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A Haunted House Returns To The Eastside, And The Students In Charge Are (Serial) Killing It

A high school actor lying in a bed in blood-speckled robes portrays a hotel guest with a bloodied chest. The room is dark and a solitary lantern hangs overhead.
Zen Sanchez plays a literally heartless hotel guest.
(Mariana Dale/ LAist )
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When the pandemic all but shut down Halloween last year, one of its victims was the annual “Halls of Horror” event at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, housed in Cal State LA.

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A Haunted House Returns To The Eastside, And The Students In Charge Are (Serial) Killing It

Now that vaccines are available, the event is back. This year, audiences can choose between two mazes, both based on true events. The first is a tour through the H.H. Holmes hotel in Chicago, also known as “Murder Castle,” where some guests never made it out alive. The second involves a trip to nineteenth-century London, where the serial killer dubbed Jack the Ripper is on the loose.

The mazes, much like those in theme parks throughout Southern California, are replete with fog machines and eerie encounters—the perfect place for locals looking to be creeped out.

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But the event has also provided students with an opportunity to engage in project-based learning and socialize with their peers, a much-needed experience after months of being cooped up.

A young man in a priest's outfit and a facemask stares out from behind a blood-red door.
H.H. Murder Hotel actor Myles Williamson
(Mariana Dale/ LAist )

Myles Williamson, a junior who plays a receptionist at the hotel, said he was ecstatic about the opportunity to study at LACSHA, which requires students to audition as part of the admissions process.

“I started off freshman year in 2019, so I had that half a year of normal life,” said Williamson. "Being this social person at this arts school, finding a place where I belong, [it] was great.”

Then, the pandemic hit.

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Scarlette Valdez, a sophomore who plays a mental patient in the Jack the Ripper maze, started high school online.

“It was tough to make friends and get situated in class,” she said. “Plus, acting on Zoom is extremely difficult. You have to deal with Wi-Fi malfunctions, noise in the background—all while trying to stay focused—it’s insane.”

The cast and crew, all of whom are vaccinated, have been working on the event for months, including weekends and after school. Together, they developed scripts, worked on set design, evaluated floor plans and raised thousands of dollars for materials to bring the performances to life.

 Actors in Victorian wardrobe wait behind a curtain to spook unknowing passersby in a maze.
Actors wait to spook unknowing passersby in the Jack the Ripper maze.
(Mariana Dale/ LAist )

Lisa Henderson, an architect based in South Pasadena, volunteered her time to help students with the sets, most of which are made of discarded building materials.

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“A lot of what you see— the windows, the trim, the siding— all of that was going to go in the dump,” she said.

The 60 students behind the event gathered for dress rehearsals earlier this week. For the actors, these shifts involved pounding on walls, jumping out of dark corners, screaming at the top of their lungs and faking British accents.

A woman stands in a wooden hallway flooded with red light. She wears a facemask and a black T-shirt with a red title across the chest that says LACHSA HALLS OF HORROR.
Aubrey Deetjen, who oversaw costume design, at at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts Halls of Horror.
(Mariana Dale/ LAist )

Aubrey Deetjen, 15, serves as the assistant stage manager and costume designer. Before the day was done, her hands were covered in fake blood, which she applied generously all over the talent.

She walked around with a walkie-talkie in her back pocket, threatening actors to keep an eye on their costumes when they changed for mealtime. She wanted everything to be perfect.

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"This may seem like something silly, but it's actually very special because it's unlike anything else we get to do as performers," said Deetjen. "How often do spectators get to be in the story?"

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