Backstage at the Annoyance Theatre in Lakeview on a recent Saturday evening, a table is arrayed with a ghastly buffet: an assortment of knives, a pair of gardening shears, plastic containers full of fake blood, a decapitated head made of foam, a pumpkin stuffed with pig intestines. Standing beside the eyebrow-raising collection of props, stirring a tub of red liquid with a wooden spoon, is Emily Spindler, the blood master for that night’s entertainment, Splatter Theater.
The first ever production the Annoyance mounted 30 years ago, Splatter Theater has become a fall theatergoing tradition—like a macabre, don’t-bring-the-kids Christmas Carol for the Halloween season. The spoof of old-school slasher movies like Friday the 13th and Halloween features archetypes such as the school jock, the virgin, the class dick, and the bumbling police officer, all of whom are killed off by a nameless psychopath in a 90-minute spectacle of absurd gore that leaves the white walls and stark furniture of the stage, the cast’s white clothing, and even the front rows of the audience stained with fake blood. While the flimsy horror-sendup premise seems little more than an excuse to let improvisers make a big, dumb mess, a peek behind the scenes reveals the show to be a triumph of a certain schlocky stagecraft, requiring custom organ meats, multiple formulas for blood, and all manner of wearable gizmos modified to allow performers to disgorge that blood on cue.
Half an hour before showtime, Spindler proudly shows off one such implement she crafted herself: a pair of glasses equipped with spouts attached via thin rubber tubing to four rubber balloons the size of clementines that are filled with fake blood. “In the past, the blood would only shoot out of the front of the glasses,” she says. “I made it so that it not only shoots out of the front, but it also drips down the eyes so it looks like they’re being pushed until they explode, like Oberyn’s death on Game of Thrones.”
Spindler doesn’t fit the profile, if one exists, of someone so adept at the technical side of gore. The unassuming 24-year-old is affable and speaks with a soft voice. She graduated from Columbia College last year with a major in acting and a minor in makeup design, with a specialty in injury simulation. “I have a degree in blood and gore,” she likes to say.
“When I was little I was always terrified of horror films,” she says. “So in order for me to get over that fear, I would replicate the exact injuries and deaths with wax, latex, and anything similar I had around the house.”
The 15-person cast gather for a preshow powwow. Spindler grabs duct tape and scissors to begin outfitting them to spurt blood at will. Dressed entirely in white—T-shirts, baggy pants, button-downs, jackets, even Daisy Dukes—except for the gray Crocs meant to prevent them from slipping on the red liquid that will soon be in puddles at their feet, they look more like members of a cult than a cast. While Spindler wires up the actors, they discuss the quantity of blood shed during the previous week’s show, and vow to match, if not exceed, that amount.
Alfred Hitchcock preferred chocolate syrup as a stand-in for blood in the famous shower scene of Psycho (the master of suspense found it to be more convincing in a black-and-white film), but Annoyance founder and artistic director Mick Napier created his own formula when he helped launch Splatter Theater three decades ago. The ratio of dye to corn syrup to chocolate syrup was passed down to Sam Locke, the previous blood master, and now to Spindler. Napier also established a chocolate-free formula for a thinner version of the blood using water and a combination of red and blue food coloring. (Red dye alone turns the blood pink, and the blue darkens it.) The watered-down version flows easier through devices such as the glasses with long, narrow tubes. During a run of Splatter, the Annoyance uses about two cases of both corn syrup and chocolate syrup and four cases of food coloring.
In anticipation of the bloodbath to come, the cast line the carpeted hallway backstage with black trash bags. Near the stage entrance a large stack of freshly laundered white costumes is set next to a small pile of dirty clothing. By the show’s end, the size of these piles will be reversed. One actor, Jordan Wilson, who plays the jock in tonight’s show, is outfitted with a red hot water bottle, a plastic tube stuck in the open end, worn like a backpack. It resembles a cross between a CamelBak hydration pack and a colostomy bag. Spindler explains that when Wilson opens the nozzle on the tube, fake blood will flood his crotch as the killer stabs away at the sports star’s genitals.
