A trip through the trippiest place I know
When I was a kid, my parents had a friend, Bob, who was one of those characters that seems straight out of a Jean Shepard story. In the golden hindsight of memory’s sieve, it’s hard to to draw the line between reality, the rosy blur of childhood memory and dream. One thing I clearly remember, however, was that Bob had a deep interest in the strange, especially in the space where oddball, creepy and craft intersect. Therefore, once-upon-a-time, we drove with Bob and the whole family out to south-western Wisconsin to visit a place called The House on the Rock. As an craftsman, Bob knew something of the sculptures and the lore surrounding this road-side oddity. We didn’t know what to expect.
What I can remember was a long hallway suspended above the pines, swaying gently in the breeze, a series of gaudy rooms with outlandish decorations and automated music machines that played out-of-tune music when plied with a token. I also remember the tour of The House was extremely trying as the tour went on forever. By the time we reached the end of a long hallway and an enormous indoor carousel, walking to the steady pounding of a timpani drum, we had had enough and looked for a way out. All we could find was a fire exit and decided, rather than seeing just how deep the rabbit hole goes, we should crash out. Since then, the House on the Rock became a fixture of the familial lore. It became a symbol for the creepy, the strange and the never-ending. If memory serves, it was most aptly compared with a flu-dream – that is, one of those fitful, aberrantly creepy and thoroughly surreal nightmares one has when running a high fever. When we
woke left, it was hard to be sure what fitful visions were real and what were twisted by our imaginations into something more sinister. The mere mention of The House on the Rock became something of an inside joke and reference point. When we found ourselves in a strange place or lost in some over-long detour, a House on the Rock comparison wasn’t long in coming.
So, when after a wedding some months past, my wife and I found ourselves with some good friends and without a plan for the day – we decided to take advantage of the opportunity and visit the House on the Rock. One of our companions had been just a few years back and we were prepared for the full three tours. The folks at the front didn’t mind my bringing a tripod through (although one bored manager near the end seemed to have a problem – luckily this place is such a dark labyrinth that those problems were quickly left behind) and I will not bring to you over the course of three posts about thirty-odd photographs from within the musky corners of this oddity.
The “house,” comprises the first tour. A tour of the entire museum is split into three parts and it takes over three hours to complete. I will share the photographs I took in three parts as well, roughly split along the same lines as the tour. As you walk through the place, you find yourself making a slow decent from the gaudy, semi-organized spaces of the house into progressive disorganization, disorientation and creepshow. For me, the experience reaches its apogee at the end of the second tour – in a room billed as having the world’s largest carousel. At this point, however, only the second tour is ending; after all, it wouldn’t be the House on the Rock if it didn’t go on too long. Should you need any further testimony to the other-worldly quality of this museum, in doing a little background checking and research for this post, I discovered that the House on the Rock serves as the portal into the minds of the gods in a novel called American Gods.
The house, (which the long exposures of these images gives the appearance of being well-lit, don’t be fooled) initially gives the impression of careful design and imagination but eventually yields to the chaos that awaits. “The Infinity Room” (above) is one of the very first rooms in the house and presents the last true glimpse of daylight the visitor gets for the next several hours. The small little spaces one might expect to find in Jackie Treehorn’s Malibu penthouse from the Coen brothers’ Big Lebowski end about the time the strange collections of artifacts begin. A few suits of armor facing the stadium seating of a claustrophobic amphitheater mirror the contents of a room near the end of tour three where a vast collection of armors from numerous time periods wage war near a fiberglass elephant. Just out of the house and into the second tour and a “Streets of Yesterday” exhibit begins. Miniaturized versions of small town Americana and non-functional, creepy fortuneteller booths foreshadow the bulk the second tour, or what I would call “The Dark Carnival,” after Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes.