I have weed, but if you want the good stuff, you’ll have to go into the basement. It’s my first time at a party with Ma, but I’ve heard the rumors of how legendary her parties are. I have also heard the rumors about how jewelry has gone missing, memories have gone missing, and even worse, people might have gone missing. But I ignore that – they’re just rumors, right? It’s only two weeks to graduation, and I want to have a little fun; that’s why I’m at Ma’s house party after all. So, I open the basement door and enter the dimly lit room – and I wonder, what’s the worst that can happen?
Ma’s House Party was a one-day, invite-only immersive experience produced by JFI Productions (CreepLA, The Willows) in collaboration with IHEARTCOMIX to promote the movie, Ma. Don’t expect a normal promotional party though, this JFI after all. Ma’s House Party ambitiously immerses guests within its world from the moment they enter. By combining an open-world, sandbox-styled party with that of a more linear walk-through immersive horror experience, guests are offered no respite from the world of Ma.
The Party: An Immersive Playground
Characters and guests alike seamlessly mingle within the party, often leaving audiences wondering if they are talking to an actor or just another well-dressed participant. A high school house party isn’t complete without beer pong, so multiple tables can be found across two different locations. Three bars litter the massive footprint of the mansion, and even a free food truck is blended into the experience. A live DJ allows you to dance with all your friends from Hudson High in the vast foyer of the mansion. But beyond all of that, the best part is simply interacting with all the amazing actors JFI has brought to this experience. These actors are the highlight of the entire experience, providing dialogue that feels organic, natural, and just plain fun. These actors are also the main source of the narrative, as their stories evolve over time and help fuel the mysteries of Ma’s house.
The Haunt: Don’t Go Upstairs
As the narrative unfolds, more and more characters will push you to explore what’s going on inside Ma’s House Party. A series of different girls provide multiple starting points for the haunt, and when you or your group (up to five) find one, you might get invited to visit the basement. Entering through an outside door, the basement is gorgeous – looks straight out of the movie. It’s perfectly designed for a dingy basement party; but a series of noises and the glimpse of a girl in trouble sends you and your guide on a exploration of the second floor – the floor you’ve been cautioned by everyone not to step foot on.
The second floor is a small taste of what a JFI haunted house would be like, but feels closest to a linear version of The Willows. Guests move past doors that open with such fervor that they demand guests look at the horrors inside. Hidden among the static of television sets and illuminated fog are the tortured victims of Ma: a man scalded by the burns of an iron, a girl trapped in the silence of her sewn-shut lips (the wonderful Sheer Aviram), and a woman screaming from the confines of her wheelchair (the great Maureen Germain). But perhaps most frightening is the masked monster (Tyler Gordon) that follows you through the remainder of this experience. Providing only a small glimpse to start, this shirtless beast appears in front of and behind you at numerous occasions, providing the perfect adrenaline rush.
This haunted house is not punctuated by jump scares like a traditional haunt would be – actually, it doesn’t really have any. Instead, this walk-through rests on JFI’s crafting of an aesthetically driven atmosphere of dread and fear. While it lasts only ten minutes, it’s the perfect counterpart to the immersive party going on outside. Ma’s House Party is not a quick fright; it’s a perfectly paced experience that builds during the party and climaxes at the top of the stairs, leaving guests little time to catch their breath.
An Immersive Ensemble
Fans of immersive theater will recognize at least one, if not the entirety, of the cast for Party at Ma’s. Pulling mainly from JFI’s Awake and The Willows, but also Ceaseless Fun’s They Who Saw The Deep and Speakeasy Society’s The Johnny Cycle, this boasts an incredible cast – and an insanely large one for the amount of people attending (my guess is roughly 20-30 actors between the party and haunt). All actors go by their real names in this experience, too; a fun nuance that creates an innate intimacy and allows immersive fans to already feel connected to this world.
While all actors were impressive and not a single one disappointed, some that I personally interacted with deserve a special mention. Sophie Cooper deserves all the praise she can get, as Ma’s House Party gives her the leading role she’s deserved for a while. Expertly balancing the duality of fun party girl and brave friend, Sophie proves her versatility. As the narrative unfolds, she organically shifts from dancing on light poles and laughing with friends to running through hallways, crying out in anguish for her friends. It’s this emotion and adeptness that further elevates the interior from a haunted house to an immersive horror experience. Julia Henning evokes even more emotion as the first sign of true danger guests experience in the haunt. Playing a girl locked up behind a barred door, she is the most interactive role of any victim during the haunt portion. She bleeds emotion, cries real tears, and screams at each participant. This pain is impossible to dismiss and sets a high baseline for scenes to come.
