The Summoning stakes a claim to greatness
The Summoning enlists audiences into a human-vs-vampire conflict staged in the depths of the San Francisco Mint, where the undead dine and pillage, and the LGBTQ vibes ring loud and proud.
If The Summoning is not reason enough to visit San Francisco this Halloween season, we do cannot imagine what is. Billing itself as a “fully immersive haunted experience,” the event is actually more of an interactive theatrical piece. Sure, it contains traditional haunted house elements (drop panels, jump-scares), but the forty-five-minute show has a plot that ties its scenes together, putting the audience into the action as they engage at length with vampires haunting the foggy City by the Bay. The result is a bit like an unholy hybrid of Delusion Interactive Theatre and The Count’s Den.
The Summoning is the latest in the Terror Vault series of immersive productions from Into The Dark, which last year presented The Immortal Reckoning. Set in the basement of the San Francisco Mint (yes, it really did mint U.S. currency), the new production immerses audiences an underworld of sexually transgressive bloodsuckers seeking to prevent all-out war between the living and the undead. It’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it, and with a little help from your vampire allies, you just might pull it off.
The Summoning Review: Fang Bang Bar
The Summoning consists of two elements: while awaiting their turn to enter the immersive walkthrough, guests can schmooze with the undead in the ’80s New Wave goth Fang Bang bar while enjoying themed cocktails and finger food.
After ascending the front steps of The San Francisco Mint and checking in, you descend an ominously dark staircase (not the last you will encounter), which leads to a lower floor guarded by a monster mannequin that looks like something out of Matango (1963). Moving through the dimly lit brick corridor takes you past rooms that once were vaults but now serve as a stage, a bar, and (for an extra, exorbitant fee) private party rooms.
While vampires perform on stage to recorded music and occasionally pause for selfies with their human groupies, you can move into the adjoining bar for a little liquid courage before embarking on the quest to avert human-vampire warfare. Seating is limited, but there are advantages to standing at the chair-less black tables, where the flow of traffic insures that you will be accosted by vampires moving in and out of the room.
Though you will not realize it at the time, the cocktail names foreshadow characters and plot elements that will be seen later. We sampled two, Lucretia’s Secretions and Vivian’s Elixir, but neither one overwhelmed us. The former (grapefruit vodka, lemon juice, liqueur, simple syrup, and bitters) tasted like one of those phony wine cocktails. The latter (absinthe, lime juice, simple syrup, and chilled water) tasted like a real cocktail, and any problem was probably more with us than the ingredients. Try as we might, we have been unable to acquire a taste for absinthe, but we ordered the drink because its 19th century pedigree and cultural associations with New Orleans made it seem appropriate for an evening among vampires.
Food options are limited to popcorn and pizza (cheese or pepperoni). Beware the latter: though quite good, it is served by the slice – something the menu above the bar does not make clear.
The biggest advantage of the Fang Bang bar is that it provides an entertaining immersive environment even before you enter the main event. Because traffic and parking can be difficult in downtown San Francisco, you best strategy is to arrive early and wait in the bar. All guests are given wristbands printed with their entry time, so you need not wait in line until a helpful staff member summons you a few minutes before your appointment.
Then things really kick into high gear.
The Summoning Review: Interactive Theatre
Time waiting in line is short, just enough to count the glow sticks wrapped around their necks of those joining you on your adventure. These are handed out at check-in to those who want to experience up-close interaction with the characters; those not wearing them are obvious cravens who should be sacrificed if necessary (not that it actually comes to that, but you will lose one or two participants along the way).
After a brief introduction explaining the the rules of show’s interactive nature, The Summoning gets off to a quick start in the first room, a dingy office where a butch, leather-clad vampire with an impressive pair of fangs explains the situation. Vampires coexist with humanity by preying only on the worst of the living (“thieves, murders, and MAGA”), but an evil vampire queen named Lucretia has gone rogue, threatening the the fragile truce.
For what is essentially an exposition scene, the actor conveys a remarkably dramatic urgency, and the dialogue makes a genuine effort to justify the premise, addressing the obvious question: Why do vampires need human assistance? Answer: a failed attempt to destroy Lucretia has sent her soul to the spirit realm, which vampires cannot see but humans can.
This leads to a seance in search of clues, which is cut short when Lucretia manifests. The audience flees the scene and spends the rest of the excursion moving from scene to scene in search of Lucretia’s severed head, which must be reunited with her body so that she can finally be truly destroyed.
It’s a great premise that gives the audience a clear goal to pursue throughout their quest, and Lucretia’s head has to be the most bizarre MacGuffin since Spock’s Brain. After that, the scenes that follow are so entertaining you almost overlook how few of them actually advance the plot. You meet some characters who are aligned either with or against Lucretia, but most of the encounters are set pieces thrown in for their own sake, providing opportunities for the performers to strut their stuff as they toy with their captive audience, chipping away at their comfort zone.
