There are few better at pushing boundaries than Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group. Perhaps best known for their annual Urban Death horror show, a graphically unsettling collection of Grand Guignol terror and dark humor, the group makes it their business to deal in the more unseemly aspects of the human psyche.
Their recent limited-engagement pop-up event, entitled Camp Whitsit, couldn’t have been more different: a sugary sweet sensory experience designed to take eager Tenderfoots and turn them into Second Class Scouts by way of earning various merit badges.
Campers first encountered Zombie Joe himself, as eccentric and effusive as ever, as he describes the 160 mile per hour winds that batter the camp, to say nothing of the paranormal activity he so nonchalantly warns about. The camp has been plagued with spirits searching for corporeal forms, so its normal 10-week residence has been condensed to about 20 minutes.
After being led in an oath and given blindfolds, campers enter in pairs through the glass doors of the North Hollywood black box theater before being enveloped in their new reality: the sprawling Camp Whitsit. The smell of pine trees fills the air as the rustling of branches and the whistle of those very same winds Zombie warned about provides a subdued soundtrack. A cheery counselor provides an “orientation” of sorts inside a tent, offering a safe word (“Homesick”) and a pine cone, to be given as an gift to the spirits inside the woods.
This juxtaposition perfectly encapsulates everything effective about the Camp Whitsit experience. The scenes that follow for the next twenty minutes are both delightful and ominous, a black comedy inside an often violently haunted forest. A spirited tug-of-war ends with would-be bullies pulled directly into latrine water a la Biff Tannen getting dumped with manure, while flirtatious co-eds beckon Scouts all too eagerly into their treehouse, their motives clearly suspicious.
The blindfolds remain on for the majority of the trip through the woods, heightening every other sense in the same way that early haunted houses did, only things are much more effective here than grapes masquerading as eyeballs or spaghetti as brains. The sound of an arrow hitting the dead center of a bullseye, followed by the thunderous cheers and applause of supportive counselors is the perfect foil for the rattle of a rattlesnake or the distant whispers of the Spirit of the Pine.
It’s next to impossible to stop smiling when experiencing Camp Whitsit. From the enthusiastic counselors to the mysterious goings-on, it’s truly immersive in every sense of the word. Saccharine as it might sound, there’s a certain magic in these woods, a relentless optimism that follows Scouts for the rest of the night. It surely won’t be long before blood drenches the ZJU stage again, but for three nights, Camp Whitsit was the perfect home away from home.
For more information on Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre, visit www.zombiejoes.com