June 11, 2006


In June of 1985 we were still a one car family, so when the Pontiac had a problem everybody suffered. Though the vehicle had never dared betray us during our precious annual vacation, my dad had a feeling about that year so we decided on a relatively close destination, Kansas City, with hopes that the car could manage a shorter trip. Fifteen minutes down the road we smelled that familiar odor that always preceded the inevitable smoke escaping from under the hood. We turned around and revisited our mechanic.

Two days later we were back on the highway with a sense of relief surrounding the nearly-canceled trip. This time it was thirty minutes before the car started steaming. Back home and back to another mechanic.

That night The Goonies took a little bit of the sting off the situation, but I wasn't sure if I could handle another delay. Perhaps I failed to mention the fact that Kansas City was home to the Worlds of Fun theme park, and furthermore their latest crowd pleaser, "new for 1985," was a little thing called the "Haunted Theatre."

I'd seen the vague TV commercial, and the frightening logo but that's all I knew about it. Was it a "walkthrough," or a "dark ride," or a place that screened scary movies? I didn't know. I just knew that it was haunted. I pondered the question again the morning we made our third attempt at our yearly holiday. Fifteen minutes.. thirty minutes.. one hour and no engine trouble!

At an hour and a half we heard the familiar bubbling sound under the hood and our hearts took a dive. But this time we were past the point of no return, both on the map and in spirit. The decision was made to keep moving towards KC, even if it meant stopping several more times to let the car cool down. And stop we did. The duration of the journey more than doubled and with each sweaty pit stop my anticipation multiplied.. eventually beyond the realm of good mental health. By the next morning every member of the family truly deserved a world—nay, a universe of fun.

Throughout the plodding drive I had often remarked that I wasn't sure if I would be brave enough to go into the scary attraction. Though I'd been dying to try one, at that point I'd never been able to bring myself to set foot in a spook house; not even Disney's Haunted Mansion. But once we stood before the gates of the theater staring at the creepy logo, I reflected on the suffering we had endured to get there, and frankly, I gave myself no choice.

I don't remember anything else about that day, not the generic roller coasters or the predictable log rides. But I can easily recall all aspects of my Haunted Theatre experience.

The "ride" was the newest attraction in the four-state area, so the line was devilishly long and mostly unshaded. Once we finally hit air conditioning I was relieved. But it was also a chilling reminder that we were closer than ever to the terrors that awaited. We slowly filed into a crowded lobby, but I couldn't see the walls through the damp tourists. Finally, we walked through some doors that led into an auditorium with a very high ceiling. The hundreds of seats, and the curtained stage indicated that this was in fact, an actual theater. Again I was relieved.

We waited for the masses to fill every row and once they did, the lights went out. The audience screamed at the darkness, and the screaming begat more screams. The stage lit up and a man appeared. I assume this man was Mark Wilson because later I would notice that the full name of the place was "Mark Wilson's Haunted Theatre." Then Mr. Wilson did something that was absolutely unexpected. He did a magic show.

Yes, I was a little let down when I realized what was going on. Oh, he incorporated a lot of "spook talk" throughout,
"And now Willy the spirit will help me with so and so..."
and the classic tricks were modified with a macabre theme, but it took me some time to warm up to the event. However, I eventually found myself enjoying it.

The entertainment factor elevated when a "live monster" took the stage. The next thing I knew, just as it broke its restraints and was hobbling toward the audience— the lights went out again! Suddenly the whole place broke into a fright fest. Incandescent ghosts emerged and darted over the heads of the crowd. Glow-in-the-dark ghouls roamed the aisles. I closed my eyes through most of the blackout and heard only music and screams. The lights finally came on and everyone was giddy and smiling. Now that was haunted.

I came home with a souvenir cup...

Years later, I came to understand that the Haunted Theatre performance was a by-the-book example of what's known as a "Spook Show." These were traveling, spooky-themed magic acts that were popular from the early to mid 1900s. They usually preceded a midnight horror movie, and they almost always ended with a climactic "blackout" just like the one I experienced.

