The sound was cued, the fake blood—culled from commercial “jugs of blood” now lining the wall—was poured, and Blackout Theatre company member Shannon Flynn, donning stage makeup and ear plugs, was ready to perform. As the first group of visitors moved through this year's installment of the immersive, interactive haunted house dubbed Quarantine that the company has put on for five years running, Flynn stood at the ready. The approach of the first group moving through the show was evidenced by screams slowly drawing closer that rang eerily throughout the cluster of buildings at Expo New Mexico where Quarantine annually takes up residence.
Flynn glanced back and nodded at me to indicate that it was show time. When he hit the lights, a black so complete fell that, despite being safely tucked in a corner in the background of the action, I was genuinely creeped. All I could hear were screams, meanwhile, I waved my hand in front of my face a few times. Nothing. Soon, through the small window of the door that looked out into guests' pathway through the maze, I could see the flashlights and gray faces of the participants. In this scene, Flynn is trapped inside the room where he and I were currently stationed, and something ominous threatens to return for him. As visitors move through the area, Flynn begged them—and I watched this play out many times—to please, set him free. Of course, he was doomed from the beginning, and soon, deafening, inhuman sounds crescendo and engulf the room, rising to a fever pitch just as Flynn's screams do. That evening, I watched Flynn die in heartwrenching agony again and again and again. To add to the chilling effect, in his final gasping breaths, Flynn poured blood under the door jamb to the dismay of those outside it.
That I am frightened while totally outside of the action at Quarantine is either proof of my own weak heart or a testament to just how sharp and thoroughly engaging the horror of Quarantine is. This year's storyline hinges upon that famous UFO crash that happened in Roswell in 1947 and supposes that in this reality, the government is engineering alien technology based on what they discovered there, and they do not want the public accessing it. And so, visitors to this year's chapter of the story (in the past the writers at Blackout have tackled zombies and demons) follow conspiracy theorists through the compound at the fairgrounds—an area that used to serve as youth lodging. Which explains why I am standing under a shower head that periodically drips on my neck, causing me to jolt.
Thanks to Blackout's creative director Jeff Anderson, I was privy to the “backstage” of the show. Before the night began, he led me to the “green room,” which in this case is a large upstairs gallery, filled with actors in various stages of transformation. There are guards who seem to have long ago been infected by whatever is spreading throughout the compound, as well as aliens in big plush suits that add several sets of arms to the human form underneath. “This year we went more for thriller, instead of blood and gore scares,” Anderson explained as he led me down the stairs with a pantheon of extraterrestrials ambling down behind me. The sun was soon to set, and the first conspiracy theorists would rove the compound, so we took our places to wait. It was amazing to see just how much waiting goes on behind the scenes.
Despite that fact, that all the actors seem to be having a great time speaks to the collaborative nature of the show and the balance of the work. Flynn estimated that each scene will be run around 800 times before Quarantine shutters for another year on Oct. 31. Actors will rotate through to nearly every role before closing night, though Flynn is partial to the role he is in tonight—where the story elements are more fleshed out, and visitors can connect with an emotional hook. The inclusion of scenes like this that require real acting chops, played out in a fully imagined world with a completely realized plot beneath it, keep the work interesting for all the actors, technicians and creatives involved with the production. Keeping the work interesting is a key reason why the troupe changes and evolve the Quarantine story every year.
The night took me to all manners of locale until I was dizzy from threading through the circuitous twists of the set. I hid under a desk and watched as passerby peer through a glass window at a haunting recurring symbol, and then visibly flinching as a woman who has been tested on bangs on the doors—pleading for her freedom. Or, in another room, I peered through a partition as visitors pass through a room where a deranged guard is slowly turning into something other than human—eliciting shout after scream after shriek. Typically I'm on that side of things—jumpy, overreacting, running, wailing—so it is strange (and hilarious) to watch others react that way while I am safely tucked out of the way, a spectator to the scares. Flynn, and most of the actors I met that night, admit to loving hearing visitors scream—while most actors get applause, here a surprised yelp is the confirmation that they are doing their job right.
Quarantine: Invasion is at Expo New Mexico (300 San Pedro NE) with performances happening between 6:30 and 9:30pm throughout the week. Find more information at quarantineabq.com.