The Para Abnormals tries to mix humor with horror

In the last decade, the occult, the paranormal and an overall curiosity about the unknown have been on an upward trend that has been widely reflected throughout film and television.

Double duty · The cast of The Para Abnormals has a difficult task ahead. In addition to developing their principal roles, several actors must shift characters and even “possess” other actors on stage. – | Photo courtesy of Zombie Joe

With shows such as Ghost Hunters and A Haunting as well as films such as Insidious, The Innkeepers and the Paranormal Activity franchise dominating the pop culture scene, many entertainment seekers have become infatuated with the possibility that there is something superhuman and very dark lurking in every corner of their homes.

Here in Los Angeles, the ghostly trend is currently spreading from screen to stage as Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre in North Hollywood celebrates its 20th anniversary season with the world premiere of award-winning writer Thomas J. Misuraca’s original spin on the paranormal frenzy The Para  Abnormals. Zombie Joe, the owner of Zombie Joe’s Underground, describes The Para Abnormals as a “supernatural thriller-comedy about three enterprising friends who venture into the hazardous world of ghost hunting.”

Misuraca was originally inspired to write The Para Abnormals in 2009 when his vampire parody, Lifestyles of the Damned, was published and he had been watching the TV series, Ghost Hunters.

“I loved the idea of blending comedy and drama, and I wanted my next original novel to be in a similar vein,” said Misuraca. “[The paranormal investigators on Ghost Hunters are] always so surprised when they hear a noise, you’d think they weren’t making a living out of this. So, the idea of amateurs starting their own paranormal team sounded like a fun one to explore.”

Misuraca immediately got to work transcribing the idea into a book, but he didn’t start out with much faith in the project.

“I wrote a good portion of the novel while Lifestyles of the Damned was premiering,” he said. “And not that I would consider that experience a failure, but it was anticlimactic. I worked very hard on the book [Lifestyles of the Damned] and not much happened after it got published. It made me not want to spend another two years writing and polishing The Para Abnormals.”

Around that same time, Misuraca’s career as a playwright was taking off. Though his biggest claim to fame was in the comedy genre, he was no stranger to writing horror. After his monologue, Haunted, won audience favorite in drama at North Hollywood’s MonoSlam at the Secret Rose, Misuraca was ready to further explore the horror genre — specifically the paranormal realm.

Simply being at Zombie Joe’s Underground is an experience in and of itself. In the black box theater, the entire room is dark — only a couple blue lights and a single candle illuminate the minimal set as the eerie sounds of industrial music fill the room.

But the atmosphere is a bit misleading. Unfortunately, The Para Abnormals tagline, “You’ll laugh! You’ll scream! You’ll laugh again!” is only half right.

The Para Abnormals, with a relatively short runtime of approximately one hour, transforms what could have been a straight-forward plot into a layered, chaotic muck. For example, there is a vague and unnecessary exposition of Jill’s (Jessica Amal Rice) haunting childhood. A back-story on a character is fine, but only if time allows for a thorough telling of the back-story.

But what caused even more confusion were the constant character changes. With Steve (Tucker Matthews) possessing Chuck (Tucker Matthews) and Chuck possessing the eccentric psychic, Chai Tea (Lauren Parkinson), it was difficult to keep up with who was who at times. You might even leave the theatre unsure of who you are.

The main characters make up the basic comedy trio formula of a bossy girl, her spineless boyfriend and the chubby sidekick whose sole purpose is comic relief. But the main character issue is with the ghosts. When the lighting was dim enough, they appeared as believable as any ghost encountered on the silver screen. With all the lights on, however, their stiff, hobbling body movements were illuminated and they were more believable as blood-spattered zombies than spirits.

The dialogue throughout the play, although intelligent and witty, was often delivered at an unnecessarily high volume. The stage and rows of chairs are confined within near-claustrophobic quarters, and the loud voice projection from the actors sometimes gave the impression that they were either shouting at the audience or at each other.

Despite the play’s failure as a horror production, it succeeds as a comedy, as it pokes fun at virtually every aspect of what you can expect to see in paranormal films and television programs. From familiar bodily noises suspected to be the sounds of the dead to Chai Tea’s wacky costumes and over-dramatic outbursts, The Para Abnormals will indeed make you shriek, but with laughter.

On the subject of Hollywood’s paranormal trend, Misuraca said, “I believe that the simple answer is that people like to have their emotions evoked. And horror, done well, brings out a great emotional response.”

Unfortunately, The Para Abnormals only tickled a funny bone.

If you are curious to see The Para Abnormals for yourself, head to Zombie Joe’s Underground in North Hollywood. The show runs every Saturday at 8:30 p.m. until Sept. 29.