Fear Factor 5: Del Hughes faces a trio of terrors
The clocks have just gone back, and it seems that we’re suddenly far removed from the sporadic brightness of summer, and deep into the gloom of what could fancifully be called, the ‘spooky season’.
I’ve had the heating on twice, because the air is damp, and the house chilly – though I’m conscious that the bills will probably be the scariest things I’ll face this autumn.
So, rather than sit at home, swathed in a fluffy dressing gown, thermal socks, and woolly blanket, I’ve been out and about, discovering what’s available for those of us who enjoy a good scare at this time of the year.
But this might be a step too far, because I’m seriously considering hammering on the metal walls and shrieking to be let out. I’m already regretting it because, as fears go, this is hardcore.
The advertising for this was relatively austere; apart from some industrial fencing around the steel container, and the stark word, ‘SÉANCE’, inscribed in black against the white background, there were no other clues to tell you what to expect, or what you might encounter – if you’re brave enough to enter.
But the website did make a commitment to those daring individuals who decided to embrace the experience: ‘We will not prey upon the paranoid, the bereaved, the credulous, the wide-eyed, the weak or the inbred, but in return we ask you proceed with an open mind. Séance is an entertainment only and we cannot hold the medium responsible for the outcome.’
Um, okay? I couldn’t say it totally put my mind at rest, but . . . Sod it, I was going in! Gulp!
Because I was here, as you’ve obviously guessed, for a séance, or an audio-theatrical rendering of one, created by DARKFIELD, an Australian company, that produces ‘360 degree immersive experiences, at the forefront of technology and theatre.’
Before we even entered, the attendant instructed us to leave bags, phones and, ‘anything that emits light’, in the provided lockers – and we did, including the sneaky head-torch I had secreted in my pocket. Sigh. Only then were we allowed in.
And inside, it was another world. Twenty-four vintage theatre seats – velvet, obvs! Ugh! What’s the attraction of this sodding fabric? – edged the long central table, covered with a crisp white cloth that touched the floor.
And my imagination immediately began to run wild, as I couldn’t help but wonder what might be crouched beneath it. Already I was terrified. Shit!
There were several lamps hanging from the ceiling which emitted a faint gloomy light, and these were interspersed by two small brass bells.
It was sparse but effective ‘staging’, with an attention to detail that genuinely made it seem as if we’d gone back in time, and were attending a true Victorian séance – even the walls and ceiling, featured a faded, but opulent, traditional wallpaper of the period.
We were told to sit either side of the table, two of us on one side, two the other, and were instructed to don the headphones – the only nod to the modern in this vintage.
Finally, we were told, very firmly, to, ‘Keep your hands on the table where they MUST remain at all times – no matter what happens!’ DOUBLE GULP!
And then she left us, heavily slamming the outer door, and before you could yell ‘I’m (not) a Celebrity, but Get Me Out of Here (asap)!’, the lights went out, and it began.
Okay, so firstly, being locked inside a shipping container was an unsettling experience, and secondly, it was absolutely black, and when I say black, I mean so black, you couldn’t tell if your eyes were open or closed. And I hated it.
Not that I’m afraid of the dark – I can’t drift off to dreamland without tightly drawn curtains and blackout blinds. But this dark was weighty and oppressive, and I (and the three other ladies sharing the experience), sat in subdued silence, all of us feeling an apprehension, generated by the fear of the unknown, and the fear of the séance to come.
And then, heavy footsteps announced the arrival of our guide for this ghostly event, and we were suddenly in the expert hands of the ‘medium’. As realism goes, this was truly remarkable.
I forgot I was wearing headphones, with the audio quality, clarity, and the way the sound moved around you, smoothly drawing you into the illusionary world of spiritualism. And that’s pretty much all I can say, without giving anything away.
But, once it was over and we were all safely outside – Phew! – we agreed that it had been a very unnerving, and intense half hour, instilling us with a real sense of dread.
At one point, I could have sworn that someone was breathing in my face – but that was probably one of the others hyperventilating. And even though we knew it was just a simulation, it was still must-see theatre – or should that be must-hear? Whatever!
