Halloween; A Murder Mystery Party
It's not hard to imagine that October is the time of year that makes me the most excited. Writing about death year-round gets me anxious for the Halloween season. Last year I hiatus from my traditional party throwing to direct the Addams Family Musical with Stage Right Performing Arts as my Swan Song in Kansas City. The timing of the subsequent move to Chicago made a Halloween party or any significant celebration difficult. This year, I was thrilled to begin planning my signature party once again, but this year had to be special.
Planning kicked off early August at an Open Concept curatorial board meeting. I mentioned my interest throwing a Halloween party that was interactive and inherently theatrical. I wanted to produce a show of sorts that could revolve around campfire ghost stories and improvised performances. My inspiration came from the roots of Halloween and really wanting to connect with the dead on this special night. I specifically wanted to do something outdoors. I left the meeting encouraged by the interest the others took in my plans, and so I set out to put together the most unique party I could.
Some of the early research involved site touring various outdoor venues in Chicago (They are hard to come by). I sought to locate a remote-feeling wooded area that, ideally, would allow us to light a small contained fire. With Chicago fire laws, that was nearly impossible. I did find with the help of Daniella Wheelock, a densely wooded area near North Park called the Labagh Woods. Inside you almost felt like you had completely escaped the city. As we explored the narrow paths, rarely but occasionally encountering other hikers, we came across the last thing I would have expected to see within the Chicago city limits; a deer resting aside a shady tree, completely unfazed by the onlookers not 30 feet away.
Ultimately, with more thought and research I abandoned the idea of using an outdoor venue. I am still not accustomed to the colder weather in Chicago, and I couldn't imagine a situation in which party goers would be having a fun, relaxed time in 40 to 50 degree whether on a chilly October night. I shifted my thinking to creepy places indoors, and my basement was the first place to come to my mind.
While my quest for the proper locale was underway, I also focused on getting invitations in the mail as soon as I could. I wanted to be sure and poach the right people before they committed to another Halloween event. This was around the time that I settled on trying to create a Murder Mystery story to structure my writing and ensure the party would be interactive.
My basic idea was this; A party where the guests were dying off one by one because one of the guests was secretly the Grim Reaper. So, with the help of Pinterest, I created my party invites as "Death Certificates" foretelling the invitees ensuing death on the 31st of October. For the in-town guests, I visited each of their apartments and hand delivered the unstamped envelopes under each of their doors, lacking return addresses or anything written other than their names and the word 'deceased' written them. And, with my invitations sent, I began the month and a half long process of writing, planning, and trying to create the most fun and spooky event for my new friends in Chicago.
All Hallow's Eve was finally upon us. That day I spent cleaning, stocking up on booze, and getting my clues all set while Daniella helped cook and prepare all of the delicious food.
Guests began arriving at 7:30 PM. I met them in costume in the gated side alley that leads to the back entrance of my apartment. I choose it to throw the guests off and start the party with a creepy, dark entrance. For my costume this year I was Bobby 'Boris' Pickett from the famous 'Monster Mash' song. With simply a suit a tie as my attire, I was not instantly recognized for my character, but I was proud of it just the same. Somehow it felt appropriate in this year that we are celebrating the 200 year anniversary of Mary Shelley's famed novel that I dress as a man from the 1960's doing an impression of a film actor who once played Frankenstein's monster on the big screen. I get a kick out of that stuff. My apartment mates John and Ryan dressed up as a 'Were'-Waldo and Frank from the T.V. show '30 Rock' respectively. They helped me great guests, distribute Liability Waivers (Which were really just for effect and held no legal justification nor authority), and escort them the creaky, wooden stairs. Guests were instructed in private Facebook messages to use the secret phrase "I ain't afraid of no ghosts" to get in through the gate. The party was beginning.
Once inside, guests mingled, visited the open bar, and decorated paper mache masks. My apartment is long and narrow and not great in size. The back balcony adds an escape from the crowd and the kitchen has plenty of space to spread out to pour drinks and fill plates with hors d'oeuvres. Daniella baked meat balls and sugar cookies as well as having prepared delicious white chocolate skulls and rats that when you bit into them burst with blood-red jam. She also made a Pumpkin Chilli that filled the kitchen with the scent of Fall. At the bar was beer, wine (We peeled off the labels and replaced them with spooky themed titles like 'Witches Brew' and 'Poison'), Rum and Vodka to mix with any of the non-alcoholic drinks we provided or our Hot Apple Cider. The centerpiece of our drink selection was a cocktail we called RedRum (Alla The Shining). It was a deep purple color that shimmered like a freshly brewed potion and was served over pumpkin-shaped ice cubes. A small apartment heavily adorned with elements of the macabre; Florescent lights fixtures were swapped with blue lights in the living room and orange in the kitchen. Pumpkins lined the window sills where blood dripped down the glass panes. Giant spider webs stretched from ceiling to ceiling. Music filled the cavities; one the balcony sounds of screams and heavy breathing echoed from an unseen source and in the living room boomed a customized playlist of Electro-Swing and holiday classics. In the bathroom, Louis the Clown hid behind the door and would encounter guests as they sat to do their business. There were candles, rope lights, rats, knifes, caution tape, skeletons, and so much more completely changing the aura of the room and creating an environment of terror and fun.
