angeles has to offer, but you haven't - not yet. Not until you take this Tour of Terror. Read on...if you dare!

What is terror? The rustle of a curtain when there is no wind. A whisper in your ear when no one is near. A glimpse of something too horrible to comprehend, too brief to be certain, followed by darkness - a darkness inhabited by formless shadows that you hope exist only in your imagination.

You will experience very little genuine terror at the many Halloween haunts in Los Angeles, but you will find it lurking within the Urban Death: Tour of Terror Haunted Theatre Attraction." Yes, there are a multitude of Halloween Haunted Houses and Hayrides that will startle, shock, or disgust you; a few may even abuse you (consensually, of course). But few if any will send a skeletal finger tracing a ticklish path down your spine, raising the hairs one by one. Shivers, more than screams, await you in the darkness of this haunted theatre, which provides a truly distinctive Halloween horror experience.

Urban Death: Tour of Terror is part walk-through maze, part performance art. Tours take place at forty-five minute intervals inside Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre, a small venue in North Hollywood. Outside, you are given a flashlight and allowed to enter in groups of two only. After maneuvering through a short maze, inhabited by strange and troubling things, you reach a stage area, where a brief performance occurs - a series of disturbing blackout vignettes. Afterward, you return through the maze again, encountering different terrors on the way.

Why does this simple-sounding setup provoke us to ruminate upon the nature of terror? Because Urban Death: Tour of Terror touches a nerve.

The execution of the maze is clever. The construction is basic (black plastic "walls"), but the props and decorations are rendered supremely spooky by the simple device of giving each pair of visitors a single dim flashlight. In effect, you provide the only real illumination; you decided how much to see or not to see. Will you linger over each and every object, or move on to "safety" as quickly as possible? Along the way, you will encounter several ghoulish denizens of the dark, who seem completely undeterred by the dim circle of light you shine in their faces. As with the inanimate objects on display, you must decide whether to peruse these beings closely or avoid them as much as possible.

You must surrender your flashlight before entering the stage area. Here you wait for the rest of the audience to arrive, two by two. A bag lies on the floor.  You have been instructed to remain standing (there are no seats) behind the yellow "caution" line taped on the floor. You are happy to obey, because the bag is far from quiescent; at irregular intervals it moves as if something barely alive were inside, wanting to get out.

At last, when the room is full, the dim lights go out completely, and Urban Death: Tour of Terror truly shines in the darkness. The fifteen-minute performance* showcases a series of weird tableau: a stripper removing a Hazmat suit to reveal a deformed body underneath; a silent, screaming face, wrapped in a sheet, staring down from an upper window; a man apparently realizing that he has been buried alive.

UrbanDeathTourOfTerror@ZJU_PHOTO_6There is no dialogue, only physical performance, each vignette punctuated with a blackout that allows the afterimage to linger in the mind like a mental photograph while some new horror takes the stage, unseen until the lights flash back on. The effect that is particularly startling when the afterimage is that of a masked madman, wielding an ax, who just appeared out of the darkness inches away from you during the previous blackout.

There are visceral bits that inspire a touch of revulsion: a limbless woman poised upon a window as if ready to fall; a woman (perhaps a succubus?) spitting bodily fluid into the mouth of a sleeping man. The highlights, however, are the shudders than ensue during the intervals of darkness, when all manner of invisible phantoms seem to surround you, scratching at the walls like a million hungry rats, and whispering your name out loud, like ghosts from beyond the grave seeking to make contact with the living.

After sights and sounds, the walk back out the maze (flashlight once again in hand) might seem anti-climactic, but the return path is haunted by different ghouls, or at least they are hiding in different places, creating a new sequence of thrills, which you must again decided to peruse or avoid, depending on your own taste for terror.

Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre Group claims that "Haunted Houses don't get any darker than this." Darkness is definitely one source of Urban Death's effectiveness, but equally important is the artistry of the cast. It does not require a particularly perceptive eye to see that these are talented performers, not merely people dressing up in masks and makeup to have a little Halloween fun (although the maze certainly provides a touch of that - with, for example, a zombie strumming away on an electric guitar).

Urban Death: Tour of Terror features minimal production values (basically a black, empty stage) but, like a martial arts master, turns this weakness into strength by using performances, punctuated by light and shadow, to create stark, indelible images that sink into the brain. The result is fairly far removed from most Halloween haunts, and thrill-seekers expecting more high-adrenalin scares  may be disappointed. But  connoisseurs of terror should be delighted by the opportunity to savor this distinctive blend of shivers.

Urban Death: Tour of Terror continue's at Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre on October 19, 25-26, November 1-2. The address is 4850 Lankershim Boulevard, North Hollywood, California 91601. Click here for more information.

Footnote:

  • Zombie Joe informs us that this is a condensed version of a one-hour show performed at the theatre during the non-Halloween season (minus the walk-through maze).

Interested in other Halloween Shows and Tours? Find them here!