The Great Pumpkin is coming for Ebenezer Scrooge.
For many Decembers, theaters have made bank on "A Christmas Carol," "The Nutcracker," "It's a Wonderful Life" or any show that features a tree festooned with ornaments. But the launch of the Twin Cities Horror Festival a decade ago was an early sign that Halloween, already the runner-up for yard decoration dollars, can be good news for theaters, too.
Currently, at least four companies are trying to scare up — and scare — theatergoers. The horror festival, a selection of 11 virtual and live shows, runs through Oct. 31. So does "Night Shade," a shadow puppet play presented outdoors by Open Eye Theatre (which also has the unsettling "The Red Shoes" indoors through Halloween). "Theatre of the Macabre" is offered Oct. 29-30 at St. Paul's Park Square. And, with Collide Theatrical's "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein" closing this weekend, there's more than enough spooky theater to strike fear in the hearts of audiences.
"We have that ritual of theater around Christmas time. Here's a way to gather for another time of year," said Craig Johnson, who's hosting "Theatre of the Macabre," which was conceived by Park Square producing director Kim Vasquez, who staged a similar project in New York.
Johnson notes that Halloween begins a spooky build toward late December, anyway. In England, it's traditional to tell ghost stories on Christmas Eve. And Charles Dickens' classic "A Christmas Carol" may have glad tidings in its title but it's about four dead dudes trying to frighten an old man into changing his wicked ways.
So Halloween theater just makes sense. And cents.
"I mentioned to our local playwright hero, Jeff Hatcher, who has a great adaptation of 'Turn of the Screw,' that lots of people seem to be doing it now," Johnson said. "He said, 'Yes. Halloween has become my Christmas.'"
Open Eye has presented Christmas and Halloween shows in the past but artistic director Joel Sass started thinking about annual plays atop Minneapolis' "gothic, castle-like" Bakken Museum when "Bug Girl" sold out there last year. "Girl" opened with a crowd scream, to get everyone in the mood and signal the start of the show to Bakken staff, a tradition that will continue this year.
Johnson became a fan of the October holiday when he programmed spooky storytelling as former director of the possibly haunted James J. Hill House in St. Paul.
"When audiences laugh at something that is funny, or funny-ish, they knows it's supposed to be a joke and it works pretty well, either way," said Johnson. "But if you can get an audience to gasp or scream, that's really visceral. You can't fake that. I've only made an audience scream in one show: 'Wait Until Dark,' playing [the villain]. It's really rare and it's thrilling."
The shows aim for different levels of scariness. "Macabre" will combine classics such as Edgar Allan Poe's "The Telltale Heart" with new stories and songs for mild creepiness.
"Night Shade" is family-friendly and vaguely spooky, said Sass, because "the techniques of puppetry lend themselves to transformation in ways that are beautiful, terrifying and uncanny."
Not all of the horror festival, however, is for all ages.
"Some shows are very [H.P.] Lovecraftian, about the horrors that lie just beyond your reach. Some are psychological. Some are oriented toward being spooky for kids. And some are really bloody," said Duck Washington, executive director of Twin Cities Horror Festival, whose site features tips on audience suitability.
Washington acknowledges that it may be harder to frighten people in theater than with movies. But he thinks shocks are more immediate in pieces such as this year's "Splinter," which warns, "Do not bring children."
"You think, 'Omigod, I can't believe this is happening.' When you see somebody get their arm torn off in a movie, it's easy to [attribute] that to special effects but when you see it happen right in front of your eyes, it has a more visceral, more real effect," Washington said.
One scary thing fans should not expect to see in the shows: COVID-19 (like other indoor events, vaccinations and masks will be required). With the Delta variant filling up hospitals, that's not the kind of fear the festival is going for.
"None of the shows are about the pandemic," said Washington. "We have experienced the horror of the pandemic enough."
IF YOU GO
"Night Shade," 7 p.m. Thu.-Sun., Bakken Museum, 3537 Zenith Av. S., Mpls., $24, openeyetheatre.org.
"Theatre of the Macabre," 7:30 p.m. Fri.-Sat., Park Square Theatre, 20 W. 7th Place, St. Paul, $30, parksquaretheatre.org.
Twin Cities Horror Festival, Facebook Live through Oct. 24, live Oct. 28-Oct. 31, Crane Theater, 2303 NE. Kennedy St., Mpls., $15 (packages available), tchorrorfestival.com.