Over the weekend, I went to two kinds of theatrical hauntings: Saturday was an immersive theater performance called “The Johnny Cycle,” held at an actual mausoleum north of Los Angeles, surrounded by long-interred bodies of the well-to-do. Sunday was a sleek funhouse on Hollywood and Vine to promote the movie “It: Chapter 2.” The two hauntings were scary in different ways.
Both are personal to me. I went to the “Johnny Cycle” at the invitation of new friends who help run the Speakeasy Society theater company, which mounted the production. I went to “The It Experience Chapter 2” with another friend who makes documentaries about Stephen King movies and is currently making one about “It.”
The “It Experience” is haunted with killer clowns and excellent actors in bodysuits and top-notch jump scares and tasteful advertising for a horror sequel due in theaters next week. But “The Johnny Cycle” is haunted by thoughts that might make your head race: Why are we here? What’s worth more than our lives? What should we do about it?
Unless you’re a claustrophobe, you’ve likely been through a haunted house experience like “It” before. Lights and chilly fog and mirrors disorient you. Things pop out when you don’t expect them. The final room mixes high-school nostalgia and worst-case scenarios in a violent, jittery way. My “It” expert friend and I agreed that the scariest parts, like the scariest parts of King books, were the rooms where everything seemed quaintly boring in a way you might belittle… until they turned. The “It Experience” — the full title of which is, “Derry Canal Days Festival and Funhouse, featuring Pennywise the Clown” — trades on warped New England folksiness in a way that feels true to King.
If only the “It” experience were held at a county fair deep in Maine, and not in the sign-this-waiver safety of Hollywood promo-land. Closer to a forgotten town like Derry, it would be magnificently scary, because you would spend half your time wondering if the crazies in masks were also crazies in real life, biding their resentments at a carnival job, thinking about following you home and killing you for real. You would worry that the person in charge of electricity was soaking wet or drunk or both and feel a flutter of panic at every clang in the funhouse — intentional, or negligent? The only thing working against the “It Experience” is how professional and well-crafted it is. You’re in good hands for the show’s half-hour run, and it’s scarier not to be.
You’re also in good hands with “The Johnny Cycle,” which is haunting on a deeper level. On the surface, it shares some similarities with a haunted-house experience — you’re in a building that is old in just the right ways, huddled with a group of strangers unsure what to expect. But the mausoleum is not, to my knowledge, haunted. And the “Johnny Cycle” has no interest in shocks or cheap thrills. It’s elegiac and complex. Like grief, it floods into memory. It’s rooted in the story that, throughout my life, has probably scared me the most: Dalton Trumbo’s 1939 novel “Johnny Got His Gun.” I’ve never read it. But I have seen the video for Metallica’s “One,” which clips generously from the 1971 film adaptation. It used to keep me awake at night.
The idea of “Johnny Got His Gun” is simple: Naïve, gullible Johnny is sucked into World War I and, during a typically nasty trench-warfare whoops, loses his arms, legs, face and ability to speak. He’s trapped in his own mind, with only his memories to keep him company.
As re-imagined by The Speakeasy Society’s two-hour production, “The Johnny Cycle” conscripts you into the middle of Johnny’s story, in the tradition of New York City’s long-running immersive theatrical experience “Sleep No More.” We see Johnny go through a pitiless boot camp, learn to load cannons and stab and — not so successfully — to avoid being blown to pieces. We meet a pompous general and surly drill sergeant and a foxhole poet and Johnny’s mother and Dalton Trumbo himself, who is dragged into a Communist witch hunt and blacklisted, just as he was in real life.
All of the dozen or so actors are excellent, except for the one playing Johnny, who seems shaky at best and unsure how much to commit. Because Johnny is played by you.
Addressing you and the other audience members as Johnny, the characters in the performance give you orders, tell you what to say, and ask you to make decisions, both big and small, that you feel completely unqualified to make. You feel a little like a participant in a Milgram experiment — remember, the one where people gave other people electric shocks for no determinable reason? — except that no asks you to inflict any actual physical harm on anyone else. (There is one emotionally confusing scene in which you’re asked to identify someone else in the audience as a Communist, as part of the witch hunt. No one in my group did. Good for us!)
All of this takes place, I’ll say again, in a mausoleum — an above-ground cemetery in Altadena, an unincorporated land 14 miles from downtown Los Angeles, where the dead are stored in cool walls in what look like giant cabinets. Almost all of “The Johnny Cycle,” in other words, takes place amid dead bodies, which serve as a constant reminder that our actions have consequences: Whether to go to war, whether to charge or hide, what to eat or drink or smoke.
But the sheer number of bodies reminds us that our decisions, like trench warfare, lead to victories only in inches. The person who makes perfect decisions is only rewarded with a few decades more than the person who steps on a landmine while distracted. Surrounded by bodies, stored and labeled with names and dates, you can’t avoid thinking of your own name, and your own start date, and when your end date might be.
There are wheels within wheels in “The Johnny Cycle,” and references not just to Trumbo but to Arthur Miller and Kurt Vonnegut. I’ve never had a more immersive theatrical experience, or a more emotionally involving one. The audience starts as a group, but separates, based on decisions we make early on. (Stay to comfort a dying soldier? Or go fight?) It’s staggering to think of the many different adventures you could choose. You could attend several nights and experience completely different performances.
My night included kneading pillows to learn how to make pies, or how to commit euthanasia. A character who represented Death held my hand and said, “See you soon.” (She calls herself “The Grass,” in one of many beautiful flourishes. The night is filled with gorgeous monologues, by actors who sometimes stare straight into your eyes.) My night ended with Dalton Trumbo looking at me and asking if I believe in God. I said yes.
The biggest question in “The Johnny Cycle,” for me, was what to do with my finite amount of life. My answer was to have more fun. So the next day I went to the funhouse. The second haunting answered the first.
“The Johnny Cycle” runs at the Mountain View Mausoleum in Altadena on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights through from Sept. 5 through Sept. 21. Tickets are $125 and are available here.
“The IT Experience Chapter Two” runs at the corner of Hollywood and Vine in Los Angeles through Sept. 8, from 2 p.m. to 11 p.m. It’s free, but lines are long — two hours on a recent Sunday afternoon.