You walk up the creaking stairs of an old Victorian church in South Philly. Sheeting blows like an apparition. Upstairs, a fortune-teller takes your name and hands you a tarot card or two.
The cards are your tickets to 2nd Sanctuary, a monthlong Halloween extravaganza from Brian Sanders’ JUNK, the dance company that makes its home in the former second-floor sanctuary of the historic Shiloh Baptist Church, and regularly performs here. The main first-floor sanctuary is not part of the Halloween activities.
The upstairs space in this 19th century church — designed by John Fraser, Frank Furness, and George W. Hewitt — doesn’t need much help feeling spooky, with its crumbling plaster, heavy wooden furnishings, pipe organ, and pews.
The Halloween trappings are unexpected. But you never know what Sanders will dream up.
His most ambitious creation to date, 2nd Sanctuary (through Nov. 3) is a multi-part adventure through the 1970s that includes zombies dancing on the upstairs altar in an hour-long work called Dancing Dead. Also here: the Phantom Portal VR Telecom Tour, Zoltan’s Zarkade Escape Room, a maze-like space called the Labyrinth of the Stone Cold Heart (with another live dance performance), and a zombie bar and disco.
You’ll likely need at least two visits to see everything, as the Dancing Dead performance, the virtual-reality tour, and the escape room all require separate, timed tickets. The labyrinth, bar, and disco are included with admission to any of the ticketed experiences.
Nothing is particularly scary, but Sanders advises that it’s best for ages 13 and up. Nor is it wheelchair-accessible. Everything takes place on the second or third floor, and there is no elevator.
I’ve seen Dancing Dead a number of times in several incarnations, and the undead never fail to charm. This was my favorite part of 2nd Sanctuary. The dance features an old man visiting his dearly departed friends. The magic begins when you step into the upstairs sanctuary space, where most of the floor is now planted with fresh, sweet-smelling sod.
The old man pulls a body out of a wheelbarrow and digs another out of a grave. Soon they are joined by other zombies and they dance to a soundtrack of easy-listening hits, leaping over one another, hopping up the steps to the altar, throwing their bodies on the grass, and swinging from the rafters.
For a monster mash, Dancing Dead is quite touching. The old man misses his friends, is a little spooked by their current state, and is likely to join them soon.
In the Phantom Portal VR Telecom Tour adventure, you don a hazmat suit and mask “for your safety,” put on VR goggles and headphones, and “teleport” from a phone booth back through time in a VR presentation. Then, removing the goggles momentarily, you walk to a white room full of what looks like tanning beds, and then into a lounge area with comfy chairs.
Donning your goggles again, you watch Philly landmarks go by and view recorded dance performances — including some nudity and burlesque dancing.
Suiting up for the Telecom Tour is fun, and it would be great for selfies. But the first two nights there were some technical difficulties with the VR components that took me out of the virtual world a few times. Noise-canceling headphones also would help, as sound leaks in from other attractions.
Zoltan’s Zarkade — the only attraction that doesn’t involve dance — takes you to a third-floor meeting room that feels the most untouched. It’s an escape room, but no one is locked in. Instead, visitors are told a group of “Kid Scouts” used to meet here and haven’t been seen since 1975. It’s the group’s job to find out what happened to them by by solving puzzles and cracking locks.
The “game master” tells participants the room is just as it’s been since the 1970s. That turns out to mostly be true (shudder!), as the escape room is the church’s real former Boy Scout meeting room and the original wooden lockers come into play. It took a while to get into the spirit of the game, but by the end, everyone was cheering on whoever could solve a puzzle.
The zombie disco was dead both days I was there, although one man turned out in vampire chic. The bar was much more popular, with wine, beer, and hard seltzer among the options.
The Labyrinth of the Stone Cold Heart was designed for the dance Skein of Heart in last month’s Philadelphia Fringe Festival, now performed as a component of the Halloween experience. Grab a hard hat and walk through a curtain of heavy chains for a self-guided tour through a maze made of scaffolding.
In the 30-minute Skein of Heart performance, dancers swing around on a specially designed metal chair and flip over bars like gymnasts to the music of hair-metal bands. One dancer runs fast on a treadmill for the duration of a song. If you crane your neck you can see another, high above.
If you like your locations realistic and what you find there a bit surreal, 2nd Sanctuary is a fun Halloween attraction.
Brian Sanders’ JUNK in “2nd Sanctuary”
Through Nov. 3 at the JUNK performance space, 2nd floor, Shiloh Baptist Church, 2040 Christian St.
Tickets for the timed attractions are $29-$35 each.