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  • Writer's pictureImmersive Rumours

Interview: ScreamWork's Gary Stocker on The Ghost Hunt and Bloodbath

ScreamWorks are back with The Ghost Hunt - their latest horror immersive experience in Bethnal Green. Following the success of their previous show, Bloodbath - which we reviewed earlier in the year, the creative team at ScreamWorks are swapping out serial killers for paranormal investigation for their Halloween offering.


We recently spoke to Gary Stocker - the CEO of ScreamWorks, to discuss their new immersive experience, the success of Bloodbath, and their future plans for immersive horror offerings...

Poster for Screamwork's The Ghost Hunt

Would you mind introducing yourself and explaining a little bit about what inspired the creation of ScreamWorks?


My name is Gary Stocker and I am the CEO of ScreamWorks, although I would like to add from the outset that I am just one of a team of people all of whom work tirelessly to produce our shows and build the ScreamWorks brand. I have been producing shows for the best part of 17 years.


I originally trained as a lawyer, but after a brief stint in the City I decided that the corporate life was not for me. I had previously performed in Covent Garden as a street performer and worked as a professional magician and decided that I would prefer to continue this kind of work, rather than to become a lawyer. I quit my job and shortly afterwards started a travelling circus, called Chaplin's Circus, which I toured for about 6 years.


It was a narrative-driven circus in that the shows were always scripted and the cast always comprised both circus performers and professional actors. Our first show was called 'Backstage' and the audience were invited to watch a circus show from behind the curtains, learning about the history of a 1920s circus on the brink of bankruptcy and all the trials and tribulations of circus life. In the end, we rotated the stage and the audience would watch the grand finale, in which I performed as a human cannon ball! We sold the circus to a theme park in 2018, which was lucky timing in light of COVID and all that ensued.


During my time as a circus proprietor, I engaged in a number of joint ventures to produce pop-up Halloween events. For example, we were involved in the Screamland launch in Margate and ScareNation's Dr Carnevil and the Circus of Fear was one of my productions - a very successful walk-through scare attraction in Watford (we had about 12,000 customers over a 2-week period). I love horror and Halloween so I always knew that I wanted to produce more immersive horror experiences.


In 2022, I worked with Claudio Cecconi and my business partner William Ravara to write my first show, Bloodbath. I was heavily inspired by Punchdrunk; while I wasn't a massive fan of the Burnt City overall (please don't hate me!), I love the scale of Punchdrunk's productions and the detailed set dressing.


I was however a little disappointed that some of the set dressing and props proved to be irrelevant to the story. I remember I found a set of headphones and put them on, but nothing played. There was a telephone but it didn't ring. And lots of the books and exhibits, while detailed and 'in theme', had no discernable relevance to the narrative. When I left The Burnt City I said to my friend, "I'm ready to start producing again.

When I left The Burnt City I said to my friend, "I'm ready to start producing again."
Punchdrunk's The Burnt City

Photo: Punchdrunk's The Burnt City


How did your experience of The Burnt City inform how you approached creating Bloodbath?


My first production decision was that in my sets, everything will lead back into the narrative; I want to reward the curious. If you find a bottle of wine and have the balls to open it, enjoy! If you find some paintbrushes and want to create something, we will not stop you. For me, one of the main joys of the immersive format is that it gives us an opportunity to play. One of the early highlights of Bloodbath for me was when a customer opened the fridge and started to make themselves a ham and cheese sandwich using the ingredients they found around the house. It was not easy to make that happen. Each day I would position the ingredients in slightly different places, to try and inspire customers to help themselves. I remember telling my control room to communicate with me urgently by radio the moment that they saw a customer making a sandwich. By day 4, it finally happened!

When you look at the wider industry, what do you think your shows offer that isn’t being done by other immersive productions?


Our mission is to be the market-leading provider of immersive horror experiences. We want to create immersive experiences which are fully end-to-end immersive. Anything which can take you out of the story should be eliminated; with Bloodbath that meant we couldn't have security at the door or staff checking tickets. Instead, we kidnapped our customers from the street and took them to the location; after all, a serial killer would not advertise the location of his home.


We even extend the immersion into customer service if necessary. With Bloodbath, if you called the customer service number you would speak either to Jack, our serial killer main character, or Abel, his deranged but weirdly endearing brother. If you sent an email, Jack would be the one to reply. This worked really well. Lots of customers felt like they already knew the characters before they attended the event, even bringing unusual gifts for the characters, which was very sweet.

Photos: Scremwork's Bloodbath


This pre-show immersion worked well - perhaps too well! On one occasion, an immersive theatre critic, who had come to review Bloodbath, was standing outside the venue refusing to come inside. [Editor's Note: It was not Immersive Rumours] They called the customer service number and got connected directly with Jack. They demanded to speak to our customer services team - they wanted some reassurance that Jack was not a real serial killer and that they would not die if they entered the house. Of course, Jack could only confirm that he is a real serial killer and that there is no customer service team at Bloodbath - Just Jack, Abel and Mother!

They wanted some reassurance that Jack was not a real serial killer and that they would not die if they entered the house.

