Thursday, October 28, 2010

My Experience at the Steampunk Haunted House

Photo by Chad Heird, 2010.

It began with a horrified scream.

In front of us, a woman thrashed furiously in a bed, trying to wake up from a nightmare. But instead of opening her eyes, she sank into—and literally through—the middle of the bed. As soon as she disappeared, the bed flipped up vertically and the dreamer walked out of it. And we had to follow her.

Suddenly, I found myself alone, in a different room. Silvery music-box chimes were playing “Beautiful Dreamer” in the darkness around me. There was a small lantern in my hand. I was in a room with a display of dolls’ heads and carnations in a case. As I passed my lantern’s light across the floor, I saw that it was littered with fabric and paper. I felt lost, disoriented. Then people began to float past me—anachronistic ghosts in a trance, whispering, humming, dancing, and struggling with each other. They sped past me as if I weren’t there, but I instinctively backed away, until I heard a close voice in my ear. “Be careful what you covet.” I gasped and turned to see a young Victorian man, who began to hum and lilt away.

I then saw a few others with lanterns like mine and remembered that we could roam freely around the house. I stumbled into the theatre, where zombie-like creatures were crawling over the seats. In the stage was a hole, out of which a bluish-white light pierced upward into the haze of the room. Someone sat above it, slowly operating a pulley that fed a rope into the hole. I crept closer toward it, avoiding the man with a gas mask and bobby’s stick. Looking down inside, I saw the rope disappear into a bright light. Only later, at the end, would I see what was really there. It was the engine of the dream: the three Furies themselves, weaving the dream like the Fates with their thread.

After we emerged from this dream world, I spoke with some fellow audience members. They mentioned the great attention to detail: “I loved the little secrets, like when you go up the stairs and see a little display, when you thought nothing was there.” Another said he liked the fact that the haunt “wasn’t linear; you could just explore it on your own.” And another person said she loved the Steampunk elements: “Artistically it was fabulous!”

What is truly scary? There are unconscious, deep fears we all share, like darkness, being alone, irrationality, and incongruity. These are the things that haunt us in our dreams. The Steampunk Haunted House harnesses the power of these primal elements. It doesn’t just cause fear; it creates it.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Check Out Our Press

Last weekend's opening of 2010's Steampunk Haunted House generated a great response from audience members and the press.

The Jaded Viewer describes the haunt as a "noir painting come to life" that leaves you with an "odd feeling that you're walking through a nightmare that isn't your own."
NBC New York's video offers a quick peek of some of the "uncomfortable moments and suspense" lurking inside the haunted house, and an interview with co-director Tom Pearson.
The Village Voice says, "This year's Steampunk Haunted House brings together [Victorian] elegance and the chills of a traditional scare house (sans the cop-outs of blood and gore used by most)."
NYC GO! characterizes the event as "the grinding horror of man-made machines meets Victorian science fiction (pre-industrial robots!) in the subterranean catacombs of this early 20th-century building."
Time Out New York says, "What's scarier than a regular haunted house? A mazelike haunted house that's been taken over by demented robots and spiders made of clockworks."

This is the final week of the Steampunk Haunted House, so make sure you don't miss it!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Load In

Earlier this week, Third Rail Projects took over the Abrons Art Center, unpacking props, designing sets, and building machines for the Steampunk Haunted House. I cannot show too many photos of the installations--only a few details. But in the following images, you can see the dream beginning to take shape.

Starting this weekend, those who dare to enter will experience firsthand the beauty and horror of this mysterious world.

Photos by K.O., 2010.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


Anticipation: for people who like to be scared, the dread-filled moment before we see the monster offers the biggest thrill. It is when we know that something is lurking around the corner--but we don't know exactly what it is--that our imagination runs wild and our senses sharpen.

At rehearsal last Saturday, a similar sense of anticipation filled the venue as the actors practiced their movements and geared up for opening weekend.

