SANTA FE, NM—The Meow Wolf art complex looks like a strip mall from another dimension. Located in downtown Santa Fe, its massive main building—a former bowling alley—is covered in zig-zagging lines of explosive color. The parking lot is dominated by towering metal sculptures of a spider and a robot. Its landlord is George RR Martin, author of the Game of Thrones series, and its tenants are a high-tech artist collective called Meow Wolf, known previously for building a full-scale spaceship that visitors could explore.
On March 17, after nearly two years of construction, the Meow Wolf art complex opened its riotously painted doors and invited the public into its first permanent exhibit, called The House of Eternal Return. Think of it as a walk-in science fiction novel built with milling machines, thermoplastic, and Arduinos. Or maybe it's a cross between Disneyland and a massive, multiplayer, IRL game. Built by 135 artists and makers, the result is a 20,000-square-foot dreamworld where your goal is to figure out why an old Victorian house in Mendocino, California, has become ground zero for a rupture in space-time that’s allowing other dimensions to leak into ours.
I took a tour of the Meow Wolf art complex in the final few days before it opened, when dozens of artists and fabricators were working around the clock to finish building what I can only describe as something I never imagined could exist. My tour guides were artist Lauren Oliver, whose magnificent space owl can be found in the dreamscape of Eternal Return, and technology project lead Corvas Brinkerhoff. They fitted me with a hard hat and took me into a building that was once a bowling alley. Now it's another world.
But Meow Wolf isn't just an amusement park. It's a place where people can create their own version of Eternal Return, too. The group has dedicated 13,000 square feet in its lobby area to Santa Fe’s first makerspace, as well as an educational center where kids can learn high-tech art and fabrication. Before you're immersed in the magic, you’ll see the machines that created it.
Once you pay admission and pass through the doors into Eternal Return, however, the rules of reality are suspended. There are just a few simple guidelines. Touch everything. Go anywhere, especially places that seem weird. Be nice. Try not to break anything. And whatever you do, don’t pee in the toilet. Don’t worry; there are restrooms. But seriously, there’s a toilet that’s very important to the story and you won’t want to mess it up.
The first thing visitors see as they enter Eternal Return is a full-scale, two-story Victorian house owned by the Selig family. Chadney Everett, Meow Wolf’s lead designer, worked with a team to plan and fabricate every single piece of the two-story structure, with its elaborate awnings and decorations. I stood outside, awestruck at seeing an entire house built indoors. Beyond its porches and spires, the soaring dark walls and ceiling of the cavernous Meow Wolf space made it seem like we were approaching at night. What should I do?
“Just go inside,” said Brinkerhoff. So I did, right through the front door, into a living room that looked like it had been decorated in the 1970s. Between the comfy sofas and battered wooden coffee tables, people were painting, hammering, and bug testing. One group from Brinkerhoff's tech team was hacking on an old VCR that's part of the family room's entertainment system. Visitors can play videos owned by the Seligs, to gather clues about what happened in the house. Of course, no analog technology is actually involved. Each “videocassette” is fitted with an RFID; the “VCR” has a reader inside that signals the Meow Wolf servers to send the right video to the “television set.”
From there, we wandered into the dining room where the interdimensional incident took place. Every wall and corner was warped, the wood rippled like water. Something had torn through here, distorting every solid surface. What happened to this seemingly normal family over dinner? There are a million choices if I want to answer that question. I could explore every room in the house, including a mad scientist’s workshop and the aforementioned toilet whose position directly over the dining room disaster gives it a special vantage point.
Or I could enter another dimension by wiggling under the stairs, walking inside the refrigerator, wandering out a window on the upper floor, or exiting the house through other unexpected portals. Apparently, when the event warped the dining room, it blasted open entrances to an ice cave, an enchanted forest, a Star Trek-like spaceship, and a lot of places too strange to put into words.
On my journey through Eternal Return, I managed to piece together a rough understanding of what happened in the house. Without giving away any spoilers, I can say a few things about what to expect.
