I have never been a fan of the haunted house. Something about paying strangers to scream at you in the dark as your body threatens cardiac arrest doesn’t appeal to me. However, I was intrigued by the Maryland Institute College of Art’s (MICA) unique take on the Halloween tradition and was impressed that the production was staged by students alone. After hearing friends testify to its relatively-tame-yet-still-spooky nature, I agreed to check it out.
The annual haunted house, running for four nights in October, is entirely built and performed by MICA students, with the story and sets developed around a theme. Last year it was set in a remote forest where each room focused on a different popular urban legend. But unfortunately, the production was shut down after only one night due to fire code violation.
This year the house returned with a “Meet the Neighbors” theme, drawing on the horror trope of the suburban hellscape and the eerie nature of the friendly families that live in them. The house was set up in MICA’s Gateway in a black box theater called the BBox. Before entering, my friend and I signed a waiver that gave a run down of what to expect and how we couldn’t sue for getting too scared. After consenting to be yelled at, and possibly to losing our belongings, the waiver asked: “How do you like your meat cooked?” (I’m vegan! Next question!) and then “How would you like to be cooked?”
We opted to wear glow-in-the-dark bracelets that signaled to the performers that we didn’t want to be touched or grabbed. We waited outside the gates of the BBox, listening to the screams of the group in front of us, and I warded off my mounting anxiety by checking out the art displayed across from the theater. The doors opened, we were led into a room and after the doors closed behind us, the production began.
The first room was set up like a porch, a dark red light illuminating the woman greeting us, who was dressed like a Raggedy Ann Doll combined with a housewife. She asked us if we really lived alone in the big old house across from her and if we’d like to come in for dinner, establishing the setting as an old suburban neighborhood full of the types who’d invite you over for a nightmare disguised as a friendly dinner. We were then lead through a hallway with faces growling from holes within the walls and into the next room.
The next room had what seemed to be a senile old woman sitting on a couch, who grew erratic when we entered. She blew her nose in tissues, complained about the TV in front of her and pointed out the bottles of pee collecting next to her. She became increasingly enraged until calling over a pair of her “grandchildren” who broke out of a wall and pushed us into the next room, “the baby’s room.” Inside there was a lone stroller masked by cobwebs, a lanyard of skulls and other spooky things. I couldn’t bring myself to look inside, but my friend reported it was a rotting pumpkin.
The tour then reached the “dining room,” and the promised dinner was revealed to be a person, splayed out and bleeding. The children from the earlier scene gnawed at the body and urged us to sit down in the chairs. When I took out my phone to get a picture, the actors swarmed, saying they didn’t like technology, so I didn’t manage a money shot of my friend smiling uncomfortably in the chair. The walls shook, and we were asked to stand and move to the next room.
This room was dark and relatively quiet, and it was easily the most stressful room in the house. I walked forward, shielded by my friend, and after a tense couple of seconds, the room shook with screaming actors who reached through and under the walls. After the climatic final scare, we exited the house into the bright entrance of the gateway.
Leaving the house, I was pumping with adrenaline and shaking, which according to my friend was a weak response to the short and mildly frightening experience. As someone unaccustomed to haunted houses, I definitely freaked out. Ultimately, I was very impressed by the atmosphere the students were able to create through set design, lighting and sound. Each room had at least one memorable house-made prop, from the bloody dining room table to the lone baby carriage. The costumes were super creepy and the actors professionally kept their composure in the face of our defensive attitudes and constant nervous laughter.
I likely won’t be going to any haunted houses in between, but I’ll surely be checking in next year to see what spooky new world gets built.