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Sept. 24, 2022

Day 23: The House of Frankenstein

Day 23: The House of Frankenstein

The House of Frankenstein is a relatively new visitor attraction in the UK and they’re hosting a Halloween evening event called After Dark: Purgatory. This interview was conducted by Mikey from ScareTrack; ScareTrack is one of our content partners for...


The House of Frankenstein is a relatively new visitor attraction in the UK and they’re hosting a Halloween evening event called After Dark: Purgatory. This interview was conducted by Mikey from ScareTrack; ScareTrack is one of our content partners for this year’s hauntathon.

Transcript

Mikey: I am joined now by Chris Harris, the co-founder of Mary Shelley's House of Frankenstein in Bath. First up, Chris, welcome to the Scare Track Podcast.

Chris Harris: Mikey, thanks for having us. 

Mikey: It's great to have you on, really do appreciate it. How are things? How are you? How is the house doing?

Chris Harris: We're good. I mean it's obviously working in a difficult climate, as are all attractions at the moment, and it's, sort of, just in terms of actually... we really rather crazily set up the business during a pandemic and then open during lockdowns. So, obviously, it's not got a lot better ever since then because we're now in a recession, there's this war waging in Ukraine, so it's obviously affecting the prices over here. So, it's a tricky time to be running a business, but we're still thoroughly enjoying what we're offering.

Mikey: That's the main thing, isn't it? Yeah, the trials and tribulations, they can be tough, and it's been a few tough years, absolutely, but as long as you're enjoying it and you're still going strong enough, that's the main thing.

Chris Harris: Yeah, indeed. We're getting a great response for what we're doing and that's the main thing. I think, to be honest with you, I think we're slightly surprised about the reaction we've had since we've opened the doors, which is July of last year is when they opened. So, it's been a crazy first year. But they're really satisfying just in terms of the responses we've got.

Mikey: That's great, excellent. After all, that's all it's about the end of the day, the visitors are coming, enjoying the experience, getting scared, and wanting to come again, I guess.

Chris Harris: I hope so. That's the aim, yeah.

Mikey: So, I've not yet had a chance to come over and check out the house yet, which is, like I said to you before we started recording, it's definitely on my bucket list. I need to get down there. But for any of our listeners as well, I'm sure quite a few of our Scare Track listeners have already visited you guys, I've seen a few of our listeners going out, going down there, and checking the house out. But for anyone that's unaware, for our international listeners as well, what exactly is the experience like at Mary Shelley's House of Frankenstein?

Chris Harris: Well, Mary Shelley's House of Frankenstein, we're situated in a grade two listed building in the center of Bath. It's a five-story house with a rather terrifying basement. The house is 270 years old, which is one of the reasons we actually sort of chose it, because it's already got a great ambient feel. What we did is, we took over the house and we tell the story of what inspired an 18-year-old girl to write the world's first science fiction story and the world's most famous horror story, which is obviously Frankenstein.

Chris Harris: The story of Mary Shelley is actually every bit as incredible as the actual novel itself. She led a really sort of quite torturous life, it was very traumatic, it was very chaotic and very traumatic. She lost three children at a young age, she was widowed at 24, it was just a real mess of a life, and just a really tragic life. Still, an amazing story, she was a brilliant visionary, an incredible character.

Chris Harris: The main components of what inspired her to do it, and there were several key moments, that's the death of her mum, her mum died of sepsis having given birth to Mary. Many women in those days died of what was basically a bacterial infection of the reproductive system. Doctors in those days would go from delivering babies to performing amputation on autopsies and seldom wash their hands. So, Mary was born into a really just a grim start, and that had a profound effect on her growing up. She had a huge interest in in in science growing up, electricity was in its infancy, and she was especially interested in Galvanism, which was a rather quack branch of it. 

