The air is damp with the tease of rain as nearly 50 people line up outside the former Exchange National Bank in downtown Tampa.
It's late September, but anticipation is ripe. For many in line, this would be their first venture inside The Vault at 611 N. Franklin Street. The chatter that trickled across the pavement was thick with questions, speculations and concerns. Bursts of anxious laughter spilled forth, fueled by the thrill of the unknown.
One couldn't ask for a more perfect recipe for experiencing the Vault of Souls for the first time.
When the Vault first opened in October 2015, it was a high-brow concept out on a high-wire without a net. Most Halloween attractions offer an idea of what to expect from movie-themed haunted houses to family-friendly trick-or-treating.
The Vault, much like the bank customer's souls it purportedly stored down in its basement bowels, offered little in the way of a tease. And the hundreds of people who paid up to $400 a ticket for VIP status had no idea what to expect.
The opening night VIP/Media Preview for the 2016 Vault of Souls on Thursday, September 29 made one thing clear: The Vault isn't so secret anymore.
"I was too scared to come last year. I'm scared to come this year," said Judy Ondejko of Tampa. "I fear the unknown."
Ticket prices have been modified to a flat $100 apiece for The Vault's sophomore season, and that's not the only change. This year's event has more paranormal encounters, more elegance and a more satisfying watering hole to slake your thirst once you emerge -- if you emerge -- unscathed.
The Arrival, The Ritual and More
The Vault of Souls is an adults-only Halloween experience. It's swanky and designed for dates or groups of like-minded people who want to dress up and experience an entire evening's worth of unrivaled spooky entertainment.
Attendees begin by being welcomed into the front door and immediately having their aura cleansed by a psychic. Then they are whisked into The Arrival, an opulent cocktail party complete with a bar serving bubbling craft spirits, decadent hors d'oeuvres and live performances by a ghostly cellist and professional dancers.
"I think this is more of a high-end event," said Kelly Harris of Tampa, who was preparing for her second trip down into the vault. Harris said she appreciated the psychological unnerving that the Vault induced during its first year, and she hoped for more of the same. "I think that appeals to us more than getting the crap scared out of us."
Once inside the bank's main chamber, guests wait for their name to be called by The Tabulator, played perfectly by Richard Coppinger, the elder gatekeeper who welcomes them into the first vault to prepare for their descent to The Ritual.
There are strict rules: Guests cannot speak. Everyone must wear a stark white mask. And while spirits may touch you, you cannot touch them back, no matter what.
As with many things in life, the waiting is the hardest part.
"I am so excited about this. This is the first thing that's gotten me excited about Halloween," said Amber Lubas, who moved to Tampa from Pennsylvania several years ago. "I'm very interested to see if it lives up to expectations."
Lubas said she researched the Vault in 2015 but was unable to make a reservation. This year, she was one of the first VIPs allowed to experience it.
Down in the Depths
What the Vault of Souls does tremendously well is capitalize on the innate ability of human beings to manifest fear in their own minds.
When the elevator doors open and guests are ushered into the sprawling maze-like catacombs and tunnels beneath the Exchange National Bank, the cramped confines, the ever-present disorienting whispers and eerie noises and the ghostly apparitions can be truly unnerving.
The Vault features nearly a dozen individual rooms from a boudoir to a doctor's office, a nursery to a records depository, a sacrificial chamber to a rumbling train car. In every room, and often wandering through the corridors, are spirits who have no fear of approaching their mortal guests and tempting them to take off their mask and be forever trapped in the abyss.
Going into its second season, the big question about Vault of Souls was whether it could replicate its first-year success and how much it might have to change to do so.
"The goal was not to go totally different," said Scott Swenson, creative director. "We went deeper instead of wider."
The cast -- the various denizens of the Vault -- has expanded by about 15 percent with 10 new characters haunting the halls. Swenson personally helped write each character's backstory and then he worked with the individual actors to help them fully inhabit their roles.
"The way to do that is to give them ownership and guidance," he said.
The Vault of Souls remains a very personal experience, but Swenson said its proprietors took note of what worked and what didn't from last year. Instead of opening up additional space beneath the bank, they reconfigured several existing areas. They moved some characters around if it seemed guests didn't fully understand their purpose when they first encountered them.
Having been through the Vault twice, once last year and again this year, BVB: Blood Violence and Babes can report that the changes are subtle, but noticeable. What worked really well last year still works, such as one particular room filled with mirrors where a diabolical doctor sneaks up to grab you and make you stare into your own image while he whispers chilling and dark secrets in your ear.
Even familiar, the opportunity to wander through the Vault remains a singular, interactive experience unlike any other Halloween attraction. A word of caution, and advice: Bring a date or a friend. It's much more satisfying when shared.
Breaking Through to the Other Side
One of the highlights of Vault of Souls is the opportunity to sit and savor the experience once guests decide to exit.
Everyone who enters the basement eventually makes their way upstairs to either The Gin Joint or The Readers Clearing, where they can consort with a tarot card reader and/or psychic to discuss what they've just seen.
The Gin Joint, specifically, is a wonderful touch. Fashioned after an old-time speakeasy with live musical entertainment and dancers, the rich wood walls and impeccable bar provide a welcome, warm retreat from the dank shadows below.
Last year, The Gin Joint felt like a work in progress. This year, it feels fully realized thanks, in large part, to the creative input of Dean Hurst, the former Director of Spirits for Bern's Steak House and former General Manager at SideBern’s.
Hurst said he wanted to ensure The Gin Joint's authenticity by covering every category of spirit available during the Vault's era.
The Manhattan, in particular, is the gold standard for Hurst's attention to detail. He sought out O.H. Byron's 1884 cocktail recipe book for the delicious combination of 100-proof bourbon, 110-proof rye, vermouth and bitters.
Then he advised and instructed The Gin Joint's bar staff on the fine art of "throwing," which involves pouring the ingredients from one glass raised high to another held low a total number of five times per drink.
"It goes into the performance going on here," Hurst said, smiling.
It also provides the perfect salve for any lingering frayed nerves left exposed after experiencing the Vault of Souls.
If You're Going:
What: Vault of Souls
Where: 611 N. Franklin Street, Tampa, FL 33602
When: Reservations can be made Friday and Saturday nights, October 7-8, 14-15, 21-22 and 28-29, from 7 p.m. to 11:30 p.m.
Tickets: $100 (Available here)
More Information: Visit the Vault of Souls online at ElegantFear.com.