The first half of Theater Oobleck‘s A Memory Palace of Fear is ingeniously disappointing. After checking in with an officious loan officer who poses problematic questions (“Why are you?” came my way), skittish, white-haired real estate agent Constance arrives, welcoming you to the open house. It seems you’ve signed up to tour a dilapidated home, its massive cardboard facade a jumble of cliches from commercial haunted houses and bad horror movies. Constance immediately offers reassuring words: “The seller is motivated.”
Once inside, you get most everything you’d expect from a low-budget Halloween attraction: dim lights, fake cobwebs, cheesy sound effects (including, of all things, Billy Daniels’s 1950 recording of “That Old Black Magic”), figures emerging from nowhere, strobes, claustrophobia. You also get a bit of lefty cheek: ghosts and goblins aren’t forcing the owners to flee, but rather a tanked economy, poor urban planning, shortsighted investment, and environmental mismanagement.
It’s a silly, irony-soaked inversion of the traditional haunted house, complete with a twist ending. But as you exit, in a flurry of police sirens and barking voices, it’s easy to feel let down. Are creators Andrea Jablonski and Martha Bayne really going to turn thorny narratives about the societal forces that compromise housing security into nothing but a 25-minute goof?
If you’ve followed Theater Oobleck for even a few of its 30 years, you already know the answer.
Leaving the haunted house, you enter a bare industrial space where four engrossing installations await. You can watch Gabriel X. Michael’s seemingly endless slide show of disturbingly beautiful boarded-up homes marked for demolition. You can pick up a telephone receiver and listen to messages—left for podcaster Billie Howard—describing harrowing housing experiences (hearing a neighbor commit suicide, living “trapped” in a house with an underwater mortgage, confronting a roommate who steals things and throws them in the Dumpster). You can cower before Heather Gabel’s unaccountably menacing sculpture of a tethered claw hammer and a few nails under a dimly lit blood-red tarp. Or, if you’re feeling particularly brave, you can stand before the most trauma-inducing image of all: Sara Heymann’s cut-out diorama of a perfect WASP Thanksgiving dinner.
As Bayne suggests in an essay left out amid the installations, the litany of distressing realities that haunt our actual houses should make us question the political purpose of the commercial haunted house. Is it an amnesia machine, its pretend terror erasing the true terror of, say, a Secretary of Housing bent on making public housing less livable? Suddenly, the disappointment of Oobleck’s haunted house becomes necessary to show us just how consistently and calculatedly haunted houses miss the point. v