Halloween may be over, but as long as Radiotheatre's The Haunting of 85 East 4th Street is playing at The Kraine Theater, spooky season is emphatically not. Written by Dan Bianchi, this sufficiently terrifying show, which opened 16 years ago, returns now to celebrate Radiotheatre's 20th Season. And it's a triumph. Although its 75-minute runtime is perfect for this type of show, I never wanted the night of captivating, old-fashioned horror to end.
On a darkened stage with digital projections, a fog machine, and, naturally, chilling sound effects, Frank Zilinyi and Zero Boy tell spine-tingling tales that took place at 85 East 4th Street: from the time when the area was simply a field with a hangman's shack on it, to ghostly 19th-century encounters and bloody 20th-century murders. Based on Dan Bianchi's book Manhattan Macabre: 200 Years of Strange Tales From the Lights Out Club, the tales are backed (or so Zilinyi and Zero Boy claim) by overwhelming evidence: police reports, newspaper clippings, journal entries, photos, and personal recollections--not to mention legends that refuse to die.
Caught in the spell of their resonant voices filling the darkened theatre (Zilinyi has a voice particularly suited to old-time radio), I believed it all. I would have been horrified but not surprised if a phantom had suddenly appeared hanging from the rafters, if the smell of smoke had inexplicably filled the room, or if, after Zero Boy invokes the spectre of a psychotic murderer who once resided upstairs, suddenly there came a tapping at the theatre door.
Hearing ghost stories about old New York is one thing. Hearing about crimes, accidents, and apparitions that happened in the very room you're sitting in is quite another. There's more at risk here--who knows if this will be the show when the building decides to claim another victim? Or when the curse of Macbeth, whose name is spoken in the script, will finally be enacted? The actors, though jokingly, acknowledge the danger of such immediacy. When Zilinyi mentions that a boy has been seen staring down at people from the second-story window, Zero Boy asks if Zilinyi has seen the boy. "Don't be ridiculous," says Zilinyi. "Do you think I'd be standing here now in the dark if I had?"
But that's just the attraction. The show is so fun precisely because it's so creepy and so deliciously on-location. Exiting the theatre, I gazed up the steep staircase several people had been violently thrown down and searched for the infamous blood stain on the front porch. On my way home, pondering the strange, eventful history of one New York City building, I found myself wondering what things might have happened in my own 100-year-old apartment. Then I caught myself. Sometimes, it's best not to know.
'The Haunting of 85 East 4th Street' runs through November 20th at The Kraine Theater (85 E 4th St). For more info and to purchase tickets, visit frigid.nyc.