By Marc Dickerson
which will be bloody when necessary but not systematically so, can thus be
identified with a kind of severe moral purity which is not afraid to pay life
the price it must be paid.
Artaud, The Theatre of Cruelty
“ONE NIGHT ONLY: Special performance for
an audience of three.”
That was what the invitation said.
A fancy invitation, too. Gilded edges
and everything. Handwritten in elegant calligraphy. The kind you’d get if you
happened to pal around with the royal family. Hell, even the envelope was impressive.
Shiny, sealed with wax.
Okay, sorry. Enough about the invite. I
should explain how we came to receive it. That’s what you want to know. Among
This isn’t going to be easy for me. But I
appreciate you honoring my request to submit this as a written statement, as
opposed to a spoken deposition. Taking time to compose my thoughts has proved
necessary for me to get through this more than you can imagine. Oh, and I write
like I talk, so apologies in advance if this isn’t exactly Edgar Allan Poe (I’m
in real estate, after all). But it’s better than the stuttering, babbling mess
I would be trying to verbally recount these events in front of even one person.
Anyway, I hope what follows is sufficient in getting across what I believe I witnessed.
I know it’s going to sound crazy. But
it’s the truth.
It was a done deal. Tom and Jessica and
I, we were already out for drinks, celebrating. Negotiations ended at noon and
by 12:05 we were at the local watering hole, dinging glasses. The three of us
had been business partners together for a few years now, and this was our usual
course of action once a deal was closed. And this had been a big one.
The Lantern had charm, sure. But the
time had come for the old theater to be snuffed out, so to speak. In its place,
a shopping galleria. We don’t use the terms “center” or “plaza” anymore—too
boring. Besides, this would be a different kind of shopping experience. Without
going into sales mode and giving you the whole pitch, the development plan
wasn’t for merely a suite of stores, but a tasteful promenade where people can
stroll, hang out, and yes, do some shopping. The destination for all your modern
consumer needs; cell phone stores, yoga and meditation centers, overpriced
coffee shops, you name it. The people in this desolate area need a place like
this, they just don’t know it yet.
The theater was the past, certainly past
its prime. I mean, it was falling apart.
Of course, this didn’t matter to the owners and resident players. No. They,
along with some very vocal locals, made their displeasure at our architectural
rejuvenation services quite clear from the beginning. Marched with signs, shouted
threats and obscenities at us, sent curses and hexes, performed black magic at
the steps of our main office. Tried to sue us and halt our actions every which
way. In other words, our future galleria was causing quite a stir.
We expected the pushback, even the name-calling.
But when my partners and I returned to close out the deal, it was like the
collective mood of the entire community had changed. Like there was an eerie
void where they used to be friendly waves and chatter. People no longer smiled
or greeted us with the usual small-town charm. Now the residents walked around
in a gloomy daze, simply ignoring us. I almost preferred the old days, when people
spat at us, told us we were taking away the heartbeat of the town, an establishment
as old as the town itself. And as it turns out, this wasn’t too far off. Once
we did our research—and yes, we did do our research—we found out just how
ancient the place was, dating back to the colonial days. Well, ancient for
America, anyway. True enough, before the town had sidewalks or sewers, they had
The Lantern Theater. Even had the same lopsided sign.
So yes, we were quite aware before we
began negotiations with the county that the theater was kind of a big deal to
the townspeople. Not only was it the one thing to do there, the town also prided
itself on the fact that the Lantern had been started by and consistently run by
locals. Locals who even wrote and directed their own passion projects on its
creaky, wobbly, could-give-way-at-any-moment stage. Plays, puppetry, pantomime,
singing and dancing. There was always something for everyone, young and old.
And through the years it had grown into an institution. This was not lost on
us. We’re business people, not monsters.
