The appeal of any masquerade party is essentially the thrill of becoming someone else ... trying on a new persona and immersing yourself in a dark and enigmatic evening of secrets and discoveries. The masquerade suggests an aura of mystery, with a slight undercurrent of danger. Who might be hiding behind those masks? Anything can happen in a place where no one is bound by their conventional identity.
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A masquerade party can be themed in a variety of different ways, from a spooky Halloween affair to a historic Venetian soiree, but today we’re going to create an immersive literary masquerade based on the party described in Erin Morgenstern’s intricate and fascinating novel, The Starless Sea.
Today let's talk about the four major elements you’ll need to create this immersive event: Decor, Activities, Food and Costumes.
In the story, the main character (Zachary) attends a mysterious literary-themed masquerade ball in an elegant, historic hotel. The dress code is formal and most guests are dressed as a literary character or author. The space is dark but loud as there are a lot of guests all talking over dance music. The evening’s activities sort of swirl around Zachary, because he’s trying to solve a mystery, but he doesn’t know exactly what he’s looking for, and he doesn’t know anyone else there, so “dark and drifting” is your inspiration as you set up your decor.
Many immersive events require specific decorative items to set the stage so guests know where they are, like Hogwarts banners or Eiffel towers and berets. In the case of this party however, you’re getting off easy since the most evocative element will be darkness. Do a dry run for your setup at night, and try turning off all your electric lights and using only battery operated candles for light. This will either work perfectly or be a complete disaster, so you want to know this ahead of time. Maybe you need to get more candles, or you might need to add some small table lamps, or dim some overhead lights. The atmosphere you’re going for is curiously mysterious, not creepily petrifying. Add some mysterious music and you’re on your way.
The Starless Sea has been described as “A love letter to stories and their power” ( The Nerd Daily) so the next element of your decor is going to be books. Pile up books everywhere you can possibly fit them, and if you need more head over to your local thrift shop and pick up some nice old ones for a dollar apiece. Put them on tables and next to chairs and under the trays of food and even outside your front door. Put them in the bathroom. Everywhere your guests look there will be a subconscious message that stories are all around us.
Now you can start to add a few specific nods to the Starless Sea. These will be subtle, because mystery is all about nuance and innuendo. In the story, the underground library is filled to overflowing with stories of all types, from huge paintings to stories written on strips of paper and folded into stars. (They’re also inscribed onto skin, pressed onto rose petals, laid in tiles on the floor, carved in crystal and hung from chandeliers, sculpted out of wax, knit into wool, shaped into honeycomb by trained bees and more, but let’s focus on the options that are actually accessible to us!)
You can pick up a few expressive-looking paintings while you’re at the thrift shop and place them around, then you can focus on hiding a few more unusual stories in plain sight. Grab a really old book that you don’t mind ruining (even an old encyclopedia will do), and cut out some pages to use to fold into stars. Old pages can line a tray for drinks, or cover your votive candle holders. You can make a paper chain out of book pages and tack it up like a garland around some of your more important doors (doors figure prominently in this book, as you know). If you can get your hands on a typewriter, that can be the basis of a fantastic literary still life, or you can use any other storytelling tools like pens, pencils, paintbrushes in various containers to reference the creation of stories.
Next, add a few hints at the three major icons that Zachary chases throughout the book - the key, the sword and the bee. You should definitely include these images on your invitation to the party, and also on your front door, but in addition to the obvious graphics you can also hide a few for your guests to find when they least expect it -- perhaps a few keys scattered around the glasses at the bar, or a sword on the soap in the bathroom.
You can also add some understated and whimsical nods to the animals mentioned in the book, specifically the owls that come up often, and the cats that appear everywhere. This party is supposed to be at a hotel, so you’re not trying to replicate the underground and the Starless Sea, but just make your guests THINK about other elements of the book (kind of like a hidden Mickey at DisneyWorld). Grab a little souvenir figure or even a stuffed animal and just place it somewhere almost out of the way, but where the guests will eventually see it, and chuckle at the inside joke.