But do try and get tickets, because you won’t be disappointed, though the one proviso would be that, if you’re claustrophobic, this probably isn’t the show for you.
Then, last weekend I was in Porthcawl’s Grand Pavilion Theatre to watch The Woman in Black – or more accurately, the Welsh adaptation, Y Fenyw Mewn Du. I wrote a review of the play, but I also spent several hours, immersed in Dame Susan Hill’s gothic ghost story, to refresh my memory of what to expect.
It’s a book I’ve read many times, but find it so chilling, I can only read it during daylight hours, or when Tim’s in the house. Ridiculous I know, but that’s the power that novel has over me.
I first discovered it around twenty years ago, when I was conscripted to help out on a sixth form drama trip, destination – London’s Fortune Theatre. I had no idea what to expect, and to say I was terrified wouldn’t be understating it. And it wasn’t just me either. The audience jumped, screamed, and gasped, and the whole production was a study of fear, brilliantly staged.
On the coach home, the kids could talk of nothing else, and neither could I. It was genuinely the scariest thing I’d ever watched – be that on film or TV – probably because there wasn’t that comforting distance a screen gives you; that one step of removal from the action, which allows you to enjoy the frights in safety, and without feeling they can actually harm you.
But with a play, you’re there, in that theatre, as Arthur Kipps guides The Actor, and us, through his horribly haunting story. And as for The Woman – well, without ruining the story or play, don’t expect any safety zone from her either.
Quiver of fear
Getting home at two in the morning, I parked my car, ran the hundred yards to my house, and then scrabbled panically with my key, before finally slamming and locking the door, never once questioning the irony of trying to lock out a ghost. Eye roll!
I turned on every light, checked every room, and then took my cat (Oliver III) to bed, and slept with the lights, and telly, on in my bedroom, for a fortnight. And during that time, one of the drama teachers – Jo – who was always up for a laugh, employed her considerable acting skills into scaring me senseless at any opportunity.
One day, as my GCSE class worked quietly on their coursework, I heard tinny music coming from the corridor, and opening my classroom door, found a music box playing Ring-a-Ring o’Roses, and caught the whisk of black crinoline out of the corner of my eye.
Another time, I watched as the heavily-veiled Woman glided along the path outside my room, and which caused a brief quiver of fear, before my Year 10s and I, collapsed with laughter. (Later I discovered that the gliding effect had been achieved through the use of a Year 9’s skateboard, and long lengths of twine, eagerly controlled by some sixth formers.)
Yep, there were numerous sightings of The Woman – the most memorable being in the garden behind my flat, where she happened to leave a copy of the book! Looking back, it’s hardly surprising that the play left a lasting impression, though Jo’s dressing up shenanigans did help take some of the fear away.
(And, on a side note, it also harks back to those halcyon days, where education, and teaching, could be fun. Mournful sigh. Mind, I’d better not get started on that, or we’ll still be here come Christmas, though I will say that some Education Secretaries have A LOT to answer for! GRR!)
Evocative and eerie
But talking of Christmas, that’s when I was finally able to read the book. I’d waited ‘til then so I’d have company in the shape of Mum. And it was the perfect time of year, because that’s exactly how The Woman in Black begins.
And it was a corker of a read. Hill’s descriptions of the expansive marshlands that surround Crythin Gifford are evocative and eerie, seeming to flow across the pages like those tides which smother the causeway that leads to Eel Marsh House.
And on those occasions when The Woman appears . . . I still have to steel myself to read those paragraphs without constantly looking over my shoulder. Shiver!
So my second recommendation for your disturbing delectation is to buy the book, or watch the play – in either Welsh (which offers some performances with English translations), or the West End touring version. Or you could always get the original BBC TV film, which has recently been remastered on Blue-ray.
I bought it two years ago, though haven’t opened it yet. it’s enough to know I have it here, for that time in the future when I, might, be brave enough to invite The Woman into our home. EEK!
My third terror of the trio takes me back to the familiar territory of Ukulele Club, and isn’t horrifying in the slightest. As this week’s club night fell on Halloween itself, it had been arranged that we’d have a little party, come in fancy dress, and would bring a plate of something tasty we could all share. Smashing.
