By Andy Seifert
This isn’t your typical room—for one thing, there are silver balloons all over the ceiling, which is maybe three feet above the ground. And then there’s the Pigman—a freak of nature with a pig head and a human body—in the corner, crying softly to himself in his clownish costume. A scruffy-haired college-aged kid walks up to the Pigman, and asks, “I bet there’s a guy with a chainsaw over there, am I right?”
“Oink,” says the Pigman, which is pig talk for “Yes, he’s around the corner.”
This is smack dab in the middle of “The Haunted Sanitarium,” which on its less-spooky nights is the Theater on the Lake in Lincoln Park. But until Halloween night, the theater—which about eighty years ago actually served as a public sanitarium—will feed off the fears of those willing to pay ten bucks to be chased around with chainsaws. It’s really a backward holiday when you think of it that way.
Now in its fourth year of being haunted, the theater’s decision to embrace its eerie past wasn’t a difficult one. “It wasn’t rehabbed in any dramatic way,” says Sarah Anderson, a program specialist for the theater. “By itself it’s kind of a creepy building.”
The steady gust next to the lake combined with a constant, monkey-like shrieking from inside its walls certainly helps solidify a certifiably macabre experience. Once inside, each room is designed to specifically target particular phobias, from the well-documented (disgustingly putrid bathrooms, nightmarish clowns, Santa Claus) to the unorthodox (tree people, a certain nine-foot character from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”). Oh, and the entire time you’re being watched from above.
“Because it’s a theater, there are queen boxes upstairs that you can look down at people going through the maze,” Anderson says. “It’s hilarious…you got people standing in a cluster trying to hide behind anything they can find.”
Other theaters are seeing the comic (and financial) potential Halloween offers as well. For a holiday whose core values are centered on spooking kids, it’s strange how pumped adults get into it; foremost among them is Jason Chin, the writer/director of “Thriller Theater” at i.O. The most upsetting thing to Chin about running a Halloween show is not being able to see other Halloween shows. “Whenever there’s a Halloween show, I’m automatically super jealous,” Chin says, dead serious.
“Thriller Theater” features two shows: one that Chin calls “really serious” and one eighties slasher/zombie movie improv show (or “ZombieProv”), in which each character that dies runs backstage, puts on Zombie makeup and participates in the finale: Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” dance. As Chicago’s leading authority on the “Thriller” dance, Chin understands the practice that goes into nailing the iconic scene. “It’s really difficult,” he says. “There’s a million different things that go into it. And it repeats itself faster and faster.”
Chin also showers accolades on Maximum PartyZone, another i.O. show, for its Halloween shows, which has on occasion ended with the audience playing the “angry mob” role and chasing after Frankenstein. Mostly though, Chin just seems blissful that’s it’s late October. “It’s fun to be scared. It’s fun to be goofy,” he says. “And of course, being on Clark Street, it’s another drinking holiday.”
If you’re less than entertained by the lighthearted horror of John Landis’ “Thriller” video, perhaps Hitchcock is more your style. Hell in a Handbag’s production of Hitchcock’s 1963 classic “The Birds” may be a campy and humorous look at how dreadfully Hitchcock treated his star actress, but it’s pretty damn scary, too. “It’s a parody and it’s really funny, but we do want to create genuine moments of terror and suspense,” says David Cerda, who writes and stars in the play. “The audience is very much enclosed in a birdcage, you do feel trapped with the actor…There’s a thin line between laughter and terror.”
Besides the fact that the Coach House is literally just a fairly small coach house (capacity is about seventy) on the lake, and that the lakefront winds will occasionally be whipping as you approach it, there’s also the small matter of the birds, which are thankfully fake. “We have some pretty creative bird attacks,” Cerda says. “It’s more about the people being attacked by the birds. It’s what you can’t see that’s scarier than what you can see.”
“The Haunted Sanitarium” runs at Theater on the Lake, 2401 North Lake Shore, through October 31; “Thriller Theater” runs at i.O., 3541 North Clark, October 26 (midnight); “The Birds” runs at the Coach House at Berger Park, 6205 North Sheridan, through November 17.