In this regard, a topless vampire dancer is positively tame in her heteronormative appeal, compared to the campy gender-bending grandeur of the various gay, domineering, and cross-dressing vamps on view. Guests wearing their glow sticks may have to fondle a dildo or endure unpleasant beauty treatment in the form of electrolysis to remove “unwanted” facial hair. And The Summoning has to be the only haunt in this or any town which expects its audience to taste a “cream” which the story would have us believe actually comes from a human donor (if you know what I mean, and I think you do).
After these and other encounters, the plot eventually kicks back in, leading to an exciting confrontation between Lucretia and her arch enemy, noted for decapitating his victims, which means there are many severed heads around, complicating the search for one in particular. Thus the audience finally gets a chance to fulfill its appointed task, setting up the climactic showdown with Lucretia. The finale is not only a visual show-stopper but also a dramatically satisfying resolution that lays the story to rest like a vampire firmly staked in its coffin.
The Summoning Review: Conclusion
Just to be clear: The Summoning is not an extreme haunt; the outrageous bits provoke outbursts of laughter, not gasps of disgust, and only the easily offended will have a problem with what goes on inside. Although the LGBTQ vibe is obvious, that is not all the show has to offer. Along with the campy humor, there are legit chills and thrills – and even genuine excitement when the story barrels to its climax.
Production values are very impressive. The show not only exploits the claustrophobic interiors of the San Francisco Mint’s basement vaults; it also includes convincing sets simulating other environments, even exteriors. The action is enhanced with good mechanical effects, including a levitating character and a spectacular dragon head that almost steals the show. The business with Lucretia’s severed head is rather transparent, but it works so well within the story that it is easy to forgive.
Whether going for glamour or grunge, the costumes, masks, and makeup effectively distinguish each member of the rogue’s gallery of vamps. More importantly, the entire cast are fully invested in their roles, delightfully teasing and taunting their victims.
The interactivity is a bit one-sided. Despite being told that their presence is essential to resolving the crisis, the audience is mostly passive – led around and manipulated by the performers until the very end, when they are finally given something to do.
Nevertheless, the experience is completely involving. Unlike some interactive plays, there is little or no confusion about what the audience should or should not be doing; they always know when to move and where to go. Also, despite its episodic nature, the story is easy to follow: the opening scene loads Chekhov’s gun – or in this case, Chekhov’s stake-and-hammer – which is then dutifully discharged at the denouement, ringing down the curtain with a sizzling flourish of smoke and screams. It’s a solid conclusion establishing beyond doubt that The Summoning deserves to be considered an immersive, site-specific drama, not just a Halloween haunt with some interactive elements.
Ultimately, The Summoning walks a weird and wonderful tightrope, pushing far enough past the comfort threshold to elicit a response while always remaining enjoyable. It is definitely intended for open-minded and adventurous haunt-seekers, but more traditional Halloween fans will enjoy it as well, and even the easily intimidated can avoid potential discomfort by declining the glow sticks. There is no need to check all your inhibitions at the door. Just know that, unlike most Halloween haunts, the bodily fluids you encounter may not be blood.
Hollywood Gothique's rating of The Summoning
1 – Avoid
2 – Not All Bad
3 – Recommended
4 – Highly Recommended
5 – Must See
Part themed bar and part interactive play, The Summoning immerses audiences in a vampire saga that is alternately campy, outrageous, scary, and exciting. The queer-coded aspects of vampirism are made overt, and the sexual suggestiveness is so obvious that it hardly qualifies as innuendo, creating several moments of risqué interaction with the audience.
All of this is delicious icing on the cake. The foundation is an engaging premise that ties the outrageous set pieces together. It’s not quite a three-act structure – more like a first and a third act with some fun stuff thrown in the middle for its own sake – but eventually it leads to a satisfying conclusion worthy of a really good cult horror movie.
Our only hesitation about awarding a full five-star rating is that we would have preferred more agency on the part of the audience to fulfill their role in the plot. Fortunately, the committed performances bring the undead to life with a lascivious debauchery that eclipses any blemishes, rather like a sadistic beautician removing facial hair just for the fun of it.
The Summoning continues on weekends and select weeknights in October, including Halloween Night, with performances starting at 15-minute intervals from 6pm to 9:15pm. Located a few minutes from the south side of the Golden Gate Bridge, the San Francisco Mint is easy to find, but parking is difficult, so arrive early and enjoy some extra time in the Fang Bang bar. The address is 88 5th Street in San Francisco. Due adult situations, including nudity, this is an 18+ event. Tickets range from $55 to $75 depending on the night of the performance. Two themed, private party vaults, including a dedicated scare actor concierge, can be rented for three hours at an additional cost of $1,000. Get more information at intothedarksf.com.
The Summoning Review: Photo Gallery