You ever think to yourself, “Where can I go to get roughed up by the locals, sold to an angry ship captain, and put on trial for being a little loose at the local pub?” Well, I’ve got just the place for you. The San Francisco Dungeon is a great attraction to soothe your weary soul. For those of us who live in the Bay Area, it’s a godsend for out-of-town family members who always want us to take them “down to the pier” as it is an entertaining way to fulfill the tourist requirement.
This horror attraction is a mix of Dicken’s Faire-like live performances, a Stephen King-led history lesson, and all that was really cool about the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disney before they commercialized it Depp-style. With nine live shows, awesome sets, and even a boat ride, this fun adventure is a highly interactive thrill for even the most morbid of tastes. What’s more, there is enough true history seeped in, that your “norm” friends will find in interesting as well.
On my trek into the dark, I took along two of my horror-loving friends and we all had a great time. Cam was locked in a jail cell, Ari was spooked by the Alcatraz ghost, and I was put on trial for doing some sort of lewd dance on a saloon bar the night before. The actors played their parts well and the group you travel with is small enough to give that really intimate feeling that you are trapped in a horror film and may not make it out alive. By using realistic props, sound effects, and interactive chair mechanisms, the Dungeon has done a really great job of making you feel in the moment.
This was the first time I’ve ever been to a Merlin Entertainments attraction, and I must say it made me want to try others. For those of you not in the San Francisco area, they have other Dungeon locations. In fact, the San Francisco installation is the first in the US, but ninth in the world. Other Dungeon locations can be found in Amsterdam, Berlin, Blackpool Tower, Edinburgh, Hamburg, London, Warwick Castle, and York, all using local history to take you on a journey through time.
San Francisco’s attraction is centered around the Barbary Coast, a notoriously rugged and wild part of our city alive in the 19th century known for its dance halls, saloons, and brothels. Each of the live performances at the Dungeon centers around a unseemly character and what they are after, whether it be gold, morbid scientific achievement, or selling the visitors as slaves. My favorite show was the final act where you are told of a ghost and then by using sound, light, and actor magic, you feel as if you are witnessing a poltergeist. Although all the shows were great, the Alcatraz actor we had was beyond entertaining. Scary, real, and so close, we really did think he might kill us.
After the show, I was afforded the special opportunity to speak with Matt Gunther, the Performance Supervisor and ask about the talent portion of the experience and how long they are trained. “Each actor learns two shows in three days to a week,” Matt said. “Once they have them down, they expand to learn other parts.” The show I watched had only one woman involved, but the parts are interchangeable. “Miss Piggott is the only role that is exclusively female,” said Marketing Coordinator, Jesse Russell. “All of the other roles are interchangeable. That’s one of the many exciting aspects of the Dungeon. All of our professional actors bring a unique flair to the characters, so you’ll never see the same set of shows twice.” This makes me want to go back and witness a whole new set of experiences.
Speaking of new experiences, the Dungeon has an April-only show called Death by Chocolate. Jesse went on to say, “Death by Chocolate is our April event which features a new character named Cordelia. She’s based on Cordelia Botkin who came to notoriety in the 1890’s for giving poisoned chocolate to the wife of a man with whom she had a sordid affair.” If you miss the April show, don’t despair. They have another top secret special coming in June 2015 that will run through the summer starring a special guest from one of their European dungeons. The Dungeon is a permanent installation on the wharf, but their shows are constantly changing. And what about our favorite time of year? Well, Jesse assured me, “The two weeks leading up to Halloween we plan to increase the scare factor during our night time shows.”
You might be wondering who created such an awesome place and how the stories all came together. The sets were created by Daniels Wood Land, who you might know from the Animal Planet television show Redwood Kings. The Paso Robles, California based company used rescued wood for the creation of the sets with some of the wood salvaged from World War II Japanese Internment Camps. As for the scripts, they were spearheaded by Dungeons Creative Director, Kieron Smith. The scripts were heavily researched using information from historical societies and books on the city’s history.
I asked Performance Supervisor, Matt Gunther, what makes the Dungeon so unique. “What makes the Dungeon great is, we’re on that knife’s edge of comedy and scary.”
Not only is the attraction great fun, but it also seems the employees love it too. Everyone from the front greeter to the giftshop staff seemed into it, engaged, and ready to riff off the spooky theme. Samantha Villegas, Duty Manager, said, “I love the dungeon, it’s my heart and soul.” And I believe it. Who wouldn’t want to work in such an awesome place?
Although the Dungeon will by far be the horror addicts favorite attraction, Merlin Entertainments is the second largest attractions company in the world. In addition to the Dungeons, they operate Legoland, Madame Tussauds, and Sea Life Aquariums. In San Francisco, Madame Tussauds just happens to be right next door, and if you’re taking your non-horror visitors there, they will get a kick out of posing with the famous stars. Whether you want to pose with great presidents of the past like Washington and Lincoln, sit next to Rosa Parks on the bus, jam out with Hendrix, or pose with the great croon master, Tony Bennett, this is the place for you. Other figures range from music stars, to movie stars, and even royalty.
For the horror addict, you will be creeped out by how life-like the statues are and even get to pose with Dr. Horrible if you wish. You’ll also be thrilled by seeing heads on stakes and a life-size figure of Madame Tussaud with what looks like a bloody head on her table. This attraction is sure to inspire some creepy stories of dolls coming to life like the mannequins in The Twilight Zone’s “After Hours” episode.
Our live reactions of the Dungeon can be heard on HorrorAddicts.net episode #113, coming April 25th.
Have you been to one of the Dungeons? Let us know what you thought and any creepy experiences you’ve had by commenting below or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.