With few exceptions, Halloween is tired.
The rituals are tired — the whole “boo” thing and yelling for chocolate.
The costumes are tired — sexy nurse, sexy serial killer, sexy politico.
The spaces are tired, too. The hammy drama of Terror Behind the Walls at Eastern State Penitentiary is starting to lose its luster, and Pennhurst Asylum is cold-blooded considering many of its one-time inhabitants are still alive.
Luckily, Philly has a few truly exceptional Halloween offerings so far beyond the pale, they make-up for the more tedious affairs.
First is Henri David's Halloween: The Ball 2019, at Philadelphia 201 Hotel at (201 N. 17th St.) beginning at 9 p.m. on Halloween night. Going into its 51st iteration, it is the city's longest-running Halloween tradition and is as eccentric, eclectic and gleefully bizarre as its host. David is the famed Pine Street jewelry designer to stars such as Elton John and Stevie Nicks. Plus, like David, his attendees — all 3,000 of them, as The Ball is always sold out to a collection of people from all over the globe — are dedicated with elaborate costumes planned and crafted throughout the year.
“Attendees do one, [but] I have three outfits to plan, make [and wear]," said David of his trio of costumes, none of which he'll reveal before show time, just that “one costume is definitely taller than 12 feet."
Having witnessed David, 72, change into a dozen costumes in a single evening, each taller or more complex than the last, you'd guess this trio is a concession to his age. "Nah," he said. "I have more time for grander, more complicated designs now — which is saying something. Besides, we're a week away. I might come up with another outfit or two once I start pulling from the box of scarves, jewels or material swatches I randomly purchased that just looked cool."
What's made his Halloween so vivid is the diverse palette of attendees — gay, straight, black, white, billionaires, hipsters. You won't recognize them, but there will likely be mayors, moneyed elites, members of City Council and local celebs. This year, David promises that legendary trans queen Rachel Harlow — a true fire-starter of all things LGBTQ in Philly — will be in attendance. “[She’ll be] in a quiet corner of the room," with a Hollywood producer looking to make Harlow's tale into a film, David confessed.
What also makes The Ball magnificent is that attendees let their hair down in accordance with his Ball's mantra: Don’t Come As You Are, But As You Want To Be.
That's meant naked revelers, as often as it's meant elaborate costuming.
"As the party gets younger and younger, I'm seeing a lot of cosplay stuff, scores of Marvel comics-related outfits,” David said. “I freaking I love it. I love that people feel free here."
Mind you, David was utilizing bits of superhero mythology in his costumes years ago. He's been there, done that. But it’s still nice to see it alive and well each year among a younger gen. What he's hoping happens at his Ball is that people put down their cell phones and experience the night firsthand, rather than as an afterthought or a recorded memory.
"Put your fucking phone down, people,” he said, firmly. “Make eye contact and talk to each other."
SOME SCARY SHIT
The focus of Philly’s newest Devil’s Night craze? Halloween pop-up bars. At present, there are a number that exist — and pretty successfully, at that.
Once a Christmas-themed hot spot, The Nightmare Before Tinsel Halloween Pop-up Bar (116 S. 12th St.), run by the peeps behind Tradesman’s, BRU Craft & Wurst and U-Bahn (Teddy Sourias) maintains the hipster-frat vibe of Sourias' other locations while accommodating an eerie aesthetic (a hall of 1,001 eyes, a wall of zombies, etc). Credit local artist Anne White and Peekaboo Revue's Scott Johnston with ramping up the house’s factor.
Haunt is on the top floor of the barely-open Pearl Tavern (1123 Walnut St.) owned by Tod Wentz (Al Mano, Oloroso next door), and offers something more tastefully spooky with everything from monster movie nights and themed drinks to flexible thematic décor directed by Alison Hangen. So, boo.
If tasteful is your pop-up requirement, the Eraserhood's Dark Passage (1004 Buttonwood St.) will be your cup of scalding, smoky potion. An indoor maze with booze, created by Penn grads who design for Disney theme parks, finds you starting your journey at its Strange Spirits Lounge, and ends … Well, whenever you can get through it. Think Jack Nicholson in "The Shining" after a few stiff scotches.
Just announced is this week's teaming of Terry Brennan's highly physical Tribe of Fools with Philly Improv Theatre for “A Nightmare on Jawn Street," a slasher-filled, action-packed sketch comedy melee inspired by zombie flicks and monster movies. "We've been dying to collaborate with PHIT forever, but to also get to be dancing zombies? We couldn’t pass it up," Brennan noted.
Still, the highest-minded of pop-ups is that designed and choreographed by Brian Sanders and his JUNK movement team — the three tiers of 2nd Sanctuary (21st and Christian Street).
"JUNK's aesthetic is about taking something old, tried and true, and/or thought of as used-up and no good and breathing new life into it by looking at it creatively and from a different perspective," Sanders said. "That's what we are doing here — what are the alternative ways to look at the Rite of Fall? What are e-z listening, flying zombies from the ‘70s like? What's an all-metal, hard rock labyrinth like instead of a straw bale corn maze? What's it like to experience a beautiful nightmare in VR?" The answer is 2nd Sanctuary.
Done up with a richly sappy ‘70s musical theme, each tier has its own eerie reality — and with a bar in the creepily church-y center room maintained by Lisa Sloat, late of Belgian Café fame. “Dancing Dead Live” features an old gravedigger pulling friends and lovers from their eternal resting place only to watch them do Cirque-like acrobatics … until he becomes one with them. "The Phantom Portal VR Telecom Tour in the Spectral Garden Chapel” is so immersive you'll want to douse proceedings with water (you'll see). “Zoltan’s Zarkade Escape Room in the Lost Lodge” is an escape room based on the 1975 news story of "Kid Scout Troop 244,” where kids disappeared one-by-one in the fall of 1975. Free with all this, there's a maze and a costume zombie-disco party in the bar area for a chill-down after the fear-fest...or for those who just like to drink their nightmares away.
"For JUNK’s first foray into the Halloween attraction [business], we knew we'd be bringing fans of varied genres to one venue," Sanders said. "Are VR fans the same as dance fans and are either of those Escape Room fans? We wanted to make sure there was a bridge to cross into each world, easily — figuratively and literally. The bar is exactly that. What better way to meet people than at a Zombie Disco Pop Up bar."
Interesting point. It’ll definitely be an eclectic crowd, without question.