If you want, you might even want to reference a few other elements that repeat during the story, like door handles, or the dollhouse, or even Time (a clock). But don’t feel like you have to go out of your way to buy anything special, and don’t feel like you have to include all of these items - just use what you already have and keep it subtle.
At the party in the story, there are bowls filled with typewriter keys, but this would require you to buy and ruin an old typewriter, which is expensive and impractical (and heartbreaking), so if you have fallen in love with this imagery and want to replicate it, feel free to choose an alternative, like scrapbooking stickers.
Now we’ve come to the most fun and unexpected element of your decor. In the Starless Sea, Zachary finds a very old book, and is shocked to read a story about himself in it, even though the book is clearly older than he is. You can print up a very short story about each of your guests and hide them around for them to find. See if you can get a hold of a photo of each of your guests, whether they’re off your phone or their Facebook page. Then use a short story generator on the internet to whip up a little tale about each guest, type it up, add the photo and print it on ivory paper so it looks like it came out of a book. Your guests will LOVE finding these tucked into potted plants and folded around lamp bases!
At the masquerade party described in the book, the guests are all dressed as characters from literature, and there’s music, dancing and cool cocktails with literary names. The two activities specifically mentioned are a woman typing up mini stories on scraps of paper and handing them out to guests, and this very intriguing whispered storytelling in the dark.
Since it takes a special kind of talent to create stories on the spot, you will probably prefer to make up some verses ahead of time, print them up and have someone pose as a writer and pretend to whip them out of a typewriter or a printer and hand them cryptically to guests as they walk by.
The whispered storytelling will be a huge sensation. In the book, Zachary is pulled into a pitch black room, and a mysterious figure whispers a fable into his ear while sporadically moving him around the room. When the story is over, he is propelled out a door back into the party. You don’t want to scare people so I wouldn’t recommend manhandling them into dark closets, but you could instead have someone silently hand each guest, one at a time, a cryptic message that says “Please join the Secret Storyteller for an individual performance in the Green Room. Now please. Expect complete darkness.” If you can’t make a room completely dark, you might need to give the guests a blindfold. You’ll need to persuade a friend to play the role of the storyteller, and have them read the description of the activity starting at the bottom of page 82 so they understand what they’re trying to replicate. You might even station a second friend outside the room to hand guests a drink when they exit this dreamlike encounter!
Now let’s plan a few other activities along the same lines. Having several unusual things to DO at a party helps people mingle, meet each other, and feel like they’ve become a character in the story.
As Zachary is famously the son of a fortune teller, having a friend tell fortunes is a perfect fit. Hide this person behind a mysterious door, and mark it with a sign that says “Do you dare?” Don’t say what’s behind the door, and don’t forget to mark it with the bee, the key and the sword. Guests who are brave enough to enter will find yet another dark, candlelit space with your fortune teller seated at a table. If you know someone who can read tarot cards, that fits the mysterious profile of the night perfectly, but you can also type up some fortunes from the internet and have the guests pull one from a bowl, then the teller can make up some details to go along with it. See if you can find somebody who likes to improvise.
Another fun activity that sort of mirrors the storytelling in the dark is a game where guests need to guess what they’re touching without seeing it. You can collect a few shoeboxes and cut holes in the side, then drape the whole thing in some black velvet and set it on a table in a dark corner. Include items that were mentioned in the story, like doll furniture, door knobs, an old fashioned key, a tiny sword, or maybe here’s where your miniature owl ends up. Round up another friend to supervise this activity and let people know whether they’ve guessed correctly. I’m sure you’re getting the message by now that you’ll need a few extra hands to pull off this party. The events that run the smoothest have a lot of “eyes on” the action.
And that leads me to just one more activity that doesn’t actually need a monitor, and that’s a collective story journal. Start with a blank journal and begin a story on the first page. Write only one page, then instead of stopping at the bottom, write your last line at the top of the next page. Display this journal on a table with a pen and a sign that says "Please Add a Page to Our Story - but don’t look at the page before yours. Please write your last line on the page after yours.” Paper clip the pages on the left to drive home the no peeking rule. Each guest can come along and write one page of a story, based off the line at the top of their page. At the end of the night you can gather everyone together and read the whole thing out loud. By candlelight - won't that be fun!
