I’m pretty sure I was baptized as a Satanist tonight. Terror Vault, an immersive Halloween experience, is heavy on the upside-down crosses, and as I sat in a pew in the dark, I felt a sprinkle of water from a demonic aspergillum. Cool.
Terror Vault makes fine use of one of San Francisco’s whitest elephants: the Old Mint. Built in the 1870s, it was one of very few SoMa buildings to survive the 1906 earthquake and fire, largely because it’s made of steel. Consequently, it’s spooky as hell, with arched brick doorways in the basement and some creepy alcoves where demons can hide. At times, it’s hard to tell where the Old Mint ends and Terror Vault picks up.
That’s because production company Into the Dark has done its homework. A collaboration among drag queen Peaches Christ, David Flower Productions, and event management firm Non Plus Ultra, Terror Vault is Into the Dark’s debut.
“The psychology of all this stuff is really neat to think about,” Peaches Christ tells SF Weekly. “But haunts and horror in the genre world is at an all-time high, as far as attendance goes and quality goes. They say that part of it is that we can’t deal with the world.”
Indeed, the world really sucks right now. So guests can choose to escape it for 45 minutes and mingle with some ghouls in an elaborately staged version of an alternate San Francisco timeline in which the Old Mint became an unsanctioned prison full of rats and vampires (plus a lot of evil clowns, so coulrophobes beware). We won’t give away any key details, but it works like this: You gather with your group in the lounge, watching silent German horror films and drinking cocktails like the Bat Boy Guano or Zombie Pus, until your group’s name is called. (We were the Freaks.) Then you take a guided tour, ostensibly led by an Old Mint docent, that starts out pretty straightforwardly until it’s time to descend to the cellar-prison, where horrors lurk in every shadow. Then you have to make it out alive.
The number of actors is impressively high, and Terror Vault involves lots of passageways and rooms with highly elaborate scenes; you get what you pay for. Unlike the much-missed Hell at the Armory, it’s never overtly disgusting for patrons to endure, and while your group may be forcibly separated, it’s not because a psychopath abducted your friend by shoving a pillowcase over their head. Rather, it’s simply really scary, with lots of cretins going, “Boo!” The ending is the best part, too.
Preparation was extensive. Peaches, who loves the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, went to a “haunt convention” in St. Louis called TransWorld. (“I would tell people I’m going to the TransWorld convention and they’re like, ‘Duh!’ But it’s not what you think.”) The result of this research is a high degree of interactivity. Vault-goers can opt in to become more than just passive spectators by wearing a red glowing necklace.
“People are really caught up with the whole touching thing, but more than that you may get put into a scene,” she says, drawing a contrast with other Halloween spook-fests where “it’s such a formula of pushing people through a conga line of mazes that are really beautiful and expensive — but there’s no interactivity and no sense of surprise, other than the jump scare.”
David Flower, whose favorite scary movie is The Tingler, says the Old Mint presented a few design challenges, like “figuring out where the electricity is, and where do you need to provide exits for people.”
Also, it’s haunted.
“It’s an amazing building to work in, very conducive to what we’re doing,” he says. “I’ve been in here on the weekends by myself and I hear stuff: I hear footsteps, voices. It’s totally creepy, especially on the upper levels. On the second floor, I would go upstairs and get a drink, and I heard footsteps and there’s nobody here. It’s a little bit unnerving.”
“They’re not subtle footsteps either,” Peaches adds. “A full-on person is definitely in there, and you’re like, ‘Why aren’t they coming out?’ Because it’s a ghost!”
She was initially not planning to play a role herself, but Peaches is quite prominent during the satanic baptism. The impresario of cinematic drag re-enactments like Troop Beverly Heels and campy movie nights like Death Becomes Her, she says that since they were already planning to for Terror Vault to be as over-the-top as possible, it made sense for her to be part of the main event.
“For certain audience members, it might be a thrill to see Peaches in the middle of the show, so I decided to go ahead and write myself a part,” she says. “If ever there was a part for Peaches to play in a horror show, it’s this one. If you have religious damage, we’re going to play with that.”
A fan of Anton LaVey and San Francisco’s long history with Satanism, Peaches gets great use out of the iconography. It’s almost as if, to immerse herself in preparing for the role, she descended to Hades to study under the Dark Lord.
“I don’t do enough of the work to say I’m a Satanist,” she says. “I would say I’m ‘satanic-adjacent.’ “
Terror Vault, Oct. 10-Nov. 3, at the Old Mint, 88 Fifth St. $60, tickets.