Sometimes just living in Philadelphia can be frightening enough – from reckless drivers to over-aggressive homeless people to rats the size of healthy newborns – this is a city that always has you on your toes for one reason or another.
But even with all the day-to-day horror of the average person’s life, they always seem to want that extra shot of fear-induced adrenalin come mid-October as All Hallow’s Eve floats into the city. Maybe it’s the fact that they know they’re trying to be scared, or because a frozen zombie corpse yelling incoherent threats is a welcome change of pace from the schizophrenic guy yelling the same thing at them in the tunnels of the City Hall SEPTA concourse. Halloween is a holiday Philly can really work with. Forget the love and unity that inspires Thanksgiving or Christmas, this is a holiday that’s all about mischief and evil, and that’s right up Philadelphia’s alley.
Our love of all that is terrifying is something the proprietors of the new “Nightmares On Broad Street” attraction are banking on. From now until Halloween, the group has completely transformed the Wachovia Spectrum into a massive four-level “scream park” that features over 100 live performers and one short film starring legendary horror-rocker Alice Cooper.
The tour is a self-guided experience which lasts some 70 minutes depending on how well you’re able to navigate the twists and turn of the four maze levels. You begin by walking down the loading tunnel of the Spectrum into an opening filled with fog, and for some inexplicable reason, the infectious yet wholly non-frightening rhythms of “The Way You Move” by Big Boi of OutKast. In addition to the awkward music selection, you are also greeted by some rather tame performers in standard rubber masks available at any Spencer gifts. At this point, things were looking a little bleak from my end, as the attraction seemed more geared towards the seven and seventy-year-olds who would be attending the park, and not really towards anyone in between.
Luckily for me, and for “Nightmares On Broad Street,” the initial camp elements of the park are quickly dissipated by one performer – a convulsing lunatic dressed in the tattered remnants of a mental hospital uniform. For nearly five minutes coming into the arena, he sat on a stage, rocking back and forth and mumbling to himself while tugging at a strand of long white hair. This behaviormust have been the by-product of hearing that Big Boi song for the ten millionth time, but actually came from a severe case of dementia. Out of nowhere, the performer leaped up and grabbed the microphone, screaming out at us in pure panic that we had somehow been trapped in his nightmare. This was the most relieving moment of the entire show, not only for the fact that I thought I had finally figured how to dream-travel, but because I realized that “Nightmares On Broad Street” wasn’t going to hold back when it came to putting a genuine shock in my system. Unlike the initial impressions of the attraction, this performer wasn’t pretending to be some witch or troll; he was a much more realistic idea of what’s scary in our reality, incorporating the thinly-veiled notion of serial killing and violent insanity into the park.
As the lunatic continued to freak me out, the groups were slowly ushered into the park itself. The first stop was a special screening of a segment of the movie Scary Tales, about a young brother and sister who get caught trying to break into a carnival freak show. The piece was written and directed by Lynton V. Harris, the architect behind “Nightmares On Broad Street,” as well as its predecessors, “Madison Scare Garden” in New York City and “The Fright House” in Washington, D.C. Several performers were in the audience of Scary Tales helping to enhance the film’s effect by frightening anyone who became too rapt in the story. Without giving too much of the short plot away, just let me say that juvenile diabetes is a lot scarier than people give it credit for.
As we made our way into phase two, we were treated to an entire level in 3D. The second maze had a very cool blacklight voodoo aesthetic, and featured the entrance from hell. I won’t give too much away, but if you’ve never dropped some psychedelic drugs in your college career, just try to enter the second maze at “Nightmares On Broad Street.” As for level two’s performances, it was more of the same for me. I would see the hide out spots before anyone else, and would have to end up settling for the enjoyment of listening to the group of girls scream in terror at someone jumping out in front of them for the 50th consecutive time.
At level three, “The Freezer,” we stumbled upon a special treat in the form of Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Hugh Douglas. Hugh joined my group in what was far and away the best level of the attraction, a completely unnavigable maze of mirrors, fog, and chain link fence. And much like the New England Patriots will do in this year’s Super Bowl, the performers had Hugh shaking in his boots. Even though he insisted afterwards that “I wasn’t scared. You can’t prove that,” the big man was obviously relieved to finally be out into the safety of the pathway between the third and fourth level. Speaking of the fourth level, it was Egyptian-themed and almost entirely forgettable, more of a cool down from the Freezer than it was a heart-pounding finale.
Leaving the “Nightmares On Broad Street” experience, I felt entertained and a little fuller of adrenalin than I did coming in. Was it worth the $20 they will be charging for admission? That’s a pretty subjective question. If you are easily frightened, then you’ll have the time of your life. But if you’re the kind of person who can spot the performed breakaway points in a set wall or instinctively check the corners of every turn, you may just want to save some cash and take your chances in the SEPTA tunnels after 2 a.m. which is far more frightening.
For ticketing information, visit www.nightmaresonbroadstreet.com.
Slade Bracey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.