It starts with a table of keys, two dead flowers and a rubber rat.
A few meters behind, there’s a cardboard door to a cardboard house. Crumpled butcher paper strung high to the empty warehouse ceiling simulate fog and fire, while a smoke machine pumps an acrid version of the former.
A moment later, the door opens and the real estate agent comes out, and now comes the moment I tell you this isn’t your typical haunted house.
This isn’t your typical haunted house.
Why would it be?
“I hate haunted houses,” said the woman who designed it.
A Memory Palace of Fear was designed by Martha Bayne of Theater Oobleck with support from the Social Justice News Nexus program from the Medill School of Journalism.
As part of a fellowship Bayne received from the group, she created a haunted house about housing, a home like the thousands abandoned across Chicago where the knock of the city inspector on the door brings as many chills as anything else bumping in the night.
And like all good haunted house stories, it started on a night just like tonight.
“It was a year ago, driving home from the South Side to Humboldt Park and there were a lot of abandoned properties. It was a blustery October evening.”
Bayne was coming from a meeting with the SJNN. One of the leaders wanted her to write a play about housing, incorporating her theater and journalism background. She instantly disliked the idea.
“I know how to write a story and I know how to stage a play, but I don’t know how to write a play.”
On that drive, that blustery night, driving past vacant and abandoned homes in low-income neighborhoods, Bayne started thinking about haunted houses. Creaky doors and bodies in the foyer. Basements children are told never to go in. Footsteps from the attic you know is empty. Amityville. Bates. Houses of Usher and on Haunted Hill and wherever it was Mrs. Peacock got up to her mischief in the library with the lead pipe.
That’s not scary.
Homes, lives, memories lost to urban blight, foreclosures and mortgages that never seem to ebb. The shame and fear families feel when they can’t afford to live in or unload these houses, when the best option might just be to lock the door and walk away.
When the best option was exactly that, at least 18,000 times.
After the real estate agent’s tour of the house, complete with thrills and warbling calliope music, ax killer screams and sad moonlight memories of the family that once lived there, the attendees will be pushed into a plaza of art installations about housing.
It was a mostly empty room Thursday night. Bayne walked around, gesturing at the empty spots the artists will spend today turning ghoulish. Home-buying soothsayers, a banker firing off paperwork to redeem for cards depicting the addresses, latitude/longitude and ward, precinct, district of actual vacant and abandoned properties in Humboldt Park.
In one spot, an amp plays looped audio of people who lost their homes talking about their ordeals.
“I learned through that that people have a lot of shame around housing.”
A Memory Palace of Fear runs this weekend at the Silent Funny Space at 4106 W. Chicago Ave.
Enjoy dirty politics and dirty martinis with me at “How to Steal an Election,” a night I’m running with Atlas Obscura and the Room 13 speakeasy on Nov. 1, one week before the election. Swill craft cocktails while I take you through decades of COMPLETELY LEGAL voter manipulation in Chicago and elsewhere. Fun, civics, jazz and the craftiest of craft cocktails. Get your tickets today.