It’s almost Halloween. For some professors at the University of Kansas, that meant getting into character on Wednesday and taking over the catacombs-like Abe and Jake’s Landing in downtown Lawrence for a new event they called Haunting Humanities.
Along with candy, they handed out some unusual lessons in theater, art and music for a few hundred people.
On the lower level of Abe and Jake's, theater historian Jane Barnette and one of her graduate students set up makeup stations early in the afternoon, anticipating a night of face painting and talking about witches.
"We called it the 'roundtable of humanities,'" Barnette said of the inspiration behind the event. "We were sitting around trying to think about how could we take the research that the humanities professors are doing on campus and make it more accessible and active for the community."
They envisioned an immersive theater environment, including the rooms on the upper level to the lounge to the dance floor, where visitors would choose their area of participation. And because activities were planned in October, a Halloween-themed Haunting Humanities event seemed appropriate.
"As luck would have it, so many of us had research topics already that very nicely intersected with the supernatural or haunting, so that was really cool," said Barnette.
Barnette's scholarship focuses on adaptation, and she's a makeup artist. Her current research combines the two, mapping out archetypes of witches such as the humpbacked crone and the bewitching beauty.
"With those two types as the anchors," said Barnette, "I've been exploring more about kinds in between that re-appear over and over again throughout history."
Stephanie Roberts, an associate professor of physical theatre at UMKC, recruited her colleague Theodore Swetz, who started his career with the New York Shakespeare Festival, and UMKC actors and alumni to perform a scene from Shakespeare's "Hamlet." Her version was titled "To Ghost, or not to Ghost."
"The call asked for pieces that had a haunted theme, and, so, of course, I went to Shakespeare and ghosts," says Roberts.
Her version of Act I, Scene 5 had some surprises, though.
"We get the audience to talk about the relevance of Shakespeare today in the age of #MeToo and Black Lives Matter. There's controversy about changing Shakespeare or adapting Shakespeare," she added.
Brad Osborn, an assistant professor of music theory at KU, shared his knowledge about, and the music of, five Norwegian bands from the 1980s and '90s. Osborn credits them with inventing the genre called black metal.
"I am also a black metal musician, so I'm mostly interested in this music from a songwriting perspective," Osborn said, "but it's also really fascinating from a cultural perspective."
Osborn described the sound of the music as "really fast and really heavy and there's a lot of screaming. And it doesn't matter what the lyrics are about, because you can't understand them, but they're pretty dark themes."
A graduate student in cineography helped create Osborn's costume for the night.
"The face paint that I'm wearing is known as corpse paint. It's supposed to make you look like you're actually dead," he said. "I'm wearing a lot of spikes on my hands and my wrists and my boots. And basically they all wore women's jeans because they're the tightest."
Besides providing a little shock value, Osborn said, he was hoping to introduce those who attended to a genre of music they probably didn't know about.
Laura Spencer is an arts reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter at @lauraspencer.