There's a clown at the door checking IDs. On the dance floor, haloed before a bank of television monitors, a woman swings from a ceiling-mounted pulley; her hands are bound behind her back in a series of intricate knots and her body tracks wide arcs over the haze of dry ice pouring over the floor. She smiles at the height of each swing, and her grin, like the Cheshire Cat's, flashes in and out of the strobe light.
The real show had yet to begin.
The monthly Escape Fetish and Costume Party began in June 2014 as an alternative to what its founders perceived as the stagnant nightlife scene of Downtown Orlando. They were inspired by the club kids of '90s New York City, a scene dominated by flamboyant costumes, conspicuous sexuality and notorious personalities like "party monster" Michael Alig, the erstwhile promoter, socialite and poster-child of the era.
"We were watching Michael Alig on Phil Donahue back in the late '80s," said Mike Stone, the event's promoter. "He [Donahue] asked, 'Why do you guys do this?' and he [Alig] said, 'It's an escape, it's an escape from reality.' That's what we're trying to do here, do something that nobody else in Orlando does."
It's a hard statement to contradict in a venue where feathered go-go dancers mingle freely with leather-clad dominatrixes. As part of the night's two shows, grinder girls Defenz Mechanizm and Carla X Infekt took to the club's side-room stage to chase after one another with axes and angle grinders, showering sparks into the air to the tune of a twisted carnival melody.
Each Escape boasts a different costume theme: August was Space Invasion Night, October was Carnival of Sinners and November will be Nightmare in Wonderland. Alongside the fetish demonstrations featured on the dance floor, there are two stage shows where audience members and the event's hosts compete in a variety of themed tasks.
After the variety show and costume contest, audience volunteers are pitted against one another to see who can make the best orgasm noise, which couple can strike the most convincing sexual pose or which brave guest is willing to guzzle down a mystery brew.
"This is very different than a dungeon: A lot of people hear the word fetish and they think of dungeons, where people are out there getting spanked and stuff," said Wesley Anderson, a biomedical sciences Ph.D. candidate. "We focus more in the costume area, but we accept all types of people. If you don't want to participate in the shows, you can step back, go to the bars, go the dance floor, anything."
Indeed, costumed revelers outnumbered their more conventionally dressed counterparts by a wide margin. Kyla Swanberg, a junior art history major, came to Escape to show off her handmade Jack the Clown costume, inspired by the evil clown of Halloween Horror Nights fame. Through Escape, she found a community of creatives who could appreciate her artistic efforts.
"When I first heard about it, I thought there was going to be some freaky stuff going on, and there definitely is: People are getting tied up, people are dressed in leather and weird costumes, you name it," she said. "But I look around and I see people wearing these amazing costumes, wearing the things that they've created, and I can't help but love it.
"This is the place to gather for any misfit in Orlando. Whatever you say, goes."
The Escape Costume and Fetish Party is hosted monthly at Escape Night Club, which is located at 375 S. Bumby Ave. in Orlando. The next event will be held Nov. 3 at 9 p.m. The event is 18+ and entry is $5 for costumed guests or $10 without.