Death scenes rotate among the Splatter cast, and tonight it’s Parker Callahan’s turn to perform what’s become known as “the heart death.” The actor hangs a small white garbage bag with a cow heart inside around his neck, and Spindler secures it to his chest with long strips of tape. This will allow the killer to reach into Callahan’s shirt and pretend to pull out his ticker before tossing it against the wall.
There’s plenty of guts in Splatter Theater, but little to no glory for actors cast in the show. Aside from a handful of lines of written dialogue in the script’s meager 14 pages, the majority of the show is improvised. Most characters are snuffed out minutes after they’re introduced; the killer, who’s the star inasmuch as there is one, is wordless and wears a hockey mask throughout the show. Stage time is secondary to the quality of the performance of each death—the screeching, the writhing, the bloodshed, the ultimate collapse. When the killer beats the self-proclaimed “town dick” with a metal pipe, the victim grabs a dish-soap bottle stashed behind the couch (three chairs covered with a white sheet) and squeezes blood into the air after each swing, transforming the surface of an adjacent wall into a scarlet Jackson Pollock.
As the Annoyance attempts to up Splatter‘s technical ante with each year, meeting its need for grisly props is a task that’s bled beyond the theater into other corners of Chicago. Gepperth’s Meat Market in Lincoln Park annually packs sausage casings with chocolate pudding for one particularly gruesome death: the killer, making like he’s torn out his victim’s intestine, throws the sausages at the wall, leaving behind a large brown stain.
Tai Nam Market, an Asian grocery store adjacent to the Annoyance’s previous location in Uptown, is an annual stop for Locke, the former blood master and current cast member who performs what he calls Splatter‘s “meat-puppet bit”—when a raw chicken and a slab of beef, both attached to sticks, have vigorous intercourse. He purchases cow tongues, pig hearts, and other available offal, affectionately known to Spindler as “kill meats.” “At one point the [butcher] asked me where I was from. I told him I lived in Chicago, and he asked me again,” Locke says. “He finally said, ‘Nobody American would eat that.'” Locke explained the off cuts were for a theatrical production, and now the butchers know the drill.
Annoyance owner Jennifer Estlin once took it upon herself to wash the soiled costumes each week. (For the last two seasons the job has fallen to cast member Bree Bartman.) Estlin says whenever she rolled up to a Laundromat with many bags of what appear to be bloody clothes, she expected 911 calls. To her surprise, nobody seemed to care.
Despite the hyperpartisan times, the Annoyance has kept Splatter Theater a stubbornly apolitical escape from the news cycle. Even if the show tried to be topical, there are few opportunities in such a small script. Some details, however, have evolved with the times.
“We used to have a milkman, which obviously wouldn’t work now,” Estlin says. “We also tweaked some [moments] with the town slut, to avoid slut shaming. Now she says she’s bisexual.” And in his two years directing Splatter, Jonald Jude Reyes has made it a point to diversify the cast.
As tonight’s show draws to a close, the trash bags that line the floor, practically unseen before, can no longer be ignored. Fake blood has pooled on the polyethylene, and the actors’ Crocs now emit a squeaky, piercing tone as they move. Half the cast are onstage playing dead, while the rest are backstage prepping for cleanup, mixing bleach and warm water in large buckets.
When the house lights finally come up on the carnage, the stage is even more of a mess than it appeared during the performance. Red liquid permeates every crevice: behind the hinges of the door, inside the dresser, the eyelids of cast members.
“Each night, we blast heavy metal music as we clean,” Napier tells the audience. “And for some reason people like watching that. So, enjoy!” A hard-charging thrash track blares as the actors backstage rush into the light, tossing sponges and cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon to the suddenly revived corpses of their castmates.
The razor-sharp odor of Clorox permeates the theater as the cast scrub and mop, congratulating each other on nailing some particularly gruesome stunts. “Dude, that was fucking great!” someone says of Callahan’s heart death. In about 20 minutes, the stage is shipshape and ready for the next massacre. But Spindler’s work begins again. She now has to collect her props, mix more blood, and send Locke back to the grocery store for more cow and pig innards. Bartman has to head to the Laundromat and pray no one calls the cops. Estlin says she’ll probably need to go buy more food coloring. They always run out. v
Correction: This story has been amended to reflect the person in charge of Splatter Theater‘s laundry.