Chris Harris: What Galvanism was, it originated by a gentleman called Luigi Galvani, when he inadvertently put an electrical current through a dead frog and the frog's legs started twitching. He's thinking, "Oh my gosh, I've, I've created life out of death!" So, his nephew took it on to the next level where they'd take dogs and cut off the heads, and in front of a paying audience would sort of put electrical charges through the head and the body and that dog would start doing crazy things. They took a hanged prisoner and publicly strung him up and put an electrical current through him, and his eyes twitched, and his arms moved. So, all this sort of stuff is inspiring Mary at 13, 14 years of age. So, this was where her interest was. 

Chris Harris: She had an interest in something called phantasmagoria, which is like a prelude to the modern-day cinema, really horror films. They used to be Magic Lantern shows and she used to go to these where they would shine these scary images up on the wall, and they did it a little bit like what we're doing. The phantasmagorias would have strange smells, actors, audio escapes, props, and what have you, but in those days, what they would do is they'd walk in a room for up to 24 hours and secretly drug you with opium to make the experience altogether more exciting. We're not allowed to do that. We did ask the Council, but they said, "no, you can do everything else, but you can't give anyone opium."

Chris Harris: So, what I should say really is, the house tells the story in a very multi-sensory way. So, as soon as you walk in it's beautifully decorated. In terms of we had scenic artists, that's one thing from the pandemic that was quite lucky for us. A lot of film artists were out of work and so we had a great crop of people who came along and completely changed this building, just cosmetically, we weren't allowed to do anything sort of in terms of major interventions because it's a listed building. But cosmetically we changed the building completely, it's done out in a very sort of dark and grim way with cracks in the walls and damp, dripping down, and sort of fungus and things like that. So, we're trying to represent faded grandeur, so the house just visually is really sort of quite grim. 

Chris Harris: Then we've got sort of very sort of subdued lighting. We've got ominous soundscapes going along throughout the building, and music. We have an aroma escape in there as well, they're very special smells and different rooms that might be a little hint of opium or woodsmoke, or just medicine generally. So, you're stimulated in this way, all your senses are stimulated as you learn the story of Mary Shelley. 

Chris Harris: The attraction itself, people aren't jumping out at you. It's ominous and it's dark and it's atmospheric, and it tells a really incredible story of Mary Shelley. We also recreated the creatures she described. Obviously, when we think of Frankenstein's monster, you know, most of us would think of Boris Karloff and the flat top, green skin, bolts in the neck creature, that wonderful sort of representation. But that's a million miles away from what Mary Shelley wrote. 

Chris Harris: The creature in her book was meant to be the perfect human being, he's 8 foot tall, he's meant to be beautiful, he's got long black hair, yellowy skin, he's got sunken eye sockets though because it all goes wrong, and there are pearly white teeth and black lips. We went to a special effects company and got them to sort of recreate the creature exactly as Mary imagined. So, this is a really beautiful, hyper-realistic creature that has some animatronics in it. It's breathing, it watches you, its face moves, and it's very unsettling. As I said, it's hyper-realistic. But again, exactly as she described.

Chris Harris: Then we go to popular culture, how sort of Frankenstein exploded in the 1930s to become a world phenomenon. We have a screening room at the top of the house and at the bottom of the house in the basement... the house is about 7,000 square feet, and each floor is about 1200 square feet. In the basement, which is the whole length of the house we've got this really horrible basement, and it's one of the main reasons we actually sort of decided to go with this house because without anything in the basement it's horrible. You know, it's nearly 300 years old, there are two vaults there, and we've had it sort of completely redesigned. So, there's a cage walk through horror maze, there's a crawl space, and a little chilling woman like a mortuary. It's just very dark with lots of special effects. 

Chris Harris: So, we're trying to present a little something for everybody. You've got a very sort of, I think, nicely told, very atmospheric telling of this amazing woman's life, and the telling of the story of Frankenstein itself in terms of how it's becomes such a metaphor for so many things. `We've also got an escape room at the top of the house, which is a Frankenstein dedicated escape room, Victor's lair, which the aim is to find these rather these missing body parts and to assemble this corpse. Then, as we said, in the basement, we've got the horror walkthrough. So, there are many things there, so it's an interesting offer.

