Halloween at Charlton House

Four Hundred Years in the Making…

When I saw the flyer for this, I leaped upon it. A ghostly walk around Charlton House in the dead of night where “trained actors, designed to scare” (anyone else find that phraseology amusing?) would jump out at you from dark corners and terrify the living daylights out of you? It was either going to be fantastic or utterly rubbish. Either way, this was An Event For Me…

We chose the last tour of the evening, starting at 11.00, and arrived in plenty of time so we could enjoy a ghoulishly green custard tart and an entrance hall draped in spiders’ webs. The staff were clearly enjoying themselves immensely – as was a large gaggle of extremely giggly teenage girls, all dressed for the occasion in mini skirts and sparkly hen-night devil’s horns. I never did work out how many of them were having a birthday that evening, but spirits were very high indeed.

I was a bit worried at first that they’d made the group size too large for any kind of enjoyment, but actually part of the lunacy was manifested in the large number of people all shuffling round together. A terrifying woman with the loudest, shrieking-est voice I have ever heard, all torn metal and glottal-stop, gathered us together. I have no idea why she was wearing a headset microphone. Perhaps she was trying to reach an audience on Mars. That voice seared through my brain and stays with me – along with her eyes – those creepy contact lenses that make you look like you’ve got no irises.

By this point the girls were jumpy – very jumpy. As we climbed the stairs behind the creepy housekeeper, they nudged and budged each other, but they weren’t scared yet. They weren’t even scared when she left us with a very short, masked character carrying a scythe who took us into the first room.

I’m not going to tell you exactly what goes on on the tour, because despite the fact that this was intended as a one-off for the 400th anniversary of the house, I can see this turning into an annual event and if any of you plan on going it will be totally spoiled if you know what’s coming.

What I will tell you is the way I enjoyed it – entirely through the increasing hysteria of those teenage girls. Once they started screaming, they just didn’t stop. Egged on by each other – and the fact that the actors (sorry, monsters) quickly worked out which people to target – they became almost uncontrollably delirious, screaming at a level that made the scary housekeeper’ screeching sound like a lullaby. At one point I was caught in a pincer-movement of two sets of squealing girlies trying to get away from the clutches of two monsters and got a bit crushed, which I confess actually raised my own terror level. Death By Teenager is a frightening thought indeed. With each new room, as each new interpretation of horror was unveiled, they just went more berserk. They were certainly getting their money’s worth.

For the rest of us, well, there were moments that made me think that under the right circumstances I could be a bit creeped-out, but those girls just made the whole thing extremely funny.

At times, and especially towards the end, the energy dipped a little, and I would recommend that in the future the actors don’t speak directly to the audience – as soon as any of them opened their mouths (with one glorious exception) the magic was lost – they were just not commanding enough to instill any kind of fear in anyone who wasn’t half-cut, half-dressed or half-witted. The monsters who kept schtum were actually quite menacing. Those who introduced themselves just weren’t. Not that the screaming girls noticed. By now, they were terrifying each other.

So it was unfortunate that there was a hiatus before the big finale, during which at least half the party were heard whining “I wanna go toilet…” In that holding-pattern while the end was nigh, the atmosphere started to sag. It was well set up (a spot of dry ice and a fog machine would have put the cherry on the cake) but by now our screaming teenagers were beginning to sober up.

They weren’t interested in the final Mr Big ghoul (perhaps an echo chamber effect would have given him the gravitas he needed,) though they did begin to build up steam again as the scene began. Trouble is, hysteria makes for clumsiness and, as they scrabbled in their mania to get away, one fell over. Several others fell over her. So the final part of my particular evening was witnessing a good-old-fashioned Charlton ding-dong as her mates rounded on the monsters concerned.

As about half the audience left, I didn’t hear the entire fracas, though I did hear the immortal line
“Well you didn’t ‘ave to scare ‘er…”
Ahem. Wasn’t that precisely what they were there for?

Unfortunately our ‘trained’ actors had obviously missed the lecture where, however provoked you may be, you don’t throw a queenie fit when a good half of the audience are still in the house. By now, we just wanted to get out, but our way was blocked by at least one pissed-off ‘trained’ actor throwing a wobbly about the teenage girls, who had disappeared anyway. The strip lights were turned on and although a couple of ghouls gallantly tried to keep the atmosphere going, by now it was over. We walked home in virtual silence, the moment killed stone dead after so much laughter.

There is a lot going for this event, and I’ll happily accept that what I experienced was teething troubles. Once they’ve got the pace issue dealt with and one or two people have taken anger-management classes this will be fantastic entertainment. As it is, 25 of the 30 minutes are already great. Look out for it next year. Just don’t tell your teenagers…

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