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'

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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.

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