Meow Wolf, House of the Eternal Return

Inside Meow Wolf, the legendary sci-fi funhouse that's like Willy Wonka meets Westworld

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Jun 15, 2018

I'm a firm believer that if you ever have enough money in your bank account for a plane ticket, you should seriously consider a trip to Meow Wolf in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Forget Disneyland, forget the Grand Canyon, and forget Las Vegas — Meow Wolf is the closest thing we'll ever get to Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory, and every person should see it at least once in their life.

When I flew to New Mexico to visit an old friend of mine, he was adamant that we had to make a pilgrimage. I'd never heard of "Meow Wolf," and he refused to tell me what it was. "It's better if you don't know," he assured me.

When we pulled up to the building in Santa Fe, it looked like a big, windowless white Cineplex. We paid for our tickets, bought the optional 3-D glasses, and walked down a long hallway to a pair of metal double doors that opened into…

…a cavernous black room containing a life-size, two-story Victorian house.

We stepped onto the porch, through the front door, and into a fully furnished living room with a big, comfy couch, shelves stuffed with books, and pictures of a smiling family hanging on the walls. Soon, though, I started finding weird brochures on cults, notes referencing alternate dimensions, and cryptic hints that the house's residents had disappeared. Just as I realized there was a mystery afoot, my friend asked, "Did you check the fridge?"

I hadn't.

I went to the kitchen and pulled open the fridge. Inside was a featureless white tunnel, big enough for a person to walk through. At the end of it was the sleek, white lobby of a deserted transdimensional travel agency.

From there, I found myself wandering through a twilight forest full of giant treehouses and glowing neon mushrooms. Beyond the forest, I found a giant mammoth skeleton whose light-up ribs could be played like a xylophone. I sat in the driver seat of an upturned school bus and watched psychedelic patterns play across the windshield as I turned the wheel. I found little screens embedded in walls that told the story of a transdimensional cult that was working toward the ascension of humanity. The whole place was a maze of rooms, and I soon realized that each one was meant to be a different "dimension," with its own logic and place in a grand, overarching story.

Hours later, I climbed down a ladder inside one of the tree trunks in the neon forest and ended up staggering out of the fireplace in the Victorian house, back into the living room where it all began.

It was like doing LSD without drugs.

MEOW WOLF AND THE HOUSE OF ETERNAL RETURN

To make things clear, "Meow Wolf" is the organization behind all this — it's a Santa Fe-based artist collective that managed to buy an old bowling alley (with the help of George R.R. Martin) and repurpose it into a mind-bending experimental art space. The Victorian house and its labyrinth of bizarre, Doctor Who-esque rooms is their latest project, "The House of Eternal Return."

The project, which includes the house itself and all the adjoining areas, is 20,000 square feet, multi-leveled, and includes everything from interactive light and music installations to occasional live concerts deep inside its belly. Each room has been hand-designed by a team of artists, and every one of them strains the boundaries between carnival funhouse, modern art exhibit, and sci-fi dreamscape. On top of that, each one links together in a grand, non-linear narrative that plays out across time and space.

The story of the House revolves around the Selig family, who are caught in the middle of an interdimensional drama. Emerson Selig, the father and grandfather to the current residents of the house, discovered that sound can warp reality and created a device that could "phase shift" things between different dimensions. Later on, his son Lucius used this knowledge to start a Scientology-like cult based on traveling to other dimensions — here's a creepy video of him you can find on a computer in the house:

There are dozens of other clues scattered around the house, some obvious, like a day planner on the living room coffee table, and some hidden — they can be locked in safes, lurking in the children's rooms, or scattered in the pages of a dictionary. According to the creators, the project was partly inspired by video games like Bioshock and Shenmue, as well as the interactive puzzle/exploration game Myst, which involves unraveling a mystery by visiting mini-worlds from a deserted central hub.

However, one of the things that makes the House of Eternal Return truly unique is how close it gets to capturing the logic of a lucid dream: you'll see something in the house itself (like a "MISSING" poster for a hamster in a child's bedroom), forget about it, then wander into a corner of the alternate dimension areas where you find a tiny room filled with circuit boards connected to a spinning hamster wheel, where a phantom hamster runs forever. These details are easy to miss, but if you look deeper into the lore of the house, you'll find that even tiny characters like the hamster (whose name is Nimsesku) have their parts to play in the story.

In the House, there's the sense that no matter how deep you go, there's always something new to stumble across. You might find hidden links between the puzzles, a video log from a character you've never seen before, or a room that no one else seems to know about. The visuals of the House are riotously psychedelic and the rooms themselves are delightfully imaginative, but looking back on it, the words of Westworld's Dr. Ford capture the real appeal of the House:

"The guests don't return for the obvious things we do, the garish things. They come back because of the subtleties, the details. They come back because they discover something they imagine no one had ever noticed before, something they've fallen in love with."

Honestly, the comparison to Westworld is apt — it's downright astonishing that something so massive, so imaginative, and so ambitious could ever be completed. You haven't really lived until you've walked into that house, because it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience every time you go.