Black Masks and Unheard Whispers

Image credit: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Image credit: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times. Retrieved from, the online portfolio of incredible set decorator Alexandra Schaller.

When talking about it with the uninitiated, I call it going to Sleep No More. When I speak of it to those who understand, it is staying at the McKittrick, a name said in hushed and giddy reverence.

One of my ambitions in life is to be a Black Mask, one of the non-performing staff who serve as silent sentinels, keeping order among the guests, drawing boundaries when boundaries need to be drawn, and providing a safety net for those who might be overcome. Although it’s probably a terrible idea:  it would be heartbreaking if it destroyed the magic for me, seeing where all the trapdoors and secret doorways are. But I feel drawn to that role. I feel like I want to… protect it? The place, the people, the whole experience. The love I feel for it is real and hot and almost disturbingly intense.

There’s a legion of devoted fans who spend small fortunes going every weekend, but since I live in the Washington D.C. metro area and the McKittrick is in New York, I sadly cannot join them. And maybe, if I were a Black Mask, or one of the regulars (is there a word for those? Sleepers? frequent guests? Maximillian’s children?), the intense, almost religious devotion that I feel for the McKittrick would fade. But all three times I went there, it was a profoundly spiritual experience.

For good or ill. My third visit was not long after my relationship ended, while I was alone in the city, flotsam looking for a current, and already neck-deep in despair. This is not the mindset in which to go to the McKittrick. The intense emotions associated with the place, the waves of memory and regret woven into the fabric… it was more than I could bear. I saw Hecate, who is dear to me, perform “Is That All There Is To a Fire?” and it was like dying, trapped behind a mask, quiet in the dark. I got into a taxi by myself afterwards and sobbed. I must make a return visit, with kindred hearts this time, just so that my last memory of my dear McKittrick is not so wracked with pain.
sleep no more set

Image credit: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times. Retrieved from

My second visit was transcendent. I was visiting the shadow Manderley Bar, having not seen it except during the witches’ rave. I happened to be the only person in the room when Hecate entered. Initially I kept a respectful distance, but when I looked straight at her, she was looking straight back at me. The moment is thrilling — the fiction is looking back at you, the screen has disappeared and they can see you as you see them. She held out a hand to me, and after a moment of uncertainty, I took it. She led me to a doorway and brought me into the dark, took my mask and eliminated the last boundary of safety between me and the unreal. It was like looking into the face of god. I won’t tell you what passed between us, as some mysteries are too personal to share.

The first visit, before Halloween last year, was serendipitous. Not being a New Yorker or especially culturally aware, I first heard of Sleep No More in reference to Then She Fell (also then unknown to me) — specifically in an advertisement of some sort for trendy New York theater. My life would look quite different now, if I hadn’t gotten that random piece of email spam. I was determined to make Halloween count last year; it is traditionally my favorite holiday but I had been unable to celebrate properly for the last several years. I wanted to have extraordinary experiences that fall, and this was just what I was looking for. The drastically sold-out Then She Fell was not an option, but Sleep No More tickets, though pricey for rubes like us, seemed like the perfect choice, like a haunted house for grown-ups. I was obviously unprepared.

It was when I stood in front of Lord MacDuff, cradling the body of dead Lady MacDuff in his arms, and he met my eyes and stepped towards me, and touched his forehead to mine and whispered in my ear, that I realized I was in over my head. I still do not know what he said — and if anyone out there in the darkness has had this experience, please tell me what you heard. (A vote from my friend JLW was 1 Corinthians 3:16-17, “Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are.”) But I felt hot tears behind my mask as his anguish reached out to me in the darkness. That was a moment that changed the way I experienced my life, the moment when I realized that the mediocre and mundane was never going to be enough.

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