Theatre Bizarre: only in Detroit

As I waited on State Fair Road in the damp October cold, dressed as the only non-zombie member of a zombie marching band, sipping from a shiny metal flask, I knew I was about to see something special. “Theatre Bizarre” had been hyped up among the hardcore Detroit locals for the last few months, and I heard it was not to miss, despite knowing very little about it or what to expect. Alas, my friend John and I had waited until the last minute to find tickets. Which was probably a good idea. Despite the sold-out show, we snagged some tickets through a friend, and that night we rounded up some friends and some costumes. John had recently started an urban marching band and found a bunch of used marching costumes from a man on the west side of the State. A little zombie makeup, and… Perfect.

Just hours after deciding to attend, I was waiting under the crumbling homes on State Fair, quiet and observing. A man chanted the fable of “Zombo the Clown” to the waiting attendees. The dirge of the party filled the obscured backyards. From here you can’t see anything. Tall fences line the sidewalks, and above them one can only see the roofline of a row of rather typical 1940s Detroit single-family homes, lit from behind by a bright orange glow. If you worked for Henry Ford in 1945, you might get a house like this. State Fair is one of the last neighborhoods in Detroit. A lot has been cleared. It faces the recently-closed State Fair Grounds, just north of Seven Mile and south of Eight Mile, Detroit’s infamous line of demarcation. It takes fifteen minutes to reach from my home downtown–another forty seconds on the freeway North and we would be in Oakland County, where the average income is three times that of Detroit’s.

The concept is simple enough. You enter the home of a fictional serial killer only to find yourself transported into the killer’s own twisted nightmare: a bizarre fantasy circus world from an unplaceable era and dimension. This translates roughly into the most outrageous and brilliantly-executed Halloween party in the United States, possibly the world. And it could only happen in Detroit, where artists have acquired a block (literally) of abandoned and vacated homes and transformed them into this nightmare world.

The serial killer’s house is something out of the best horror movies. Hacked cadavers hang from the basement ceilings, and the walls are decorated with perverted drawings seemingly sketched by a young child. The bloody kitchen is something to marvel at. Every detail is labored over. Making your way through this killer’s maze, you come upon a very, very dark tunnel. Now keep this in mind: Theatre Bizarre doesn’t really follow any safety codes. You’re kind of on your own here. This is Detroit, after all.

The tunnel is black — totally black — and the cieling is very low, and the ground covered with sawdust and woodchips, and there are twists and turns. It reminded my of the abandoned coal mines I explored in Pennsylvania, only I was dressed in a marching band outfit and clumsily feeling my way around with my arms outstretched.

I was sure this would end with bumping my head into something, or not being able to find the way out. But alas, a small haze of light appeared in the distance. I made my way to the opening, where a thick fog blocked the view beyond. Then, I emerged. The smoke cleared. The clouds parted. And I gazed upon…. THEATRE BIZARRE.

It is a phantasmagoric Midway of some perverted alternate-dimension circus. Costumed oddities wander everywhere; vaudevillian performers shout the story of Zombo the Clown in a mysterious cadence; a burlesque show is being performed on the main stage; a mummified mermaid, preserved in a glass case, twitches with the last dregs life; men and women hang under the canopy of trees from hooks pierced through their skin; and jets of fire explode into the night sky, warming my face and illuminating the Midway. So this is what the inside of a serial killer’s mind looks like…

It is an unreal sight. I have seen movie sets, but this was something way beyond. This was a labor of love. And the astonishing thing was this: I was only seeing part of it. Theatre Bizarre stretches across no less than six back yards, with at least three stages and performances going on non-stop, countless bonfires to huddle around, the forest and trees illuminated from underneath by red- and green-gelled lights. Well-rendered, hand-painted Freak Show posters drape the confines of the encampment, and flashing vintage signs invite you to the “Scaredy Cat Club” or “Hell’s Mouth” or the “Ghost Train”. The atmosphere was one of total elation. Everyone was excited to be a part of this moment. And everyone was in total character. No one was themselves. This was one place you could be totally different. Did I mention there was free beer? Well, there was free beer.

