How S.F.’s Terror Vault masters of fright unleashed ‘my inner monster’

San Francisco Chronicle staff writer Tony Bravo puts on his mask as he embraces his role as a “rotting prisoner” in the cast of Terror Vault’s  “The Summoning.” Photo: Scott Strazzante / The Chronicle

There’s something about the fall witching season that makes me want to let out my inner monster.

Luckily, I had some help this year from San Francisco’s masters of fright.

If you can survive the sensation of having your face encased in a skin-tight latex mask (it reminded me of when my sex education teacher put a condom over his head to show the class how far a prophylactic could stretch), it offers a wonderful sense of anonymity. That sense of losing myself was what I needed to get into character when I took a shift at the new Terror Vault horror attraction at the San Francisco Mint one recent evening, where I played the pivotal part of Rotting Prisoner #2 in the basement dungeon.

Yes, Vault-goers, that shrieking Nosferatu look-alike who lunged at you in the dark was me!

The Terror Vault, presented by Into the Dark in collaboration with Peaches Christ Productions, David Flower Productions and venue operator Non Plus Ultra, debuted at the historic landmark in 2018 and now takes over all four floors of the 1874 building. It also includes the Fang Bang vampire-theme bar where guests can dance and drink before and after the main attraction, “The Summoning.”

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Terror Vault’s new immersive story attraction “The Summoning” is presented at the historic Mint in San Francisco. Photo: Scott Strazzante / The Chronicle

The cast of characters for this year’s story includes an evil cosmetics maven, demented court jesters, insane beauticians and a demonic king, employing 90 performers during the run of the show who learn multiple parts. There are 48 performers on any given night, performing scenes an average of 50 times. During my hour, I probably interacted with about a dozen tours.

Like Terror Vault producer and drag performer Peaches Christ, I acquired my affection for horror attractions  in childhood — shout-out to the formative Haunted Castle ride at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. For Christ, also known as  filmmaker Joshua Grannell, the Morbid Manor in Ocean City, Md., was the primary gruesome influence.

“When I was a kid, I would buy a ticket. Then I would hide in there and scare people until the metalhead teenagers who worked there caught me,” recalled Peaches Christ. “Sometimes they’d let me stay, sometimes they wouldn’t.”

But more than just being amusements, experiences like “The Summoning” are a very specific genre. The best of them mix elements of both theater and carnival, requiring an expertise in storytelling, stagecraft and time management down to the second by all artists involved.

“I always ask more classically trained stage actors when they audition, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ ” said Peaches Christ. “It goes against everything you’ve been taught. You’re going to have to learn how to not give 100% constantly and to pace yourself so that you can sustain 55 shows a night.

“What I found is if they stick around, you see them getting better at this style of theater.”

Peaches Christ walks through Terror Vault’s “The Summoning” experience at the San Francisco Mint. Photo: Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

On this night at “The Summoning,” I was paired with veteran horror-attraction performer Layla Kaufman, playing Rotting Prisoner #1. In addition to the bald, dentally compromised latex mask, I’d also be wearing a faux-gore-splattered prisoner’s gown that looked like a costume from a revival of “Marat/Sade” — or possibly Rick Owens’ next fashion collection.

I asked Kaufman how to maximize the scares in my performance, which would consist of hopping out from a shadowy corner in one of the dark mazes in the show. She told me to think about my backstory: Was I a political prisoner? Was I a serial killer on Death Row? She also encouraged me to experiment; the screams would tell me what was working.

Most importantly, there’s a thin line between scary and stupid, and there was no risk of embarrassment if I looked stupid: I had the darkness and the latex mask for cover.

When the first group came through the maze, I let out a low, guttural moan, the classic ghost cry. The response was OK — a few gasps. So I tried again, popping up from the ground like a Jack-in-the-box. Better with the element of surprise, but the moaning got lost in the clanging soundtrack of the maze.

San Francisco Chronicle writer Tony Bravo and Layla Kaufman act out their parts as “rotting prisoners” as Bravo joins the cast of Terror Vault’s new immersive story attraction “The Summoning.” Photo: Scott Strazzante / The Chronicle

Then it came to me: I should go higher with my voice to cut through the clamor.

When the next group came, I jumped out from my corner and began laughing maniacally in the brightest falsetto I could muster. People screamed in response — success!

After a few runs with the laughter, I started experimenting even more, clutching my latex clad-face like Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” jerking my body like I was possessed, even crawling on the floor.

After a half hour, I was promoted to Rotting Prisoner #1.

The day after my time in “The Summoning,” I called Peaches Christ and asked whether there had been any feedback to my Rotting Prisoner #2. She said Kaufman and the other performers were surprised I committed as much as I had for the short stint.

What can I say? There was just something about being behind that latex mask that allowed me to let my inner monster out.

San Francisco Chronicle writer Tony Bravo puts on his “rotting prisoner” mask. Photo: Scott Strazzante / The Chronicle

“Terror Vault: The Summoning”: 6-10 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday, Oct. 26-30, Halloween night and Nov. 4-5; 2-3:30 p.m. Oct. 30. Through Nov. 5. $60-$80. The San Francisco Mint, 88 Fifth St., S.F. 415-890-2357. www.intothedarksf.com

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