A Conversation with Chris Handa | Local Vocal | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

A Conversation with Chris Handa

A family behavioral consultant by occupation, in his off time Chris Handa continues to explore the human condition through his work in magic, the haunted Castle Blood in Beallsville and a burgeoning sideshow joint.


Did you take up magic as a kid?

Since I was in the second grade. I was never interested in card tricks. I was really interested in the strange stuff, the weird stuff, and still am. But I do birthday parties and family-oriented magic too.


So what happens at a kids' show?

Every single thing that I do is interactive where they make the magic happen. Every child gets to take my magic wand and do something with it, like make things move. I'm actually doing the trick but creating the illusion that they are. Many other magicians, if they give a child a wand, it will fall apart in their hands, which is one of the things I find sad about magic in general -- what's known as sucker effects. I've given my magic wand to kids before, and they'll say "It's gonna fall apart, I've seen that -- twice!" I end up having to do a whole series of disclaimers to get somebody to trust me. When they come up on stage with me, it's about them doing the magic, about them being the star.


How did you get involved in the haunted-house scene?

When I was in high school, my Boy Scout troop did a haunted house. After college, when I moved back here was when I found Castle Blood, in 1997. Went down there four times that season. It's an interactive theatrical tour -- high costumes, make-up and more about production values than the scares. It has a story with acting, a puzzle and magic tricks: That's what sold me. I approached them, and both my wife and I were invited down to work in 1998. I've been there ever since and I'm now the operations administration manager, and I design illusions for them.


Without divulging any secrets, what goes into creating a haunted house?

For a good haunted house, you have to set up the element of uncertainty. Am I safe? Or what's going to happen when I go around the next corner? Not knowing what I'm going to see, feel or hear -- it's creating the illusion that the visitor has no control.


How do you incorporate magic into a haunted house?

The magic effects we use aren't always obvious, but they help drive the story. A lot of times it's a choice that the visitor has to make. Or something will change, or be revealed later on. We've had spirit messages appear; we've made things disappear -- but they're integral to the story. The narrative-driven haunted house like Castle Blood is more unique. A lot of the haunted houses are where you go in one room, and it's the lab; another, and it's the crypt. Castle Blood has different scenes, but there's a reason for everything -- there's a backstory whether the audience knows it. It's not just dioramas.


Your new venture is the "Strange Thing," where people pay a buck to look at something hidden in a box.

I've always been fascinated by carnival stuff, roadside attractions. The Strange Thing just went to the Renaissance Festival and it did very well. My favorite is when somebody looks in, and I see the jaw drop and they go, "Cool!"


Does anyone feel they've been ripped off?

I would give anybody their money back if they felt dissatisfied, and so far, no one has asked. It's the spirit of the thing -- and the psychology still works. People who've already seen it will drag somebody over saying, "You've got to see this," and their friend has their dollar out already. Or there's the one kid in the group, and the others are "What is it? What is it?" and he says, "I'm not telling, you gotta pay your dollar." The intent is not to rip people off, but to have fun.


It must be basic human nature that, if you cover something up and claim that whatever's underneath is so special and unique that you have to pay to look at it, it's essentially irresistible.

Absolutely. It's the Royal Nonesuch from Huck Finn. This sort of attraction goes back to at least the 16th century. It started with royalty. Because of the quests and the crusades, unusual objects got brought back and put into menageries -- if they were alive -- or into closets and cupboards, and they would be shown at events. And that's how we ended up with museums -- from wealthy benefactors who collected strange things.

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