An invitation arrives at your doorstep. The Baron and Baroness de Rothschild have invited you to attend the exclusive and mysterious Illuminati Ball. Do you accept? In Cynthia von Buhler’s newest graphic novel, five people from various walks of life — connected by their desires for love, money, respect, power, and fame — do, completing the application provided and coming together to discover the secrets of their host, the Pig King, whose desires are far more basic: the survival of his kind.
The Illuminati Ball plunges readers into a hypnotic and disturbing world that, when the ostentatious layers are peeled away, reflects our own, serving as a message from von Buhler herself, asking that we as humans, reconsider how we have treated animals and our natural world. “Several years ago, my choreographer, Delysia La Chatte, sent me intense photographs of the Rothschild’s Surrealist Illuminati Ball from 1972 as inspiration,” explains von Buhler. “Audrey Hepburn, one of the attendees, wore a birdcage over her head and the Baroness de Rothschild wore a stag head mask with diamond tears. These images made me think about the sadness of animals.” Hunting, vivisection, climate change, factory farming — the list of ways humans harm animals is vast. All of it inspired von Buhler to craft her latest immersive experience “combining a Surrealist Eyes Wide Shut-type party with a story about non-human animals.”
As with her previous work, Minky Woodcock: The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini, The Illuminati Ball graphic novel is part of a multimedia experience. The immersion goes well beyond the stunningly detailed imagery in the book. Cynthia von Buhler’s Illuminati Ball is indeed real, and, if your application is approved, you may receive your invitation to join in on the festivities yourself. The immersive play has been taking place for the last four years, with a New Year’s Eve celebration planned for this year.
Guests participate in various “rituals, anthropomorphic escapades and morality tests,” explains von Buhler. “Immersive theater is a bit of a surreal fever dream. You don’t see everything because scenes are happening all over an expansive environment. You see a piece of a story from a certain perspective. Often guests will return two or three times to see different aspects of the story. I bundle the book with the play tickets so the audience can later read the whole story — and they have a tangible item as a keepsake.”
With Minky Woodcock, the book helped von Buhler shape the play, allowing the actors to see her vision. For The Illuminati Ball, “I was staging the play first. By staging it for a few years the story morphed and was finessed. I watched and interacted with my actors and that helped me when I had to translate them to drawings. I believe that this gives more movement and emotion to my drawings because I remember their expressions and body language.”
As with the comic, guests must complete an application and be accepted to attend. The questions are very intentional and discerning. There are three main things that von Buhler looks for when reviewing responses from potential guests. First of all, though the book is called The Illuminati Ball, von Buhler does not wish to prey upon people who believe this to be an opportunity to join the Illuminati and hand over their souls (though many applicants offer). The Illuminati is the stage von Buhler uses to deliver her message regarding the treatment of animals. The afterword of the book details the truth behind the Illuminati’s formation, its history, and a very clear statement that it is nonsense. “The Pig King,” using a free app through their website, communicates with people all over the world. Von Buhler tries to educate applicants about the Illuminati and is honest with them about the fact that this is entertainment.
Secondly, von Buhler’s application helps her understand what an applicant feels about animals. “Almost all people say they love animals, but in the following question, they say how much they love eating meat. There is a serious disconnect here. Very few people make the connection of why I asked these two questions back to back.” This isn’t to say that only vegans and vegetarians are welcome. This isn’t about preaching to the choir. But people who don’t like animals at all are “beyond help,” says von Buhler, and they are not welcome at the show.
Finally, the questions help determine how well someone can handle alcohol or their age and level of maturity. An immersive play is reliant on an audience that is willing to play appropriately. Not one that will ruin the experience through unruly, drunken, or immature behaviour.
The Illuminati Ball is intended to be entertainment, but the experience, whether on the page or on the stage, asks ethical questions of its guests and readers that are extremely important to von Buhler. Its message is as much a warning and call to action as any protest march or petition.
“My hope is for people to stop being a cancer on earth and live harmoniously with nature. Non-human animals are not here for our use or pleasure. Now with CRISPR technology a new species of animal-human chimeras are being created. It’s like The Island of Doctor Moreau come to life. The science I mention in my book is real. I’m packaging my message in a thrilling, sexual orgy of beauty and excitement. My goal is to raise awareness, entertain and enlighten.”
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