You know, I must have some American blood in me somewhere, because I love Halloween with a vengeance, and all that comes with it – the pumpkins, costumes, scary stories, trick or treating etc. But it’s rare for Tim and I to venture out in fancy dress, and I yearn for a party, or any opportunity, to get dressed up and have a bit of fun.
So, I was very excited about the club party, and had a long think about my costume. A couple of weeks earlier, I’d visited an amazing place called The Morbitorium, (another venue to consider if you’re searching for the unusual), and was inspired by the vampire hunting kits they had on display.
So for one night only, I decided I’d become a vicar who did a bit of moonlighting as a hunter of pointy-toothed terrors. Epic!
And, after cutting up an old black t-shirt, sewing on a white collar, and ordering some stakes from Amazon – they were really mini fence posts, but certainly looked the part – I filled an old vase with holy water (Okay, it was tap), attached my belt, dagger, and string of garlic, and was ready to partay, big style!
I was a bit nervous. Because I’d missed a few weeks, I was half thinking that the plans might have changed, and I’d be the only one there, dressed to, literally, kill. But, as soon as I saw Dawn, slaying it in her Day of the Dead outfit, I relaxed. Now all I had to worry about was remembering how to play all those sodding chords. Eek!
Soon, we had a coven of witches, a skeletal pianist, a cleaver wielding percussionist, a freaky clown (Shudder!), Gary as an unrecognisable, though very dapper vamp – appropriate, since we share the same table, so he was within easy staking distance – along with werewolves, zombies, a SWAT Team member, and a pregnant pirate who won best costume.
And once the food was set out, and we’d had a chuckle over everyone’s outfits, it was time to get down to the real business of the evening, and start strumming. Richie had sorted the song list, and Lynsey (freaky clown) had added the Halloween-themed ones, so there was a nice mix – though ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’ was noticeably absent. (Grr! Still, there’s always time for requests at the end of the night so . . . Mwahahaha!)
And it was a bloody great evening, though at times, quite terrifyingly tuneless. Maybe it wasn’t our finest hour, but if you’ve never heard ‘Monster Mash’, ‘Thriller’, or ‘Bat out of Hell’ played on a uke, believe me when I tell you that it’s just as well these songs, generally, only come out once a year. (Actually, ‘Bat out of Hell’ did show some promise – though I’ll deffo need to work on my biceps, because strumming that fast is knackering!)
So, if you get chance, and fancy a fright-fest, do try to catch Séance, The Woman in Black or Y Fenyw Mewn Du. Or even just snuggle up with a safety blanket, and give the book a whirl. And if you’ve got a cobwebbed uke hidden away in some haunted attic, dust it off, and in the immortal words of Slade, ‘Come on, Feel The Noize’ and ‘get wild, wild, wild’! (Ooh, now that might be a good one for next week?)
And here endeth the lesson. (Sorry, I’m still in character . . . and loving it. Lol!)
Séance has been running outside the Taliesin Theatre, Swansea since 24th October, with the last booking slots available for today and tomorrow (Saturday, 4th and Sunday, 5th November) or go to box office. But don’t despair if you can’t get to it, because it’s moving to the Aberystwyth Arts Centre and will be there from Wednesday, 8th November – Sunday, 19th November. I promise it’s a truly unique experience you won’t want to miss.
The West End version of The Woman in Black is currently touring – find dates and venues here.
Or, catch the Y Fenyw Mewn Du tour at The Borough Theatre, Abergavenny (9th – 11th November), or The Welfare, Ystradgynlais (16th – 18th November). Tickets can be found on venue websites or at theatr-nanog.co.uk.
And if you fancy learning to play, Swansea Ukulele Club is a fun and friendly group who welcome anyone, whatever level of ukulele expertise. They can be found on Facebook, and we’d love to see you. Or visit the Ukulele Wales website for a list of other clubs, or Ukulele Project Wales, for helpful advice, resources, and ukulele events across Wales.
Check out Del’s other adventures here.
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