Old graveyards are eerie enough in the daylight, but for 10 dark nights this Halloween season, Altadena's Mountain View Mortuary & Cemetery will ratchet up the fear factor with a vengeful premature burial, a spectral beast from the edge of time and a nest of ghostly goblins.
Starting Oct. 21, the historic 128-year-old bone yard will embrace its innate spookiness by transforming key locations such as a mausoleum, a chapel and the burial grounds into unorthodox stages for live theater. Wicked Literature: A Halloween Theatre Festival features live-from-the-graveyard dramatizations of three classic terror tales: Edgar Allan Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado," H.P. Lovecraft's "The Unnamable," and Charles Dickens' "The Chimes."
Launched in 2008 as a reading series staged at schools, libraries and bookstores, Wicked Lit is the brainchild of Jonathan Josephson, Jeff G. Rack and Paul Millet, all three playwrights and directors. The idea is to avoid the blood and guts that typify most Halloween spook shows and develop short plays using material from classic literary figures such as Mark Twain, Washington Irving and Robert Louis Stevenson.
"For us it's all about storytelling," said Rack, who adapted and directed the Lovecraft story. "It's not a 'Boo!' kind of thing. We're trying to tell a really good horror story without resorting to that kind of stuff."
"We initially thought we would develop these works for a traditional theatrical setting," said Millet, who scripted Poe's dark revenge drama. But after a happy confluence of events led to staging Wicked Lit's inaugural 2009 run at reputedly haunted Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills, the authors realized they were onto something unique.
All the performances sold out last year, but Greystone wasn't available for this Halloween season, forcing the authors to look farther afield for their sophomore stage. After touring the Altadena cemetery and seeing the elegant Mountain View mausoleum, with its arched ceilings, intricate stained glass, ornate light fixtures and antique European art, they were hooked.
"That was the first slam dunk, no doubt about it," said Josephson, adaptor of Dickens' twisted Christmas tale, who quickly envisioned the vintage building doubling for Poe's catacombs in "The Cask." "Then it was, 'Well, what are we going to do with the rest of this place?' " Lovecraft's graveyard tale "The Unnamable" was a natural for the cemetery, and Dickens' "Chimes," which is set in a goblin-infested church bell tower, quickly found a home in the small chapel.
Tucked into the shadow of the rugged San Gabriel Mountains, the sprawling cemetery is the epitome of a Gothic graveyard. The shaded grounds are home to hundreds of chiseled headstones, two mausoleums, and dozens of aged trees that shed crisp red leaves in the fall. The Mountain View mausoleum was constructed in 1923 and is "a masterpiece of gothic influenced architecture," according to the Pasadena Museum of History's education program coordinator, Brad Macneil.
Staging the production at such an unusual venue allowed the writers a rare freedom of movement and imagination. "The fact that you're actually moving through the space, walking into a room with an actor and something's about to happen, that's really intriguing," Millet said.
"You could take everybody to a catacomb in Italy or France, but short of that, this is it," said Josephson of working in the cemetery. "You don't have to imagine the rows of headstones in 'The Unnamable,' or the pews and the crucifix and the smells of the church in 'The Chimes.' They're there. They're unavoidable."
Audience members will be guided from play to play, sometimes using flashlights for illumination. Though the productions will feature some ingenious special effects, emphasis is placed on imagination, as in a pivotal scene in "The Unnamable," when the otherworldly creature appears. "The actors can see the beast but the beast can't see them," said Rack. "The sound is going on around them, and at one point they say, 'Turn off your flashlights!' The lights go out and you can just hear the beast sniffing around. It puts you right in the middle of it."
Despite the ghostly feel of the cemetery grounds on a brisk October night, current cemetery manager Jay Brown, whose great-great grandfather began the family business in 1882, said he's had no experience with actual phantoms. "You'd have to be tied into a sixth sense that I don't have," he said. Real ghosts or not, Wicked Lit offers some Halloween fun for intrepid theatergoers.
Where: Mountain View Mausoleum & Cemetery, 2400 Fair Oaks Ave., Altadena
When: 8 p.m. daily Oct. 21-31 except Oct. 25
Contact: (818) 242-7910; wickedlit.org