But things change. Times change. I mean,
look in your hand. With cell phones, little screens with endless possibilities
of entertainment at our fingertips, who even thinks of the theater? And with
how busy and fast-paced our lives are, who makes time for live entertainment
anymore? The last time I saw anything live was when my husband took me to some
dry, rambling two-person play for one of our first dates, thinking I was into
that stuff. He never made that mistake again. Next time, I told him, take me to
see The Boss. And make sure the vendors serve alcohol.
I see myself as learned, educated. And though
I’m not exactly one for the performing arts, I could appreciate the architecture
of the building for what it was, what it represented. It was like stepping into
another time. And the theater did seem to have a unique aura about it, I’ll
give it that (then, so do my gym socks). It was depressingly baroque, fascinating
in an old-world way, if you’re into that sort of thing. And like any
institution, it was said to be haunted. There were stories passed down about
the ghosts that remained from the old days, kept their residence there.
That’s all the theater was good for at
this point: rumors, tall tales. Basically, the town needed that old fire hazard
like it needed another pothole. We were helping these people, couldn’t they see
that? This town was dying, that’s why we came here.
“They say it’s built on sacred ground,”
I remember Tom saying with a smirk, downing the last of his brandy and placing
his glass back on the bar. The smirk remained as he turned on his stool to look
at me, his dark eyes already hazy after one drink.
I laughed. “An old Indian burial
“Well, not exactly.”
“Tom. How much of a lightweight are you?”
His smirk turned into a grin. “The land
has some deep, interesting roots. Supposedly. A lot of history.”
From the stool on the other side of me Jessica
snorted, finishing her own drink. “What land doesn’t?”
The three of us jumped as a whiskey
glass slammed down onto the bar next to us. An older gentleman with a long beard
of gray turned and pointed at us with a slender, leathery finger. I recognized
him as one of the regular stagehands from the theater. Remembered him always in
a hurry, scurrying back and forth during our visits to the site, though still
managing to give us the stink eye each time he passed. He had also been the
loudest of the protesters. I guess he had been with The Lantern since he used
to help out there as a teenager, like his father before him. So I expected him
to scream more obscenities at us, maybe even break a glass or throw a punch,
but when his mouth opened he said in a deep and cordial voice, “I have
something for the three of you.”
With his other hand, the man reached
into a duffle bag on the stool next to him. Tom, ever so chivalrous, stepped in
front of Jessica and I. But instead of pulling out a weapon, the old man unveiled
a glossy envelope, which he extended toward us.
Tom cleared his throat before reaching
out, accepting it graciously.
The old man smiled, yellow cracked teeth
showing through the gray whiskers. Then he turned, took his bag, and left.
My cohorts and I looked at each other,
then down at the envelope.
As far as we knew, the season of
programs was ended, all the actors had already dabbed their eyes and taken
their final bows. But now there was this, this invitation. One last show, just
“This for real?”
I glanced over at Jessica. “Sure looks
“The guy’s obviously crazy.”
“Isn’t everyone in this town?”
Tom just kept staring down at the invite
in his hand. For someone who was never serious, I saw his eyes narrow, and I
could tell he was perplexed, as we all were.
“A private show?”
Again, not the biggest theater fan. But
this…seemed different. This seemed important. Important to the residents of the
theater, anyway. It was more than a building to them. It was their livelihood,
their passion, their dreams made real. There was too much comfort in nostalgia
for them to see that the building was just a building. One that smelled like
rat piss and moldy seats.
My associates and I were finally able to
peel our eyes away from our strange summons and order another round. After
weighing how a refusal would be perceived, we decided that we could stomach a
couple hours of whatever trite song-and-dance they so eagerly wanted us to
experience. It would be a showing of good will. Real estate was a game, a game
we had won. But we didn’t want to appear unsportsmanlike. Plus, we wanted
people to come to the new shops, not shun them because we didn’t attend their
The little theater troupe was in their
death throes, this was their swan sang. The least we could do was show up. The
show was for us, after all.
The date on the invitation was still a
month away. The same week the theater was to be torn down.
“I’m sure we’re in for a real barn
burner.” I remember saying.
I wasn’t wrong.
The night came. My fellow special guests
and I arrived together, each of us dressed to the nines, ready to show these inscrutable
thespians that we had taken their challenge. As we made our way through the
lobby I reminded Tom and Jessica to keep an open mind, or at least appear like
We entered the theater, took our tight
uncomfortable seats. The invitation wasn’t kidding. Besides the three of us, the
place was completely empty. Unless you count the vacantly staring ticket taker
and usher. And even they seemed to disappear once the house lights faded.
I leaned over to Tom. “What do you think
this is going to be?”
“Who knows. Maybe they’ll go out with
some classic Shakespeare. Or it could be a musical. Maybe Hello, Dolly?”
“Either way, I should have brought my
I heard loud rustling from the seat on my
other side and turned to Jessica, who was crunching away on some candy she had
snuck in. I put my finger to my lips.
Sheepishly, Jessica swallowed and slid
the box of candy back into her handbag.
Music crept in, but it didn’t sound like
Broadway. No, it was discordant, experimental, with odd instruments and strange
overlays of white noise mixed in. It sounded like it was coming from an old
tape recorder or even a gramophone, definitely not anything from this century. Dense
smoke crept in as well. It came from both sides of the stage, billowing toward
the seats, closing in around us.
“Who knew they had these production
values?” whispered Jessica.
come on, Dawn. It’s just us here. Lighten up.”
“Yeah.” Tom chuckled. “This will be a
hoot.” Though I noticed as he leaned forward he was clenching his fists,
Then the curtains opened.
It began with darkness. A single
spotlight emerged, one that started small but slowly grew larger, wider over
the stage, until there was a brilliant flash. Then blackness again.
We had expected something artsy-fartsy
and weird, avant-garde or whatever. “Pretentious,” is what Tom ventured. But
this…this was beyond anything we could have imagined. It was like a bizarre
improv, or an abstract performance piece. There was something ritualistic about
it, unhinged and primal, something…unsettling.
As I glanced between Tom and Jessica, I
watched their expressions change. Saw them go from bemusement to surprise, then
shock, then horror.
You want to know what we were seeing,
what was happening up on that stage. Right. That’s the whole point of this. For
me to provide you details of what I saw that night.
Well. I wish I could tell you.
It’s all a blur now. All I know is that
the show, whatever it was, took hold of me, and I couldn’t look away. It’s like
I was hypnotized. And now, thinking back, the visions in my memory are just as
hazy as the fog that covered everything.
I remember certain aspects. Mostly vague
outlines, of performers and puppets. There was dancing, writhing. I remember
masks. Horrifying masks. Some witchlike, some more like animals or creatures,
others disfigured or mostly blank.
At first I thought they were going into
some sort of Kabuki thing, though the masks didn’t resemble anything I
recognized from Japanese culture. No, they were more like visions of things you
only see in your nightmares. Strange creatures, mysterious and otherworldly.
There was likely symbolism, some obvious
metaphor that this private audience, being of the more left-brained variety,
perhaps was not fully grasping.
Then, just as the show really started to
kick into gear, everything stopped. The lights went up and the music and the
action on stage came to an abrupt halt. One of the performers placed a slender
hand over his mask and lowered it, revealing a shadowy face that was somehow
worse than the mask.
“We don’t usually do this,” he said, his
voice booming (what’s it called when you feel something in your chest? Deep In
your bones?), though there was no microphone. “But then, things are changing,
aren’t they?” The actor smiled—a haunting, terrible smile. “We’d like a couple
of volunteers to offer their assistance. To join us on stage.”
The audience of three turned to one another.
I was shaking my head as Tom shrugged and raised a hand. Jessica did the same.
“What are you guys doing?”
Tom looked over at me. “Volunteering. I
don’t see anyone else who’s going to.”
