The Voices of Pioneer Cemetery Flashlight Ghost Tour is a welcome variation on the usual Halloween Haunt, a walk through an authentic graveyard from the 1800s, with actors portraying the souls of those interred beneath the cemetery’s earth. Although the emphasis is on history rather than horror, the tour offers an eerie experience with a subtle shiver or two, which should appeal to both Halloween fanatics and history buffs. Don’t expect shocks, sound effects, or splatter, but if you are tired of the artifice of other haunted attractions in Los Angeles, here is a chance into step a real environment perfectly suited to the Halloween season.
This Flashlight Ghost Tour is set in a real cemetery – what more can you ask for? Pioneer Cemetery is located in a rural-looking section of Sylmar. There are houses and cars but no shopping malls or other modern intrusions, and very little electric lighting; with equestrians trotting by on horseback, there is little to shatter the sense of a bygone time. The entrance looks recently renovated; some placards with photos and text have been set up, providing historical details for the curious.
The downside of the isolation is that there are no nearby ATMs, so be sure to have cash on you when you arrive (unless you have purchased your tickets in advance online). Bring your own flashlights; otherwise, you can purchase one at the snack stand near the ticket table.
THEMES AND ATMOSPHERE
Pioneer Cemetery sets the mood and theme. The Flashlight Ghost tour is crafted to offers a glimpse of the graveyard’s history, not merely use the cemetery as a location for a play. Active in the 19th and 20th centuries, Pioneer Cemetery had fallen into disuse and disrepair, and become the object of vandalism, until the Pioneer Cemetery Committee stepped in, and one recurring theme is the resentment of the dead regarding the shabby treatment of their resting place by the living.
A few lights have been set up, but the tour relies mostly on the flashlights held in wavering hands by visitors hoping to pierce the darkness and see what lurks within the graveyard’s boundaries. With souls wandering at the edge of visiblity, the tour achieves a convincing somber mood, punctuated by the occasional wailing lamentation or cry of anguish – and a mysterious whistling-whirring from one ghost.
There is no music, and the only sound effects are those provided by nature. But that is enough.
Almost none – the cemetery is all you need. Two small structures have been set up – wood frames supporting plastic “walls” to briefly isolate visitors from the rest of the cemetery. The first features clear plastic, with ominous spectres looking in on you, their hands squeaking as the press in and scrape against the thin plastic separating the dead from the living.
The second structure is enclosed in black, creating a cubicle where the ghost of an African-American tells us of the way art can express – and sometimes relieve – suffering. In this case, the art turns out to be not a Negro spiritual song but a dance set to an instrumental excerpt from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” Although somewhat at odds with the rest of the tour, this is an entertaining set piece.
VOICES OF THE DEAD
Written by Guillermo Avilés-Rodríguez, a professor at Los Angeles Mission College, and performed by his drama students, the Voices of Pioneer Cemetery does not offer dramatic re-enactments of how the dead met their fates, nor is there much dramatic interation between the spirits. Instead, the tour consists of a series of soliloquies, with the departed returning to directly address the living audience, each relating his or her story.
There are several monologues with details particular to a specific person: a Jewish woman denied burial at a Catholic cemetery; a Confederate Army veteran who survived the Civil War only to die after a dam – certified safe by William Mulholland – broke, unleashing a deluge. Other ghosts personify examples of the type of people likely to have been buried in Pioneer Cemetery, such as a teen-aged bride who died in childbirth – an all-too-common fate in the 19th century.
Two of the spirits address the tour in Spanish – which makes a nice point about the multi-cultural nature of the dead – but one would have been enough to make the point. Fortunately, even first year Spanish-language students should be able to pick up a few words and capture a flavor of the discourse, if not the details.
Beyond the history lesson, there is a tone of liberal provocaton on display. The dead, it seems, are past caring about preserving decorum and maintaining polite respect for the views of others; if they have something to say, they say it. This leads to several mini-diatribes on poverty, religious intolerance, and prohibition, delivered with scornful disregard for the living, who are deemed foolish and stupid.
The enthusiastic actors give entertaining performances. Because they are members of a college drama club, there are few old-timers on display (the dialogue addresses this, explaining the spirits can appear younger than they were when they died). In any case, the youthful appearances are appropriate for a cemetery in use when mortality rates were high and life expectancy was low.
Considering the polemic nature of the text, some of the performances might be improved by underplaying. The effort to dramatize the plight of the wronged and the underprivileged sometimes strikes a strident note, when a whisper of resignation would speak louder than a cry of self-righteous indignation.
MASKS, MAKEUP, AND COSTUMES
A variety of period costumes convincingly suggest the time period of when the spirit were alive. Theatrical makeup casts an appropriately ghoulish pall over the faces of the undead.
Since the cemetery is haunted by ghosts – not vampires, werewolves, or zombies – there is no need for monster makes; however a few simple masks work wonders in the dark. The faces of the dead are clearly visible during their monlogues, but the ghosts perform double duty, wandering in shadows when they are not the focus of attention. At these times, some don featurless masks, creating a blank-faced look that is a tad unnerving when glimpsed in a dim flashlight beam at a distance (like something out of a J-horror film). Some go a step further, using the masks to create simple but disturbing illusions, such as one hunched-over spirit, who appears to be holding his head in his hands.
There are a few rough edges to the Voices of Pioneer Cemetery. The ending in particular offers a mildly amusing joke, when it could have delivered something far more evocative, with the anonymous spirits dispersing back to their unmarked graves and gradually disappearing from view. A conclusion like this would have resonated more strongly with the facts: most of the dead in Pioneer Cemetery have no tombstones; part of the poignancy of the the Ghost Tour is that the proceeds are raising money to help determine exactly how many are buried there.
Nevertheless, Voices of Pioneer Cemetery provides a satisfying synthesis of history and Halloween, and fans of either should make the effort to attend tonight’s performances. Tours leave every half-hour, beginning at 6pm, and there is no plan to resurrect the tour next year. The $20 price-tag is a bit steep for what is essentially an amateur production, but the money goes toward a worthy cause.
The Voices of Pioneer Cemetery Flashlight Ghost Tour continues tonight at Pioneer Cemetery, 14451 Bledsoe Street, Sylmar, CA 91342. Tickets were $20 last night. Call 818-970-1286 for information, or visit www.sfvhs.com.