Jutting up in front of the skyline at 65 Colonel Samuel Smith Park Drive, the aesthetics of the Powerhouse are creepy enough. Built in the early 1930s by patients of the Lakeshore Psychiatric Centre, it bears hallmarks of the imposing, semi-brutalist efficiency of the late 19th and early 20th centuries: the flat, red-brick surface shrouds deep coal bunkers, and a 100-foot-high chimney stack stands as a monument to the industrialized days of West Toronto’s waterfront. It lingers today like a ghost of the city’s past.
Now imagine the Powerhouse’s already-ghostly interior teeming with zombies, homicidal carnies, and the promise of, let’s say, being buried in a coffin. Alive. That’s what the evil, evil geniuses behind the Powerhouse of Terror have been horrifying Torontonians with for the last six Halloween seasons. This year, it’s being staged in partnership with PACT‘s Urban Peace Program, which provides at-risk youth with coaching and vocational training. The Powerhouse of Terror provides PACT’s young participants with a place to learn skills ranging from set design to makeup and costuming. It’s an exercise in what the organization calls “scaring for a cause.”
This year, however, the Powerhouse of Terror may have scared its last visitors.
According to founder Lorne Andrews, the Powerhouse of Terror has become too big to sustain itself, with estimates of 2012’s total attendance nearing fifteen thousand visitors. He doesn’t see himself running things next year. His hope, he says, is that another charity group will step forward to run the Powerhouse in coming years—one with the resources to support, on average, ten thousand visitors in a three-week period.
Though there has been interest, most of it has come from elsewhere in the city. “We’d like it to stay in Etobicoke,” Andrews told Torontoist, noting the event’s wild popularity with youth in the Lakeshore area.
The problems started with a season of controversy two Halloweens ago, in 2010. Then, the organization was publicly chastised for, some said, taking the psychiatric legacy of its facilities too lightly. Starting with an editorial in the Toronto Sun, a Powerhouse attraction called “The Asylum” began to be discussed in the historical context of the Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital. The resulting public debate led to criticism of the Powerhouse of Terror’s apparent insensitivity toward the mental health community. Though public support remained no less vociferous—many supporters, particularly volunteers, called the criticism “hurtful,” “out of context,” or “slanted”—the SickKids Foundation, a major recipient of of the Powerhouse’s fundraising at the time, nonetheless backed out over the controversy.
By 2011, the scary-mental-ward theme was jettisoned, and resources were instead concentrated on making other imaginings of the space as horrifying as humanly possible—”CarnEvil Manor,” “Insidious,” a haunted house probing the unseen, and “Quarantine: Zombie Apocalypse” among them.
“We didn’t change [the attractions] because of the complaint,” producer and creative director Jason Dasti told the Daily Planet last year, “we changed it out of respect because we want everyone to feel there’s something here for them.”
For the project to go forward in 2013, a new operator will need to be lined up within the next two, maybe three months. An event of this scale, Andrews says, requires nothing short of year-round organizing and commitment. “I deeply appreciate how the community bonded over this community theatre production to entertain and raise funds for good causes like PACT and [diabetes charity] Avery’s Angels,” says Andrews. “The project reaches deep into the community and has helped organizations raise funds and helped hundreds of at-risk youth find purpose through contribution.”
“I will miss the fun,” he adds, “but it’s time to focus on my businesses.”
In 2012, the Powerhouse’s other charitable recipients include the Franklin Horner Community Centre, as well as local schools and sports associations.