At 8:00 PM I abandoned my post at the back gate and gathered everyone into the living room for a welcoming announcement. I told everyone that my name was Emperor Toulouse and that I was the owner of this 'castle' and leader of the land. In my fictitious tale I described being raised in a god-less home and how my boyhood was affected by my father's, the former Emperor, suicide. After my long-winded story, I opened up the floor to introduce the other characters. Each of my invited guests had received character information a few days prior based on traditional Tarot cards. During the introductions I asked them to tell us all a little bit about who they are, and they in turn received their Tarot-name tags and props for game-play. Props included items like wands, gloves, lockets, lanterns, and so on. We met The Magician, a darkly talented friend of the Emperor who had secrets of divination, The Lovers, two young girls who were mad for one another but unaware that one had been unfaithful, as The Hermit, The Hierophant, The Justice, The Fool, The Empress, and The Hanged Man.
Those guests that did not receive personalized invitations but we 'Plus ones' for the night were to portray the 'Ghost' characters. These were people deceased before the game began. They were told they would be playing as a team in the game against the living.
After some additional 'Milling' time for the characters to get to know one another and refill their drinks, the lights in the room went dark (ish) and a scream was heard as one of the guests fill to the ground, dead. The general feel of the room was uncertain. At this point in the party, the objectives were unclear and people we not sure how they should behave about the girl that had fallen on the floor before them. This manifested itself primarily in laughter. In came the Emperor who, unfazed with the body before them, began a warning speech to the party-goers. In it, he pointed out that there was no murder weapon or any sign of a wound on the body; that the guest appeared to die of nothing. The Emperor told of three persons; the first, a hiker in Utah who, when finding himself pinned beneath a boulder in the middle of nowhere, sawed off his own arm as an attempt at survival. The second, an astronaut, who when an explosion fired within his ship in outer space, risked dehydration and hypothermia in order to save enough energy in the vessel to somehow return to the planet Earth. The third and final person, a member of the Donner party who, being on of the last survivors to be rescued, murdered an entire family to keep himself alive. All of these persons, the Emperor pointed out, knew what it took to be at the edge of existence and come out on top; to beat Death. Tonight, when the veil between the living and the dead is at its thinnest, the party-goers too would discover for themselves who had what it takes to survive.
The game worked like this: From the moment the first body fell the guests were then trapped inside the apartment, which had been transformed into an escape room. The Living character needed to try and find clues to unlock doors and get outside in order go on with their happy lives, while the Dead, the Ghost characters, were playing against them. If the Ghosts, as a team, managed to get outside before the Living then they would trade places; the Dead would rise and the living would become entombed in the ground. A catch? Someone among the living is an imposter. Somebody is only pretending to be a human. Somebody is actually Death, The Grim Reaper, the Dark Angel, the Taker of Souls.
Death's only goal throughout the game was to discretely pick-off each of the living characters until each life is claimed. As characters began searching for clues, every ten minutes or so one of them would end up finding the 'Death' Tarot card on them, in a pocket or some-such, and when so they would wait 30 seconds (to avoid exposing Death's alias) and fall to the ground, wasted.
Once 'killed,' the former liver would be escorted by the Emperor to join the Ghosts as a now larger team trying to defeat the Living.
With that, I as the Emperor gave them a riddle as the first clue. It read, "The Count could not decay/within his 50 bins/earth is no sanctuary/We waste away within." This led them on a journey throughout my apartment, and eventually the entire apartment complex including creepy passages near the back stairwell and down in the labyrinth that is my dungeon basement. Dozens of clues, including maps, ciphers, word scrambles, and more helped players unlock doors and uncover who Death was, in order to avoid them and survive longer. At one point in a complex series of clues, players discovered a chalk board in a small, dead-end tunnel that had a phone number scribbled on it. When the players acquired a cell phone (their personal phones were not allowed during gameplay) they dialed the number which led to an answering machine recording of the song 'Thriller' by Michael Jackson. Recalling my apartments record collection, players discovered a series of alphabetic letters inside the 'Thriller' album and, after struggling to rearranged them, discovered a web address. Once on the mysterious website, guests found a group of four crime scene photos in which were hidden clues to how to unlock the front door to the apartment.
The Living and the Dead were often at odds with each other. The Living took an early lead finding to combination to a lock on the backdoor in a troubling Bible verse. The Dead also had the disadvantage of not really knowing one another at first, but with some slight meddling on the part of the Emperor, they eventually made a comeback, finding a clue hidden inside the Fool's prop and leading them further along in the game.
All throughout this mission, bodies were dropping like flies. One of the Lovers was the first to keel over. Followed quickly by the Magician who found his 'Death' card inside his stocking. Eventually the number of the Living players had depleted to just four people. One of them was Death, and that knowledge was unsettling to them.
The game culminated in the basement where tribes of players, cliques of trust established throughout the game, searched through the darkness to find the way out of the building and win the game. People died. Players went off by themselves. Eventually, the final clue was found.
It was a complicated cipher that included three different riddles. It was the last one that, while the Living were distracted, led members of the Dead to victory. The clue told them that "Death was the only way out." And so, knowing post-mortally who Death actually was, demanded that the seconded Lover turn over her locket. Reluctantly, Death revealed herself and when she gave the Ghosts her locket, they saw attached to is a brass key. This was the last tool needed, and the Ghosts made their escape and we declared the winners.
All gathered into the living room, swapping stories of clues found and chances missed. When were you killed? How did you know what this clue meant? When did you know it was me? With a toast to the winners, i encouraged guests to stay and drink and be merry, to enjoy their lives and enjoy the rest of this night were the Dead walk with us. As guests gradually departed in the ensuing hours they received a Skull shot glass as well as their Tarot cards as souvenirs. This experience was, for me, incredibly entertaining. I couldn't have imagined a better way to celebrate the dark night of Halloween than with close friends, new and old, playing like children and screaming like babies. It wasn't your grandma's Halloween party.