It doesn’t take a Hollywood set designer to transform the old Marine Hospital in Vineyard Haven — recently purchased by the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, and sitting like a derelict Tara on a hill overlooking the lagoon — into a haunted mansion that Bela Lugosi himself could step out of, black cape swirling over his shoulders, to greet you with a hospitable, “I vant to drink your blood!”
Built in 1895 in the style of High Victorian Municipal, this heap on a hill is now the very model of a modern major ghoul site, with busted interior windows, electrical cords dangling from decayed ceilings, and a rippling, ancient black-brown floor that resembles calcified lava from the original Pompeii spill.
Into this unique setting last weekend came a dance event, “The Blue of Distance,” choreographed by Yard insiders Jesse Keller and Alison Manning, reformatted for this single night as a Halloween trick-or-treat, although in earlier iterations it was viewed first on the Yard stage last June, then in New York, and next filmed in an open field. But once the Martha’s Vineyard Museum offered its new future campus as a venue, there was no way a deliciously creepy quality would not descend. Add the musical high jinks of Phil deRosa, Adam Garde, David Stanwood, and Nina Violet, and those in attendance braced themselves for total terror.
Three sets of audiences experienced back-to-back freak shows last Friday, Oct. 30, up at the haunted hospital, with a huge pumpkin-orange moon on the eastern horizon above Lagoon Pond.
A museum docent led us indoors and left us in a dark drawing room. One of the guests hypothesized the chamber had served as the operating room from back in the day when anesthesia was limited-to-nonexistent as the doc pulled out the saw. We also noticed a number of nooses suspended from the ceiling. Another guest speculated that if a patient put up too much of a fuss, he was immediately hanged.
This place makes you macabre.
Out of the gloom, Artistic Director David R. White greeted us, and said museum volunteers would act as “border collies” to lead us from one chamber to the next. He too soaked up the mansion’s dark humor when he noted that the two sets of audiences before us had enjoyed the performances — “the ones who got out alive.”
In the first chamber, we watched a film flicker magically over a far wall: Filmmaker Daniele Mulcahy had captured dancers Sierra Adams, Leah Crosby, Daniele Doell, and Holly Jones, plus Ms. Keller and Ms. Manning, gallivanting through an open field and dark woods, sometimes caught behind large, white, open portrait frames, waving arms through the self-manufactured blocks as if unaware that they could simply step around them.
We wandered through one dark decayed chamber after the next. In one, pianist David Stanwood tickled the keys with sinister intent as a single dancer seemed to reach for us to save her; in others, loudspeakers blared music ranging from Hitchcock suspense to “Rocky Horror Picture Show” scary as more dancers cavorted as if trapped in a dense purgatory.
The dark ladies in long black gowns flitted in and out of various dance configurations — sometimes solo, sometimes as many as all six of them. Each seemed to convey her own signature theme of madness or general disarray, each exhibiting her own form of what we used to call “nervous breakdown,” perfect in this setting of a gothic insane asylum, even though the old Marine Hospital was likelier to treat a broken arm or a tropical case of yellow fever.
In total we traveled through seven separate dance-hall chambers, with another small room set aside for a glimpse of a dark lady, Daniele Doell, motionless beside a candle as she stared into the distance, a perfect medieval anchorite. Down the long hallway, two dancers stood equally still behind softly lit white frames.
In another room we encountered Phil deRosa — the producer and musician behind the madness — before an electric guitar, and it dawned on us that the music was hardly canned. In the next claustrophobic room, Adam Guarde presided over an analog synthesizer, with a keyboard ahead of him and a drum machine to his left, the mastermind behind the frightening sounds shrieking through the high-ceilinged rooms.
In yet another improvised studio, Nina Violet, draped in a diaphanous white gown that looked plundered from an old grave, her long hair covering a face that we half-suspected was as filmy as her gown, fiddled madly at her violin. Ms. Violet’s poise and presentation get this reporter’s vote for “Most Unforgettable.”
At last the docents led us out onto the lawn, where the vast hill gave over to the lights of the harbor and that aforementioned orange moon. A spotlight on the dark ladies accompanied a softer, redemptive music. The dancers pulled together, arms around shoulders. They turned and approached us calmly. They had emerged from whatever dark Other Dimension had gripped them in the mansion, released from their service as the Undead, human again. A nice thing to be, it turns out.
We too had made it out alive.
There was probably not a departing soul among us who had not had his or her fill of goblins and ghoulies and things that go bump in the night. Now on to the cheerier holidays with crackling logs (not the kind that fire up witches’ cauldrons) and pumpkins (not the kind carved with demon grins), and lights and laughter and all the comforts of the living.