The Vault of Souls, a new high-end attraction housed in downtown Tampa's historic Exchange National Bank building, operates on the premise that the founders of the bank protected their clients' "otherworldly possessions" as well as their more material ones.
The atmospheric Prohibition Era-themed attraction spreads out across the renovated venues known as the Vault and Lockbox, both properties of the 1923 bank and downtown's renovated headquarters for the Second Screen Cult Cinema series and USF's thesis art exhibitions. Pricier than other events, the haute Halloween spectacle appeals to revelers tired of loud screams, chainsaws and neon clowns. (Those who do enjoy all three, see the Scream-a-Geddon description below.) The moody, chilling experience features all aspects of the arts with talented locals portraying ghosts and other beings.
Best of the Bay-winning photographer Amy Martz curated more than 100 photos from concept to installation in the event's "third act" (the Gin Joint) and has some pieces down in the basement (known as "The Ritual"). Local dominatrix Luna Mystique performs, as well as several local actors and dancers.
Though unique, Vault of Souls has been compared to Sleep No More in New York. It's more of an interactive experience than a traditional Halloween event, a hybrid of interactive theater — it even has four acts — haunted rooms and a swank cocktail party. Enhanced by dancers, actors, flappers, spirits, music, Tarot card readers, mystics and more, Vault of Souls is a refined spooky experience.
It all came about from a collaboration between Carolyn Wilson of The Wilson Group, which owns the building block where the historic bank is located, and two Tampa creatives, Scott Swenson and Susannah Smith.
"In December of last year, my longtime friend Susannah Wilson contacted me about working on a high-end Halloween event for adults," says Vault of Souls Creative Director Scott Swenson, local horror enthusiast and performer. "We used the innovative nature of The Exchange National Bank to inspire a paranormal mythology where the spirits of the bank patrons were held in a protected state so that their after-lives would be as comfortable as their existence in the world of the living.
"We chose to let the architecture and condition of the four spaces inspire the plot line. Technical Director Jason Atwell with AAG went shopping for period furniture and props as his team set out to build the scenic backdrop needed to bring this story to life. Carolyn’s incredible vision and unwavering support allowed us to create something new and exciting for downtown Tampa."
Swenson was hesitant, naturally, to name a favorite feature of the attraction but says he's enthusiastic about the guests' interactions and experiences at Vault of Souls.
"The vast majority of guests are taken by the elegance of The Arrival and playfulness of The Gin Joint but what fascinates me most is their reaction to The Ritual, the 12,000-square-foot non-linear haunt experience in the middle of their evening," he says. "Since guests are free to roam and interact with the props as well as the spirits most of them engage in the story and pretend in a way they haven’t done since childhood." Swenson adds that some guests have stayed up to three hours discovering different details to the story. Because portions of the event are self-guided, each guest comes away with a different perspective on the story.
"I love the fact that this piece is interpreted differently by everyone and its all based on their desire to interact," Swenson adds.
Like old grannies giving out poisoned apples to trick-or-treaters, craggy, mossy oak trees on Bellamy Brothers Boulevard beckon drivers to the backwoods of Pasco County. The sinister, forested roads seem right out of a scene in some slasher movie, and, fittingly a backdrop for the area's latest attraction, Scream-a-Geddon, which makes the most of the American horror fetish and its conventions, introducing us to zombies, evil hillbillies, chainsaw murders and more.
An all-out horror amusement park that splits the difference between shudder-inducing screams and hearty belly laughs, Scream-a-Geddon is a loud, high-energy attraction with four distinct and inventive sub-attractions within its 60 acres.
Deadwoods is an area inhabited by freaky country folk. “The Cursed Hayride,” Scream-a-Geddon's most distinctive foray, invites you to ride on a wagon that rolls rampant through a makeshift Wild West town with gunshots firing and scary hijackers hopping aboard — and surprises overhead (enabled by the ziplines of the property's daytime attraction, TreeHoppers). “Pandemic” imagines the aftermath of an accident at a genetic testing laboratory. “Infected” is a dark maze through fields, military tents and a farmhouse that's populated by zombie-like mutants, and the 3-D, neon indoor funhouse “Bedlam” is filled with an insane clown posse that's even more disturbing than the Juggalos.
The attraction has become a popular staple in Pasco County. Long lines of cars stream into the property, but parking is handled efficiently. Justin Gude, GM at San Antonio's hip spot, the Local Public House, says he's visited twice and provides craft beers at Scream-a-Geddon's Monster Midway.
Around 150 local actors scare the bejeezus out of patrons brave enough to consent to being touched by the various zombies, slasher and monsters by way of a neon necklace. Craig Heck trained the actors beforehand; so no off-the-street hacks.
The midway is a fun hub at the center of Scream-a-Geddon, teeming with roving monsters, jugglers and other entertainers, plus wood-burning fire pits, food and drinks, a gift shop and a variety of midway games. Tarot card readings let you know if you will survive it all and a caricature artist provides a whimsical souvenir.
Scream-a-Geddon runs through Nov. 1 at 27839 St. Joe Road, Dade City. screamageddon.com. Private Super VIP Tours are $129, $29.50 regular admission in advance online. Discounts may still be available through Groupon. screamageddon.com.