Otherworld Brings an Immersive Experience to the Northeast That’s Trippy, Unsettling and Beautiful
The 40,000-square-foot interactive art exhibit has creepy creatures, secret passages, trippy tableaux and much more.
After months of teasing and waiting, a big, new immersive art experience is finally open in Northeast Philly. In a 40,000-square-foot building that used to be a Forman Mills, to be exact. And that’s where the surreality of Otherworld begins.
At this point, we’re pretty well accustomed to “immersive” experiences: They’re interactive, they’re artistic, they’re Instagram goldmines. At one point, the Fashion District held two dueling experiences: the pop-up confection Candytopia and the permanent, contemplative art exhibit Wonderspaces. So, how does Otherworld fit in to this landscape? Press materials refer to it as a “mixed-reality playground,” which kind of tells you everything and nothing at once. (It’s a phrase reminiscent of “casual entertainment” from the SNL sketch that brought us dancing Bill Hader.) Let’s try this another way: When explaining Otherworld to colleagues, I described it as “Wonderspaces having a nightmare.”
And I mean that in the best way.
Philadelphia is just the second location of Otherworld, which opened in Columbus, Ohio in 2019. The 55 rooms and installations in the Philly location fit a similar aesthetic — neon, dystopian settings, cute yet creepy creatures, and sci-fi interactivity — but are unique to their new location. (More locations are planned.) It’s the brainchild of Jordan Renda, founder and CEO, who began his career designing escape rooms and haunted houses — a fact that makes perfect sense when considering Otherworld. All told, it took over 100 artists, animators, engineers and more creatives to bring the Philly iteration to life.
What to Expect
After you check in, you’re left on your own to discover. The point is to get lost and go at your own pace, and that psychedelic “Choose Your Own Adventure” spirit begins with two different entrances to the exhibit.
It all flows into each other, so you’ll eventually reach the other entrance if you keep going, but because each room has so many different portals (including some secret passages and tunnels you have to crawl through), you’re on edge the whole time that you may have missed something. And while that open-endedness can be fun (you can go in any direction and return to favorite rooms as much as you want), it can feel unsettling if you’re a completist (or just want to get your money’s worth).
I felt like I should be dropping breadcrumbs like Hansel and Gretel, and after experiencing enough creepy rooms, including a funeral with ominous masked figures (where the coffin contains a mirror so it’s literally like you died) being kidnapped by a witch didn’t seem so farfetched.
Yes, some rooms are a bit scary, while some are just trippy, and some are downright beautiful. That’s kind of the point, the juxtaposition. One room consists of rows of mirror arches, another of multicolor drips; yet another is a Tron-like liminal space. There are creepy-cute creatures, too, like a giant mutant moth, bouncy octopus-dog hybrids, and one giant ice-cream-loving monster (you feed him with different levers to make his heart-eyes light up). You can walk through a monster’s mouth, traverse the intestines of giant mutant fish, pose with a fuzzy, grumpy, unicorn-horned blob. And you can buy some of them in the gift shop!
Meanwhile, something sinister is afoot. There’s a vague storyline that somehow involves a chemical spill, a coverup, and, like, an election? It’s unclear, and only hinted at in Easter eggs, decor, and touchscreen prompts you can manipulate. To quote Gabe from The Office (who would likely enjoy Otherworld along with his “cinema of the unsettling” film collection), “even narrative is comforting.” The story is only part of the experience.
Be sure to touch everything, because there are little surprises everywhere. Even the floor reacts to your step in some rooms. And while there are some little “games” here and there, none are essential to the experience if you’re not into that kind of thing. There’s no rules, just vibes. Just dystopian vibes.
Know Before You Go
The experience is described as kid-friendly, and while my nine-year-old (who tends to like weird stuff) loved it, I wouldn’t recommend Otherworld for especially young kids, or those that might carry it into their nightmares. Of course, if one room is too scary (looking at you, Plague Doctor funeral!), you can skip it and breeze through to the next experience. If you do bring little ones, be sure to keep a close eye on them because it is very easy to get lost in this multi-directional labyrinth.
Otherworld is now open at 2500 Grant Avenue in the Northeast. It’s open every day but Tuesday. Its hours are 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekdays, with a later closing time (10 p.m.) on Fridays and Saturdays, and a 6 p.m. closing time on Sundays. Tickets are sold online in timeslots, and will run you $35 per person. Once you enter, you can stay as long as you want till closing. Prepare to spend at least 90 minutes there, though you could easily lose hours — and yourself.