Author’s note: While there are staff members at Haunting that both direct and act in HVRTING experiences, this review was written by someone who is not employed by Haunting and was not influenced by any Haunting or HVRTING staff. serialized death
Giggles the Clown is just as dingy and sketchy as the rest of the murder house, but that doesn’t stop the birthday girl from proclaiming her jealousy as I’m sat down and then strapped into the wheelchair. “Now, time to disappear!” Giggles exclaims, audibly excited. He places a sack over my head and secures it with elastic around my throat that doesn’t actually asphyxiate, but feels as though it could if it felt inclined. I’m wheeled away as the birthday girl starts making choking sounds, begs for help, begs for daddy, and then falls silent. Wait a minute, I wonder, is the clown supposed to be… John Wayne Gacy?
A one-day-only, solo extreme haunt in Woodland Hills, Serialized Death marked a return to serious horror for HVRTING, and ranks among their best productions. While it was positioned as The Director’s latest film in the pre-show marketing, things started off with a bit of a head-fake; participants received an email from The Director’s real-life persona, Taylor Winters, a few days beforehand asking them to meet him at a different, nearby address to help with some location scouting. This… raised several red flags. While Winters has previously dropped his Director mask (at the end of The Science of HVRTING), it was somehow even more unsettling to have the location change come from his real-world persona. I would not have been surprised if, upon my arrival at this alternate address, I was unceremoniously chucked into an unmarked van and driven to the event’s real location. But none of that happened. Instead, things started off with Winters actually playing this off as a location scout, talking about how excited he was to use the dilapidated-looking abandoned house for Skin Collector 2 given how much murder and death had supposedly happened within the walls. Then, in a fit of slasher-film tropery, Winters insisted he and his guest conduct a mini-séance to try and commune with the dead who resided in the abandoned home.
The ritual was perhaps a bit too successful. Winters vanished completely, leaving the participant alone in the dark until confronted by a southern woman named Aileen (played by Lacey Rae). From there, the experience began in earnest, taking participants through a series of one-on-ones, two-on-ones, and three-on-ones with the murderous ghosts infesting the place, including Aileen (Wuornos) and five others based on real-world killers. The show ended with the stage manager of HVRTING walking in on the participant, asking where the hell they had been and informing them that they “missed their show.” While I doubt anyone was fooled, ending on an it-was-all-a-dream note did felt on-brand for a show from a company that enjoys messing with its participants before, during, and sometimes even after attending their haunts.
Serialized Death was a pretty sharp pendulum swing from HVRTING’s prior experience, Señor Pirate’s Final Plunder, both in terms of themes and intensity level. During my two hours in the house it felt like I was in a 13 Ghosts-style horror film, with a wide variety of deranged torments and tormentors that grew more disturbing with each scene. After all, we had more important things to worry about: being threatened at gunpoint, tied up, stripped naked and getting a sponge bath from an insane nurse… you get the idea.
In fact, the ghosts who preyed upon each guest really put the “Serial” in Serialized Death. I’ll admit I had to track down most of the sources of inspiration for the show’s scenes after the fact, but each section of the experience is drawn from real-world murderers. Any serial killer geeks who went through the experience might well have recognized the influence of Aileen Wuornos, John Wayne Gacy, Harvey Glatman, Ted Bundy, “Jolly” Jane Toppan, and Andrei Chikatilo (in that order), though knowing the true stories the haunt was based on wasn’t necessary for enjoying it. That said, I’ll give credit where it’s due: HVRTING clearly utilized a serial killer enthusiast (Cristen Brinkerhoff, I would later discover) in helping with the script, and Winters and Brinkerhoff did their homework. Some of the dialogue was taken directly from quotes attributed to the murderers as well, including Aileen Wuornos’ last words, Bundy’s blame for his crimes, and several lines from Chikatilo.
But while this was all fascinating to look up after the fact, what really stood out to me during the experience itself was the pacing. The introductory scene with Winters was unusual by virtue of having The Director out of his mask but otherwise completely tame, and the next scene (with Aileen) was mostly small talk until she pulled a gun and demanded I take off my pants. But things ramped back down at the start of the next scene, opening with a tea party with a little girl (Chelsea Cook) that only went south at the very end when John Wayne Gacy (Jonathan Andrew Agurcia) put the bag and elastic over my head. But it started off at a higher level of discomfort than the prior scene, what with me being pantsless and Cook doing an admirable job of projecting that sort of childlike innocence which always manages to be creepy in a haunt setting. That rhythm would iterate throughout the show; each scene opened with a jarring shift in tone and environment from the last, putting the participant off balance, slowly escalating the creep factor, ending in an act of violence, then the next scene would begin, taking on a darker – or at least weirder – tone, along with more removal of my clothes (by consent – the nudity was not mandatory). By the time I ended up in the mercy killer scene, things had ventured firmly into creepyville and I was completely naked. I had never consented to full personal nudity before, in any haunt. But I was led there, as deliberately and inevitably (but, again, willingly) as these characters to their first kill.
Another standout, and a necessity in a show as intimate as Serialized Death, is the strong cast. Scenes involved only the participant and one or two actors, and focused almost exclusively on the interactions between participant and cast member. Actors in such high-participant-agency scenarios have to be able to adapt based on how engaged their scene partner feels like being (with the potential for curveballs from weird or sassy folks), and in an extreme haunt you then add in whole new dimensions that need to be monitored and accounted for, making sure that the intensity of your simulated torture stays on the right side of each individual’s line. This was particularly important (and well done) in the final scene with Chikatilo (played expertly by Jorge Lozano), which combined high physicality with some very dark themes. Keeping things on the right side of “pushing boundaries without crossing lines” isn’t easy, but Lozano pulled it off. I also found ”Jolly” Jane Toppan in the preceding scene (played by Shar Mayer) to be a standout; she did a great job of presenting a corrupted maternal persona that truly believed that her terminally ill charge (me, naked, in a cold bathtub) was better off if she killed them as gently as possible. I half expected the toaster she threw in at the scene’s climax to be live – while it was not, I played along with the flickering lights and faked electrocution convulsions. It felt like the thing to do.
In most ways, then, Serialized Death was a well-executed immersive horror experience, and one of HVRTING’s best efforts. It trod familiar (or at least recognizable) narrative ground in a creative way, and was driven by a solid cast who all did a commendable job of making their roles believable and moving their scenes forward while allowing participants room to play along, or not, as they fancied. It’s always interesting to see what the HVRTING team can assemble given their MO of small audience, single-day productions and the reliance on pre-existing sets with minimal constructed elements that engenders. This time around, it was a descent into horror by inches – a procession of the ghosts of murderers past that pushed my boundaries and left me with a lot to process.
To attend an extreme HVRTING show, you must email The Director to make sure the experience is a good fit. Find more information on upcoming shows and out-of-show, personal experiences on HVRTING’s website, Facebook page, and Instagram. Check out our Event Guide for more extreme horror events throughout the year.
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