The house goes dark, haze envelopes the stage, two men in black appear in eerie blue spotlights, standing at lecterns with hand-held mics, and in their creepiest voices begin to chronicle the site-specific history of death, suicide, murder, and The Haunting of 85 East 4th Street, playing a limited two-weekend engagement at the Kraine Theater on Manhattan’s Lower East Side – the place where it happened. Now in its 20th season, the award-winning company Radiotheatre, in partnership with Frigid New York, has resurrected its sixteen-year-old spine-chilling hit, featuring tales of weird occurrences told in a chapter of Artistic Director Dan Bianchi’s 2014 book Manhattan Macabre: 200 Years of Strange Tales From The Lights Out Club (the legendary story-telling group founded by Alexander Hamilton) and documented in newspapers and magazines, illustrations and oral history, from the late 18th century to 1988.
Written and directed by Bianchi, the show is presented in the style of an old-time radio play, with the masterful voice actors Frank Zilinyi and Zero Boy alternating in their direct-address comments to the audience, detailing the socio-economic conditions of the neighborhood’s past, recounting the spooky events that took place, and, at times, conjuring the tones, speech patterns, and accents of the historic figures and spirits they describe. Though, they tell us, the present building wasn’t constructed until 1885, the gruesome deaths and paranormal occurrences at the “truly haunted spot” on which it stands, and in the surrounding area, date back to the preceding century, in the early years of NYC.
The strange stories begin when what is now the East Village was farmland, cottages, and horse barns, Washington Square was a paupers’ burial ground, its great elm tree – the oldest tree in the city – was used for public executions, and the hangman Isidore Langahans lived in a shed on the property that was later designated 85 East 4th Street. After residents heard occult sounds coming from inside, he was found hanging high in the center of the room (with no ladder, table, or chair nearby from which he could have jumped to his suicide), leading people to believe he was the victim of the undead spirits of those he executed. And that’s just the first of many supernatural experiences reported over the centuries (including an unsuccessful exorcism conducted in 1910, to rid the building of evil), explored with hair-raising detail in the delightfully unsettling performance and scary history lesson.
Enhancing the live voices of the preternatural two-hander are evocative lighting and fog effects, an ominous soundscape of screams, spectral noises, and an original orchestral score, and background projections of vintage images and headlines about the unearthly mysteries (with technical direction by Wes Shippee). Add to that your imagination and the evening is set for a darkly illuminating and fabulously frightening look at the horrors and The Haunting of 85 East 4th Street. If you can’t be there in the flesh, you can stream it in the safe space of your own home – but to set the proper mood, be sure to turn off all the lights!
Running Time: Approximately 75 minutes, without intermission.
The Haunting of 85 East 4th Street plays through Sunday, November 20, 2022, at the Kraine Theater, 85 East 4th Street, NYC. Everyone must show proof of COVID-19 vaccination and a photo ID to enter. The show is also available online. For tickets (priced at $32 for the in-person performance, $17 for the streaming, including fees), go online.