Photos by K.O., 2010

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Three Furies

The Three Furies torturing Orestes.

You may not know about the Three Furies because these powerful female archetypes are mostly hidden today. But when you face their wrath in the Steampunk Haunted House, a part of you, deep down, will understand. Their anger is ancient.

This powerful triumvirate has appeared, in some form or another, in myths since before the Greeks, who gave them the name Erinyes. This name translates to “the angry ones,” and these demons were greatly feared. Some believed the three were born out of the blood of violence, and thus represented vengeance. Others thought they were the offspring of Nyx (the goddess of Night) and embodied the anger of the dead, restless in the dark.

They were also known as the sisters or counterparts of the Fates, representing the bleakest part of the inevitable future—for example, death and retribution. The Fates’ number was always three: one Fate spun the thread of life onto a spindle at a person’s birth, another measured the thread and decided the life’s events, and the third cut the thread, determining the time and manner of the person’s death. The Fates and the Furies were equally feared, even by the gods. Because they controlled destiny, their power was unmatchable.

In Aeschylus’s Eumenides, Orestes is driven mad by the Furies, who ruthlessly punish him for killing his mother. They haunt him with visions of his mother’s ghost and the scent of her blood. In the Steampunk Haunted House, the Furies take on yet another form. Here, they represent how the unconscious mind haunts the conscious. They are causing the perpetual nightmare that ensnares and torments the audience.

Man knows not Fate’s approach, but onward fares, till on the scorching fire his foot treads unawares.” (Sophocles, Antigone)

Consider yourself warned.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Workspace

There is something about Halloween that inspires creativity. Last week I visited the workspace for the Steampunk Haunted House (pictured), where Third Rail Projects' artists and designers plan their installations. It was like a mad scientist’s laboratory: among the chaos were a table of metal gears, a chair with vertebrae along its back, and piles of fabric carnations on the floor.

In the corner, lighting designer Kryssy Wright was experimenting with light bulbs and color gels. Haunted houses are obviously supposed to be dark, but they need just the right amount of light to give the audience a hint about what’s lurking in the room. But light is like watercolor; if it’s not painstakingly controlled, colors can bleed into each other or light can flood the room. Kryssy has this skill mastered. She turned off the overhead lights in the workspace, and I was astonished to see her two lights—one amber and one blue—create an amazing shade of violet. “To me, that’s the color of a dream,” she said.

I also met scenic designer Chris Cummings, who’s been planning the flow of the venue for this year’s immersive, free format. Because audience members will be wandering through the house uncontrolled, Chris must carefully arrange the space, making sure that the Steampunk Haunted House has an underlying logic to it and that the sets are all blend seamlessly into each other. He also showed me some top-secret mock-ups of a machine he designed for one of the haunted house’s special effects. I can’t describe it in detail, but let me just say that he has created a device that perfectly balances the mechanized science fiction of Steampunk with the ethereal, nightmarish quality of this year’s theme.

These two designers have been working closely with the Mad Scientist himself, creator and director Zach Morris, to make the Steampunk Haunted House a breathtaking spectacle. Zach has been creating much of the environmental design with Chris and has worked with Kryssy to shape the concept for the lighting. Likewise, the designers’ unique visions have shaped and inspired many of the performative elements of the event. This collaboration has created a truly unified, immersive world.

With talented people like these at the helm, this year’s Steampunk Haunted House will definitely live up to the hype. I can’t wait to see how all these disparate materials and talents combine forces.

Photos by K.O., 2010.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Digital Postcard

Here is this year's beautiful digital postcard, which includes all the basic information on the haunted house. (Click to enlarge.)
To send to others, use the "share" button below or forward the following link:

Thursday, October 7, 2010

More on Dreams

"It has been said that the myth is a public dream, dreams are private myths. Unfortunately we give our mythic side scant attention these days. As a result, a great deal escapes us and we no longer understand our own actions. So it remains important and salutary to speak not only of the rational and the easily understood, but also of enigmatic things: the irrational and the ambiguous." -from Metamorphoses by Mary Zimmerman

My conversations with Zach Morris have inspired me to think about the relationship between dreams (this year’s theme for the Steampunk Haunted House) and art.

