DOWNTOWN — In white 1920s attire, the spirit of a dancer is greeted by her phantom escort in a formal bow.
Both, with identities concealed behind ornate eye masks, glide effortlessly across the floor of the cavernous and opulent lobby of what once was The Exchange National Bank in downtown Tampa. A lone cello player in an exquisite ivory dress highlighted with white beads and feather sits mutely playing a haunting slow melody.
Each Friday and Saturday night through October, unsuspecting adult guests will venture into an interacting haunting experience in four acts like no other seen in Tampa.
Creative Director Scott Swenson was contacted by the owner of the property to create an elegant haunt specifically made for “grown-ups.” The haunt needed to be organic and tied to the history of the 1923 bank, combining paranormal fiction with authentic downtown Tampa history.
While creating the performance piece, Swenson and his crew claim to have experienced unexplainable paranormal events that have nothing to do with their own creation, the Vault of Souls. For example, some cameras have stopped working when brought downstairs and locked cell phones have randomly played music.
“Twenty seven people have left our installation crew saying, ‘I won’t work in that basement anymore,’” he said.
For the performance, the story is that, in 1923, people were getting rich, and not in the most scrupulous ways. Thus, more than a few folks were worried what would happen to their souls in the afterlife. The bank worked with local mystics and the local tribe of Creek Indians to create a space to hold the souls of those that have departed in a very safe location — the Ritual, a 12,000-square-foot basement. There is no prescribed pathway, and while guests are encouraged to explore on their own, take heed.
“Over the years, Tampa elite have the opportunity to go through the ritual to become a member of the vault of souls,” Swenson explained. “It always happens in October, as that is when the veil between this and the next world is at its thinnest. Though the plan was to protect them, even if you’re comfortable, any place you can’t leave still can be a prison. It affected them in different ways.
“When you go down, in order to protect you from the spirits, every guest is required to wear a neutral white face mask. The reason for this is you may actually be a descendant of the folks down there. You don’t want them to recognize you or they may follow you home. We also ask our guests not to speak because spirits can recognize genetic vocal patterns. It’s for the guest’s safety to remain silent.”
The visionary that transformed Swenson’s concept into wearable reality for over 40 ghostly souls that haunt the Ritual is the company Spellbound Stitches. Having worked with Swenson on previous projects, the local group was hired to design the entire look for the very special event — from design on paper to hundreds of hours of research, and creating the magic that guests would experience.
“I thought they were going to squeal when I explained it to them. They just loved doing all the research into the ‘20s attire,” he said.
Guests are ushered into the Vault of Souls after enjoying a cocktail and entertainment in the lobby. But when the elevator doors open into darkness — and strange sounds, moaning and laughter are heard — for many, even the tiny hairs rise up on your arms.
“We want to embrace this history here,” Swenson said. “In working with this incredible cast, we’ve developed this atmosphere to allow guests to scare themselves. The guests can not touch the spirits, but the spirits may guide guests in a task to become an active participant. It is a theatrical way to experience Halloween as adults.”
But after the Ritual, there is a calming and welcomed denouement.
“Once you get through the ritual, you are invited to come upstairs to the gin joint and take the edge off in our Roaring ‘20s speakeasy, complete with flappers, blue singer, piano — full entertainment,” explained Kristy Chase Tozer, marketing communications director. “As a final act, we have reader’s clearing. In that space, we have a coffee and gelato bar and tarot readers. You can end your night by looking into your future.”
The Vault of Souls is by reservation only, and up to six people are allowed per party.
General admission is $100 per person; VIP packages start at $250. Attire is casual elegance of this period, and sensible shoes are recommended due to the landscape of the haunt.
Learn more at www .vaultofsouls.com.