Picture this: You step into a two-story Victorian house. At first glance everything seems normal—idyllic, even. Framed family photos adorn the fireplace mantel and the walls of a turning staircase. A half-full cup of coffee has been left to cool on the dining room table.
But once you start taking a closer look around, little clues reveal that something is off: A chandelier hanging from the ceiling is partly melted, cryptic documents are strewn about, and there is no sign of the family that lives here. You realize, unnervingly, that something has gone terribly wrong.
You have two choices: You can investigate, or you can ignore the mystery and keep moving.
This strange place is Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return, an immersive, interactive art experience in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Meow Wolf started as an art collective in 2008, creating temporary installations and experiences. The House of Eternal Return, which opened in 2016 and was partly funded by Game of Thrones creator George R. R. Martin, is the group’s first permanent installation—but not its last. Next year, Meow Wolf is opening locations in Las Vegas, Nevada and Denver, Colorado.
Embracing the mysterious
It’s almost impossible to fully comprehend the Meow Wolf experience, even after spending several hours inside of it. Throughout the installation, there’s a nonlinear storyline revolving around a California family—the fictional residents of the Victorian house—and their connection to an interdimensional, and vaguely threatening, multiverse. If that sounds complicated, don’t worry. You are free to fully ignore the narrative and explore the 20,000-square-foot space like an interactive museum.
“That’s the beauty of it: You don’t have to completely immerse yourself in the storyline in order to really have this fully engaging experience,” says Laura Hudman, who does press and PR at Meow Wolf.
But for those with enough time to spend here, there’s an intricate mystery to solve using clues found in documents, videos, notes, and hidden portals throughout the installation. “There are so many realms. We have an entire narrative team of eleven writers who are full-time,” says Hudman.
The eternal return
Whether you decide to follow the narrative or not, Meow Wolf is guaranteed to give you an experience out of the ordinary. When I visited, on a Wednesday morning at the end of May, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. The House of Eternal Return quickly turned out to be an Alice in Wonderland-esque labyrinth of portals leading to different realms, each one more surreal than the last.
When first entering the house, it isn’t clear exactly what you’re supposed to do. There is no map or linear story to follow, and no correct order to explore things. A purple glow in the living room fireplace first caught my attention. Crawling through it, I suddenly found myself in a prehistoric ice cave presided over by a massive, glowing animal skeleton. Tapping the animal’s rib cage emitted musical notes, like a morbid xylophone.
You are encouraged to touch, press, pull, or open anything, and there are hidden doorways everywhere.
In the kitchen, opening the fridge reveals a sterile aisle leading into a choose-your-own-adventure-style gateway. In the laundry room, the spinning dryer opens into an enclosed, kaleidoscopic mini-universe. Each of these dimensions leads to new rooms, portals, staircases, or psychedelic nature scenes begging to be explored.
There’s an underwater neon forest, a laser harp, faux taxidermy, and a fully operational vintage arcade. Once you think you’ve seen it all, a new realm appears, or you suddenly find yourself back—eternally returned, if you will—inside the Victorian house.
According to Hudman, about 135 artists have worked on creating the more than 70 rooms that make up the House of Eternal Return. The whole experience is a smorgasbord for the senses—and it can easily become overwhelming. Hudman recommends spending a minimum of one to two hours in the space in order to get a well-rounded experience. But for some people, even a full day of exploring isn’t enough.
“It’s really up to the visitor to determine how deep they want to go,” Hudman says. “If you just quickly want to go through and enjoy the visual feast, you can do that and have a very nice, fun time with what you see and the sounds you hear.”
Untangling the narrative takes more time, perhaps even multiple visits. “That depth is not for everyone,” Hudman says.
A common question that requires considerably less effort to answer revolves around the art collective itself: What does Meow Wolf mean?
It started at one of the group’s first meetings, back in 2008. “They decided that they needed a name, so each member at the meeting put in two separate sheets of paper and each piece of paper had one word on it,” says Hudman. They then drew two words from the mix, and those words just happened to be “meow” and “wolf.”
During its three short years of operation, Meow Wolf has skyrocketed in popularity. In 2017, the House of Eternal Return saw half a million visits and even won a Thea Award. Now, the company is giving back.
“Meow Wolf has a full philanthropic aspect to it, where we are helping to support other art collectives in various states,” Hudman says. “The founders still want to make sure that they recognize their success in this and do what they can to pass that along to others.”
Meow Wolf’s Santa Fe location, with its 20,000 square feet and 70 rooms, feels impossible to explore fully. The Las Vegas location—opening in early 2020—is going to more than double that space, totaling 50,000 square feet. Buckle up, and get ready to fall down the rabbit hole.
If you go
Meow Wolf is open every day except Tuesdays (with some exceptions). Admission is $21-29. Tickets need to be purchased in advance to guarantee entrance. You have to arrive at the time specified on your ticket, but there is no time limit on the visit. Meow Wolf is open to all ages, and children under 3 get in for free.