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Behind the Scenes

A scarily good time on stage

Haunted theater entertains, chills

Bill Cunningham, Orpheum Theatre’s executive director, costumed as “Zipper Head’’ at last year’s “House of Horrors.’’ Bill Cunningham, Orpheum Theatre’s executive director, costumed as “Zipper Head’’ at last year’s “House of Horrors.’’ (Orpheum Theatre)
By Robert Knox
Globe Correspondent / September 29, 2011

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When schools and other groups feel the autumn breezes, they say let’s put on a haunted house. At the Orpheum Theatre, a 1926 silent film house with a spooky orchestra pit, a dark balcony, and its own ghost, they say it’s time for the haunted theater.

For the fifth year the nonprofit community theater group Bay Productions Inc. will use theatrical arts - costumes, makeup, role-playing, lighting, sound, and stage illusions - plus the resources of an old-fashioned theater to terrify its audiences for the fun of it.

Staging a “House of Horrors’’ inside a theater means the good, nasty fun starts right away.

“The main difference is you don’t have to wait outside on lines,’’ said Bill Cunningham, the theater’s executive director.

Visitors waiting to enjoy their small-group tour of terror linger in the theater’s hall, where old-time horror films show on the theater’s screen, weird music fills the air, and “characters’’ like the madman with the chainsaw run through the aisles.

“It’s a great atmosphere,’’ said Paula Markowicz of Bridgewater, an actress who performed in the theater’s production of “Hair Spray’’ and “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.’’

“I’m the first person every group talks to,’’ she said.

Dressed as a witch, Markowicz’s role is to greet visitors in the lobby and tell them what to expect. All around her creepy music, screams of terror, and horror-film characters sneaking up on the guests help create the right atmosphere.

“It’s awesome,’’ she said.

Months in the planning, and drawing on the skills of the theater’s set design and building production crew, “House of Horrors’’ volunteers “put up a whole lot of walls and mazes,’’ Cunningham said. “We create different rooms. There’s an Egyptian tomb room. And a 20-foot vortex’’ - a room where people try to get their balance while walking through a spinning tube.

When their turn comes, groups of five are led down into the orchestra pit below the stage, then up a stairway to the front part of the theater. Then (if they haven’t run away from their first ghoulish encounters) the groups are led outdoors through disorienting mazes, climb back up to the balcony and into the Green Room, and then go down the back stairs onto stage left to encounter the “Leave-It-To-Beaver’’ kitchen.

It’s a ‘50s kitchen, Cunningham said, “but some things are hiding there. You wouldn’t want to eat there. You wouldn’t want Ward and June working on - that.’’ He leaves “that’’ to the imagination.

Markowicz said she helps organize the volunteers, working like a stage manager to make sure every role in the haunted house production is filled on a given night.

Is scaring people fun? Enough fun to get the volunteers coming back?

“Oh, yeah,’’ Markowicz said. For example, up in the balcony area there’s a walkway the victims - uh, visitors - walk through in the dark, not realizing they’re walking on a transparent floor. One year, lights suddenly filled the space and visitors discovered beneath their feet a mass of bodies screaming and bleeding and writhing in agony.

Student actress and volunteer Jamie Engler said she has seen people do some weird things, too.

“Two years ago I was in the alcove, chained up,’’ said Engler, a Foxborough High School junior, who takes part in her school drama club in addition to interning at the Orpheum. “My friend did this high-pitched voice. He was small with a creepy voice. I would jump out and scare them.’’

Scaring people is a kick, Engler admitted.

“Some of them have the funniest reactions,’’ she said. “They take off running, or they jump back into their friends. If they’re on a date, they jump literally into the guy’s arms.’’

With volunteers from Norton, Mansfield, and Walpole in addition to Foxborough, the haunted theater is the biggest annual fund-raiser for the nonprofit theater group. It drew 3,400 visitors last year.

The Orpheum also offers a child-oriented haunted house called “Kiddie Craze’’ on Sunday afternoons from 1 to 3 p.m. in October for $7 admission.

Neither production has strict age guidelines, Cunningham said. When parents ask whether “House of Horrors’’ is scary, he says, “If it wasn’t scary, you wouldn’t be there.’’

Besides, a spooky atmosphere is nothing strange for a theater with an actual ghost. Weird things have been known to happen in two areas, the balcony and the green room, Cunningham said. Clothing is brushed, as if by an unseen presence.

The ghost is the theater’s former owner, F. Munro Perry, Cunningham said. “You just say, ‘Hi, Mr. Perry.’ He just wants you to know he’s there.’’

Robert Knox can be reached at

“Orpheum House of Horrors’’ Orpheum Theatre

1 School St., Foxborough

Fridays and Saturdays, 7 to 10 p.m.

October weekends starting Oct.1