Part surreal Disney, part psychedelic penny arcade, The House of Eternal Return is what Salvador Dali might have built had he been tasked with designing a television game show.
It looks like an ordinary Victorian house, but delve into its dark recesses and visitors find themselves transported into a fantastical labyrinthine world that has redefined what it means to experience art.
The 20,000 square foot attraction on the outskirts of Santa Fe was funded by Game of Thrones creator George R.R. Martin as part of a multi-million-dollar drive to revive that part of New Mexico.
“The best description we give it is it’s an immersive storytelling experience. It’s maximally interactive, immersive art,” said Vince Kadlubek, the 35-year-old co-founder and CEO of Meow Wolf, the art collective behind the project.
Santa Fe, a melting pot of Hispanic and Pueblo culture celebrated as a mecca for cutting-edge artists and a one-time stop-off on the hippy trail, has been greying of late.
The median age is estimated at 42.5 — almost three years higher than in 2000 and five years higher than the national average.
A 50-year-old resident says she is sick of always being the youngest in the room at parties.
Community activists have identified systematic, prolonged neglect of pressing needs like affordable housing, non-tourism job growth, green energy and nightlife as a driver of the youth exodus.
“I’ve experienced this loss of young people and with that loss there was a weakening economy,” Kadlubek, who grew up in Santa Fe, said.
“The tourism market was starting to drop off as well because the new tourists — the 40-year-olds, the Gen X tourist — was not wanting to come to Santa Fe.”
Kadlubek says the House of Eternal Return had a “right time, right place” feel about it, with Martin increasingly involved in improving the city as HBO’s Game of Thrones exploded.
Visitors enter what appears to be a two-storey quarantined house — supposedly in Mendocino, California — but quickly become aware that all is not as it seems.
The experience is anchored to a mystery concerning the Steligs, the family that lived there and disappeared following an anomaly which has unmoored the house from time and space.
Visitors are let loose to figure out what happened by uncovering clues in the family’s letters, shopping lists and journals, and by opening files on a computer in the study and reading Post-it notes in the kitchen.
But open the refrigerator and suddenly you’re in a glowing corridor leading to a futuristic, intergalactic travel agency with sliding spaceship doors.
Crawl through the fireplace and you enter a magical cave system, with a glowing, 12-foot mammoth skeleton that can be played like a marimba.
Dive into the tumble drier and you enter a surreal fantasia of more than 70 connected chambers containing all sorts of abstract, spooky psychedelia influenced by Japanese pop culture, the Calvin and Hobbes cartoons and even Walt Disney himself.
There is a huge furry creature that winks, an enchanted neon forest, robots, lasers, tree houses, a geodesic dome covered in eyeballs, a desert mobile home and a rabbit with glowing eyes.
“It’s a puzzle, it’s just fun. Kids like it, adults like it. It’s a very unique experience,” Minnesota resident Gail Machov said at the attraction, summing up its universal appeal.
‘To out-Disney Disney’
Martin, 68, has been in love with Santa Fe since visiting as a tourist and adopting it as his home in 1979.
Concerned over its increasingly ageing demographic, he bought the Jean Cocteau Cinema, a 128-seat, single-screen movie house emblematic of the city’s untapped potential that had been vacant for seven years in 2013.
Martin turned it into a youth hangout, showing the latest releases but also inviting Game of Thrones cast members to attend star-studded season premieres with real wolves in tow.
Capitalising on the bounce his A Song of Fire and Ice source novels were getting from Game of Thrones, Martin also converted a vacant high school into artist studios.
In 2014 Kadlubek emailed Martin, who had briefly been his boss at the Jean Cocteau, to pitch “an interactive, multimedia art experience” after discovering an abandoned bowling alley in the industrial end of town.
Intrigued, Martin shelled out $3 million to buy and renovate the building, working out a 10-year lease which effectively made him landlord.
Meow Wolf spent 18 months on the refit, aiming to attract 100,000 visitors in a year but achieving that in the first two months after the March 2016 opening.
“The goal for the first year was maybe 100,000 people but 400,000 came. It was just a wild success, people love it,” said John Feins, Meow Wolf’s director of marketing.
The company is now looking to replicate its success in Denver, Las Vegas, Houston and Austin.
“We want to create the coolest experiences that exist in the entire world, that’s our goal. We want to out-Disney Disney, we want to out-Universal Universal,” says Kadlubek.
“We want to be the most incredible experience in the world.”