Is There Anybody There? was the latest show from the UK-based juggernaut of immersive and extreme horror, Faceless Ventures. For one night only, eager patrons were entertained and spooked by this stripped-back yet remarkably clever one-hour experience, ultimately discovering how much we each value our mortal soul.
Please note: this article contains elements of a recollection – i.e. a walkthrough of the writer’s experience of Is There Anybody There?. Faceless Ventures have just announced that they will be remounting Is There Anybody There? for one more night, on June 2nd at The Cellar, in Sheffield, UK. If you are concerned about spoilers, please return once you have experienced the event.
Exploring the dusty, stone-walled basement of the old Mexborough school, our intrepid team of “competition winners” is led by the enigmatic Victor Hughes (Ashton Carter – talented magician and expert in the art of the Victorian séance). Quick to dispel any fears over his previous disgrace at the now infamous Berrington Old Hall, Hughes promises us a safe ghost hunt – as long as we listen and follow all instructions, and, perhaps most importantly, stick together.
Hughes tells us of the school’s caretaker who lost his life on the very stone stairs we descend, and it is this spirit that we aim to make contact with in the first room. A brightly lit, dusty stone-walled storage space; the absence of any set or props only serves to make this experience feel all too real. Utilising modern ghost-hunting equipment, a spirit box and ghost-tracking app, Hughes turns off the light plunging us into darkness. Surrounded by the sound of untuned radio static, we watch the dot on the screen move closer and then further and further away…
Undeterred by our failure to meet the caretaker, Hughes, somewhat dismissive of the usefulness of technology, leads us deeper into the basement and back to a time of more traditional methods of communing with spirits: a small table laid with a variety of pendulums and a deck of cards. It is here that the man behind the character of Victor Hughes really comes into his own. Attempting to contact the spirit of a love-lorn librarian, we hold our pendulums aloft.
“Move… move…” intones Hughes, and we watch them begin to sway and swing, to varying degrees.
“Stop!” he commands, and they cease to move, leaving an array of stunned expressions. No tricks here, no rigged pendulums, no manufactured breeze to make those pendulums move; nothing other than Ashton Carter’s impressive mastery of the art of waking hypnosis.
Hughes switches his attention to one person in our group: a woman named Debbie whose pendulum hangs unmoving from her hand. This is not a failure, he explains. In fact, Debbie may be the key to protecting us all.
He offers her the deck of cards, and she cuts the pack before removing a single card: the Five of Pentacles. Well-versed in the art of tarot reading, I smile at the relevance of the chosen card – a person in need, an issue that should not, and cannot, be ignored as it will only get worse. The card is placed in a small wooden box and we return to our pendulums one more time, while Hughes zeros in on the three in our group who are the most sensitive to contact from the tragic librarian. Hannah, Rebecca and a quiet girl I don’t know, Maria.
Debbie is instructed on how to cleanse the pendulums, releasing the spirit, and the focus returns to the small wooden box.
The card inside is no longer the Five of Pentacles.
It is The Devil.
Hughes is rattled as he leads us into the third and final room.
We are seated around a table: a glass, bell and a lit candle at the centre. A circle of protection completed; Hannah, Rebecca, and Maria are invited to join our host in resting their fingers on the glass, which moves in response to Hughes’ questions. Again, no tricks or magnets. The glass moves merely by the power of subconscious. Or ghosts. Whatever you choose to believe is fine here.
Satisfied, Hughes announces that we are to engage in the art of the dark séance. Our hands are to remain on the table at all times. I feel the electric thrill of excitement as the candle is blown out. There is movement amongst the darkness that surrounds us. The spray of a mysterious liquid splashes across our hands. I brace myself to be touched. But there is nothing. And soon the séance is over, and the protection circle is brought to a close.
And that is when all literal hell breaks loose.
A figure stands behind the ghost hunter, backlit by a red glow. He announces himself as Astaroth – the Great Duke of Hell, part of the evil trinity alongside Lucifer and Beelzebub. You see, Hughes struck a deal with him half a decade ago. And Astaroth is here to collect, he explains as Hughes falls into a trance-like state.
Our souls for his.
That is why we were brought here.
The demon already has ownership of our souls, yet asks, maybe out of curiosity rather than any intention to honour, what we would like in exchange. From the selfless desire for world peace to demands for ever-increasing amounts of wealth, each brings their request to the table, showing what they believe their soul to be worth. A teenage boy asks for the power of flight. Quiet and unassuming until this moment, Maria turns to look directly at the Great Duke and utters a single word, “Immortality.” I am both impressed and surprised by her cleverness and sudden confidence in the face of this ominous presence.
Astaroth, however, is distinctly unimpressed and suddenly Maria is choking and writhing next to me, before she falls forward onto the table, lifeless.
Preparing to leave us, Astaroth rebukes us for how little we value our souls. He tells us he will see us again soon. And with that, he is gone, and Hughes awakens, seemingly unaware of all that has taken place.
The séance is over. Our ghost hunt is completed. We are ushered out of the room, leaving behind the lifeless body of poor unfortunate Maria…
Accosted by a local newspaper reporter as we emerge from the basement, eager for a juicy story, the group is understandably reticent to share all that happened below ground. As Hughes conducts an impromptu photo op for his fans, our thoughts are elsewhere, wondering when Astaroth will return to collect on his debt…
Is There Anybody There? may have been billed as a horror experience, and elements may indeed have been frightening for some. However, what really shone out in this show was the use of traditional techniques over technology, and the performances by a limited, yet astonishingly talented, cast. Carter’s ad-libs with a rather excitable group were both impressive and amusing, while his ability to suss out the more suggestible in the group is somewhat concerning, in the best possible way. “Maria” was almost indiscernible as a plant, right up until her untimely demise. And James Holman as Astaroth cast a suitably imposing and intelligent presence, driving us to ask ourselves the most uncomfortable of questions.
“Is There Anybody There?” was a simple concept, an eloquently executed satire on the celebrity ghost hunt, which allowed the truth behind the illusion to truly hit home.
Is There Anybody There? will be remounted for one more night on June 2nd, at The Cellar, in Sheffield, UK. For tickets, visit TicketSource.
Faceless Ventures team will be in Los Angeles, April 20-21, for RELAX18: Cracked vs Heretic II.
For more information on these and upcoming shows, follow Faceless Ventures on Facebook.
Is There Anybody There? Is There Anybody There?