The Technical Marvel That Doesn’t Belong in This Reality

can’t be the only one who’s felt a persistent, nagging uneasiness since March. It lives somewhere between my chest and stomach, not quite strong enough for my conscious mind to notice yet my subconscious knows it all too well. Especially since I’ve been relegated to living at home and spending extraordinary amounts of time in my childhood bedroom, a lot of it has felt familiar. It’s nostalgia for times in my earlier years I don’t remember fondly.

One can imagine why satiating this feeling is difficult. I’d catch glimpses of it here and there — staring down a dark hallway in the dead of night, running through the vacant halls of Peach’s Castle in Super Mario 64 — which only left me wanting more of this excessively specific niche. I wanted to feel seen, to know that whatever was tickling my mind to mild disturbance was not, well, that abnormal.

That all changed when I stumbled upon one of 2020’s many unorthodox phenomena: the popularity of the liminal space. Liminal space compilations, videos characterized by photos of empty, uncanny settings with vaporwave-ish underscoring, have sprouted up all over platforms such as TikTok and YouTube, sometimes being called “strangely familiar” and “uncomfortable.” And I was instantly hooked. This was the feeling I couldn’t put a name to! Looking at a fuzzy picture of a yellow-walled room as an EarthBound track hummed in the background was all it took for me to understand. Maybe this is what all those hippies mean when they talk about feeling “connected” to the universe, I thought. Little did I know, this rabbit hole would branch into another rabbit hole. An apocalyptic, 15,000 square foot rabbit hole.

Liminal spaces, in a sense, aren’t strictly defined, at least in popular culture. Though they literally refer to areas of transition such as hallways and highways, their meaning has broadly extended to include places that feel transitional, whether they carry some personal transitional meaning or simply “feel” like it; now many might call abandoned malls, large banquet halls with a single seat, or dimly lit bathrooms liminal spaces as well. Knowing this, a photo of a room with artificial rock formations, columns posing as trees, painted skies, and, most peculiarly, a house, shouldn’t have struck me as that odd, especially as it was just one of many in a roughly four-minute compilation piece.

A photo of the Underground House including tree pillars, an underground pool, and a small house towards the back of the room.
Photo: https://www.realtor.com/news/unique-homes/underground-house-las-vegas/

This is the Underground House, a mysterious, sprawling underground space built 26 feet beneath Las Vegas. With features including two houses, a backyard, a pool and jacuzzi, a sauna, built-in appliances, and lighting setups that simulate different times of day, it would be an understatement to call this a feat of engineering. Individually, each piece of the Underground House is something to marvel: pipes are hidden in columns disguised as trees as they pump sewage up to Las Vegas’ sewer system, the hand-painted murals depict beautiful (outdoor) landscapes, and the barbecue lives inside a faux boulder. There’s enough attention to detail to make anyone who’s ever admired the intricacies of a model train set or a dollhouse squee.

Taken together, though, the Underground House raises enough questions to turn that “squee” into a “squirm.” Why would I want to wake up in a master bedroom to peer outside…into a wall? Would I truly feel relaxed in an indoor pool masquerading as a swimming hole? Who wants to play on a putting green in a hallway? Moreover, why does this Frankenstein-esque concoction of indoors and outdoors exist in the first place? Well, at least that last question has an answer: its master builders, Jerry and Mary Henderson, built it as a Cold War-era bomb shelter.

I don’t know about you, but that really did not make me feel better.

Soon, I went from “hooked” to “obsessed.” I read article after article on the space. I flipped through galleries of the inside (and “outside”). I watched house tour videos, and I still couldn’t get enough. It’s not that I was enjoying myself, mind you, but I needed to know what this offshoot of an already strange feeling was.

I have to come forward now and say that this is me still fumbling around, trying to better understand what it is. I’m going to try assigning words to what the Underground House makes me feel, and Lord knows that won’t be pretty.

In order to do so, let’s try imagining what a day in the Underground House would be like if it served its intended purpose.

Imagine waking up in an Underground House bedroom and peering outside. Perhaps you first notice the backyard fountain that spews water with only a fraction of the force of a real outdoor fountain, or one of the tree columns that blips out of existence as it touches the ceiling sky. You flip a switch and, at your will, it’s morning. You wash up and head to the kitchen to make breakfast, and while standing at the sink, you look out the window to admire the little cottage in the “distance.” Oh, but that’s not a real cottage; the real thing is gone now, as are the people who might have lived there. You munch on some toast and flip the switch; now, it’s afternoon.

You step “outside” and take a seat in one of the many lawn chairs that accompany the facility. Assuming you don’t have enough people to fill every seat (which, in the event of nuclear warfare, is probably the case), you note that it feels a little lonely but lean back for a chill day. You can almost feel the afternoon sun and a cool, valley wind brush against your cheek, but they’re only phantoms of a memory, just like the rest of the world this isolated bunker is attempting to recreate. You chalk this up to a “Oh, my silly mind,” and take a little nap. That is, if the thought of what I just wrote doesn’t keep you up.

When you awaken (either from your nap or your thoughts), there’s no sign that time has passed at all; the lights, which emit a quiet buzzing noise to remind you that they’re completely manufactured, are still just as you left them. Okay, now that’s a little unnerving. You get up and switch the lights to sunset so that a nice, warm glow falls over the valley — I mean, the mural. Well, why not go for a dip? You slide into the rock pool and sloosh around for a bit, only to be reminded by the faint echo of your splashes that this is an indoor pool, not an outdoor swimming hole. But being in the water is nice, so you stay for a while. (Does it smell like mold? I feel like it would smell like mold.)

A photo of the Underground House pool.
Tell me this wouldn’t smell moldy. Photo: https://www.reviewjournal.com/homes/real-estate-millions/famous-underground-las-vegas-house-to-open-to-public-photos/

You step on the grass as you climb out of the pool, only to remember that that’s not grass, that’s carpet. You don’t want to find out what that chlorine stain on the carpet will look like in a few days, but what else can you do? Let the sun dry it up? Leave? You walk across the jagged artificial rock towards the jacuzzi but nearly trip over a protrusion. Fortunately, you catch yourself on the installed railing.

Okay, let’s make it nighttime now. You switch the lights again and head back inside (you know, more inside than you already are), hop in the shower (which is arguably even more inside), and decide to have some dinner. Ordering out isn’t an option, so you cook up whatever you can while still looking out to that same, painted cottage. But now you remember right away that that cottage isn’t real, nor does its inspiration exist anymore. Then what does that make where you are? Or that painting? Boy, this meatloaf sure is tasty, huh?

You decide to take a stroll around the complex to cap off your day. You pass the dance floor, which seems almost satirically pointless right now, some more column trees that unceremoniously break the illusion of an endless sky, and the wet stain on the grass carpet that will probably outlast you. You wander further and further until…

You reach the exit of the Underground House. You hesitate a moment, thinking that it would be nicer to leave and experience the real, “natural” versions of everything in the indoors outdoors here…but you can’t. Those don’t exist anymore, either. No more “real” trees or “real” swimming holes or “real” sunny skies as we know it. Just…the Underground House versions. You walk back towards your house inside your house.

You pass through the backyard fountain on the way home, noting that it’s still spitting water at an admirably tinkly pace. It’s cute, but doesn’t it seem rather silly to have a fountain running in a post-apocalyptic bunker?

You turn on the house lights because you turned on the nighttime lights to make it dark. Every mid-century furnishing is suddenly coated in a strangely familiar, warmly fluorescent haze, and even if you have your whole family down here, perhaps you’ll catch your mind drifting to the old local grocer, or the people you used to take the bus with, or your coworkers. Oh, if they could also experience the splendor of the Underground House! But, remember, they experienced something even better once, something so grand that a lovely couple one day decided to recreate it in a 15,000 square foot Las Vegas underground. But it’s all gone now; only this imitation remains, lodged somewhere between a nation’s collective memory and a future unknown.

You brush your teeth and climb into bed. The mattress is plush and the pillow fluffy, but somehow, the coziness isn’t quite there yet. Oh, duh. Your lights are still on. You turn the room lights off and close your eyes, but as much as you try to forget it, even you know that the lights are still on outside.

And because you have no sense of time down here, you have no way of knowing that it’s only 3 P.M.

I think there’s a lot that is obviously disturbing about the Underground House’s mere existence. Though its creepiness is bolstered by its catastrophic context, on its own it falls into the uncanny valley populated by the likes of wax figures and the biomes-and-native-wildlife section of natural history museums. I, for one, was always fascinated with the beautifully rendered Sahara and the taxidermy giraffes and lions roaming the sequestered prairie, or the stiff polar bear cubs and their diorama-mural tundra locked behind plexiglass.

If we’re thinking a step further, I mentioned Super Mario earlier partially because another example of this phenomenon is the spinoff Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker. Captain Toad features small, cubic environments floating in an endless void as the even smaller explorer waddles around them. Even levels that don’t follow this square standard maintain this idea of isolation; a level that takes place on a train, for example, places the locomotive on rails that lead nowhere.

A screenshot of the Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker game depicting a cubic, isolated beach environment
A level from Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker. Nearly every level is set in an eternal void such as this. Photo: Nintendo

The Underground House, in theory, is the same idea of sanctioned-off worlds explored by museum diorama murals or Captain Toad, but the Hendersons had no choice but to cross a boundary both taxidermy and Toad obeyed: reality. After all, though their accuracy to reality toes an uncanny line, museum exhibits clearly end wherever their niche does. Captain Toad, meanwhile, is an adorable video game. Its world ideas and designs break immersion and make it unapologetically fantasy.

In contrast, the Underground House fully commits to a redefinition of reality. Its murals will wrap entirely around a room to give off the illusion of a world beyond its walls. Its manufactured rocks and foliage extend in every direction (at least until one enters the next area). While its contemporaries exist as appreciations of the world, the Underground House is a radical attempt to appropriate it. Its amenities, from the day cycle lights to the barbecue rock, posit that the world can be reworked to suit our desires down to the most frivolous touch. It’s as if we looked God in the eye, smirked, and said, “We can do it better,” as we gave ourselves complete control and installed a barbecue in a boulder.

A photo of one of the many murals of the Underground House that wrap around the entire room. This mural shows a forest scene.
A mural from the Underground House. Beautifully painted, sure, but my brain is never fully convinced that that trail continues. Photo: https://www.realtor.com/news/unique-homes/underground-house-las-vegas/

However, where museums and video games might find reality a creative limitation, the Underground House is absolutely shackled by it. Reality constitutes that, as realistic as these trees look, they still need to be pillars holding up the ceiling and thus have to awkwardly end at the “sky.” Reality threatens to trip someone over bumpy granite on their way to the jacuzzi, so the natural-passing rock formation now needs a very unnatural railing. Reality reminds you that the grass feels more like carpet. Reality forces the Underground House to have an elevator and an entrance. No matter how much the Underground House attempts to convince its onlookers or inhabitants that their experience is just as authentic, it simply cannot because it still exists in this reality. It’s crossed the boundary, and it can’t come back.

I don’t write any of this to slander the Underground House. I think it’s an endlessly fascinating case study, a technical marvel, and, in one way or another, as much a symbol of American engineering and candor as the Golden Gate Bridge or the Space Needle. But what the Underground House suggests makes it no surprise to me that it’s ended up in liminal space compilations, and I get the feeling that other people feel the same way. At its core, it’s a solidly secluded, kinda-neat home 26 feet under. I’m sure many will think little more of it than a quirky roadside (underside?) attraction.

But everything that surrounds it places it on much more uneasy terms. In its technical specs, it exists somewhere between retro American suburbia and technology that, even today, is futuristic. It exists on a level between your house and your town’s subway system. If it serves its true purpose someday, it will exist between comfortable, ordinary memories and an apocalyptic, extraordinary future. It exists between a world to which we are subjugated and a world we can completely manufacture and control. It exists on every level as the ultimate transitional space, and in a year in which we’ve had to isolate ourselves more than ever, perhaps it’s never been better at that.

Yeah, I like run-on sentences. What about it?

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