Real-life virtual reality
The Selig family's history goes back generations, but our main characters are a woman who is an artist, a man who is an inventor, and their young son. As we walk through their home, we gradually realize that this is no ordinary family. In fact, they have always had peculiar powers. The woman deals with this in her art, and her husband uses science to figure out what exactly their powers might be.
When something tragic happens to their son, things spiral out of control. The couple try to get their son back—but they wind up unleashing forces far beyond their understanding. The house is blown open both literally and transdimensionally, with exits leading into other universes that are profoundly influenced by the Selig family's dreams and desires.
There's a complex cosmology underlying the human drama, which was created during six months of intensive worldbuilding and writing by the Meow Wolf narrative team. The Seligs are part of a group called the Bloodline, which represents a chaotic, creative force in the universe. The Bloodline is at odds with another group, called the Charter, which strives to maintain rational structures. The House of Eternal Return lies at the center of a clash between chaos and order.
Each part of the space, and every object, fits into a coherent, well-planned story. You can focus only on what happened to the Seligs in their dining room, or you can plunge into stories about their ancestors, their scientific experiments, and even their fantasies. Within the other dimensions are further stories, dreams within dreams, which don't necessarily offer clues to the central mystery but add details to the greater cosmology.
Though Eternal Return's creators call it an art space, it feels much more like a real-life MMO, where visitors solve puzzles, gather clues, and access new maps to level up. The aesthetic is often reminiscent of cult movie Donnie Darko, with its trippy gothic feel and pocket universes. But it will also feel familiar to anyone who ever got sucked into the ethereally beautiful Myst video game series, where your task is to figure out how a family tragedy led to the abandonment of increasingly weird and magical places. Like Myst, Eternal Return goes deep and is full of games-within-games. You can read Selig family journals, open their drawers, and take any number of pathways to find answers.
To play Eternal Return well, you have to touch everything and examine every object. Anything could turn out to be an interface or machine. I found myself climbing inside an upended truck that erupted through the floor just to flick the switches on its fantastically altered dashboard. I ran my fingers through the lights emitted by lasers in a dark room that was full of whispers. I wedged myself into a dome whose walls were studded with animal eyes. I walked into the body of a fossilized mastodon. Some of those spaces turned out to be dead ends. Others helped me understand where the Seligs had gone.
I had an epiphany in a room that Brinkerhoff called "the teenage girl's room," a neon red and pink bedroom full of posters for an imaginary band called Girl Boy. The walls were plastered with Girl Boy's picture—an androgynous, almost android-like figure who might have been a Japanese vocaloid or some kind of feminist Devo spinoff. Girl Boy was emblazoned on a blown-up cover from 1970s and '80s teenybopper magazine Dynamite. The windows were covered with Dance Dance Revolution curtains. The bed was covered in frills. What did this room have to do with the Seligs? They have no teenage daughter, so who was the mysterious girl who lived in this place? Was she from another dimension? Perhaps a future version of the Seligs' young son, grown up into a music-loving genderqueer? I spun slowly in the center of the room, wondering and wondering.
I suspect that every visitor will find a room in the House of Eternal Return that speaks to them like this. At some point, the weirdness will get to you and pierce your heart and make you forget that the Seligs aren't real.
The House of Eternal Return is inside an old bowling alley, but members of Meow Wolf fabricated a lot of its innards in the abandoned retail spaces of a strip mall across the parking lot. The mall is part of Meow Wolf's space and is home to the tech team's electronics shop, Meow Wolf Labs, as well as a gift shop. There's also warehousing for small companies like Skratchworks, which makes an air-drying sculpting medium that Meow Wolf uses for many of its creations.
As Brinkerhoff led me through the electronics shop, he explained how Meow Wolf works. A group of artists and fabricators, the core members of the group, got together almost a decade ago to put on events that are halfway between art shows and parties. Led by Vince Kadlubek, they evolved into an entity that Brinkerhoff calls "an anarchist collective that's super organized." It sounds as fantastical as Eternal Return itself, but somehow they've made it work. The key is maintaining a balance as delicate as the Bloodline and the Charter, allowing chaos to reign but also keeping things in order so that the bills are paid and everything works.