Jessica was already getting up out of
her seat, looking away dramatically and putting on a mid-Atlantic accent.
“Excuse us while we become stahs, dahhling.” She giggled and the two of them
scurried down the row and then the aisle, made their way toward the stage. I
watched them, still shaking my head. At least I couldn’t say they weren’t keeping
an open mind.
As Tom and Jessica stepped up onto the
stage, the curtains were already closing. They both turned to face the audience
(now consisting entirely of me), still grinning and showboating, blowing kisses
along with little bows and waves. Then the drapes came together.
This is when things…took a turn.
When the curtains were drawn once more, the
blaring disjointed music returned, as did the masked performers. Tom and
Jessica appeared, now in ripped and torn clothing. What played out from here
were gruesome scenes in the midst of fog and flashing lights. Scenes of
sacrifice, bloody and primal. Of torture, violent and depraved. My mouth
dropped open and remained that way for the rest of the horrid, sickening show.
It was madness, brutal savagery unlike anything I had witnessed before.
This part, unfortunately, I remember
much more vividly.
My colleagues were now joined on stage
by large-scale puppetry, so mammoth they must have been manipulated either
backstage or from below, by systems of pulleys or some other unseen device.
Though in that moment I swear to you, these huge terrifying monsters were beyond
real. They were hyper real, surreal, the whole goddamn thing was surreal. Like
the props and scenery and the whole nightmarish world onstage had come alive. I
couldn’t understand what was happening to my friends, or why I suddenly found
myself unable to move.
I know it makes no sense. But I just
kept telling myself, it’s all part of the
I remember in college I read about something
called Theatre of Cruelty, which came about in the early twentieth-century in
response to Realism. A type of ceremonial performance more like an exorcism, designed
to shock and mystify, where the spectator is exposed rather than protected.
Where the lines between performer and audience are blurred. The spectators are
in fact brought into the show, forced to engage and interact with it, to become
a part of it. I remember the stage being described as a constantly shifting
vortex, with the audience trapped inside it, powerless. Spoken dialogue, in
this kind of act, was unnecessary. There were only sounds, movement, chaos.
Is that what this was? I hoped so, for
Tom and Jessica’s sake.
The performers writhed and danced around
them in some kind of ritual, shouting unintelligible things, taking turns
lunging at them, streaking their faces with dark paint. At least I think it was
paint. But this was only the beginning of their torture—and mine, sitting
there, watching. The performers strung them from ropes, whipped them with
leather straps, spread their limbs apart with chains and archaic machinery. The
witches were watching and cackling. The creatures were drooling, licking and gnawing
on Tom and Jessica, slashing at them with their claws, their eyes rolling back
into their thick leathery heads with pleasure. It appeared as though pieces
were being ripped and torn from their bodies. The creatures growled deeply,
horribly as they doused their victims in some sort of saliva that burned,
scarred and scalded their faces and bodies. I could hear it. Hear their skin slowly
disintegrating. Hear Tom and Jessica screaming. Their cries echoed through the
empty theater, somehow louder than the now deafening cacophony of sound and
I…I wish I could tell you I got up out
of my seat, shouted for the madness to stop. That I ran to the stage and tried to
save Tom and Jessica. But like I said, I was frozen in my seat, both my brain
and body unable to function. My heart was racing faster than ever. I couldn’t
even close my eyes, pretend this wasn’t happening. Even as the tears flowed
from my eyes and blurred my vision, I had to keep watching.
When it was finally over, and the
curtains closed for the last time, I sat there, still unable to move. I stared
at the drapes, waiting for them to open again. Waiting for the performers to
come back onstage, take their masks off and bow, gesture for their smiling,
unharmed volunteers to step out and join them.
But there was no encore. No final bows.
I never saw Tom or Jessica again.
Once the remaining smoke cleared, all
was still. It was like no one had ever been on that stage at all. Like it had
all been a bad dream.
