As I entered through the castle gate the courtyard seemed eerily quiet. The horse drawn coach that had just taken me over the treacherous moors galloped into the distance while my shadow grew fainter as the sun slowly set. Sneaton Castle sat high upon the cliffs of Whitby overlooking the icy North Sea and the vampire infested fishing town below. It would soon be dark and the once busy streets quickly became deserted. Something gave me the impression that I also needed to follow suit and find a safe sanctuary before darkness fell
I had been summoned here by telegram some weeks earlier. The mysterious note, written in a strange ink that I could only assume was a fetid concoction of fish oil and blood, informed me that an annual gathering was about to take place. Once a year, on a given day when the stars align, a door shall open and strange adepts from remote corners of the globe will gather to share dark secrets and partake in forbidden rituals. Today was that day.
Although my invitation gave a date and location there was nobody at the castle gate to greet my arrival. My coach driver thought it unusual that I had been invited here as he proclaimed that, “The old Sneaton place had been empty for years. Nobody in the village dare go up after dark, what with all the screaming and strange lights an' all.” I shrugged off his superstitious clap-trap and apprehensively started to explore further.
In the center of the courtyard stood an old gypsy caravan, the doors wide open as if someone had been unloading its contents. On the sides, painted in a quirky carnival font were the words 'Dr. Diablo' and the figure of a man with a unnerving grin. I took an inquisitive look inside to see various instruments of magic. The smell of warm latex and talcum powder hung in the air like a perverted fog. Swords and torture devices hung from the leopard skin lined walls, from this alone I knew that the mysterious owner must be from Liverpool. With no sign of the deviant owner I continued my search.
The castle towers loomed over me like watchful stone giants as I ventured up a cobbled lane flanked by empty buildings. Then I smelt it. A faint scent of burning wood and the chatter of voices. Red embers floated in the humid night air and I followed the sound and scent like a bloodhound on the hunt. I came to the end of the row of small buildings and I cautiously peered around the corner. I could see fifty or more figures silhouetted against a large fire pit. The cackle of insane laughter mixed with the crackle of the burning logs became louder and my head started to swim as an intoxicating rhythm began to pound in my ears. It was then I saw the leader of this disturbing 'fire ritual'. A short stout man with a sweaty complexion and nipple tassels jeered at the crowd as they chanted the words, “Mind Wraith! Mind Wraith!” repeatedly until the strange dwarven whipster walked slowly through the flames, unscathed by the hellish furnace.
I was so transfixed by the hypnotic spectacle I had not heard the approach of someone or something from behind. Suddenly, a heavy hand slammed on to my shoulder and I spun on my heel to confront a tall chiselled man who spoke with a German accent. “Velcome to Doomsday! You're just in time for ze burning!” As he manically laughed I started to feel myself sweat as a cloud of overwhelming humidity descended on me. What was this strange magick? My legs gave way beneath me and my vision began to blur whilst the world around me started to slowly fade.
As my eyes finally closed, in the distance I heard the German voice once again,“Voodini! Oskar! Come give me a hand! I've found a sacrifice for ze altar!”...
For the past two years I have been the event organiser of Doomsday, the annual gathering of bizarre magicians, story tellers and adepts of the alternative arts. Originally conceived by Roni Shachnaey seven years ago, Doomsday is the best convention of its type in Europe. Every year people from all over the world make the pilgrimage to Whitby for a weekend like no other. What other magic convention can claim to be hosted in the home of Dracula AND in a castle?
Doomsday has started to see a dramatic increase in attendees proving that our shadowy corner of the art is alive and more popular than ever before. It was wonderful to see familiar faces and new blood on the scene as well as meeting the rabble of regulars. Although it is promoted as a convention it is and always has been more of a family gathering. The newcomers were welcomed with open bat-winged arms and I am sure they will return year after year.
Quite a few attendees arrived in Whitby on the Thursday so that they could explore the town and take in all of the Gothic charm. The walk up to the abbey is a must and for a measly £3 you can experience stellar attractions such as The Dracula Experience, so bad it's good! For our overseas visitors there is plenty to see and do in the days prior to Doomsday so you can even make holiday of it and most do.
In a bid to save my liver from a heavy first night of socialising I headed south to Scarborough to see Roni Shachnaey. Unfortunately Roni was unable to attend Doomsday due to health issues so Alex Wallace and I decided to take Doomsday to him. Over a wonderful meal cooked by Laraine I was enlightened about the dark origins of Doomsday and how it is the estranged lovechild of another gathering that is ironically not as immortal as the name suggests.