Meow Wolf's long-term plan is ambitious. To make a profit on their Santa Fe art space, they'll need to attract about 100,000 paying visitors per year. Some will come just to explore Eternal Return, but others will be attracted to the many concerts, events, and art shows they have planned. There is a stage built into the House of Eternal Return, and groups can rent it or the entire space for private or public events. Plus, Meow Wolf will have a built-in community using the makerspace and the classrooms in their lobby.
Even Meow Wolf Labs has its own plan for making money. They're going to turn a lot of the sensor systems and devices they use in Eternal Return into modular components that they'll sell as kits. This was their idea long before building even began; Brinkerhoff emphasized that his main goals with the tech were cheapness and interoperability. He created a map of all the inputs and outputs used in the space called the "Meow Wolf Tech Media Palette": it shows a simple structure that encompasses digital and gradient inputs to networked PCs, Raspberry Pis, and Arduinos, and then outputs to displays, lights, speakers, TVs, projectors, and RGB strips.
Everything visitors encounter in Eternal Return, from glowing dinosaurs and bleeping statues, to motion-activated lights and touch-operated spaceship doors, was created with this basic media palette.
But the hardest part of wasn't technical at all. "It was the inspection process that was the most stressful," Brinkerhoff said with a tired smile. "All our lighting is custom, using heavily modified controllers, and the inspector had never seen anything like it. He just saw us as a mountain of liability." Once they had passed that Charter-esque inspection, though, everything seemed easy.
Physically constructing the house required another balance of chaos and order. Lead designer Chadney told me that his experience as a prop designer for movies was a big help. He and his team started with a floor plan and customized it from the ground up. Using Meow Wolf's extensive woodshop, they made everything from balustrades to shingles. (Pro tip: there are a lot of Easter eggs in the exterior house decorations, so don't forget to take a hard look before you go inside.)
Three materials made Eternal Return what it is. Skratch, an air-drying sculpting material, created surface textures. Instamorph, a thermoplastic that can be remolded when heated, is part of many sculptures (especially in the ice caves) and can be easily embedded with lights to create a beautiful glow. And for the kind of building that Chadney and his team were doing, it was all about medium-density fiberboard, a combination of wood fibers, wax, and resins compressed into panels at high temperature. "We joked that this is medium-density fiberboard world," he recalled. With the help of a giant CNC router, "we have used it for so many things—the portals, the staircase. But the house is real. It's built with 2x4s and sheetrock and has full electrical."
The design crew's biggest challenge was thinking about what game designers would call the UX. "We have to be aware that 100 or 200 people will be in the house at one time," Chadney explained. So some rooms, like the dining room that's ground zero for the "incident," is built much larger than a typical dining room would be. Their guiding principle was thinking about the flow of people through the space and how to make it as fun and comfortable as possible for visitors.
That's where the toilet comes in. I mentioned earlier that the bathroom is positioned above the dining room, and it contains a major clue. Chadney said the toilet's special status came out of a rather mundane concern: "We didn't want children trying to use the toilet, so we created a way to make them think twice before doing that." Visitors have to stick their heads over the toilet and peer into the pipes to see... something. "I love the visual of people waiting in line to get on their knees to look in a toilet," Chadney said with a chuckle. "Meow Wolf takes cues from places like Disneyland, and it's important to me that children can enjoy themselves in this space. But it’s not your typical amusement park. It’s sometimes weird and gross. It’s art. It's something you don’t expect."
General admission to House of Eternal Return is $15 for New Mexico residents and $18 for people from out of state. (You can also buy annual and lifetime passes.) It might sound crazy to go all the way to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to play a giant game inside an extremely strange amusement park. But that's kind of the point. This is your chance to experience something way beyond the ordinary, and you'd be crazy not to do it.