The party provides numerous familiar faces to interact with, albeit in less horrific ways. Galen Howard is a police officer who is fully embracing his youth, proving that he has dance moves that can rival any high schooler there. Harrison Meloeny sheds his creepy stalkerish ways from Awake and embodies the most affable person there. Always with a smile on his face, he is a friend to all and a pleasure to interact with. If you want to rebel, Janet (Lauren Hayes) is the girl for you. With her “F the man” attitude and a fanny pack filled with blunts (that smelled like oregano if you smoked with her), she is a natural friend. Kylee Thurman provides the warmth and friendliness that she often exudes in immersives, making her a prime candidate to seek out after attending the haunt. Misha Reeves Bybee (who has not missed a JFI production to date) is decked out in the blackest lipstick and reddest hair, but was the friendliest goth I have ever met. Book-toting Liesel Hanson provides many of the best laughs of the night: whether she is coming up with complex lies to tell her father when he asks where she was tonight, or trying to pretend to be passed out on a couch with a drink in hand. Andrew Paul Welenc is the quintessential party-friendly jock; he has everything you could need, ranging from rock candy to a backpack full of PBR to his Letterman jacket. And finally, Deirdre Lyons provides one of the deepest backstories, telling us every detail about her husband to singing his store’s jingle to giving us her daughter Julia’s phone number to call, reinforcing one of the strongest mysteries of the night.
A Haunted Mansion
A character itself, The Beckett Mansion is a gorgeously uninhabitable and eerily run-down mansion in the heart of Los Angeles. This six-bedroom, four-bath, 5,415 square-foot haunted mansion is the perfect accommodation for JFI’s grandiose work – and while it’s not immaculately pristine, it could easily be swapped out for a creepier version of The Willows. In fact, The Beckett Mansion did serve as a haunted mansion for Delusion’s 2012 hit, The Blood Rite. Real cracks run like veins across the walls and gaping holes expose the innards of this beast. Further, a fire in the 1980s bestowed even more personality with charred wood for characters to comment and marvel at. Ultimately, nuances like this these only add to the production value of Ma’s House Party and help foster a feeling of unease.
But grand location or not, the members of JFI Productions are masters of creating an aesthetic whatever the location. Bathtubs are perfectly illuminated by an underneath red light, making guests question whether the man with the needle in his neck squirming inside (the unparalleled Matthew Vorce) is covered in blood or just crimson-illuminated water. A van outside is filled to the brim with smoke and an ominous glow – leaving guests asking: Is this something nefarious – or just a group of teenagers hot-boxing in a van before the party? Monsters and victims alike hide in hazy rooms, scaring some guests, while others admire how beautifully the fog swirls when bathed in a pale blue light. Finally, the basement and surrounding areas are just dark enough for guests to safely traverse the ancient landscape, but not see far in front of them. Paths are only illuminated by the meager glow of your guide’s flashlight – which highlights exactly what they want you to see.
A Limited Engagement
While Ma’s House Party itself was masterfully done, the only limitation to this experience is being able to see it: I mean that both in the sense of receiving an invite and getting an opportunity to head to the basement to start the walk-through portion. This is not a fault of JFI in the slightest; as mentioned above, this was a one-night event meant to promote the movie Ma. Unless you were a member of the immersive press, an influencer, or similar, you sadly would not have had the opportunity to attend. Further, to aid in the immersion and reinforce the narrative, there was no official line to begin the walk-through portion. To better immerse guests, they were usually invited to the basement by actors – sometimes by actors approaching participants, other times by proactive audiences finding specific performers. However, as crowds amassed, finding these characters became increasingly difficult, and congregating near the exit waiting to be picked could leave guests feeling invisible. As Alone’s 2016 venture, The Rite of the Anthropocene, proved a similar lesson in guest selection, this method is wonderful for most in attendance, and disastrous for those who are overlooked. There is no perfect way to fix this issue though, as adding a line or time-slot reservation would serve to break the immersion of the experience that JFI so perfectly crafted.
Creating Lasting Memories
As a marketing activation for a major motion picture, the ultimate success criterion here is not how many tickets were sold (it’s a free event, after all), but rather, how meaningful and lasting the memories created here are. The party atmosphere is enough to create memories with friends and characters alike, and the haunt is eerie enough to give even immersive veterans a recalled nightmare – but to further reinforce the memories, a special photo opportunity is interwoven into the experience. To a passerby, one might see a normal couch with a drunk guy and girl (played by the wonderfully unconscious Noelle Urbano) passed out on it. But upon closer inspection, the hints of blood, the drugged look on their faces, and the metallic chains linking their feet and hands to an adjacent wall only reinforce that something more sinister was happening at this party. So why not take advantage of it? Guests are invited to sit in between them and snap a professional photobooth photo; just be careful because the shift in weight may result in the girl’s head precariously falling onto your shoulder.
Ma’s House Party is a marketing activation done not only right, but done memorably and ambitiously. It provides the type of lasting impression that will keep guests talking, posting pictures, and reliving the festivities, friendships, and frights for months to come. The actors elevated the exterior from a simple house party to that of an immersive playground, while the interior felt reminiscent of a The Willows-inspired haunted house. I would have paid to attend either of these on their own – and I would love to see more immersive experiences combine the two as expertly as this event did. Next time Ma throws a house party, make sure you get on her guest list, no matter the risk.
For more information and upcoming events, see JFI’s website and follow them on Instagram and Facebook and make sure to check out IHEARTCOMIX. Keep up-to-date with immersive and horror experiences throughout the year with our Event Guide.
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