Please donate whatever you can into the alien pumpkin head on your left,” said the voice actor as he threw candy at the audience. “And remember, diabetes is the real killer!”
There was no shortage of camp at the “BEWARE or Be Square!” show at the Co-Prosperity Sphere, which attempted to recreate old-time radio shows that broadcast scary stories. Almost every sound effect in the show was done by hand, except the sounds of cars starting and sputtering, which were prerecorded.
My own skeleton nearly jumped up out the top of my head as I was browsing the art in the Co-Prosperity Sphere before the start of the show: I turned one corner to see a figure with a dark hood and blacked-out eyes wearing a tattered orange garment with human handprints upon it. I soon came to my senses and realized that his cackle was not one of malicious intent to torture and maim me, but rather of giddiness at my reaction. The figure introduced himself as Andrew Krzak, the writer and director of the show I was about to see. Upon closer inspection, his blacked-out eyes were rendered in smudgy makeup and the scary handprints on his shirt were done with bleach. This over-the-top theatrical horror permeated the show. In retrospect, I should have seen it coming; the flyer said the show started at “8 o’clock sharp! As a knife…”
As Krzak later explained, as much fun as the campy dramatics were, his main interest was in the opportunity to revive the particular joys of radio. “The old-time radio thing is something that I’ve always been interested in,” he said. “These shows were over and done with by the time I was young.”
To start things off, Krzak paraded the group of actors through the aisle doing their best zombie walk, accompanied by his accordion, which he played in such a way as to make it sound like a haunting, creaky organ. They took the stage as he introduced the show in a tone of voice usually reserved for Frankenstein’s assistant.
The first story related the tale of an insane doctor named Phillip Hansen, who tries to summon spirits of the dead into his body to achieve eternal life. The doctor’s niece decides to investigate her strange uncle’s house after hearing rumors of its being haunted, and for some reason dismisses the sinister creaks of the house as she passes through.
Test tubes clatter and clink (courtesy of the actors hitting the metal hinges on a cabinet door) as she roams about his laboratory. The spirits rustle amid the clutter as Doctor Hansen summons them up from below. A suicidal spirit then assumes control and does just what he did in his old life, but with his new body—he kills himself, leaving the doctor dying and gurgling on the lab floor.
After that horrific display, the show went to a “commercial break,” shamelessly promoting Maria’s Packaged Goods and Community Bar as well as the actors’ performance group, Hard to Pronounce. This was something I had not expected from a horror show, and I found myself laughing. It was a brilliant way to exploit the show’s radio element, and I enjoyed it almost as much as feeling my imagination run wild while the actors performed each story.
“With only audio you make up in your own mind entirely what’s going on. It’s such a cool art form that’s been lost,” Krzak said.
The second of the trilogy of stories was “Bon Voyage,” a tale in the vein of “The Tell-Tale Heart.” The actors now portrayed a pair of elderly sisters on a cruise to their doom. After investigating the ship, the sisters realize that they are the only ones on board. As opposed to a stage play, the setup of a “radio show” made the actors concentrate much more on creating sound. When the characters’ position in the story took a turn for the worse, they created the sounds of sheer chaos, screaming at the top of their lungs as they met their grisly demise. By far the most interesting sound effect was the use of the accordion to make the ship’s ghostly horn.
After another commercial break and an intermission stretch, the third and final installment of the show began with a story called “Country Road.” It’s your classic serial killer trope: a couple takes a shortcut down a road they shouldn’t go down, ignores police broadcasts warning of an escaped maniac, and runs out of gas. (And it’s raining, of course.) The actors muttered about sports, news, and weather as the coupled surfed radio channels. With a rain stick constantly at play, they made sounds of sheer panic as the psychopath broke through their window and grabbed a shard of glass.
As the show ended, I realized that I hadn’t found myself jumping out of my seat, aside from the sudden crashes and bangs. The horror stories weren’t actually very horrifying. All of the plots and characters were played-out tropes anyone with a TV and even a slight appetite for fear has seen dozens of times.
The real fun was in seeing behind the curtain of radio shows like this, watching how the sound effects were made and seeing the genre of bygone radio shows revitalized. The actors made every rustle and whistle of the spirit in the first story’s movement. Doors opening and closing were made with an old cabinet door and hinges. I found myself tempted to close my eyes and solely experience the auditory sensations, but I was too fascinated by how they made the sound effects The stories may have classic horror clichés, but they were still a lot of fun to listen to, illustrating why these sorts of stories have endured.
The draw of the radio show endures, too, it seems, because it’s so much fun to watch the sound become a part of the performance.The sound effects are a lot of trial and error,” said Krzak of the performance’s signature medium.I want us to play it as straight as possible, so we’re allowed to fuck up and be live. I feel like seeing people holding common household objects…in its old-fashioned way, it’s truly a multimedia experience.”