Nightmare (Before Christmas): The Experiment
nytheatre.com review by Michael Mraz
December 10, 2011
The Psycho Clan’s Nightmare is a yearly attraction at Halloween at CSV Cultural Center. Billed as NYC’s most horrifying haunted house, each year brings a new blend of traditional walk-through haunted house and interactive theatre experience. This year’s haunted house’s most popular attraction, Nightmare (Before Christmas): The Experiment, has been remounted and expanded to a 50-minute interactive scarefest, which relies mostly on cringe-worthy imagery to make its audience squirm.
When the audience enters the space, they are immersed in a laboratory headed by two scientists and thrust into the middle of an experiment in terror. They inform the watchers that studies have shown that the dark, dank gloom of winter, combined with the increased anxiety of the holiday season, heightens one’s fear receptors. And the inhabitants of the room are about to be taken on a journey through those different types of fears in the form of 10 experiments.
Nightmare (Before Christmas): The Experiment, it should be warned, is not for the faint-of-heart. The audience is expected to fully participate in some disgusting and, at times, genuinely terrifying experiments, although the “scientists” running the experiment do make it very clear that if you don’t want to participate you don’t have to. The “show” definitely leans much more towards the immersive feeling of a haunted house than the detached fright created by a horror movie or horror play. The audience is pushed psychologically and poked and prodded physically. So, if any these things make you uncomfortable, this isn’t the show for you—the piece works best when the audience plays with along with it wholeheartedly.
The show, to the credit of co-creators/directors Timothy Haskell and John Harlacher, does a great job at cultivating a sense of dread. The best tool is actually one of the more simple set pieces. Stage left sits a whiteboard with all 10 experiments listed, described only by a single word, i.e., “revulsion,” “humiliation.” Nestled to the side, you don’t focus on it at first, but once it catches your eye you are helpless but to look over and speculate as they set up each gruesome experiment. You never quite know what’s coming next, but your mind can create so many terrible possibilities.
As for the “experiments” themselves, it would be a disservice to the show to give the secrets or endgames behind any of them away. Some are very effective and complex in the way they create anxiety while others focus on a cheap scare. The ones that rely more on dread and suspense feel the most earned—i.e., an experiment when one of the scientists moves his hand toward a spinning, metal fan with the protective grate removed—whereas the ones that just prop themselves on disgusting the audience seem a little less deeply effective (though these types of scares have their place in horror lore).
The show’s fear-factor is also amped because it’s very obvious that, with the exception of a scene or two, there are really no audience plants (I was the subject of one of the more humiliating experiments). It gives the watcher an extra bit of suspense, wondering if they’ll be selected next, especially as the experiments gruesomely play out. However, it’s unfortunately painfully clear in those few exceptions where the subject is “canned,” and it tends to cut down on the suspense a bit—it loses its “live” feel, which is really what so many of the scares thrive on.
Nightmare (Before Christmas): The Experiment is definitely a unique theatre experience. However, those who like a layer of plasma, glass, or a fourth wall between themselves and the things that go bump in the night should probably steer clear. But if you’re ready to immerse yourself in some of your fears, you The Experiment may be your perfect match.