A Look at the 2010 Steampunk Haunted House

Kathryn O’Shields is the documentarian for the 2010 Steampunk Haunted House and has contributed this essay to Culturebot.

Photo by Darla Winn (2009)

Last year, on October 28th, I found myself warily entering a dark historic theater downtown. Inside, I navigated narrow hallways with work lanterns hanging crookedly overhead. I entered a hazy theater full of ghosts in Victorian attire. I peered into glass cases that had living mannequins trapped inside. I passed an accordion player who seemed to be utterly lost in time. I encountered a huge half-woman/half-spider with beckoning metal legs. This was the eerily beautiful world of the Steampunk Haunted House, created by the talented artists at Third Rail Projects.

2009 was the first year of the Steampunk Haunted House, a disturbingly immersive experience that combined the terrifying with the sublime, living flesh with machines, Halloween with art. This totally unique experience did not go unnoticed by the press. NBC New York called it “visually stunning,” and the Village Voice urged people not to miss it. Bloggers (like Devon Petley and La Carmina) also raved about the house, even months after it closed for the season.

This October, the Steampunk Haunted House returns.

Photo by Darla Winn (2009)

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. The venue has a haunting, antiquated inherent beauty, even without Third Rail Project’s set designs in place. 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 haunted house’s design and planning takes its inspiration from this amazing establishment.

This year’s iteration of the Steampunk Haunted House will be a novel interpretation of the mysteries, horrors, and old-fashioned beauty of the Steampunk aesthetic—made even more terrifying by a new format, artwork, and characters. Soon we will know its secrets…

Zach Morris/Third Rail Projects
New York City
October 23, 29, 30 | 8-11:30 pm
October 24, 27, 28, 31 | 6-9:30 pm

TICKETS: Wednesday/Thursday
$20 adults/$10 students

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