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Interior of Willow: Breaking the Silence of Abuse installation

Willow Domestic Violence Center Not everything is as it seems: Exposing the realities of DV

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month and in our county, specifically, rates are higher than the rest of the state. That’s why in 2019, we knew we had to do more than a public service campaign. We needed to do something that would demand the attention of our community.

Through a group brainstorm, we talked about what goes on during the fall season. Immediately we started thinking about the culture surrounding October’s main event: Halloween. Haunted houses, trick or treating, costumes. That’s when it clicked. In a month when we celebrate feeling scared, we knew we had to flip this narrative to draw attention to the houses filled with fear and terror year-round. Tell the stories of the thousands of survivors in Monroe County who live in the real haunted houses. We knew that drawing this parallel could lead to a powerful experience for our community that could shift how we think and talk about domestic violence.

Finding a house

We explored several options, from getting a manufactured home delivered to a large plot of land in the middle of the city, to constructing a tiny house from the ground up, to transforming a shipping container into a house. With time, location and financial limitations, we decided that inhabiting an already existing structure would suit us best—an empty storefront that was well-trafficked and easily accessible. At this point, we realized that the haunted house would be best as a one-day pop-up experience.

Exterior of Willow: Breaking the Silence of Abuse installation
Exterior of Willow: Breaking the Silence of Abuse installation

Finding a public location

Rochester has several small neighborhoods that we explored. It was one trip to the Rochester Public Market that gave us clarity. We realized that there was no better place than the Public Market to shift domestic violence from a private family matter to a public problem. As for the storefront, we found an empty space where a bakery had once been. It needed some cleaning, but it was a great open space we could convert into a homelike space.

Finding partners with a $0 budget

We haven’t mentioned this yet, but we had $0 to make this happen. We had to find generous partners who were as passionate about Willow and domestic violence awareness as we are. From furniture and appliances to walls and lighting to signage and flyers, we needed support from many different people and places—not hard to find in our community.

From storefront to picture-perfect house

One of the first things we had to figure out was how to make the exterior of the storefront look like a house. With the help of our partners at Dataflow, we were able to large-scale print our picture-perfect home exterior on a durable mesh material that would hold a cohesive image from a distance.

We styled the exterior with seasonal autumnal props—think pumpkins, mums, a picket fence. A home that may have looked nearly perfect from the outside, but told a much different story on the inside—like many of the homes in our county.

Building the inside

Figuring out the flow of the interior was one of the first tasks we tackled. Dataflow helped us construct hanging walls out of corrugated cardboard. We could print on them directly, so we designed them with wallpaper and windows to make it feel more homey. Each room was propped and styled with all the common amenities and décor—curtains, wall hangings, throw blankets and pillows. Upon arrival, visitors walked into the living room, then moved into the kitchen, then down a hallway to a bedroom and ending in a Willow safe room. This took visitors on an emotional journey that got darker as they moved through.

Interior of Willow: Breaking the Silence of Abuse installation

Crafting Exhibits

With over 20 exhibits, we really needed to think through what would naturally fit in a home, as well as how we could convey the subtle forms of abuse that many people don’t realize is abuse.

Creating an ambient tension

Part of any haunted house experience is creating the right level of tension so visitors would feel a little on edge walking through. We opted for darker lighting that felt more like a traditional haunted house, contrasting it with classic songs about love and relationships. The looping playlist created an eerie tension that a haunted house should deliver as well as honing our metaphor that things are not always exactly as they seem.

Spotify playlist from Willow: Breaking the Silence of Abuse installation

This exhibit does an excellent job of showing the depth and breadth and reach of intimate partner violence.”

—RHHMC attendee

A somber reminder

As visitors moved through the living room and then the kitchen, they experienced over a dozen exhibits and could feel the tension and terror building.We took visitors on the kind of emotional roller coaster that a survivor might experience.

To enhance the build-up of tone and emotion, we used the hallway off the kitchen to deliver a darker message and evoke a deeper range of emotions.

Like many hallways filled with family photos, this hallway was lined with framed silhouettes of those who lost their lives to domestic violence the previous year. It served as a somber reminder of the deaths and loss the county experiences each year—and of what can happen when we ignore this public health crisis.

Photograph from within the Real Haunted Houses of Monroe County installation for Willow Domestic Violence Center

The safe room

After moving visitors from room to room through an extremely tense and reflective experience, we needed a transition out of the darkness and into the light. After the bedroom, was another hallway filled with messages of hope and safety. This led to the Willow Safe Room. Filled with natural sunlight, healing messages and on-site trained Willow counselors, this room brought a sense of relief and support. We created a private space where visitors could talk one-on-one with counselors if they needed to. And this was where our ultimate message was delivered: Everyone deserves to be safe, and if you’re not, you are not alone. Willow is here for you when you’re ready.

Thank you to the whole team who made this happen: John, Devon, Josh, Nue, Justyn, Ian, Ashley and Sydney.

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