Storytelling aspect allows visitors to dive deeper into the surreal realm — if they wish
I don't want to open the casket.
At this point, I've been wandering around Otherworld for nearly an hour, an experience that began, in a way, when I pulled into the parking lot of the largely abandoned shopping plaza that houses the complex. From the outside, Otherworld's gleaming, illuminated entrance stood in stark contrast to the shuttered big box stores flanking it on both sides, adding to the sensation that I'd stumbled upon some illicit corporate or governmental enterprise.
The sensation carried into the space itself, where, after walking through what appeared to be a futuristic locker room — complete with an ominously shattered pane of glass — I entered a control room that introduced me to the storyline that serves as a loose, supportive framework for the immersive art installation. By accessing desktop computer files, I was able to trigger a scientist's video diary, in which he spoke with growing excitement about his experiments, which involved plant life, the creation of an interdimensional portal and then, gradually, a series of logs about the time spent exploring this “other world.” In one video, recorded following a lengthier portal visit, the scientist said, “Every minute I spend here, it's like I'm getting closer to the truth.”
Which brings me back to the wooden casket that sits at the rear of a room filled with evil-looking clowns who appear to have been crafted by some sadistic 1940s-era animation studio. I, too, am trying to get closer to the truth, looking for further clues embedded throughout the space and designed to enrich the experience for those who want to go deeper into Otherworld.
“I think making the experience accessible was very important, where people don't feel as if they need to read a dissertation to approach it,” said Los Angeles-based writer Tommy Honton, who has worked full-time for three years in immersive entertainment — a relatively new field in which visitors interact more fully with their surroundings (think escape rooms and the like) — and partnered with writer Juliet Rylah and Otherworld Founder and Creative Director Jordan Renda in developing the space's narrative. “It can just be beautiful and cool and weird. But, if you want to go deeper, you can. The idea is that the rabbit hole, metaphorically, is there. And if you want to go down it, you can.”
On initial exploration, it's easy to be overwhelmed by the sights alone, which range from a mirrored room filled with glowing, floor-to-ceiling neon tubes to another spun with myriad spider webs made of yarn, like some arachnid version of Joann Fabrics. There's also the aforementioned coffin, which can indeed be opened. (Without spoiling the surprise, know that lifting the lid triggers a response elsewhere in the room.) At times, walking the space had the effect of making me feel as though I'd been pulled through the portal alongside the scientist, with aspects of my earthly existence scattered among the alien creations, and there were points in my exploration where I began to question my grip on reality.
Furthermore, equipped with even minimal knowledge of plant-based experiments, certain books littering the installation take on added meaning (Carnivorous Plants, Just Weeds and Flowers of the World, among them). Still other tucked-away sights suggest potential source material for the space (a VHS copy of “The Wizard of Oz,” an image clipped from the Maurice Sendak children's classic Where the Wild Things Are, a copy of Dreams: Your Magic Mirror by Elsie Sechrist stowed on a bookshelf). And repeated, hieroglyphic-like symbols begin to feel like part of a larger scavenger hunt, which, according to Renda, is the eventual plan, allowing visitors to unlock new surprises the further they delve in.
As an example, Renda pointed to a laptop, which was out of commission for our visit. When operational, visitors can access hidden files on the computer, including telephone numbers that trigger actions elsewhere in the space when dialed from the nearby phone. Renda and Honton also made note of an underlying game involving the hieroglyphic-like symbols, which could take visitors multiple visits to fully unspool, if ever.
“We have a bible we wrote that sort of explains everything, but the audience doesn't need to know that bible,” Honton said. “My hope is that people go through the space and eventually get pulled into this story. … There's this idea you can surprise someone by hiding something in plain sight, or this idea that you have more control of this world than you know. And that can really empower people, and there's something very magical about doing that.”