The weirdest, trippiest haunted house I've ever experienced stands in an old bowling alley in Santa Fe, New Mexico, that was purchased by George R.R. Martin and transformed into an ambitious interactive art display/multi-dimensional non-linear mystery narrative/jungle gym/children's museum.
Inside, my family and I meet creatures from another dimension, chat one-on-one with a multiversal self-help guru and harass overbearing representatives of "The Charter" as they slowly melt down "Footloose"-style.
Arts collective Meow Wolf creates "immersive, multimedia experiences that transport audiences of all ages into fantastic realms of storytelling." Its first permanent home opened in March with the backing of "Game of Thrones" mastermind Martin, a major benefactor of the arts in Santa Fe.
The author purchased the abandoned Silva Lanes bowling alley and had construction crews gut the building before letting more than 150 artists take over to create "House of Eternal Return," a permanent exhibit that's sort of like an epic interactive work of speculative science fiction.
"I promise you, you've never seen anything quite like it," Martin wrote in a blog post at the exhibit's opening. "Our hope is that Meow Wolf and the House of Eternal Return will be one of Santa Fe's premiere attractions for many, many years to come."
So far, the crowds have come as Martin hoped -- over 5,000 on opening weekend and thousands more since. After just a few months, the exhibit had to be temporarily shut down for a few days so repairs could be made due to the high volume of traffic through what's basically a 20,000-square-foot, $2.7 million work of immersive art.
The sci-fi story you enter when you pass through the doors into the exhibit deals with a family that's figured out how to travel between alternate universes. You can walk around the family's house; sift through their books, papers and diaries; watch old home movies; and sneak through secret passages that transport you, apparently, to those other universes. That's the part where it gets trippy, with rooms reminiscent of a 1920s cartoon or a treehouse filled with multi-color eyeballs or the inside of a musical mammoth ribcage.
If it sounds complicated, that's because it is. It's hard to grasp without experiencing it multiple times.
Meow Wolf sells annual passes for families to return and keep exploring. Even then, there's probably still more to unravel. Easter eggs are everywhere, like the tiny stuffed hamster in a small corner display that's a big part of the story, and so are hints stuffed into the mailbox, toilet bowl and even on the dining room ceiling. You can also find clues online, a movie is reportedly in the works and special events like the "House of Halloween" also provide an opportunity to get extra pieces to the puzzle.
Needless to say, this isn't your ordinary haunted house with spiders and chainsaw-wielding weirdos. The actual exhibit is more or less the same as it's been since it opened in March, but the characters from the non-linear story have appeared and are wandering around interacting with the hundreds of Halloween guests.
Well, one exception is the family that occupies the house. Normally we only see them in photos and video clips scattered throughout the exhibit, but for Halloween they're all there in the house, portrayed by live actors. But they're unable to see or hear the dozens of guests crowded around their dining room table to listen in on their conversation. We tested this by tapping the grandfather on the shoulder, and he didn't respond.
Fictional uncle and author Lucius Selig was on hand and in the same universe as Halloween guests. We were privileged to come across him inside a trailer behind the main house where we were able to chat and glean some clues about the story. He also gave us a rude sign on a post-it note to stick on the back of one of The Charter members.
The Charter, of course, is an inter-universal agency akin to the CIA that's obsessed with keeping the "Chaos" of the multiverse under control. These be-suited folks are willing to answer questions and even recruit kids to help keep an eye on all the odd, playful creatures that have escaped their home universes to climb around the structures.
The assortment of live, often faceless creatures from other universes typically don't speak English (except of course for the alien marching band wandering around encouraging you to join in the music-making), but will beckon you to explore through odd chirps, sounds, acrobatics and dance moves.
As the 3-hour Halloween experience goes on, it becomes clear there's some sort of narrative arc to the evening and The Charter is losing control, not only of the environment, but of themselves. One by one they let loose from their buttoned-up demeanor until the whole thing builds into a big dance party in the part of the exhibit used for concerts. "Thriller" plays just before 9 p.m. and all the characters playfully encourage you to get the heck out.
Come to think of it, I can't say for sure I'm in exactly the same universe as when I went in. I may have to come back to the House of Eternal Return over and over again to figure it out.