It’s hard to be a jaded adult and walk through a haunted attraction without failing to suspend your disbelief at least a little.
“Ooh, that actor playing a homicidal maniac really knows how to shriek,” you mind may involuntarily start saying to itself. “And damn, this art direction is impressive. The budget for fake blood and damask haunted-bordello wallpaper alone must run into the thousands!”
Well, last year’s Terror Vault—a haunted attraction put on at the San Francisco Mint by Into the Dark, itself a joint effort between Peaches Christ and David Flower Productions, along with special-events firm Non Plus Ultra—had so much going on that even the most un-frightenable cynics stayed in the moment. In addition to all the really gross stuff that only a bunch of truly twisted minds could come up with, there was that room with all the spring-loaded rat traps and the other room with the strobe light and the clown punching bag that had a real clown behind it. That was sick!
At this year’s Terror Vault, David Flower tells us, coulrophobes have lots more to look forward to.
“If you’re not a fan of clowns, you’re really going to hate this show this year,” he says. “It’s exploded into a giant area, way bigger than it was last year. The overall show is way more developed, I had double the crew that I had.”
Umm, yea? Worse, Peaches Christ tells us that the 145-year-old building in whose vaulted catacombs Terror Vault and its companion installation Apocalypse reside is unquestionably haunted. As in, for-real haunted, not part-of-the-experience-LOL haunted. And she’s not even much of a conduit to the spirit realm.
“I was telling my therapist that I saw a ghost in the Mint,” Peaches says. “As much as I love horror and spooky stuff, I’m not really a believer in ghosts. I haven’t had any supernatural experiences in my life. I’ve done a Ouija board with [fellow drag queen] Heklina, and she said I’m the reason it didn’t work.”
She was downstairs on the set, near one of the curtains that actors pass in and out of between and behind the scenes, when she saw someone’s hand holding one up. Thinking no one else was around, she went over to investigate.
“Then the curtain dropped as if the person decided not to come through, and there was no one there,” she says. “I was questioning it, like ‘Am I having an acid flashback?’ I decided a ghost was watching me.”
Flowers notes that when he and Peaches were doing auditions in the basement, they heard a loud banging noise directly overhead. When they went upstairs to check it out, they realized the sound was coming from the middle of the Mint’s courtyard, which was empty.
“It was right above our heads,” Flowers says. “It didn’t make sense. We said, ‘All right, whatever.’ And then it started again! Ghosts, you have no reason to be angry with us.”
That last part may not be entirely true, as the immersive haunted attractions are disturbing the spirits’ place of rest and drawing attention to their existence with a much-larger set-up than last year. Terror Vault is longer and more elaborate, and Apocalypse—an escape experience which is entirely new—includes a whole set of actors cast as guards and zombies.
It’s changed “in every way you could evolve a scene,” Flowers says. “From what it looks like to what it smells like—to what it tastes like.”
More than 100 artists worked on it in all, and there’s a full bar, vintage pinball games, and something called Madam Zola’s Fortune pop-up cafe. Tickets run $35 to $62 for the various attractions, but you can also just check out the non-scary bits while waiting for your friends to emerge glassy-eyed with their hair turned all white for $10.
Overall, there’s more interactivity, from “random reaching and grabbing” to actors really getting in people’s faces. To add to the sense of unease, there are two segments where audiences have to sit down.
“That’s very unusual for a haunted attraction,” Peaches says. “People want to see what’s behind them and look around. Part of the fear and they way they’re managing it is to hurry their way through, and so you when you stop them it’s very uncomfortable for them.
“You might be fed something,” she adds. (It’s vegan, as if Impossible Foods had branched into plant-based cannibal alternatives.)
For research, Peaches — aka Joshua Grannell, who’s best-known in San Francisco for elaborate drag re-enactments of campy films and cult classics — went with Flower and Non Plus Ultra’s Ryan Melchiano to a horror trade show in St. Louis called TransWorld as well as a more Halloween superfan-focused convention in Long Beach called Midsummer Scream. The result is a 45-minute chamber of nightmares that, in spite of all the many moving parts, evolves from night to night and group to group. (Apocalypse, which is separate, runs for half an hour.)
The actors have scripts to fall back on, but apart from one dangerous stunt that must be executed in a precise way each time, they have the freedom to improvise — both to freak you out and to avoid giving truly freaked-out people a full-on panic attack. Last year, KCBW reporter Betty Yu couldn’t even take it, effectively reporting her own demise on camera after she fled to the safety of her news van (something Into the Dark used for its 2019 trailer).
The best reaction came from Emmy-winning, low-budget horror-meister Jason Blum of Blumhouse Productions, who went through Terror Vault without any of its producers knowing it.
“The next day, he tweeted, ‘I survived #terrorvault it was amazing!’ ” Peaches says. “Today, he responded to my reply elaborating on how incredible he thought it was. This is the producer of all the major horror movies right now. This is the guy whose opinion really matters. That, to me, is like, ‘Holy shit!’ ”
All this leaves only one question: After months and months of work, what are they going to be for Halloween?
“I’m going to let Peaches and David dress me up and put makeup on me,” Melchiano says, and without hesitation they conclude that he will be going as a beautiful woman, although possibly one who has not shaved.
“We’re open and we have a show, so we’re going to be behind the scenes making sure everything is up and running,” Peaches says. “Usually, I come up with some sort of elaborate Halloween costume, but this year and last year I’ve just been a spooky version of Peaches, which is so embarrassing.”
“I’m going to be exhausted for Halloween,” Flower says.
TERROR VAULT AND APOCALYPSE
Through November 10
San Francisco Mint
Tickets and more info here.