Shadow Monsters Turns You Into Your Own Nightmare

A new art installation by Philip Worthington at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston allows your shadow to transform into a childhood nightmare in real time.

I can’t speak for you, but the things that always pursued me through my bad dreams as a kid were little more than vague shadows. There was an impression of size and features and of course teeth and claws, but I couldn’t have definitely said that what was hunting me was a werewolf or a kappa or a jabberwocky or something completely unknown. Philip Worthington’s Shadow Monsters exhibit brought those feelings back front and center.

Located in the museum’s vast and cavernous Cullinan Hall, the installation is experienced through three projectors, each pointed high up on the bare walls. When no one is in front of the projectors a simple message of “Don’t Be Scared – Make a Shadow” appears. Walk in front of the projector, though and you’ll see your shadow, massive and looming over you. It’s not just your shade, though. The projectors use vision-recognition software to transform your gestures and body into a variety of forms. Make a circle with your arms and a giant, cyclopean eye will appear. Tentacles and teeth and bizarre, science fiction tendrils will sprout from your head, and you can create gaping maws full of blocky, broken teeth.

The effect is nebulous and shifting, like a dream. Your shadow morphs constantly as you move. There are even props available in a nearby bin to make even more outlandish shapes. The hula hoops are a must because they can help you make giant eyes while leaving your hands free to create monstrosities.

I’d heard that the exhibit was a hit for kids, and I like to test those claims by bringing my own five-year-old daughter whenever I can. I’d explained the exhibit a little bit when we were driving towards it, and she was initially excited. However, when we got into the dark hall and she saw the people ahead of us making monsters the whole thing sort of overwhelmed her. Suddenly frightened she crouched behind the project wall with her head in her hands shaking while a family on the other side laughed and made black shapes. No amount of comforting or consoling could convince her to face the shadows or experience the whimsical side of the piece.

Eventually I was able to convince her to let me carry her out of the hall with her eyes closed and we tried wandering around the quiet halls of the museum until she calmed down. The man dressed as a knight traipsing around the Hapsburg exhibit who bowed chivalrously to her brought a smile back to her face, and we ended up enjoying the story time and activities set up on mats and pillows in the upstairs gallery showcasing the works of Orazio Gentileschi and Hieronymus Bosch.

After about 45-minutes of coloring and looking at paintings of angels she told me she was ready to go back and try Shadow Monsters. This time, I got to see what everyone was talking about when they said that kids enjoyed the piece. Once she discovered that she had nearly complete control of the shadows she simply couldn’t get enough of them. Decked out with a Stetson and a pinwheel from the prop bin she laughed with delight as tentacles grew from her head and she made eyeballs with her hands.

When I was first noticing the shadows people were producing all it made me think of were the near-indescribable monsters you read in H. P. Lovecraft stories or maybe those weird desert creatures from Clive Barker’s “Skins of the Father”. It’s not that as a grown person I was scared of a trick of the light; more that the trick clued me in a little bit on how people conceive monsters that defy conventional definition.

When my daughter danced and skipped to create them, though, I saw the other side of it too. Nightmares are just our thoughts; nothing more. We make our own worst fears internally and then project them onto shapes in the dark of our bedrooms. To watch and control those shapes, to make them move in silly ways even as Worthington’s clever programs do their best to create shades of menace is an empowering experience. It’s intoxicating, addicting and fun. I had to drag my daughter away from it in the end, and I’ll bet I’m not the only parent who’ll say that while Shadow Monsters runs.

Shadow Monsters Appears at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston through September 20.
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Jef Rouner (not cis, he/him) is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner