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The unintentional horror and camp of the House on the Rock

SPRING GREEN, Wis. — I’m not sure which was more frightening — the endless yards of asthma-inducing blood-red shag carpet, the 200-foot whale-like sea monster fighting a giant squid, or the endless rooms of dolls attired in Victorian garb with blank, soul-sucking stares.

One of these toy tableaus depicted a doll funeral, with Lucifer himself ominously hovering. You see, I told you these dolls were evil.

And just when I thought it couldn’t get any more macabre, it was time to send in the clowns — clowns everywhere with sinister grins lurking in the dark. Ghostly automated orchestras and thundering calliopes filled otherwise quiet, dark corners. Dead trees sprouted from the floor and cast horror film shadows across the displays.

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It sounds impossible, but all these wonders are contained in one massive attraction, House on the Rock, located in an otherwise pastoral stretch of Wisconsin.

The phantasmagoric House on the Rock could be the most unintentionally camp, terrifying, and wonderful tourist attraction in the Midwest. House on the Rock is like legal LSD. You purchase your $30 ticket and take a trip — albeit a terrifying one — and party for three hours with one hoarder’s inner demons. Do you enjoy watching a giant carousel made specifically for hundreds of dolls twirl in front of you? Perhaps you have a fondness for looking at creepy miniature dioramas of circus freak shows? Splendid! Dusty medicinal jars that once held tape worms for dieting women and old-time signs for household essentials such as worm cakes and brain pills were the spit shine on this poison apple. Those brain pills would come in handy after a visit to House on the Rock. Particularly if no one warned you about the taxidermied bear lurking in the men’s bathroom.

Before delving into more of these visual delights, it’s time for a little history about the House, which I consider the eighth wonder of the supernatural world. The sprawling estate was the dream of Alex Jordan Jr. (1914-89), an eccentric, larger-than-life fellow with a proclivity for acquiring a lot of stuff and prone to a sour disposition.

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There is a popular (but sadly untrue) myth that House on the Rock was inspired by an interaction between Jordan and Frank Lloyd Wright, whose austere Taliesin is a 10 minute drive from Jordan’s palace of panic. The fable goes something like this: Jordan showed Wright plans for a building he designed, hoping his idol would approve. Instead, Wright snapped and said, “I wouldn’t hire you to design a cheese crate or a chicken coop.” Jordan, furious, swore to build a house intending to either mock or upstage Wright. The story is fiction, but I think Jordan succeeded in doing both.

Although the interior of House on the Rock looks as if it were designed by Tim Burton to prompt nightmares and chronic bedwetting among young children (and some adults), Jordan didn’t sound particularly crazy according to what I’ve read. And yes, I read more than his entry in Wikipedia. Still, I’m left scratching my head, perhaps there were fleas in all of that red shag carpet, wondering what would drive a man to fill rooms with guns, suits of armor, fake Tiffany lamps, and a flock of department store mannequins sprouting wings and augmented décolletage.

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Jordan started building the house in 1945, and it opened to the public in 1959 (or 1960, depending on the source). But it continued to grow, as did the number of objects it contained. In 1978, the Wisconsin Department of Justice found some of the objects he claimed to be authentic (the Franz Joseph music machine, an elephant tusk carving) were fake. But Jordan had so much stuff he probably couldn’t keep track of what was real and what was fake. I don’t think it matters. When it comes to House on the Rock, it’s about quantity, not quality. It’s also about tackiness and creepiness. When I go to a place to see the world’s largest collection of doll houses, a prosthetic leg that holds a gun, or the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse hanging from the rafters, I don’t give a rat’s whisker if the items are authentic.

It may sound like I’m being cruel to House on the Rock, but I adore the musty old mess. It’s a throwback to the days when people would have found this sort of thing entertaining. They don’t build them like House on the Rock anymore — meaning I know of no other places that are so poorly lighted or resemble a ghastly Hieronymus Bosch painting.

I stumbled across House on the Rock two years ago. It was supposed to be a quick stop after a visit to Taliesin. But there is nothing quick about House on the Rock. It takes at least three hours to explore the three sections. Initially there doesn’t seem to be anything too unusual about the place. You enter and enjoy an Asian garden, a sculpture pavilion, and Jordan’s original house, which looks like the lair of a 1970s James Bond villain (watch out, Roger Moore!). It ends with the infinity room, an airy-yet-terrifying hallway that extends 218 feet out from the house and stretches over the tree tops.

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Despite the showy infinity room, sections two and three are really the heart, or black soul, of the house, and include the aforementioned dolls, sea monster, carousel, circus room, guns, massive organs, and the unsettling, self-playing orchestras. Also, did I mention the clowns?

I stood for five minutes, mouth agape, at a little coin-operated machine from 1870 called “The Dying Drunkard.” Put in a token and watch a ghost, skeleton, and demon terrorize a little toy man on the brink of death. It’s fun for the whole family.

I only had time to explore one section during my first visit, so I returned this year to tour it in its full glory. I was so smitten that I even stayed at the House on the Rock resort. Yes, there’s a resort, and no, sadly there are no doll funerals taking place in the guest suites. The rooms are a bit bland, although there is a golf course and a pool. But honestly, if you’re at House on the Rock, why on earth would you be out in the fresh air when you can be inside the main attraction enjoying an aroma best described as “the part of the basement near the water heater.”

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Inside, gourmet dining options include pizza and beer.

As a testament to the power of House on the Rock, I managed to convince friends to join me there twice, and two of these friends swore they would never go back.

How could anyone not love a place that has feedback on TripAdvisor such as “. . . it was like slow death,” “It’s like the seven layers of hell,” “It should be burned down and allowed to return to nature,” and “. . . it was the most traumatizing experience of my life”?

I’m hoping to talk my friends into a third visit next year. If I can get my hands on some of those antique brain pills, I’m sure they’ll fall in line.

Miniature clowns are a creepy presence in the Circus Room displays at House on the Rock.
Miniature clowns are a creepy presence in the Circus Room displays at House on the Rock.christopher muther/globe staff

Christopher Muther can be reached at muther@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.