Now what will you serve at this party? Zachary loves retro cocktails, and in fact that’s all that’s mentioned in the way of refreshment in the description of the party in the book. He drinks something called a Drowning Ophelia made with gin and lemon and fennel syrup, served with a sprig of rosemary and a napkin with a Hamlet quote on it. There are also champagne glasses circulating with ribbons that say Drink Me.
Penguin-Random House books, the publisher of the Starless Sea, actually posted recipes for several cocktails mentioned in the book (VISIT: http://knopfdoubleday.com/2020/08/18/a-cocktail-guide-for-the-starless-sea/)
You can try some of these, or scour the internet for other fancy cocktail recipes, or make your favorites and give them new literary names. Whichever direction you choose to go, print up little cards that list the name of each drink and its ingredients and either make little table tents out of them or set them in plastic frames at your bar so your guests know what they’re drinking.
Since this whole evening is dark and mysterious, you could potentially consider adding another layer of magic to your drinks with dry ice (which you can buy at Walmart or Costco). You do need to be careful with this though, because you can safely put dry ice into cocktails but you can’t drink it (it sinks to the bottom). This link explains everything: https://www.bettycrocker.com/menus-holidays-parties/mhplibrary/holidays/how-to-use-dry-ice
Now what will you be feeding your guests to absorb all that alcohol? It should be something mysterious, that isn’t immediately obvious what it contains. Little turnovers made with fillo dough folded into triangles will be perfectly starchy to balance the drinks, and the fillings can be a wide assortment of different things - which the guests can't see until they bite into them. If you’re from a middle eastern background you may be familiar with baking Greek spanakopita or Armenian cheese boregs. There’s a trick to working with fillo dough, so if you haven’t done it before, don’t make this party your inaugural run. Bake these from scratch if you know what you’re doing, otherwise, there are plenty of frozen savory turnovers in your grocery store freezer to use.
You can also make an assortment of fancy toppings for baguette slices (crostini). Layer up things like goat cheese, chopped marinated beets, an orange slice and a piece of fresh mint, or cream cheese, honey and sea salt. Find some great crostini topper ideas here: https://www.foodnetwork.com/holidays-and-parties/articles/50-easy-toast-toppers
And now that we’ve mentioned honey, this item figures prominently in the story and MUST be included somewhere in your food and/or drinks. Bee-shaped cookies are mentioned in the book, but you could also serve baklava, which is drenched in honey, or little cups with half of a grilled peach or canned pear, a scoop of mascarpone, and a drizzle of honey.
A great subtle nod to the story is a Card describing the foods signed "The Kitchen", featuring a bee.
Lastly, let’s talk about costumes for your masquerade. The rules for the party Zachary attends are: formal dress code, literary characters encouraged, masks required.
Encourage your guests to dress as their favorite character or author -- there are so many to choose from, and characters are generally easy to find clothes for. If you have guests who are worried that someone else has already chosen their favorite character, you can ask everyone to let you know who they’re coming as, so you can flag duplicates. You may end up hosting Mirabel with her pink hair and the Keeper with the pearls in his hair, or you might have a house full of Agatha Christie, Zelda Fitzgerald, Edgar Allen Poe, Sherlock Holmes, JK Rowling and Jane Austen! Whoever attends, the mix of recognizable figures will add a lot of energy to the party.
And since masks are required - and these are the ones for your eyes, not your mouth - make sure to have a few extra on hand for people who don’t have them or forget theirs.
One last touch. On the inside of your front door, post a little card that says "This is not where the story ends, this is where the story begins." When your guests leave, this will be the last thing they see.
And that’s all you’ll need to plan an epic immersive Masquerade party inspired by The Starless Sea! Good luck, have a fantastic time, and let me know in the comments how you customized your party and how it went!