The creators of Nightmare, one of New York City’s most acclaimed haunted houses, have pushed passed the Halloween season and are now extending their icy grip on "the most wonderful time of the year" with their latest, twisted exploration, The Experiment. Those looking to deck the halls, sing heart-warming carols, and contribute to the general sentiment of peace on earth and good will to men need not apply, but anyone willing to look Santa straight in his more sinister eye should be pleased by the demented vision to be seen there.
"That can’t be real" and "They’re not really going to let that happen" would be perfectly natural thoughts to pass through one’s mind as The Experiment unfolds. Boundaries of comfort are continually challenged, and most anything likely to induce fear in an individual is exploited with exacting proximity, particularly if you are brave enough to unwittingly volunteer and descend to the stage below.
As consenting test subjects of an organization simply called the Hayden Foundation, audience members are strictly observed from the moment they enter the operating auditorium and, as we are warned, some will continue to be observed long after they leave. Consent is the key word, and a shameful corner of safety and humiliation awaits any audience members not willing to offer their unconditional sanction to the evening’s proceedings. Presiding over the experiment are two somewhat menacing figures in lab coats, Joe Raik and Anna Phyllis Smith. Approaching their work with clinical detachment and analytic sterility, Raik and Smith summon macabre laughs during much of this dark comedy, then proceed with a stern hand and intense eyes as the piece becomes progressively darker and laughter gives way to discomfort and dread. A rotating group of Lower East Side locals are also employed in this production, with lady of the night Alex Stebbins and neighborhood transient Rollo providing an added air of authenticity to the scene. A suspension of disbelief comes easily as this less-conventional approach to holiday cheer absorbs you into its waiting world of horror, fun, and hangman’s humor.
Creators and co-directors Timothy Haskell and John Harlacher have reached a new high in their unique blend of the haunted house and the theatrical, developing the traditional "boo!" into something truly original and exciting. Expanding upon The Experiment, which appeared as an added feature to this year’s haunted house, Nightmare: Fairy Tales, this manifestation is a hybrid of a short play, magic show, geek act, and house of horrors, utilizing audience participation to break any notion of a fourth wall and create a sense of immediacy devoid of personal immunity. This interaction is also combined with the more theater-born method of observing from a seat, removed from the action, making for an uncanny, innovative cross-section of experiences. The sense of observing as well as being observed is palpable, and the opportunity to surrender one’s self to the reality of the moment is far greater than what is offered in a traditional haunted house or spook show. This fresh approach to entertaining audiences with a taste for something scary is ripe with possibilities and could lead to a new genre of live entertainment as the evolution continues. - C. Jefferson Thom
The Experiment runs through December 23 at Clemente Soto Velez Cultural and Educational Center (CSV), 107 Suffolk Street (between Rivington and Delancey) in Manhattan.
Mr. Thom lives in New York City and walks dogs, writes plays, and loves dissecting pop culture.