John Walsh: Tales of the City

'The girls were in raptures when the bride-to-be went on stage, lay on a bed and was swiftly decapitated'

Share

Hallowe'en, like Christmas, arrives earlier each year, and the windows of my local sweet shop are already festooned with spun-sugar cobwebs and edible vampire fangs. I fully expect Sainsbury's to commence flogging giant pumpkins before the end of the week.

Down Dulwich way, nervous parents are wondering about the wisdom of letting their children go trick-or-treating, now that they know that feral rude-boys will be on the prowl, cannily upgrading their hoodies for more appropriate Scream masks. But isn't it amazing that we still embrace this annual burst of counter-Enlightenment nonsense, this Gothick paraphernalia of creepiness and doom?

I had an absolute blast of it on Friday when I went to check out a House of Magic in south London. I'd love to give you the address, but it's a secret: most guests arrive blindfolded in a vintage limousine, and have no clue where they are (but their number is 020-7735 4777). All you see are some red metal gates, through which you negotiate a garden menacingly befogged with dry ice. Before the front door, a large and impassive butler lifts the lid on a silver salver to reveal a human head, which chattily welcomes new arrivals. Inside, the walls are crimson and distressed, as are many of the nervously amused punters lowering vodkatinis at the bar.

A mad-collector sensibility, like that of Sir Peter Blake, is at large here: wherever you go, in the Drawing Room and Library, you'll find disembodied heads, skeletons, pirate insignia, skulls, dungeon chains, snakes, clairvoyancy props, and pieces of Victorian erotica that light up shocking boudoir scenes.

Down in the Haunted Cellar, a crumbling, hunchbacked, cobwebby old butler, straight out of The Rocky Horror Show, shows you around the coffins and apparitions, scaring you half to death with sudden eruptions of ghouls in white shifts. In the Auditorium, you can sit in the Whispering Chair and listen through a pair of ancient, pre-Enlightenment headphones as an unseen crone, with second sight and an accent from somewhere in Mitteleuropa, whispers that someone you haven't seen for a long time is preying on your mind. A hugely talented balloon-sculptor and card-sharp called David Crofts does close-up magic (he constructed an ornate yellow submarine for my daughter to take to a Beatles-theme party).

The sconces on the blood-red walls flicker. The eyes in the dusty portraits flicker. The skeletons inside the suits of armour peer sightlessly at you. Edwardian dioramas of Haunted Houses spring into life if you stick 50p in the slot. It's all extremely silly but oddly impressive, the brainchild of Simon Drake, a magician who has been building up his act (and this House) for 10 years, relying on teeth-chattering word-of-mouth to find his audience.

A stocky, handsome cove with a slight Napoleon complex, he is the collector of all the gewgaws that cram his home (he and his wife live over the shop), and is gradually transforming his attic into the inside of a ship, buying portholes and blunderbusses on eBay. The wheel, and a sea made of blue lights, are out on the roof terrace under the stars, where he stands showing it off to guests, gesticulating like a portly Peter Pan.

He's also a magician, possibly the best I've seen, conjuring up walking canes, flames, tree decorations and paper flowers out of the air, and making himself disappear. But on the night I took my family to watch him perform, he was up against some tough opposition. A crowd from Essex was in for the evening, a herd of ladies with bunny-ears helpfully marked "Hen Party". They occupied three tables at the front, beside the stage, and shouted raucous pleasantries at each other over rum-and-Cokes.

"Why did you decide on a haunted-house magic show for a hen night?" I asked the cheerleader. "It seems an odd choice." "Nah, it's not," she shouted. "Two of the family that's gettin' married, they're mediums. We're used to livin' on the dark side..."

Indeed they were. As the warm-up act, a droll guitarist in spats called Earl Okin, got under way, cries of, "Get yer trousers off!", filled the auditorium. Okin, unperturbed, sang a bossa nova version of "Teenage Dirtbag" straight-faced. But when the ladies persisted in talking during his introductory patter, he became a little cross. "I hear they've passed a new sexism law," he observed, "that allows women to make as big prats of themselves as men." The Essex demoiselles cheered parodically.

Then Drake came on for his magic extravaganza, descending from above on a mobile platform enveloped in dry ice. To thunderous Cirque du Soleil music, he strode across the stage issuing little bolts of flame, and the ladies, for once, shut the hell up. And they remained more or less mute as he pulled a gentleman up on stage, chopped off his hand and used it to write a cheque for £1m to S Drake Ltd. The girls were in raptures when the bride-to-be went on stage, lay on a tilting bed, was swiftly decapitated, and had her head dribbled across the stage like a football.

When brought back to life, she emerged from under a sheet, seemingly semiconscious, with her face covered in clown make-up. The ladies cheered as if this was nothing special - in fact, a little restrained for a Friday night (certainly in the make-up department). Nothing seemed to faze them.

At an early Grand Guignol climax, Drake plunged a carving knife into his arm, twisting it this way and that, sliding up and down horribly realistically, with blood spurting everywhere. One of the ladies beside me leaned forward to make some urgent point to her friend, and they both laughed. Drake paused in his labours to gaze at them, as if to say, "Exactly what do I have to do to gain your attention?" It was piquant to see this master of shock tactics shocked in his turn by the spectacle of the womenfolk of Romford out on the tear.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Senior Research Fellow in Gender, Food and Resilient Communities

£47,334 - £59,058 per annum: Coventry University: The Centre for Agroecology, ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Taking on Ukip requires a delicate balancing act for both main parties

Andrew Grice
Today is a bigger Shabbes than usual in the Jewish world because it has been chosen to launch the Shabbos Project  

Shabbes exerts a pull on all Jews, and today is bigger than ever

Howard Jacobson
Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker