Descending the Victorian stone steps towards the basement of the Mexborough Business Centre, signs lead our small group below ground and remind us to be quiet and respectful of the deceased. At the bottom, we are met in the mortuary by the unsettlingly intense Nurse Charlesworth. She shares with us the few details she knows of the body lying beneath a blood-stained sheet: a man, found slumped in an alleyway, with no family, no belongings, no identification, clutching a diary as if his life had once depended upon it. As she reads from the tattered book, practically destroyed save for four pages, the words transport our minds into a world of terror and demons. And as the diary is snatched from the Nurse’s hands by a young boy running past, we begin our journey through the short and tormented life of John Doe.
Diary of a Deceased is the latest production by Faceless Ventures (Lee and Sarah Conway, Rosalie Woodward, James Holman). The UK team is best known for their work in the field of extreme haunts, particularly Cracked Survival Experience, and recently ventured into the immersive realm with Fraternity. This new project was designed to flex their narrative muscles as a piece of immersive horror theatre; a story played out across three rooms, with the addition of elements of the classic haunted house. Billed as the “scary transatlantic journey into John Doe’s thoughts and mind”, this experience was to be the team’s second collaboration with Los Angeles’s Heretic – however, Heretic had to pull out of the partnership due to unforeseen circumstances.
With Diary of a Deceased, Faceless Ventures created an experience that was emotionally absorbing and unnerving through powerful themes. This team are not only unafraid of taking on the challenge of narrative immersion; but they also tackle the tough subjects of mental illness and suicide with a refreshing honesty, creating moments of such melancholy beauty that many patrons find themselves moved surprisingly close to tears during this horror experience.
“Do you want to see my den?”
Leaving Nurse Charlesworth behind in the mortuary, we follow a boy into his den, meant to be a place of safety, his sanctuary; the flimsy tarpaulin walls and dusty floor covered in his innocent drawings and discarded games of noughts and crosses. But as he reads aloud from his diary and the lights go out, his childhood fear becomes ours; the snarls and screams grow louder and ever closer as the tarpaulin shudders under the weight of unseen hands, all underpinned by a haunting score from Nick Hutson.
Undoubtedly, the star of the show is the Conways’ own son who plays the young John Doe. The choice to cast such a young performer was intentional, says Lee Conway, designed to “bring out the maternal side” of female patrons, while encouraging male visitors to connect with the young boy they used to be. Never far away during your entire journey, he is a stark reminder that you can never leave your past behind as the experiences of our childhoods shape the people we become as we grow.
We are also joined on our travels by a beautiful young woman, who takes us to America to show us the effect of John’s relentless nightmare on those who tried to love him. But no matter how far you run, the demons of the mind are never far away. They come in close as you take in the scene of a doomed relationship, appearing over your shoulder unexpectedly, affecting those around you, but always returning to torment you some more.
As John leaves, his demons follow. “I just couldn’t cope. I had to say goodbye,” says the distraught and abandoned girlfriend. “I didn’t know it would be for the last time…”
“I know what I have to do, there is only one way out. Follow the voice.”
The tears still wet on her cheeks, she guides us back to the mortuary, where Nurse Charlesworth still presides over the now empty slab. You know Doe’s demise is near, as the door to the final room is opened and you are ushered inside. The astonishingly talented Rebecca Barker laments over Doe’s final moments; the use of a live singer heightening the very real feelings of grief that you experience at witnessing this tragic event.
While embracing techniques uncommon in the British scene, the team is clearly also aware that some familiarity is required when introducing an audience more used to jump scares to the world of immersive theatre. Much needed relief from the darker emotional aspects of the story, in the final room patrons turn away from the devastating death scene to explore a maze-like wilderness haunted by Doe’s demons brought to life, now released from his mind through his death. Forcing you to face your own fears, your path is impeded by a variety of creepy characters, mocking you, enticing you to play, begging you not to leave… And then you stumble back into the mortuary for the concluding scene which lets you know in no uncertain terms that poor John Doe is not resting in peace…
“Your presence still lingers here and it won’t leave me alone…”
Faceless Ventures is a brave and exciting company and has a passionate and committed family of fans that continues to grow for exactly this reason. Their shows never fail to be innovative and push the boundaries of their audience and the industry. In Diary of a Deceased, the clever staging and lighting of such a small space (only three rooms and a corridor are used to house the entire experience), the carefully crafted sound design, and their consistently talented core cast, all work together to bring the powerful script to life for this mere 30 minutes of immersion.
No matter how quickly you run back up the stone steps into the reassuring brightness of the reception area, returning to the comforting company of your friends, you can’t leave Doe behind; this is a story that sticks with you, long after you leave.