PRESTONSBURG — Some theaters have a Christmas niche — they put on A Christmas Carol or A Tuna Christmas every year. Jenny Wiley Theatre, best known for its annual summer series that attracts artists to Eastern Kentucky from New York and Los Angeles, has carved itself a Halloween niche.
After writing and directing adaptations of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Frankenstein and Dracula over the past three years, Jenny Wiley regular Mickey Fisher wrote an original. Ghost Stories, which opened this weekend and continues Thursday, centers on the "Bloody Mary" urban myth — the one where 9-year-olds at slumber parties try to conjure a ghost or witch from the bathroom mirror.
In the play, a "Scooby-Doo-like" crew of young people visit a haunted house where Bloody Mary is supposed to have lived. They explore themes of faith, religion, fear and doubt as they try to contact the ghost.
"There's such a phenomenon right now with the Paranormal Activity movies and the Ghost Hunter shows," Fisher said.
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He said he wanted to take advantage of modern pop culture as well as folklore.
"Almost everybody that I've talked to has a ghost story," Fisher said. "Most people also have somebody they love that's passed away, that they would like to see again."
In an effort to boost ticket sales several years ago, Jenny Wiley's executive director, Martin Childers, began marketing school-year productions. The company started with school-curriculum war horses such as The Diary of Anne Frank but in 2007 discovered it could capitalize on Halloween fervor.
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, based on the 19th-century short story by Washington Irving, was a hit, and fall show sales started growing. Sales at last year's Dracula production were nearly double 2007's, and it even outsold some of the summer shows, Childers said.
For Ghost Stories, Childers' staff distributes a curriculum of lessons about ghost stories, folklore and literature to teachers who bring their classes to matinee shows. Some Appalachian and Eastern Kentucky ghost stories are included.
The element of fright is more rare in the theater than the laughter or tears, Fisher said. People like to suspend disbelief and experience fear, and hearing an audience jump and scream is satisfying for actors, he said.
Ghost Stories tries to expand on stories kids know almost instinctively.
In addition to the fear, Fisher said, "There's a sweet core to it: that longing to see somebody that's passed away."