While this was very amusing and demonstrated that we had done a great job setting up the immersion of our narrative, in retrospect we probably lost a lot of potential customers by being a bit too scary. However, the customers who were brave enough to step into Jack and Abel's crazy world, loved this aspect of our show, so it is not a decision I regret.


We are a few days into The Ghost Hunt being open to the public - how has the process of getting the show to this point been? How did the experience of putting on Bloodbath influence the creation of this show?

The set for the Ghost Hunt is by far the most elaborate set we have ever built. We have effectively built an entire 10-room house. We worked so hard to get it finished on time, and I am so proud of myself and my team. We learned a lot from Bloodbath, and so it certainly inspired the logistics of this event, but at the same time, the show itself is entirely different.

Poster for The Ghost Hunt

Poster for The Ghost Hunt

You really will get out of this show what you put into it. If you really engage with the set and the characters you will find a fascinating and multi-layered narrative (as well as a few well-crafted jump scares to keep you on your toes)

Can you give us a hint of what to expect from The Ghost Hunt?


The Ghost Hunt is a Halloween experience which takes place in the former home of the Luff family, all but one of whom lost their lives in a horrific murder-suicide on 31 October 1937. Armed with torches, guests are invited to explore this abandoned house to discover for themselves what happened on that fateful night.


Unlike Bloodbath, The Ghost Hunt places responsibility on the guests to discover the story for themselves. There are no voiceovers to spoon-feed narrative and no traffic lights to regulate customer flow. This makes the show logistically far more challenging than Bloodbath, but we have an exceptionally strong cast of actors, playing the ghosts of the Luff family and their mysterious lodger, and these actors are available to guests to deliver narrative and to respond to the guest's questions and decisions. You really will get out of this show what you put into it. If you really engage with the set and the characters you will find a fascinating and multi-layered narrative (as well as a few well-crafted jump scares to keep you on your toes).



What inspired the new show and why did you choose to not immediately continue the story of Jack and Abel?

Ghost Hunt is inspired by a number of true stories which we have meticulously researched and conflated. Some of the characters and the story are inspired by personal events related to my own childhood. It's not uncommon for me to explore aspects of my own trauma through the work I create. Several aspects of Bloodbath were also inspired by my own childhood.


Jack and Abel needed a break for a while; they had a good eight-month run and will be back next year, for sure. It's good to give people some time to miss them. We also want an opportunity to show the world what else we can do as a company and perhaps to appeal to a broader audience; as I said before, some people were too scared to attend Bloodbath because they feared they might actually be murdered!!


We remember attending Bloodbath and finding photos of our group from our social media pinned to the walls. Jack also greeted us by name at the climax of that show. It’s a level of intimacy and personalisation that helps draw visitors deeper into the world. Is that something you found audiences responded well to?

Audiences loved this aspect of Bloodbath. It was exceptionally expensive and time-consuming to implement, but it was a very powerful mechanism for converting our guests from mere observers to direct participants in the story.


The word 'immersive' is used a lot these days, often inappropriately. For me, an event is not really immersive unless you as an individual feel that you are part of the story and have the freedom to exercise autonomy and interact directly and personally with the characters. This is something which we will develop more in future productions, for sure.


You’re also running a more family-friendly show called Ghost Detectives throughout October. Can you tell us a bit about that show and why you chose to also do an all-ages show?


When I owned Chaplin's Circus, I used to produce immersive experiences for children at Christmas time. One of my previous shows, called Ice Grotto Advent-ure, was entirely sold out across all UK locations. The concept was simple: Rudolph had lost his nose and without it, could not fly. The children stepped inside a full-sized advent calendar to go on an adventure (hence the name 'Advent-ture') to find it. The special effects were awesome. It was such a feel-good event and we really convinced thousands of children that they had single-handedly saved Christmas! They would literally leave the event screaming. "I just saved Christmas!"


Ghost Detectives Poster

Poster for Ghost Detectives


On the face of it, Ghost Detectives is a very simple but poignant story about a young boy called Isaac who has lost his pet mouse Stripey, and does not want to 'cross over' until he finds him. The Ghost Detective Agency is recruiting young detectives to help solve this case. Unfortunately, the house is owned by a grumpy old man who hates children, so the guests have to find a way to trick the old man into letting them inside the house. The real quest is to discover why the old man is so grumpy and why he hates children; for me, this story is a bit of a tear-jerker, as the guests will discover a sad but beautiful truth which is the key to reuniting Isaac and Stripey (and also the old man, with his wife, the love of his life).

What’s the future looking like for ScreamWorks? Are there already plans in motion for shows in 2024?


These are tough times for everyone. Immersive theatre is expensive to produce because of the limited capacities and the low ratio between audience and actor numbers. I am pleased to say that we are managing to keep our head above water and we work very hard to keep our prices as low as possible (our RRP is £45.00). We have some exciting plans for 2024, but as always our main focus is on our current show, to ensure we deliver the best possible customer experience we can.


We will launch an escape room format later in the year using the same set as Ghost Hunt, but we will release more information about that closer to the time.

 

The Ghost Hunt runs from 5th October to 31st October in Bethnal Green. Tickets are available to book here.

Ghost Detectives runs from 21st October to 29th October in Bethnal Green. Tickets are available to book here.


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