Once I realized this connection, the brilliance of the Haunted Theatre became apparent to me. I applaud Mark Wilson's efforts to expose a new generation to this lost form of entertainment, but the show only ran for one year. From what I gather, it was merely the featured program for that particular season. The next year the same venue was host to Breakin' Out; I can only assume this was a breakdancing presentation. I'm just thankful I made it there that summer, against all odds, to witness the magic.

(Click image for more info)
This is the DVD that schooled me in spook shows, and it's just about the greatest disc ever assembled. It has dozens of authentic spook show ads, a bunch of shorts, photo galleries, a full length B-grade horror film called
Tormented, and lots more. Monsters Crash the Pajama Party is a 20 minute film that was used in conjunction with a spook show in the 1960s. At one point in the featurette, the monsters run "into the audience" to find a fresh victim. That's when guys in masks would've ran through the theater. I used this DVD to create my own spook show at one "ultimate" Halloween party. But that's another post altogether.


IL said...

What a fantastic experience. I wish I could have seen it. Looking at the current lack of theatre attendance these days, I think a great, cool value add would be doing midnight (or earlier) spook shows, along with an interesting movie or two. It would be a blast for the Halloween season.

2complx said...

AstroWorld one year had a similar event when I was a kid. I sure don't remember it in the same detail I think I was 4 or 5. Goonies I love that movie I watch it all the time!

Kirk D. said...

Il- I agree 100%! A guy named Daniel Roebuck put one on last halloween and he won a 'Rondo classic horror award' for 'best fan event' Here are some photos...
There's no reason why these couldn't be popular again.

2complx- I should dig around for some info on the Astroworld event. Sounds cool.

Joe said...

This sounds great I'm extremely envious. I was not even aware of the Spookshows existence until about 10 years ago when I came across the book Ghostmasters in a discount store and have been intrigued ever sense. The moment that I found out about Monsters Crash... I grab that right up. Although very costly due to it's print status if you don't have it you should try and grab Ghostmasters if you can find a good price on it.

gentle_dissident said...

weird stuff man. just last night it hit me. instead of a haunted house, this year i'm gonna put on a spook show. i got a tingle when i checked out yer blog this morn

gentle_dissident said...

i just ordered a copy of monsters crash the pajama party. 3d glasses included

thanx fer the heads up

Kirk D. said...

Joe- I managed to get Ghostmasters before it got crazy expensive. You're right, it's intriguing.

Gentle- I know YOU of all people are going to love 'Monsters Crash' especially if you are going to put on a spook show.
Ha! the 3-D stuff is somewhat.. anticlimactic, but fun none the less!

Flamen Dialis said...

Has anybody seen that magazine that's published around the haunted/funhouse attraction ndustry? I was in a Books A Million the other day and was thumbing through a copy. It's called something like "Haunted Attractions" or somesuch; I don't quite remember. It's a glossy industry trade mag! - I was a little taken aback - has this stuff gotten that widespread? Great!

I'll never forget the one and only live spookshow I attended at a theater as a kid in the 60s. I don't remember the actual feature that was shown, but the live show blew me away and I screamed as loud as I could with my head buried between my knees as the college kids in the rubber masks lumbered down the strobe-lit aisles, missing much of the production. My friends and I were bummed to discover that the "free corpses to everyone who enters!," so lavishly advertised on the posters, were little plastic skeletons. It was a magical time. I've got a great spookhouse poster, (with feaux Jack Davis illos, no less!) that I keep framed on a wall here in the crypt. It's one of my favorite reminders of that time of my childhood...

Kirk D. said...

Thanks for sharing the great memory Flamen.

That Haunted attractions magazine has a web site...
I've seen it online,but have yet to read a copy.

Anonymous said...

At a garage sale I just found a promo copy of the pitch video for "The Haunted Theatre." which includes the full show!

Kirk D. said...

If you ever upload it online please let me know!