The Art of Darkness

Party Like It’s 1929

July 8th, 2009 by Cobwebs

Group PhotoHere’s something that I thought I’d mentioned previously, but my archive search comes up empty so apparently I’m hallucinating. Several years ago, before I had children and could occasionally think straight, a friend and I put together an elaborate Halloween dinner party of the sort where everybody plays a role and they’re supposed to solve a mystery. In this case, it involved a haunted house. I posted details and materials in case anyone else was ever foolish ambitious enough to try something similar.

The premise was fairly straightforward: It’s 1926*, the inheritors of an old house have just re-opened it, and they’re celebrating by throwing a dinner party for the cream of society. During the party, strange things start to happen (disembodied knockings and moanings are heard, a bloody rag is found, objects seem to move). It could be a ghost. However, each of the guests also has a motive for “haunting” the house. Whodunnit?

Logistics

We sent out an initial invitation, explaining a bit about the theme of the party and asking each guest if they planned to attend, whether they were bringing a guest, and what sort of role they and their guest wanted: A major character (someone with gossip and clues), a minor character (playing along, but in a lesser role), or the maid/butler.

Once we had this, we planned the characters and assigned clues. We decided to base each character loosely on real people. The guests then received a second invitation and packet containing:

  • An invitation, with the envelope addressed to their character’s names
  • General information (with slightly different instructions, depending on whether they were a major character or not). This included a page from an “old book” about the house itself
  • A fact sheet about their character (including two short ones–one of each sex–to accommodate one guest who didn’t know who he was bringing).
  • Some gossip (everything that others knew about them, plus one or two tidbits about other guests)
  • Some “clippings,” background information about their character, plus information about a couple of other guests

By happy coincidence, the year 1999 (when we threw the party) and the year 1926 (when the party was set) both had the exact same calendar, so all of our correspondence could use the 1926 date without risking confusion.

We hit e-Bay and purchased a lot of cheap props, including a magazine from 1926 which we left lying on a table.

One of the guests–Emily Pillar–was supplied with a prop: An antique locket with vintage photos inside. The photograph of the man matched a picture supplied to General Grant.

The party was held in the dining room and basement of a friend’s home. We put slipcovers over all of the furniture, and lit the place with candles (we explained this by saying that, having been closed for years, the house wasn’t wired). We didn’t do any obvious Halloween decorating, since this was purportedly a formal dinner rather than a Halloween party, but we did ornament the table with Indian corn and dried gourds, and we tried for an overall, “something’s not quite right, but we can’t figure out what” design scheme.

The guests were encouraged to drop hints throughout the party; after dinner we retired downstairs and discussed the “strange goings-on” in the house. The guests pieced together the story of the house and eventually solved the mystery. The denouement was when we broke down a “wall” (some drywall that had been spackled into a door in the semi-finished basement) to reveal a life-size plastic skeleton dressed in a Confederate uniform. (Small joke: According to the story, these are the mortal remains of Roger “Red” Grant. So the guests found…say it with me…Red Skeleton.)

The party was one heck of a lot of work on an organizational and logistical level, but it was worth it. Our guests all stayed in character and had enormous fun being someone else for a few hours. My friend’s kind offer to let us take over her house and even hide a skeleton in her basement (now that’s friendship) gave us a great venue. We were able to rent black dishes and glassware inexpensively, which really added to the ambience. It was also more fun to roll our own mystery instead of relying on one of the commercial games, since we could tailor the story to our guest list. If you’re looking for a unique way to entertain a group, this would certainly qualify.

Fun! Unusual! Give it a try!


*I realize the post title says “1929” instead of “1926.” Kindly allow me my poetic license.

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One Response

  1. Melissa Says:

    That is the coolest thing ever! I have done a few of the host your own mysteries over the years, but this is a much more interesting story line then the boxes give. Too cool! I may have to try this again as a less expensive bash since we’re all broke this year. Thanks so much!

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