Night Crawler

Autumn of the Dead

In late 1800s, just after the abolishment of public executions and before the development of low-budget slasher films, there was Grand Guignol - French plays known for their violent content and graphic, often gruesome stage production (buckets of blood, animal innards, tools of torture). They enjoyed great popularity (despite frequent episodes of fainting in the audience) and illustrious patrons (Ho Chi Minh, the kings of Greece and Romania) until World War II, when real-life horrors seemed to overshadow make-believe ones. While the going was good, Le Theatre du Grand Guignol was the ideal Halloween destination, not entirely unlike the Exit Theater, a small playhouse in a dead-end passage of a derelict district in Paris, not entirely unlike the Tenderloin.

The Thrillpeddlers know a good thing when they see it.

After a restaging of the British-banned 1945 one-act The Celibate -- the stirring battle between a parish curate's overwhelming lust and his God-fearing crippled wife, which ends in a bloody gunshot to the head -- and the titillating 1888 masterpiece A Visit to Mrs. Birch and the Young Ladies of the Academy -- "stiff" admonishments from Joan Elman, and pert, bare bottoms from a cast of young, willing ladies in pinafores -- we get down to 1925's A Crime in the Madhouse, a Grand Guignol classic written by Andre de Lorde and Alfred Binet. We're talking sweet young girl locked away in an insane asylum with hunchbacks and child-killers. Screaming doesn't help. Nuns don't help. They want the young girl's eyes, blood, gore, and all.

"Lubrication for the holiday," says a man guffawing through his beard.

Outside SOMAR, a large pile of skulls strewn with flowers glows in the cooling night. Gravestones grow out of the bushes, and all around lie signs of remembrance. I enter the pitch black gateway of Casa de Espantos ("House of Ghosts"), through caution tape and curtains of silvery threads, into the chill of reflective black light and large, leering heads. My footsteps wake sleeping bears and skeletal fiends who lurch at me with scythes and scepters through clouds of smoke. This is the "Fun House of the Dead," I am told. There is laughter in the darkness up ahead, then the Reaper demands that I crawl through a darkened tunnel. The floor under my knees is transparent; shadows move below, skittering; an icy hand slides over my ankle. Curator Rene Yanez waits for me on the other side with a warm smile. To my right is an altar of fading photographs, dried flowers, and chipped crockery. Below the altar, embedded in the floor, is a glass coffin housing two skeletons cushioned by household memories and sanguine candlelight. They are Susan Matthews' grandparents who, the tale says, were so afraid to die they lived to be 107, when the weight of their memories crushed them. Yanez beckons me to a bridge, the passageway created by Kay Weber. Wild, surreal faces hang in the darkness on either side, culling ritual shapes and symbols from every imaginable culture, reflected in the dark mirrors of the River Styx below. Despite reason, I hold the railing and enter the "Dwellings of the Dead," where I am asked a seemingly simple question by Michael Jones and Alicia Houtrow: heaven or hell?

I have always picked heaven for climate and hell for conversation, but signing my name on the dotted line is not easily done. Creeping farther along the labyrinthine passages, I find no fewer than 75 other habitats for death: the hotel room in Arizona where Nick Gomez's uncle was shot dead, complete with a view from the hotel window, an old black-and-white TV, and the uncle's suit; a visual testimonial for frogs sacrificed for science class, created by Jenny Hacker; a drum tree made from Annamarta Dostourian's grandmother's pots and pans; an empty red-lined coffin as an invitation to the living who might want to lie inside and gaze into the mirror hanging above, by Juliet and Dean MacCannell; a stunning stainless steel alcove created in the Jewish tradition of shivas by Margaret J. Feldman (with mirrors covered in scarves and the words "To Remember to Mourn What Is No Longer Present"); a cozy receiving room for all those who didn't die crossing the U.S. border, with a sign-in book and a reminder of those who did, created by Kathy Pinto, Niki Ballard, and Katie Keech; and an Aztec-sci-fi world created in plasma and black light neon by Chico Ganza.

Spinning from my travels, I enter the cool quiet of the "Temple of the Dead," a huge wall-sized altar for fallen idols and loved ones. At the far end of the Temple stand altars for Bernice Bing, a beat-era artist who worked at SOMAR until her death from cancer earlier this year, and Hayden Carlos Davis, the well-known son of SOMAR proprietor Jack Davis, who took his life on New Year's Day. Bing's altar is strung with her etchings, fans, china, and fragrant wreaths; Davis' is filled with hundreds of photographs, newspaper clippings, candles, and Nutrageous bars. A woman steps out of the candlelight and moves across the floor.

"That's my son," she says quietly to the room.

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