“Please, ring the bell twice. Only twice, no more, no less. That’s very important.” The brunette with a clipboard checks my name off a list, her voice chiming with a saccharine lilt. “Please, introduce yourself to the other guests before you wander. We ask that you not open any doors that are closed. The residents do value their privacy. Have a lovely evening.”
From the outside, nothing appears off about the house. Nestled in a cozy neighborhood a few blocks from one of LA’s numerous busy boulevards, the facade is indistinct from the residences that flank it. Two floors, a walkway, a library visible from the street. It’s a remarkably classic look for a city where modernity is the trend. The size of the manor (and location) convey a certain level of wealth, but the large discarded branch in the yard gives the impression of disrepair. As I approach, a man darts up behind me. “Oh please, excuse me, I’m late with the groceries.” Hunched over and hurried, his disheveled demeanor and slight stutter are the first symptoms of something amiss.
As I enter the estate, a tall man in a suit welcomes me and offers to take my coat. A good foot above me and impeccably dressed, I’ll never have the chance to learn his name over the course of the evening. Yet the unnerving intensity of his gaze sticks with me even while writing this. He leads me to the parlor, where other guests have already gathered to mingle over drinks. From here, I’m free to explore as I please. My eyes are immediately drawn to an assortment of odd fetishes above the fireplace. Upon further inspection, cryptic messages can be found etched into their backs.
Things begin to devolve as I explore the upstairs. A young man in a towel rushes by, much to the consternation of the steely butler. A young woman approaches me, asking if I know the history of the house’s many ghosts. She’s quickly hushed by a stunning woman in a black dress, who is in the midst of morning her recently deceased husband. Dark hallways beckon, but the cavalcade of action around me keeps me from wandering too far. Soon, the dinner bell rings. We are all led to our seats.
From here, the experience is a slow descent into madness. Guests are individually led off for various chores, returning pallid and with ghoulish expressions. One man heads off upstairs and returns entirely…changed. Another pulls off their hair. The family devolves into a screaming match. Rituals are conducted. Wolves are channeled. The dead are raised. We all dance in the dark. A few hours later, we all stumble back into reality, a little less sane for the experience.
I’m being deliberately vague. Part of me doesn’t want to ruin the surprise. From the cryptic advertising to the lack of any real introduction, The Willows is designed for you to walk through its doors unsure of what to expect. From snippets of dialogue and context, the audience is slowly and organically puts the pieces together. But far more than a simple riddle to unravel, you’re free to explore and make your own part in this world. Spoiling that would be far more ruinous than just revealing a shocking twist.
A larger part of me recognizes that simply recapping the events doesn’t do The Willows justice. I can describe the way the butler sprayed me with a perfume of dubious origin, or how the elder Miss Willows led me in a game of pantomime suicide, or how I took part in candlelight witchcraft. All the while, someone in the next room is being treated to an entirely different set of horrors. For while The Willows is certainly theater, it’s not a kind of theater I’ve seen before.
One of the many new experiments into “immersive” theater, The Willows almost defies definition. Which puts me in a bit of a conundrum. How does one describe what—by design—defies description? Far from being an observer, you’re an active participant in the night’s events. From the moment you buy a ticket, one of nine predetermined paths is laid before you. Beyond that, there are a number of individual offshoots that you might be pulled away to. But far from a carnival fun ride, ferrying you along from spook to spook on a rickety track, your road in The Willows is a meandering stroll through the countryside. Signposts direct you and guides nudge you along, but you’re largely free to explore and see the sights. What’s more, the world reacts to you. No matter how many times you go through it, no two journeys through The Willows are alike.
It’s a novel approach, but then again we’re living in the age of novel approaches. I can’t tell you how many VR Escape Room experiences I’ve slogged through to promote whatever is the hot flavor of horror that month. I once played a game that was controlled with a giant dildo. Everyone is looking for their own special take, that little twist that will set them apart from the crowd and launch them ahead of the pack. Very rarely in their quest for uniqueness do they remember to also be well made. Not only is The Willows novel, it’s also very good.
From the acting to the timing, The Willows is an impeccably choreographed descent into chaos. I can’t imagine the effort it took to not only write every part but to write them with the freedom to bend and expand with the actions of the guests. There’s no telling who might wander where, but no matter where you go there’s a character there waiting to show off their macabre collections or sinister arts. They even account for you breaking the rules, with a fully decorated backstage complete with backstory and flourishes. The illusion it creates is not one of watching a wrote performance, but of descending into a genuinely insane living, breathing world.
Now for fans of haunts, it also bears explaining that The Willows is not a typical “scare” attraction. There are no ghosts popping out from behind doors, no seizure-inducing strobe light rooms, and no chainsaw clowns. If you’re looking for the next level of “extreme,” this is not for you. At no point during The Willows was I ever startled. I was, however, consistently unnerved.
The price of entry also might be too steep at first glance. At $155 dollars a ticket, it’s a big ask. However, the quality of craft and uniqueness of experience makes it well worth it if you have the extra scratch. I might not have gone if not invited, but having done so it’s definitely something I’d be willing to spend the cash on.
With only a few weeks left in the production run, I wish I had the chance to check The Willows out sooner. The producers, JFI Productions, also run a haunted house called Creep LA, which I’m eager to see what they do with. More importantly, The Willows is in its third year. Each year brings changes to the show, evolving with a new story, new characters, new set pieces, etc. Moreover, the characters remember you from your previous year. I have no idea who is taking notes behind the scenes, but several of the other guests received personal greetings from the characters. The longevity and annual return value are well worth considering when weighing the $155 asking price.
To close, I’m not a huge fan of experimental theater. I didn’t have high hopes going into The Willows, and I only went because I was using it to try and convince my date I was cultured and interesting. She ended up bailing, and I went alone. So in the worst of moods and with a negative affinity for the medium, I still loved it. If you’re a fan of this kind of stuff, it’s a must-see. Even if you’re not, you might just discover something new.