Brian Clowdus wishes every month could be October. “I’ve always been such a huge fan of Halloween,” says Clowdus, the artistic director of Serenbe Playhouse in Chattahoochee Hills, Ga. “Non-theatrical people become theatrical—they become different characters. I love this whole idea of everything being creepy, immersive, and spooky.”
Clowdus has commodified his love of Halloween with a site-specific theatrical experience based on Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Serenbe’s Sleepy Hollow Experience, now in its seventh year, features a real horse and horseman. Trained “scare actors” use storytelling and music to tell the tale, and lead audiences through an outdoor meadow.
“I look at Sleepy Hollow as my Christmas Carol,” says Clowdus with a laugh. “Halloween is the new Christmas, and people are looking for these traditions.”
Indeed, audiences come back year after year to be spooked by the headless horseman. The show has grown to be produced in other states too. Some of its loyal fans have even traveled to see all five of this year’s productions, journeying to Sturbridge, Mass.; Chillicothe, Ohio; Cherokee, N.C.; and to Sleepy Hollow, N.Y.
Clowdus says that each production imbues “local flavor” while staying true to the original text. The latest outpost in Sleepy Hollow itself begins on the front porch of the historic Sunnyside estate, Washington Irving’s homestead, where the story was written 200 years ago. The show is made possible through a partnership with the Historic Hudson Valley organization, and is especially meaningful for the local community, as it commemorates the bicentennial of the prolific author.
And while the show is bringing communities together, from Chattahoochee Hills and beyond, it’s also introducing the brave new patrons to the theatre. “Once people come to a Sleepy Hollow Experience, they’re more apt to come and see other things,” says Clowdus.
Indeed, Halloween is a gateway to theatre—for performers and audience members alike. As a child, Santino Craven dressed up as Dracula every year for Halloween. “I wanted to become a vampire, so I became an actor,” says Craven, who has portrayed the fang-toothed Count Dracula four times in three different stage adaptations of Bram Stoker’s classic.
This season he dons the cloak for the second time at Actors Theatre of Louisville for the 25th annual production of Third Fifth Bank’s Dracula, adapted by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston. “It’s been quite an honor to step into such a long-lasting tradition,” says Craven. “This show has a 25-year following. It’s a really cool tradition that this theatre has with this community.”
The show’s long legacy in the community is owing to its student matinee performances, which introduce thousands of Kentucky and Indiana middle-schoolers to the action-packed show—and to Actors Theatre—each year.
“It’s often their first theatre production, which is very exciting for us,” says Abigail Miskowiec, the company’s Learning and Creative Engagement associate. This season the show has 19 student matinee performances.
Many of the students return to the hair-raising drama multiple times with their families. Some go on to join the company’s Young Apprentice program, a few are now Actors Theatre staffers, and many comprise the company’s subscriber base.
“It is very palatable for new audience members because it is cinematic in its effects,” explains Craven. “It transcends a Halloween theatre experience and it goes more into this world of sheer entertainment. We’re able to provide that for them through compelling storytelling, as well as tech and design.”
The show’s title sponsor, Fifth Third Bank, also works with the theatre and the American Red Cross to produce an annual blood drive, the city’s largest, that takes place in downtown Louisville each year in conjunction with the production. “The blood drive marks the start of the Halloween season in Louisville,” shares Elizabeth Greenfield, the company’s public relations and communications manager. “We have so much fun, as you can imagine, promoting Dracula and a blood drive. It is a marketing dream!”
There’s plenty of (stage) blood and violence in Dracula, but there’s also a lot of fun. The show’s fan base includes a group that buys up a section of seats, arrives via party bus, and comes clad in matching costumes every year. Last year this enthusiastic troupe dressed in all white; this year they came attired as a group of vampires. Patrons celebrate birthdays at the show, and there have even been a few wedding proposals after the curtain call. “People love it,” says Craven. “It’s a show that engages many different people.”
This long-standing tradition, however, was updated a bit this year to temper the gothic tale’s inherent misogyny and give its female characters more power. “It increases the action and gives women a more prominent voice,” says Craven. In this version, the ladies fight back, he says; Prof. Van Helsing is portrayed by a woman (Rebecca Hirota).
In a further effort to be more inclusive, this year’s production offered audiences two relaxed performances for people on the autism spectrum and others with sensory sensitivity. “This is the first year we’ve had a relaxed performance,” says Miskowiec. “Dracula presents a unique challenge because there are many sensory-intense moments.” Sensory sensitivity guides, published online, outlined the jump scares, pyrotechnics, and special effects. “We want to provide audience members of all backgrounds and all needs the opportunity to come see this show and be a part of this experience.”
In Lawrenceville, Ga., Aurora Theatre’s chilling ghost tours have helped to revitalize the city. In 2000, a Gwinnett County developer invested in the city’s town square with hopes of creating a booming downtown hub. Part of the revitalization project was to move Aurora Theatre to the city center, into a remodeled church.
It was discovered that the would-be cultural hotspot was a hotbed of paranormal activity. The town is riddled with ghosts, reportedly, and the local cemetery has been dubbed the “most active” cemetery by a nationally known paranormal investigator. A restaurant on the town square was even featured in the television show “Ghost Bait,” in an episode in which paranormal investigators confronted a disembodied spirit terrorizing a young boy in the family-owned eatery.
The town’s developer decided to let the town’s old ghosts loose and to capitalize on the storied past. And in 2005, Aurora Theatre started producing ghost tours that theatricalize Lawrenceville’s ghostly encounters.
Cynthia Rintye, tour manager and longtime storyteller of the Haunted Cemetery Tours, credits the popular tours as a catalyst for bringing more patrons to the city’s downtown area, and to the theatre—each tour begins in the lobby of the Aurora Theatre. The year-round ghost tours, which have an uptick in ticket sales in the month of October, are among the most-attended events at Aurora Theatre.
“One of the things that makes our ghost tours stand out is the fact that we are produced by a theatre,” says Rintye. “We have high standards. I have developed an extensive training program teaching not just storytelling and presentation, but also character development.”
Aurora Theatre offers three ghost tours: a walking tour through the town square, a bawdy, ghost-themed pub crawl, and a tour through the cemetery where patrons are tasked with searching for paranormal activity. Some audience members have captured ectoplasm or “ghost mist” when taking photos. Some patrons have received scratches and felt unseen hands reaching for them in the dark. For her part, Rintye encountered a ghost that left her in intense pain. “It felt like someone was trying to break my sternum,” she recalls. Her body felt cold and a white film appeared in front of her face. The company’s pub crawl might be a better outing for more timorous viewers.
While the ghost tours build on the town’s spooky past, they have helped point to a new future for the town. A 56,000-square-foot arts center is set to be built across the Gwinnett County Historic Courthouse. The arts complex will be an expansion of the Aurora Theatre.
“Lawrenceville was pretty sleepy and rundown, with very few venues on the town square,” says Rintye. The theatre, especially the ghost tours, have “really helped make Lawrenceville a thriving historic downtown.”