Mikey: It sounds to me as well that it's just mixing up, one, history, education, and learning, like you say, about Mary Shelley herself as well, and not just her creation, and mixing that with like you say, the element is scared, the atmospherics, an escape room as well, the little maze down in the dungeon as well. So, like you said, it's like you've got lots of different ingredients to make an awesome sort of cocktail altogether.

Chris Harris: I think it works. You know, it's a strange thing because when we sort of took over the house, you know, we had some ideas about how we would make it more free flowing as you go through it, but because it's a listed building we weren't allowed to make any changes. So, we had to figure out how to use the house as it was, and we had to think quite hard about how we tell the story. But in a strange way, it is better this way because people now, they're not being sort of lead in that sort of, and I don't mean to be disingenuous to other attractions, but in some modern ones, they're quite homogenized where you're lead through in a sort of a linear journey. In this house and it's purely by chance, people actually going into rooms and out of rooms coming out the same way they went in, discovering little corners and nooks and crannies, and it just feels a little bit more, well it's a real house. That's what it is, it is nearly a 300-year-old house that has a lot of original features in, all the fireplaces and cornicing (molding) that's been made to look even more grim than it originally was. 

Chris Harris: It's an odd one, it's just I think uniquely atmospheric, as you say, it's educational, but in a fun way. There's nothing stodgy about what we're doing here, it's not a museum that there's lots of things in cabinets that you just look at. We've got those in the popular culture rooms where there are lots of toys, games, props, and oddities from the world of Frankenstein, from shower curtains, to salt and pepper mills, cookie jars, and flowerpots, all Frankenstein-related. It's just a load of nutty things that you know that there are Frankenstein sort of, you know, Frankenstein merchandise. But it is, I think it does seem to offer lots of different things for different people.

Mikey: Yeah, absolutely. So, like you say, it's less of a linear sort of tour, and it's more of a case of free flow sort of experience.

Chris Harris: Yeah, yeah.

Mikey: Are there sort of actors or tour guides? Not tour guides or such, but like speakers that would just show and tell things? Or is it more of a case of you wandering around and learning?

Chris Harris: It's self-guided, which again people seem to prefer. Again, I don't know why, but that's the way it is. We do have hosts there, there are actors, I can't tell you where, I mean, I can tell you where, they're in the basement, so they will jump out and terrify you. We have character hosts around the building, but unless you specifically want to interact with them, you're not part of some immersive show until you go into the basement. So, you know, some people don't want to go into the basement. You know, some people only come to the house because that's what we want to do. But yeah, the actors are in the basement.

Mikey: So, it's a free flow around the house, if you're feeling brave, you can go down into the basement, and if you're feeling smart, you can attempt your escape room. I'm the one that, I'll always do an escape room, but I'm never very good at them.

Chris Harris: All of us who put this together, all had to try the escape room and I just floundered. I just panicked in a dark room, couldn't solve anything. We've also got something we introduced because the escape room was immediately quite successful, but we didn't have the space to actually sort of introduce another escape room, but we wanted to have another offer that was a puzzle-based idea. So, what we did is we came up with something called The Body in a Suitcase. We also have a bar in the house, it's not always open, but it's open for special events, for parties, private parties, hen, stag deals and what have you. So, the bar is open, generally, on special events, but when it's not open, we host the Body in the Suitcase then. It's literally it is what it says it is, there's a suitcase that's all locked up, and there are clues on the suitcase for you to get into the suitcase. You have to solve the actual sort of clues to work out who the dismembered person is inside the suitcase, how they came to be there, and who put them there. So, that's quite a fun little game as well.

Mikey: Yeah, absolutely.

Chris Harris: It's like a mini escape room, but you're not actually locked in a room you're actually just trying to get into a case.

Mikey: You're trying to get into a case. I like it. It's like a reverse escape room. 