This year we kicked off with a new event. On a small patch of land in the castle grounds two tons of wood was tossed into a pit and set alight for the Doomsday Fire Walk! Iain Jay and his industrious team of circus performers created the most memorable start to Doomsday to date. I must admit that virtually everyone was rather apprehensive at the idea of walking through a 10 foot pit of fire but it only took one volunteer to go for it and nearly everyone followed. Rather like lemmings I suppose! As the majority of us are destined to go to hell it was a nice preview of what's to come and I made two trips across the burning pit with nothing more than sooty feet and a huge grin.
We then returned to the castle for the first lecture of the weekend. Never before has there been a more suitable lecture for Doomsday. Matteo Borrini, Forensic Anthropologist and star of the National Geographic documentary series gave his personal account of the 'Plague Vampire Exorcism'. My personal highlight of the weekend was meeting Matteo who's knowledge and persona encapsulates what nearly every bizarre performer strives to be. He is a truly unique person and an asset to the community.
Doomsday then officially opened with Dr. Diablo's Carnival Macabre presented by the funniest chap I know, Michael Diamond. From a personal perspective Doomsday would not be the event it is today without Michael and his team, the charming Katie Trickett and Bendy Bendini. Nothing sets the scene more than some good old sideshow acts to amaze and disturb the punters. Human Blockhead, The Radium Girl and Bendy pushing an unhealthy amount of needles into his face; now that's entertainment!
The Doomsday ethos is certainly work hard and play hard with most of the crowd finally heading to the bar to 'catch up' until the early hours of Saturday morning. It was going to be a long day and what better way to prepare yourself than stocking up on pizza and ten pints of Hobgoblin ale? Of course, not everyone drinks alcohol and the convent next door supplied holy water on tap. I like to think it was this that gave me the 'dicky tummy' and not the Lobster Tikka Masala I had eaten a few days previous. We are denizens of darkness after all!
What better way to start Saturday morning than with a session designed to get everyone up on their feet, whooping and hollering. I knew Saturday morning would be tough for some of the Friday night party animals so I added Ian Harvey Stone as the first lecture to get the blood moving. Ian's lecture 'Finding your voice in the magical landscape' was a workshop on how to vocally present yourself on stage professionally and in the 90 minutes that followed I learnt lots. Although I'm no performer I still lecture regularly and the areas that Ian covered were worth their weight in gold. Ian served his slice of how to command the stage with energy, humour and lots of audience participation making an unforgettable and valuable start to the day.
World record breaking strongman Stuart Burrell then took to the stage to give a whole new meaning to the phrase 'he couldn't punch his way out of a wet paper bag' by ripping out of ca hained and padlocked chainmail vest. He also demonstrated ripping a tennis ball in half and breaking free from cable tied wrists. There was even a bit of real blood much to the crowds delight.
Roger Curzon then recalled the tale of Uncle Albert's Box and the dark contents concealed within. Delivered with Roger's much loved deadpan northern charm it was Doomsday's first magic performance and a satisfying one it was too. Roger is a Doomsday regular who I remember performing years ago so it was wonderful to see him back doing what he does best.
Setting up a complete cabinet of curiosities exhibition for one of the UK's largest horror conventions in 3 weeks is a challenge right? Well Andy Cooper, Nik Taylor and Tristan Stothard managed to do just that AND make money from it AND make it so popular they are also doing it again this year. Andy and Nik gave a light hearted account of how they created some intriguing exhibits to shock and disturb the punters. A possessed Mr.Punch, a mysterious Oracle and Winston, a terrible example of taxidermy all made an appearance and gave us all a motivational kick of what can be achieved with lots of enthusiasm and very little time. Unfortunately Tristan was unable to attend Doomsday this year but I'm hoping he'll bring is Psychic Pain to Whitby next year.
A swift but hearty lunch provided the Doomsday crowd with some much needed energy although a double helping of dessert left me with a post-lunch sugar crash big enough to down an elephant. Dealers dealt while arcane knowledge was whispered and shared amongst the adepts before Luke Jermay took to the stage.
To watch Luke lecture or perform is a captivating experience. His knowledge and confidence of character pushes you down into you seat and commands your attention for the entirety of the lecture. As I mention previously, I'm not a performer although every time I see Luke it makes me want to pick up a deck of cards and at least have a go. And in the past I have to much success, that's if you consider baffling your Gran and elderly Aunt successful. Other Doomsday members though who do perform will have taken huge amounts of inspiration, methods and ideas away with them. Luke even shared some routines that he'd never revealed before especially for the Doomsday crowd. It's my birthday next week and a Marksman Deck is on my list for sure!
The great thing about my good friend Oskar is that in the UK nobody has a clue who he is. Yet, back in Sweden he is the star of the TV show 'Mysteria'. Only in Sweden can you get away with a kid's TV show where a group of wizards run around Stockholm trying to catch an accidentally summoned demon with the aid of random children. They also conduct a séance with a group of 8 years olds as well as invoke the ghost of a witch. Good, clean family TV. Oskar and Robert Dahlstom, also a star of 'Mysteria', gave translated excerpts of the series and demonstrated some of the amazing props Oskar created specifically for the show.
