Absinthe Makes the Heart Grow Fonder



Unwinnable’s John McGuire visited Punchdrunk’s production of Sleep No More, currently on an extended stay in NYC. Nearly lost to madness, he escaped and returned home to share his experience.


Every time I close my eyes, I find myself back on the balcony overlooking the dark ballroom. I can feel in my bones that I don’t belong here, but when I try to leave, the room fills up with ghosts. I am paralyzed by my own fear. I still don’t know how I got here; I just remember that every staircase I took led me back.

From the stage below me I hear revelry and singing, and my eyes are immediately drawn to the sound of clinking glasses and a group of people toasting in the distance. I begin to watch; it’s all I can do to keep myself from screaming. I feel the ghosts pull in closer behind me, their cold dead eyes staring right through me.

Meanwhile, the revelry below me turns to rage. There is screaming and fists and the kinds of words that start as accusations and end with bloodshed. By this point, the ghosts have enveloped me. I actually feel as if one is standing directly inside me, hovering in my skin. I can take no more; I start to fight back, arms flailing wildly, swinging at the air that is rife with the echoes of dead conversations. For all my false bravado, I have not moved an inch.

I am mentally broken and it’s at this point that I finally see her. She is a radiant creature, dressed all in nurses’ whites. Her skin is luminescent, cutting a swath through the darkness of the room. I am immediately calmed by her presence. She purses her lips and raises a finger to them, motioning for me not to speak.

As her body comes closer to mine, I am content to stand with her in silence. She points to the stage and together we watch a small mob as they prepare a man for hanging. It is horrific and I feel ashamed to be watching the execution, but at the same time there is no place I’d rather be than beside the nurse. She pulls me closer, and our fingers intertwine. Her skin is soft like fresh-fallen snow and just as cold. It is jarring to a point, but it’s still a quick reminder that I am not a ghost. I am still a man.

I inhale deeply and hold my breath as the chair is kicked out from under the legs of the man. The congregation of ghosts floats motionlessly, sickly satisfied with the carnage. I am too shocked to move.

The nurse starts pulling me up the stairs and away from the ballroom. I exhale. She never leaves my side as we pass the dusty stained glass windows and broken bookcases. I start to calm down. In the distance I can hear music.

Moments later, we are in the bar. A band is playing ragtime and people are dancing with reckless abandon. For the first time in a long while, I feel weightless and free. A leggy waitress walks up and asks if I’d like a drink. I smile and look back to the nurse, but she is gone. Maybe she returned to the ether – I don’t know. I order a drink and wait to see if she comes back.

Absinthe does makes the heart grow fonder.


Photos by Alick Crossley.