For even the most rational minded among us, a good ghost story is hard to resist. Mystery and suspense are part of the allure, but perhaps even more tantalizing is the imaginative glimpse into what lies beyond the grave.
A supernatural tale suggests that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy, to filch from Hamlet, the most haunted figure in all literature. As a youngster, I was terrified of ghosts. As a middle-aged man, I’m terrified of a world without them.
“Someone Else’s House,” the latest offering in the Geffen Playhouse’s Stayhouse series, brings the horror genre onto the digital stage. The show, written and performed by multimedia artist Jared Mezzocchi and directed by Margot Bordelon, tests whether a haunted house can stand on a virtual foundation.
The result, while conceptually clever, is more entertaining than scary. I went to bed without checking under my bed, and when I woke to a strange bang in the other room, I assumed it was the cat and rolled over.
Mezzocchi sets out to blur the line between fiction and reality. He repeatedly declares that his story — about a rambling old house in Enfield, N.H., that his family lived in for a short time before he was born — is true. His brother, he says, still has nightmares about what occurred there. The trauma haunts the family to this day.
“I’m not sensationalizing it,” Mezzocchi insists. “I want to know why this happened.”
To this end, he combs through historical and genealogical records. He interviews his mother on video. Google Maps and Findagrave.com facilitate his sleuthing and bring the town of Enfield to modern life.
A mystery box, part of the Geffen Stayhouse interactive recipe, is sent to audience members beforehand. The contents are meant to be a surprise, so without giving too much away let me just say that one of the items is intended to change the viewing atmosphere and perhaps substitute for the campfire around which stories of this kind proverbially thrive.
(Caution: Do not enter the rest of the review if you have tickets to “Someone Else’s House.” I repeat: Do not enter. Return when you’re safely back from your journey. Good luck to you.)
Like any reputable purveyor of occult tales, Mezzocchi is careful to present his details in a way that is vivid enough to unsettle but not so precise as to raise disqualifying objections. Mention of a “slaughtering cellar” seems a little too on the nose, until it’s explained that a former owner of the house, built in 1800, ran a tannery down there.
There’s a plotline involving a swarm of bees that doesn’t seem beyond the pale of natural science. When splattered blood appears out of nowhere in the narrative, the police stave off panic by raising the possibility of a wounded animal.
The shadow of a diabolical specter is gradually introduced. The leading culprit is the soul of the proprietary patriarch of the Johnson clan, the family that maintained ownership of the house until the Mezzocchis moved in. I wanted to believe, which is to say I wanted to be scared. But the pretense of documentary accuracy heightened my skepticism.
My own internet detective work informed me that Enfield is also the name of a London borough famous for its own (discredited) poltergeist. Uncanny coincidence or artistic dissembling? You’ll have to decide for yourself, but I wish I hadn’t consulted my phone during the performance.
The regular Joe quality of Mezzocchi, dressed for chilly New England weather like a hipster plumber on emergency call, worked until it stopped working. I couldn’t help noticing a light in the background that kept flickering. The subtlety of the effect becomes increasingly pronounced, a reminder of Mezzocchi’s esteemed multimedia background. Had there not been such an emphasis on factuality, I might have been better able to supply the suspension of disbelief needed for goosebumps.
Still, I was impressed with how the production, a collaboration with Virtual Design Collective, progressed. The setting, when it’s finally revealed, is a genuine coup de théâtre. If I didn’t know Mezzocchi had another show that evening, I might have called 911 to rescue him.
Ghost stories ultimately succeed not by providing evidence beyond a shadow of a doubt. They ensnare our imaginations by creating an environment in which we can slip out of the handcuffs of our analytic brains and delve into the darkness that bookends our mortal appearances in this earthly realm.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.