From somewhere deep in the heart of the sprawling Hopper House, someone is screaming bloody murder. This is a good sign. In the unique theatrical entertainment known as a Halloween "haunted house"—or simply a "haunt" to aficionados—there is no applause at the finale, no standing ovation as the actors take their bows. In a haunt, the audience members show their appreciation simply by screaming. Tonight, at the Hopper House of Horror, located for the second year inside Santa Rosa's former Hunter Steak House, there is no shortage of such "applause" from the visitors.
The modern haunted house comes in many forms. Most of them are plotless, little more than a series of decorated rooms depicting unconnected scenes of creepiness. More and more, though, the creators of these annual attractions are approaching them as theatrical enterprises. Rather than simply staging them as walk-through showcases of loud noises and unsettling makeup effects, they are conceived as little, interactive plays.
The problem, as with any grassroots theatrical offering, is finding enough actors up to the task. With the Hopper House, the producers (WOW Event Solutions) have hit on a no-brainer idea, recruiting an existing theater company to populate the haunt, sculpting the entire affair as a single interactive, walk-though show.
This year, for the second time, Narrow Way Stage Company has gotten the call. Young, energetic and already holding a reputation for edginess and a commitment to freaking people out, the rising theater troupe is a good fit. The fact that the Hopper House is now staffed with actors who can convincingly, you know, act, puts Hopper House at the forefront of North Bay scares. (Another good one is Sonoma's effects-heavy Dragons Head Inn: www.dragonsheadinn.com.)
The story is set up as the audience waits in the spacious two-story lobby of the Hopper House, killing time by examining cases filled with stuffed mutant babies and displays of desiccated corpses. For an extra fee, daredevils can take a ride inside the motion controlled coffin, a rare treat for anyone who's ever wanted know what being buried alive is like. The house is the boyhood home of Dr. Horus Hopper, a demented outcast whose childhood pets were evidently sickly, cannibalistic kitties. Curious about the functioning of the human body, he turned his home into a laboratory, borrowing organs and limbs from unsuspecting patients and implanting them into his ever-expanding "family."
All of this is elaborated, in dripping bits and pieces, once the tour begins. A nice touch is the slow-build meander through the upstairs area, an actor-free series of rooms in which visitors are gradually acclimated to just exactly how sick and twisted this Hopper guy is (the rotting teddy bear and eye-gouged baby doll are especially nice touches!). Once back down stairs, the experience kicks into full gear with a dimly lit corridor peopled with scuttling, deranged "assistants" wielding sledgehammers and axes. One of them, played by an actor who knows how disconcerting direct eye contact can be, randomly slams his sledgehammer against the wall shrieking, "Kill! Kill! Kill!" Another, drenched in blood, sizes up the crowd eagerly, whispering, "I might have to eat you—if you survive this!"
The most effective scenes include the dining room, where the main course is being carved up while still alive—and, no, it's not turkey—and the kitchen, where roasting body parts spin on the spit, and the imposing chef shouts, "Who's ready for dinner?" I particularly enjoy the attached meat locker, where we push through a number of dangling, plastic-wrapped slabs of meat, some of them are still writhing and twitching.
The best—and funniest—moment comes last, when we finally meet Dr. Hopper himself, hard at work in his operating room. "Some people call me a mad scientist," he explains, sinking his scalpel into his not very sedated subject, "but I like to think of myself as a free thinker!"
People who attend these kinds of entertainments tend to fall into two groups. Those who run through at full gallop, dashing for the exit as fast as possible, and those who take their time, savoring every gory development, every surprise, every (sometimes literal) shock. I recommend relaxing and lingering.
At the Hopper House of Horror, you are in bloody good hands.
The Hopper House of Horror runs through Nov. 1 at the former Hunter Steak House, 3785 Cleveland Ave., Santa Rosa. The haunt opens at dusk, closing between 10pm and 11pm. $12&–$20; under 12, not recommended. Visit www.hopperhorror.com.
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