Dreams are immersive. We live them. Just like a haunted house, they require us to step into an entirely different world. Dreams have a seemingly irrational but very real sensory element, and, as a window into the unconscious, their imagery gives us a glimpse of a deeper knowledge that we normally don’t have access to.

In everyday waking life, we place great value and trust in rational thought. We make sense of the world by synthesizing "information"--facts that we believe are reliable and steadfast. What we see is usually what is. Rarely do we think about what lies beneath the surface, or the universal truths that carry a wisdom beyond the here and now.

As Freud and other psychiatrists active in the Victorian Age theorized, much dream symbolism is universal. Take nightmares, for example. Why is it that we are all familiar with frightening dreams of falling, of being chased by a killer, and of drowning? These are very basic fears that exist in the unconscious of us all. Like other deep-rooted themes, they fuel the myths that have emerged time and time again across geography and generations--showing up in legends, songs, paintings, and religious texts.

Jung believed that innate psychological archetypes--death, initiation, heroism--were part of the collective consciousness we all share and therefore surface in mythology and dreams. Significantly, he also noted their expression in the Major Arcana (that is, the first 22 cards) of the Tarot deck.

Art speaks the language of dreams. It illuminates these unconscious images and helps us have a deeper understanding of life. In a sense, the artist’s job is to make dreams public by sharing them with an audience, reminding us of our own private myths.

View this year's Steampunk Haunted House trailer below.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Blank Slate

As a Halloween enthusiast, I have attended countless haunted houses. So what makes the Steampunk Haunted House special? It is an art installation as much as it is a haunt, combining the beauty of the Steampunk aesthetic with the horror of Halloween imagery. The Steampunk Haunted House employs the use of incongruity and spectacle rather than shock value, eerie elegance rather than gore, dread and discomfort rather than cheap startles. And though these themes were evident in last year’s production, this year the creators will be taking them to new extremes.

Mastermind Zach Morris has described to me the unique vision for 2010: “The theme this year is “Beautiful Dreamer" (from Stephen Foster's classic 19th century ballad). And, true to the subtitle, the house is indeed, designed like one giant beautiful, disturbing, terrifying nightmare—replete with dream logic, surreal images, and startling, stunning incongruities.”

The experience of the Steampunk Haunted House, even last year, was very much like a dream: You wander through scenes that induce the alarming feeling that the reality enveloping you is askew, impossible, and disturbing. Yet the unusual sights you encounter are so intriguing, you want to linger and stare a bit longer. (Indeed, this was the most common request of many Steampunk Haunted House visitors last year.) Therefore, this October, attendees will have a chance to spend more time looking around. They will be guided into the building (which has about 17 rooms total), given a lantern, and allowed to walk anywhere within the three floors of the haunted house, with no set route—freely exploring this fascinating dream world.

Last week I visited the site for the haunted house, Abrons Arts Center (a.k.a. the Henry Street Settlement). The building is a historic theater built in 1915 (on the latter cusp of the Victorian age in the U.S.). Even without Third Rail Project’s set designs in place, the venue has a haunting, antiquated inherent beauty. The rooms within still display some of the fine architectural details of the early 1900s. The stage area also exhibits the modest-but-grand elegance of its time. The many surrounding staircases, hallways, and closets seemed to be longing for the ghastly embellishments that Third Rail Projects will soon bestow upon them. And the basement level, with its exposed pipes running along the ceiling and flaking paint, was frightening even with all the lights on. It’s easy to see how much of the Steampunk Haunted House’s design and planning takes its inspiration from this amazing establishment.

Photos by K.O., 2010