Each year the talented performers and artists at Third Rail Projects create an immersive Neo-Victorian nightmare in a historic theater on the Lower East Side. The experience is called the Steampunk Haunted House, and it’s by far the most unique haunt I’ve ever attended.

The first time I went, I was amazed at how well the Steampunk aesthetic blended with the horror and magic of Halloween (indeed, I was terrified by a giant clockwork spider). Last year, as the event’s official documentarian, I watched the project develop from its early phases to opening night. The 2010 theme was “Beautiful Dreamer,” and it included nightmarish imagery like Victorian ghosts crawling backward over theater seats. Even though I had been behind the scenes and knew the setup, nothing could prepare me for the way all the elements came together.

Last week I sat down with Third Rail Project artistic directors Zach Morris and Tom Pearson to discuss this year’s incarnation of the Steampunk Haunted House, “Through the Looking Glass.” The current theme draws on elements from Lewis Carroll’s Alice and Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, but it is not a literal retelling of these stories. Instead, its more like the shared nightmare of Alice and Lewis Carroll himself–a mesmerizing blend of fantasy and reality.

The magnificent Red Queen. Image by Chad Heird.
Photo of Alice Liddel, taken by Lewis Carroll.

Lewis Carroll’s biography reveals that he was a conflicted man. As an Anglican deacon and a mathematician, he delved into both religious and worldly knowledge. His health was poor, he had an embarrassing stammer, and he seemed to idealize the innocence of children. The character Alice was based on a child Carroll knew named Alice Liddle, whom he began to create stories for. Naturally, the stories he told her reflected his own struggles with philosophy and logic, imagination verging on fear, and curiosity that leads outside reality.

It seems Carroll was the perfect embodiment of Victorian Era–a time when exciting new ideas and inventions were being introduced, and people were torn between clinging to old traditions and embracing the new. With reason came logic, but with logic came the existential question of whether logic truly holds in reality. And sometimes these new technological innovations could result in unexpected horrors. The contradictions of this era inform the Steampunk movement.

This evening I experienced the Steampunk Haunted House myself. Like dreaming, wandering through this house is an illogical adventure. Symbolism abounds: mirrors reflect but can also be transparent, little girls stand staring in white dresses, and hallways lead into pitch-dark labrynths. Familiar characters from the book appear (the Mad Hatter, the White Rabbit), but in human form, and they ignite curiosity with eye contact, gestures, and mind tricks. Red, white, black, cards, roses: the story comes to life in the darkness of the haunt, but in a twisted form–a distorted mirror image of the books and their author. The Steampunk-style devices add a grinding inevitability to the haunting experience, giving the space the dread of a doomed machine. The enveloping madness is intoxicating and utterly spellbinding.

The Steampunk Haunted House is on Oct. 22, 23, and 26-31 at the Abrons Arts Center.

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