In seven years of staging sometimes bloody, sometimes terrifying short plays, only one person has bailed on the Twin Cities Horror Festival — and that was because of a chicken.
It was in 2016, when the Four Humors company performed “Ubu for President.” Horror Fest executive director Jason Ballweber thinks the issue was sensory overload. “We brought in a rotisserie chicken, put it on a table and ate it with our hands,” said Ballweber, who is also an actor with Four Humors. “Someone walked out to the lobby and asked, ‘Is that chicken going to be on stage the whole time?’ And the lobby person didn’t know, so the person left.
“That’s one thing about the festival: You don’t just watch it. You hear it. You smell it. You’re surrounded by it.”
Scares are a dime a dozen at movie multiplexes, but as far as Ballweber can tell, Twin Cities Horror Festival was the world’s only festival of plays that terrify, disturb or creep out audiences until Montreal recently launched one. Structured like the Minnesota Fringe Festival, but staged entirely at the Southern Theater, Horror Fest includes 13 plays that run 45 to 60 minutes apiece. Mostly world premieres, each show gets up to five slots during the Oct. 25-Nov. 4 festival.
Ballweber says Horror Fest’s founders wanted “to make horror on stage a legitimate form, not just hack-and-slash bloodbaths, which are not an art form. This is about controlling the building of tension and the release of tension.”
Audiences seem to be responding. The festival sold 2,800 tickets in 2017, and even the Minnesota Fringe has added a horror category.
“This is the only festival I know of where we have so many repeat customers,” Ballweber said. “They’ll come to a show where someone will pluck out another character’s eyeball and then they’ll say, ‘I want to come back and see how they did that.’ ”
If eyeball-plucking is your jam, head toward “Home,” probably this year’s grisliest show. But, as the lineup indicates, the festival is designed to satisfy many terror palates.
If you like ‘Friday the 13th’
Try: “Greenway,” in which Brave New Workshop veteran Tom Reed imagines his worst fear: Riding his bike on Midtown Greenway and realizing he’s being followed. The show will use special effects and moving platforms to create a chase scene in which the dogged pursuer, like Jason Voorhees, always seems to be right behind his target. (Oct. 25, 27 & 28, Nov. 1 & 2)
If you like ‘Goosebumps’
Try: “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” the festival’s first family-friendly show. Derek “Duck” Washington, whose “Caucasian-Aggressive Pandas and Other Mulatto Tales” was barred from being performed at a Burnsville theater, gets cozier with a faithful adaptation of the classic about a headless horseman. Based on his memory of scary Walt Disney movies back in the day, Washington’s show asserts that it can be fun for kids and their parents to be spooked together. (Oct. 27, 28 & 29, Nov. 3 & 4)
If you like ‘Get Out’
Try: “Home,” from Dangerous Productions, which regularly supplies the fest’s bloodiest, guttiest show. Staffers had such difficulty cleaning up after Dangerous’ first show (2014’s “Frankenstein”) that they require the company to cover the stage with a tarp, which now bears five years’ worth of stains. The concept may not sound gruesome: Garrett Vollmer reflects on feeling like an outsider in a rural town. But Ballweber promises: “They let the story go to its utmost grossest place.” (Oct. 26, 28, 30 & 31, Nov. 4)
If you like Truman Capote’s ‘In Cold Blood’
Try: “Bathtub Girls,” inspired by the true story of Canadian sisters who drowned their mother. With little but a shower curtain as a prop, Kairos Collective’s play compelled Horror Fest regulars the Coldharts to produce what they told Ballweber is the scariest show they’ve ever seen. (Oct. 27 & 30, Nov. 1-2)
If you like ghost stories
Try: “A Morbid History of Sons & Daughters,” from writer Leslie Vincent and composer Keith Hovis, who will also collaborate on Park Square’s upcoming “Jefferson Township Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant.” Driven by songs about serial killers, the aim is to evoke the intimacy of campfire tales to such an extent that, says Ballweber, “You’re going to wish you had some s’mores on you.” Disclaimer: Graham crackers, chocolate, marshmallows, sticks and security blankets not provided. (Oct. 25, 28, 29 & 31, Nov. 2)
If you like formaldehyde
Try: “Funerals for Life.” A 20-minute experience that attendees can sandwich in between shows, this is your chance to imagine what it’s like to be embalmed. The performers use ritual, meditation oils and breathing techniques to pose you for one of those Victorian-era death photos. Unlike an actual corpse, you return to the business of living, complete with a shot of your “death.” Horrorfest honchos expect “Funerals” to be a little like yoga, a little like shamanic healing.
If you like ‘The Red Shoes’
Try: “Book of Shadows II.” Erin Sheppard blends hip-hop dance, storytelling (from Heather Meyer) and contemporary pop music to explore the psychology of witches. (Oct. 26, 27 & 31, Nov. 1 & 4)
If you like Spike Lee’s ‘BlacKkKlansman’
Try: “A Confederate Widow in Hell,” the outrageousness of which led to many debates among fest curators. Actor and bluegrass musician Willi Carlisle plays an ancestor who owned slaves. A “buffoon show,” meaning it goes over the top and then over the top of that, “Confederate Widow” will feature Carlisle’s ancestor in Hades, grappling with her bad behavior. (Oct. 26, 28, 29 & 31, Nov. 3)
If you like riddle rooms
Try: “Second Skin,” an interactive experience by Playable Artworks. Theatergoers will report to the Southern, individually or in pairs, to receive an iPod and earbuds. Voices will guide them around the West Bank of the University of Minnesota, following clues to several mysteries.
If you like History Channel’s October programming
Try: “The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” in which “monster scientist” Reverend Matt unpacks the lore of scary creatures in five shows about Satan or creatures from the deep. “This is Nerd Alley,” Ballweber said. “You could talk to Reverend Matt all night if you just asked him, ‘Hey, what do you think about vampires?’ And last year, when he got done with his werewolf night, instead of applauding for him, instinctively, the audience all howled.” (Oct. 25, 27 & 30, Nov. 2 & 3)
If you liked the puppet show ‘Hand to God’
Try: “Dream County.” Something so dreadful happened at the 1975 taping of a fictitious children’s show’s finale that it never aired. Will the urban myth surrounding the episode be shattered when it is finally shown, or will its puppet characters summon a demon from the underworld? The show originated as part of writer/performer Sam Landman’s 2015 project to write a one-act play every week. (Oct. 25 & 29, Nov. 2, 3 & 4)
If you like Laurie Anderson
Try: “St. Kilda,” a one-woman show from New York-based Jody Christopherson in which a woman stumbles upon family secrets during a trip to an abandoned island in Scotland. One of the few shows that isn’t a world premiere, “St. Kilda” has been racking up awards because of Christopherson’s nervy technique. She’ll create atmosphere for the piece live, manipulating sound and light while enacting the eerie journey. (Oct. 26-28, Nov. 1 & 3)
If you like YouTube’s ‘Who’s There?’ channel
Try: “Short Film Festival,” which just barely qualifies as theater. The Horror Show Hot Dog folks, who do a weekly podcast, curate five evenings of short films, each encompassing something bloody, something macabre, something psychological, etc. The Hot Dogs will introduce each film, but they’re also fans, so they’ll be watching right along with the audience. (Oct. 26, 27, 28 & 30, Nov. 4)