And for a while, that’s what I treated
that night as. I left the theater, called for a cab, watched the lights go by
from the backseat as I sat there silently. I didn’t even mention anything to my
husband when I got home. He asked how the show was. I told him, “Great.”
“At least they went out on a high note,”
he said, going back to fixing himself a late-night sandwich.
I smiled, unable to feel my face.
“Yes,” I said. Then I went upstairs to
bed. It felt like I was floating.
When I woke in the morning, it really
was like I had dreamed it. I yawned, reached for my cell phone on the nightstand,
first called Jessica, then Tom. No answers. I texted. No responses. There was a
lurching, then a stabbing sensation, sudden and painful, in the pit of my
stomach. I broke out in a sweat. Felt like I couldn’t breathe. My husband
rolled over, asked me if I was okay. That was when I screamed.
When I finally got up the nerve to go
back to the theater, it was completely vacant. Which, yeah, of course it was.
It was no longer in business, about to be torn apart. Still, there was no sign
even of Jessica’s handbag, the one she had left on the seat when she went up on
stage. And of course, there were no cameras, no closed-circuit TV anywhere
inside or outside the theater, that may have captured evidence of what happened
that night. But you know this already. So I phoned the former employees, the
owners. When I mentioned the show, asked where the performers had gone, where
they had taken my colleagues, all I got were confused voices on the other end.
They couldn’t tell me, they said, because they had no idea what I was talking
I went back to the bar, where we had
received the handwritten invitation from the old stagehand. No sign of him.
And to no surprise, the patrons weren’t exactly accommodating. They all said
that they had never even seen anyone matching his description.
Then I remembered, the invite. The
invite was proof, physical evidence that all of this happened.
Tom took the invite. It was in his
pocket when he was brought onstage.
And now, just like him, it was gone.
I carry on with our project, solo.
Oversee as much of the development as I can. Demolition of The Lantern Theatre has
been completed. Construction is already under way for the new galleria. I still
haven’t woken from my trance. I visit the site, watch the brick and wood
crumble and fall, the concrete and stone be built up. It all feels unreal, but
the work continues. It must.
This is the march of time, this is
progress. Along the way there must be casualties, sacrifices made. I believe in
this. Development is my gift to society, my art. It’s not the theater, but it’s
Still, there are fleeting moments, where
I will hear something. A wail, a cry. Or see something. A mask, a creature.
Vague outlines, half in shadow. I do a double take, and there’s never anything
there. But even with my eyes closed I see my former colleagues up on that stage.
Their strained, tear-stained faces. Can still hear them scream. They were my
business partners, they were my friends. Hell, Jessica and I went to college
together, roomed together. And now I don’t know if I’ll ever see them again.
Though I pull back every curtain, hoping my friends are standing on the other
I escaped with my life, but I fear for
Whenever I close my eyes, it’s the show
I see. I’m back in that narrow splintered seat, staring at the stage. Seeing
things I can’t comprehend, that I can’t un-see. Images burned into my brain,
yet if I think of them for longer than a second, they evaporate into
They left me alive for a reason. I
realize that now.
They want me to tell you this. They want
that final performance to be recorded, in some way. Want it to live on. That
was the whole point, you see?
Stories, myths, legends. Small towns run
on tall tales. Stories, like live performances, have an aura, a unique energy
to them. Like a special flame that isn’t easily extinguished. Its glow is most special
to the ones closest to it. They want that light to linger. They want the
theater to stay, to live forever. To always be a part of the town. One way or
I will say, it was a hell of a show.
Guess you had to be there.
Marc Dickerson is a writer
and filmmaker from Philadelphia, PA. He has written short stories, graphic
novels, screenplays, and has recently completed his first prose novel, ART
FARM. He mostly enjoys creating dark comedies as well as fiction that
incorporates unique or surreal elements. His work has appeared online and in
publications such as Culture Cult Magazine and Burial Day.