Haunted houses have gone over the top in the quest for guts, gristle and gore. But the Alvarado Caverns and Mystery Theatre in Los Angeles offers a clever, DIY twist on scare tactics. Its fascinating — yet still freaky — lo-fi haunting techniques are cribbed from one of the country’s original spooky addresses: Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion.
Alvarado Caverns and Mystery Theatre is the brainchild of Machine Project — one those weird and wonderful Los Angeles art spaces. It’s not far from my house, and every time I walk by it, I’m excited to see what quirky new project it has in its storefront.
But on this chilly autumn night, when I arrive at the space, I’m shocked to see that Machine Project has mysteriously disappeared.
Did it happen yesterday? Did it happen last week? No matter, it’s definitely gone. In its place is one of those off-brand 99 Cent Only stores you find all over L.A. — a 98-cent store, perhaps? — selling the usual dusty sundries.
As I step into the store it seems like the typical bodega: a rack of postcards, a wall of soda. But there’s something that seems a bit off. The first thing I notice are bottles of baby powder featuring infants… with fangs.
Puttering around the storefront as a quite convincing cashier is lead artist Chris Weisbart, grinning at the suggestion that he’s made Machine Project disappear. “Some people are really angry, yelling, because Machine Project is gone,” he says. But others don’t miss it as much: “People come in constantly trying to buy lottery tickets and we have to turn them away,”
Weisbart is the perfect head demon for the project. As a multimedia technician and exhibition designer at L.A.’s Natural History Museum, Weisbart and other employees developed a kind of skunkworks in the museum’s back rooms, tinkering with decades of broken equipment. Some of those projects eventually made it into exhibits, like a hologram that taught kids about dinosaur bones, and Weisbart became known for his hardware hacking. He was featured on National Geographic’s Naked Science building a contemporary version of an Antikythera mechanism, an ancient Greek computer. The last thing he helped build in Machine Project’s space was a sinking pirate ship.
To get into the Halloween spirit, Weisbart attended several haunted house conventions including the local tradeshow Scare LA, where he met many of the project’s long list of collaborators and volunteers. Machine Project supplemented with a long list of artists and designers who contributed everything from animations to violin performances. “That’s kind of the idea of haunted houses, they’re these community built projects and everyone chips in,” says Weisbart. “Just what I’ve seen here is just this incredible support.”
With his team, Weisbart managed to transform the tiny storefront into a very convincing haunted house with several effects borrowed from the Haunted Mansion. This includes the storytelling element. Like the beginning of the Haunted Mansion, when you’re standing in a seemingly normal portrait gallery and the walls slowly appear to stretch, the subtle rebranding of the products serves as that slow transition into a different reality. The guides keep the tour groups in the bodega as long as possible so people really start noticing all the ghoulish details in the packaging, says Weisbart. “Then the idea is to try to get them to go into the bathroom.”
Weisbart teaches a workshop called Multimedia Effects in the Haunted Mansion, which deconstructs the Disneyland ride that opened in 1969. (“I always warn people I’m about to ruin their childhoods,” he says.) He’s amazed at how well the simple effects still hold up over time. “I feel their real advantage is providing a layer of magic in real life,” he says. “We’re consistently over saturated with technological power, but you can do an effect with a sheet of glass and a blacklight that is still visually impressive in the post Xbox world. People get so hyped up on specs and processing power in devices that create magic in the virtual world, they don’t necessarily see all the magical things you can do in the real world with a relay or a washing machine solenoid.”
Not that he’s a technophobe — far from it. “The advancements in microcontrollers alone has made these real-world devices more controllable and accessible to me,” he says. “There’s just something fun and great about being able to now pull from all these eras of technological advancement — from 19th century theatrical effects to an Arduino at Radio Shack — to quickly and cheaply make somebody’s jaw drop.”
Some of the tricks you can probably figure out right away, notes Weisbart, like the grinning man who appears over my face’s reflection in the convenience store bathroom. There’s a dark, false room behind the mirrors — which are actually two-way glass — where performers use blacklights and flashlights to get their faces to appear. “It only works for a minute or two before people start to catch on,” he says.
Far more complex are the disembodied hands reaching out to me from around the corner, floating in mid-air. This is Weisbart’s most complicated machine — a DIY vapor display — which he also used to make a Princess Leia “You’re my only hope” hologram, of course.