The attention to detail is astounding. I wandered the site for hours, hardly saying anything, just taking everything in… the people, the sets, the firebombs, the performances. In one, a tattooed man is swallowing sabres and neon lights. His girlfriend is putting apples in her mouth and cutting them in half with a chainsaw… blindfolded. They’re eating fire, hula-hooping with fire, smashing cinder blocks on their crotches.

There was a stunning burlesque performance, with sets design and lighting rivaling that of the most elaborate stage shows. A pale-bodied dancer performed brilliantly with such class and attitude that for a moment I thought we were in an exclusive Paris club. But we weren’t. We were right in my home town, right in the city limits of Detroit, the freest city in the United States. A city where anything is possible.

My fellow partygoers were equally in the moment. Judging by the looks on their faces, these young professionals and artists and businesspeople who, for one night, decided to let all things go, displayed a range of elastic emotions: from total frenzied confusion; to rabid participation; to bliss. Some were drunk or had no idea what to make of their surroundings. Others were fascinated, as I was, by the level of detail and the amount of labor that went into this one-night-only mega-performance.

Theatre Bizarre’s creators are credited as John Dunivant and Ken Poirier, but it is really a whole community of artists and performers who band together in this off-the-beaten-path Detroit neighborhood to create something out of nothing, to create culture out of crumbling homes and vacant lots, and to create friendships and entertainment from the people and things they find right here in the city. You know, I always laugh when the national media makes out Detroit to such a dead place. Theatre Bizarre is precisely the kind of thing that could only be possible here. Because in Detroit, where so much has been lost, the people that are left here are forced to create their own culture from the bottom-up. No one will swoop in to save Detroit, at least for a while. And in the meantime, while no one is looking, this place can be the canvas for a whole range of fantasies …. or nightmares.

16 thoughts on “Theatre Bizarre: only in Detroit

  1. You really captured the night. The gore, the glamor, the grandiose nature of the thing. One thing…if you don’t get me next year when the burlesque strip tease is happening heads will role.


  2. Fascinating, and beyond any Halloween party I’ve ever been to. Looks like a movie set….or it should be. Great pictures!!!! Attention to detail was mind-boggling! I feel like I’m looking at a movie from the 30’s!


  3. What can I say,Its the best damn halloween party ever.Ive been going for years and all I can say It gets bigger and better every year.The owners and artist do a awesome job putting this fascinating show together.Therefore,If you are curious you must attend and I promise you,you will not be disappointed.


  4. I’m happy to have been part of this event since the beginning, from helping dig holes, slap down some ‘new peas green’ primer, drill holes in metal, and letting us give birth to ‘Los Minstrels Del Diablo’.. thanks to Theatre Bizarre, and thank you for a nice blog!


  5. Thank you. This past year was my first year in attendance but it will not be my last. Reading your post took me back to one of the most amazing experiences of my adult life. I really can’t wait till next year!


  6. I am so very happy I was able to be part of all the fun this year! I think it is just amazing when 50 or so friends pull together and give stage to 100 or so performers for no less than 2000 or so extremely happy patrons… memories for a life time!


  7. I haven’t laughed so hard and felt such delight knowing there are others who have the same twisted and curious fascination with zombies, ghouls, creatures of the night and such…I must be there next year!!! You know who you are…..Will be my first to explore this bizarre experience….Hope to stay connected…..


  8. This is an extremely well written article. You are a gifted writer and photographer. Some major publication should get a hold of this and publish it .Theater Bizarre is too awesome to get unnoticed!!


  9. Fascinating story and fantastic photos as always! I really love that you described it as beyond a movie set…. and it’s amazing that it’s all independently done for a relatively small audience. As amazing as your photos are, I’m sure it doesn’t do the experience justice.


  10. Geoff, you are a great writer. I really enjoyed reading it and the photos. Your dad is right – someone needs to publish this.


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