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It is a Wednesday evening, the first night of autumn, and I have a date with the devil in the old Masonic Temple.
As I amble along Mass Street to the destination, there is a chill in the air. I feel a little creeped out myself as I linger briefly outside the front doors, taking in the larger-than-life-size demon and skeleton decorations that have been enticing passers-by for a month or so. There is a note on the door, signed by Satan himself, that asks people not to enter because the space isn’t ready for visitors. I smile at that but then — having been invited — push open the door and step inside.
The Masonic Temple has always been a source of speculation around town, both in terms of what secrets it might contain — rumors sometimes circulate about a series of subterranean tunnels — and in terms of what it should become. I am in the camp that has always wanted a music venue: a “Sonic Temple.” It is no surprise, then, that interest in an attraction called Stull Haunted House and Theater has been high from the start, spurred on by the aforementioned decorations outside and above, where a giant inflatable and very creepy clown looms down from the roof.
The use of “Stull” in the title of the attraction probably contributes to the interest for many. It is a reference, of course, to our neighbors to the west, whose town has found itself attached to an urban legend about a “gateway to Hell” that just won’t fade away, despite the fervent wishes of some.
To my knowledge, this will be Lawrence’s first foray into a full-fledged professionally organized haunted house attraction. The production company Snowglobe LLC has also produced the recently successful Christmas and Snowglobe “pop-up experiences” at Lucia and is currently organizing what appears to be a rather epic “LFK Cornhole King” tournament slated for next year.
Inside the temple it is rather dark, and I cautiously make my way past several large skulls on the floor, perhaps yet to be placed. I finally emerge in the spacious temple area where a congregation of skeletons sit facing a hellish throne of bones, flanked by two more skulls, all sides surrounded from above by looming demonic creatures. I am quickly convinced that A LOT of time and money has gone into this affair.
At this point, I’m heartily greeted by the Devil himself.
Beelzebub, in this case, is Ric Averill, a long-time fixture and cornerstone of the local theater scene. Averill is clearly beaming from behind his cloth mask. Yes, during a pandemic, masks are being worn, even at a Gateway to Hell.
On this night, Averill is in street clothes for an informal rehearsal, surrounded by a young cast who will assume the role of various demons and hell-bound scoundrels. A journalist from the University Daily Kansan is also on hand this evening, and one of the event organizers is present to give us a quick demonstration of the room’s special effects. Spoiler alert: the looming demon figures above are more than simple statuary. As the organizer clicks a button, they suddenly come to life in a chorus of screeching noises, bathed in an eerie red glow. I’m sufficiently impressed and, frankly, a little rattled.
Accompanied by the KU journalist, I take a quick tour of the space’s other nooks and crannies, one of which is elaborately appointed as a banquet room set for a rather unholy “Last Supper,” and another being transformed into a swanky (but spooky) upstairs cocktail bar. In an unexpected turn of events, a recent issue with the city has resulted in the attraction’s downstairs “maze” being relocated to the former Borders building a few blocks away, leading to a rebranding from the original “Stull Haunted House” to the current “Stull Haunted House and Theater.”
The shift is unfortunate, perhaps, and seems a bit unwieldy to me, but the organizers appear to be taking it in stride, boasting on the attraction’s Facebook page that the unexpected relocation will increase the space of the “maze” from 5,000 to 20,000 square feet, MUCH more room to get scared witless. Advance ticket sales have also been strong, with more than 4,000 tickets sold as of mid-September, many to out-of-towners from the Kansas City area, perhaps looking for an alternative to the longstanding KC haunted house traditions such as The Beast and The Edge of Hell.
By the time I finish poking around the place, Averill and his cast are settled in at the table in the “Last Supper” room, scripts in hand, to discuss the ways that they will interact with the audience. Averill has a long background in interactive theater from his years doing summer theater productions at the Apple Valley Farm outside Lawrence.
He urges his young cast not to be overly pushy with audience members who are reluctant to engage. The give and take needs to be “consensual,” he tells them. Averill wants his group to come off as “woke-type demons,” urging a “pansexual” approach to their interactions with the crowd. During this entertaining bit of theatrical coaching, I linger in the corner, grinning under my mask, enjoying the older pro’s engagement with his younger cohorts.
As I watch, the cast begins to read through the bit of theater that will begin the evening for visitors. Averill makes sure to dissuade the future audience from making an actual pilgrimage to Stull. After all, the audience has found themselves at a gateway to Hell right here in Lawrence.
As for the bulk of the theatrical performance, based on what I glean from witnessing a partial rehearsal, the audience will essentially play the role of jurors, deciding whether three souls will be sent through the gateway to Hell. First up in this rehearsal is Larkin Skaggs, one of the notorious members of Quantrill’s Raid. It is a given that Larkin is bound for hell, and Averill’s Devil takes a few potshots at Missouri along the way.
Later I ask Averill to give me a sense of his particular portrayal of the Devil. “Our gateway to Hell has style and panache!” he tells me, and although he’s a bit cagey on details, he suggests that we may just encounter a Devil in a tux and tails. “Three tails,” he quips. “One of them red.”
After a half-hour or so of watching rehearsal, I wave at Averill and company and depart. After all, I want to save some of the performance’s surprises for when the actual show is up and running. I make my way back through the Temple under the watchful eyes of the looming demons and step out into the night, leaving the Gateway to Hell behind but already feeling strangely eager to return.
The Stull Haunted House and Theater is slated to open Thursday, Sept. 30, and run throughout the month of October in the Masonic Temple, 1003 Massachusetts St., and former Borders building, 700 New Hampshire St. Please check their Facebook page and website, stulllfk.com, for all pertinent information regarding performance dates, times, rules, and regulations.
— LarryvilleLife is the name of a semi-anonymous long-running local cultural commentary Twitter account managed by a lapsed KU academic currently dabbling in social media and freelance work. You probably know him in real life. Follow @larryvillelife on Twitter. Read more of LarryvilleLife’s work for the Times here.
Note: This article has been updated to correct the name of the production company affiliated with the project.