Using two fans, PVC pipe, a baby humidifier and $US90 worth of drinking straws (including boba straws), Weisbart created what’s essentially a flat sheet of water vapor that acts as a projection screen for artist Joel Fox’s video, resulting in ridiculously realistic images. Here, he actually had to use some fluid dynamics to calculate the speed that the water vapor needed to travel. “The toughest part was that I had some computer fans but they were too fast,” he says. “I had to use these $US20 box fans instead.”
It was incredibly convincing. The hands seemed to be beckoning me, pulling me… into a giant cave.
In the next room, every surface had been covered with canvas to create the very real sensation of being underground. In the corner is Weisbart’s domed hologram, where creepy 3D images appear to float in a eerie moonscape. He found out how to make this after looking online for information about Sega’s infamous 1991 “Time Traveller” game, which used a similar technique, then finding an Exploratorium tutorial to make what’s called a “real-image reflection.” “It’s definitely a hacked together approach, but the internet enables all this stuff,” he says. But when he got stumped on one part of the setup, he turned to the experts: “I finally called the video game repair guy.”
He pushes some canvas to the side to reveal 1/4 of a plexiglas dome reflector below the hologram (currently a woman spewing black ink out of her mouth). “Have you ever looked inside a spoon and seen your own upside-down reflection? It’s a very similar thing,” he says. Using two light bulbs and a projector, the image is “broadcast” onto a horizontal screen above surrounded by clay stalagmites painted with blacklight paint. “What you’re actually seeing a hologram of is the entire monitor but only the lit part is what shows up,” he says. “It’s just a 2D image but we’re tricking you into seeing it in 3D.”
Another technique you’ll recognise from the Ballroom scene of the ride is called Pepper’s Ghost. This is where an image on an angled reflection creates a ghostly apparition. (“It’s similar to what they did with the Tupac projection” at Coachella, Weisbart says.) Here, he built a floor to ceiling screen with a sheet of reflective plastic used for winterizing, using a hair dryer to stretch it tight. When someone stands in a dark corner, lit appropriately with a blacklight, the effect is extremely convincing.
As are the smoke rings that pulse from a nearby crater, which is just a fog machine in a trash can with a hole cut in it which allows the actors to push out the fog like a cannon. “It really is all smoke and mirrors when you look at all the stuff,” he says, gesturing towards the wall, which is actually a large black trap door that swings open, back into the bodega. “One of the setups we have is where we put people on office chairs and wheel them through, whispering in their ears,” giggles Weisbart. “We push them through this door and that’s one way out.”
But then, across the room, a section of the cave starts to heave up, revealing a dark tunnel. It’s a remote control open sesame door. And it leads down… into… the basement.
I twirl my way down a narrow spiral staircase (also produced and installed exclusively for the haunted house), and step through more of the cave, only to emerge, quite incongruously, into what looks like a miniature theatre. I blink in the bright lights and realise I’m onstage.
The functioning stage (which Weisbart built with Joe Seely and Andy Daley) looks and feels like it was constructed then abandoned in the early 1900s: clamshell lights, 18 seats salvaged from a nearby theatre, a faux pressed-tin ceiling (made from styrofoam), and curtains that retract in two mysterious ways. Until the end of the year the stage is programmed with entertainment ranging from “creepy” karaoke to hypnosis demonstrations to shadow puppet performances.
Like the Haunted Mansion’s bizarre plot which drops you into the middle of a ghost rave, it’s the twist of standing on onstage, like some kind of naked-at-school nightmare, that really completes the experience. “People in the audience usually start to clap spontaneously at you at this point, and you start to freak out,” says Weisbart. “There’s nowhere to hide.”
It’s an unexpectedly surreal ending. “From where you start in the bodega to this scene down here, this theatre really makes the journey so different,” Weisbart says. He’s right. As we sit in the theatre seats, the walls around me painted with goat-hooved satyrs, I start to feel like I’m in some kind of secret Victorian performance venue tucked into the city’s catacombs.
I leave Weisbart to fiddle with the stage lighting and I stumble back into the night, not quite sure if I was ever at Machine Project at all.
Photos by Laure Joliet