The final act of the afternoon was Doomsday veteran Tracy Wise. Every storytelling magician should look at Tracy's act and take note as her ability to captivate the audience and spin a good yarn is impeccable. 'Nursery Crimes' presented the dark origins of some of our favourite childhood nursery rhymes while intertwining magic and music to create an unforgettable performance. Those attending Doomsday South in November will see more of what this very clever and beguiling lady can do.
The 2 hour dinner break gave the crowd a chance to head into Whitby to sample what the local fishermen had dragged ashore, served with chips and lager. The typical gloom of a British seaside town gave way to the unusual spectacle of sunshine and everyone came back fully charged for an evening of entertainment.
The Hex Factor was born out of numerous requests from magicians wanting to perform at Doomsday. Rather than stick with the usual gala show format I thought it would be more interesting to create a whole new event that would see performers competing head to head for a hideous prize. And so the Hex Factor was born and the first 8 contestants stepped up before a foaming crowd and a trio of steely judges.
The standard of the Hex Factor performances proved that those who don't normally perform for a large crowd actually should! Ewan Callison gave the evening an edgy start by talking to 'dummy', his small ventriloquist doll while performing a eerie dolls house séance. For Poe fans, Kevin Lynch's fast paced tale of numbers and messages from beyond the grave had the audience scratching their heads. Jim Critchlow not only created a great performance but also spawned a demonic mascot for Doomsday, the mighty Wucifer. The horrific helium filled satanic symbol hovered over the stage for the duration of the evening. The last slot before the interval was a touching performance from newcomer Luke Robson who's spirit slate routine about a dearly departed friend simultaneously touched and entertained.
After 20 minutes of liquid refreshment we kicked off with Matteo Borrini once again with a tale of savage Liverpudlian lycanthropy. Representing Belgium was Wino Caestecker whose performance would eventually win The Hex Factor by a considerable amount. Emotional and devilishly devious, Wino played the audience like a pro to the point where I thought he was going to have a nervous breakdown live on stage. But of course it was part of the act, or was it? Either way Wino scooped the first prize and highly deserved it was to. Adam Daniel followed with my personal Hex Factor highlight as he produced the old Victorian board game classic 'Guess Whom'. A clever, humble performance delivered with a Derbyshire drawl which reminded me of home well, the rough parts anyway! Finally Les Brown performed his Russian Roulette with BB guns routine. We all uncomfortably watched as Les fired pistols into his mouth, eyes and head, empty ones at least. He successful dodged the last bullet and poor Pauline missed the life insurance payout once again.
The Hex Factor is here to stay and entries for 2017 are already being booked. It's about time that our dark corner of the magic world had its own competition and Doomsday is the place to come if you want to win the newly coveted award.
The dates for Doomsday VIII are already set and tickets will go on sale shortly. Put a big fat cross in your diary and make sure the weekend of 19th - 21st May 2017 is free. Don't be one of the crowd who always comment on how they wished they could've been there, just do it! As always, the venue is limited on size so tickets will be limited and this year we were almost at maximum capacity so book early to avoid disappointment.
And for those unable to wait another year there is always Doomsday South in November. Set in the gothic surroundings of Simon Drake's House of Magic this will be another event not to be missed. There is more emphasis on occult & paranormal subjects than just magic so expect a diverse crowd and an excellent opportunity to network with all walks of life from the world of alternative arts. Confirmed lectures and acts for the first ever Doomsday by Gaslight are Reece Shearsmith, quarter of the award-winning comedy team The League of Gentlemen and star of Inside No.9, David Farrant will be giving his account of the Highgate Vampire incident, Scott Wood from the South East London Folklore Society will discuss urban tales of the London Underground, Matteo Borrini returns to give his Plague Vampire Exorcism lecture so be sure to bring a strong stomach! Tracy Wise who is not only an accomplished magician and forensic scientist but also an expert on OOPArt (out-of-place artifacts) will present a lecture regarding ancient objects found in a very unusual or seemingly impossible contexts. Luke Jermay will also grace the House of Magic stage with feats of mystifying mentalism and finally film director David Chaudoir will be presenting a private screening of his short 'Bad Acid', the dark tale of a washed up cabaret hypnotist who gets what he wished for, but not in the way that he wanted.
The weekend ticket includes lunch and a private Jack the Ripper walk around Whitechapel on the Friday night before the event. For those arriving early myself and Freddie Valentine will also take you on a personal tour of some of London's darkest and mysterious locations followed by the obligatory social at the Ten Bells and Dirty Dicks. If that wasn't enough to tempt you there will also be a prize draw to win a copy of Dolly Darko MkII so if you win you may need to book another seat on the train, she likes to sit alone...