Chris Harris: It is a little bit, yeah. I think, again, how that's worked out, again rather fortuitously, which I felt actually in the escape, I felt it was quite claustrophobic, I'm just like that anyway. But this is because you're in a room, you're still having to engage your brain, but you don't have that kind of fear of the sound effects and all the other things going on in the room and the special effects. So, I found it not quite so traumatic, you know?

Mikey: Not as terrifying and not as traumatic? Yeah, definitely. It sounds great. I mean, like you say, it's a house full of things from totally different ends of the spectrum, you got the little scare maze downstairs, the Body in the Suitcase, an escape room, and of course the huge grade two listed building itself with the curiosities and the history, I guess, there inside as well. So, it basically is the perfect place for you guys to be able to run an extreme sort of style Halloween attraction, which is what we'll get onto now, with After Dark and Purgatory.

Mikey: Is your first year? Because you obviously opened last year in the summer. Is this going to be your first official Halloween event? 

Chris Harris: No, we did one last year in actual fact. Without huge amounts of time to plan for it, we did After Dark last year, which was The Nights to Die For.

Mikey: Right, right.

Chris Harris: What it ostensibly was, last year we did it over 6 nights over 2 weekends, it's the house, but all the lights are off, and visitors are given a torch which gives very little illumination. It's a blacked-out torch with a tiny little bit of illumination. The rooms are dressed in a slightly different way, you wouldn't come to the Halloween event to learn about Mary Shelley, you come...

Mikey: For a scare, yeah.

Chris Harris: Principally to be scared. What we've done here is, there's about 12 actors now in the house, different characters, the rooms are being dressed accordingly. So yeah, in the very first room we've got something called the haunting and this actually is sort of a room with the sort of rather awful spirit in there. That's inspired by sort of very interested in the phantasmagorias. We've got the plague room going up the stairs, where of course we have the plague doctor and the various victims, the rooms being done out there as a, you know, have mercy upon us, that sort of stuff. We've got a doll's house, where we have a slightly mixed up, well rather insane child really, hosting a tea party for her tormented and rather ruined toys. We've got the butchery where we got our surgeon carving up bits of meat and that is where you get to see the creature. We've got the asylum room for very strange people. 

Chris Harris: We've got a screening room in the house, which we normally show the 1910, the first ever film of Frankenstein, 112 years old, silent movie. It's wonderful, a little 12-minute film. This year what we're doing, we're doing a specially cut feature showing a selection of famous jump scares from movies, and the aim is just to see how jumpy you are there are about 20 scenes in it, I think.

Mikey: That's a great idea right there.

Chris Harris: We'll see how it goes. Last year we did, just how easily scared of you? That was a really psychological film, that was going really sort of the darker end of the web, and from movies where you're getting some really quite tasty, psychological videos just to see how terrified you were. 

Mikey: Tasty. Good word, good word, I like it.

Chris Harris: It wasn't nice, but for this year we've just gone for something a bit more traditional so that, just ease people into a little bit of comfort and then terrify them in the jump scare, but you're not quite sure when these scares are coming in. 

Chris Harris: We've got a lovely attic in the house. It's not open to the public generally, but we've opened that huge door going up to it, so you can't go up, but you can look into it. That's the hanging room where we've got various bodies who've been sort of executed, that's rather nice. Then all the way back down to the basement where we've souped it up for Halloween. Just doing more actors down there and just more scares.

Chris Harris: What it is you arrive, you walk around the house that you can barely see, there's people in there just terrifying you, but we're trying to go more for a psychological scare rather than the obvious, not the obvious, but the more jump scare. You know, having a clown jumping at you with a chainsaw, this is more psychological. As I said, we've had a couple of previews last week, because you're never quite sure how things are going to work and it's terrified people. So, we had a press night on the last Thursday, and there was, I think I can say this, we had one girl who was so terrified she nearly vomited, she had to sit out for two hours in the bar. We had to take care of her. So that was a good start. So that's kind of what you want.

Mikey: That's a badge of honor in the scare world, absolutely. If you can make someone nearly throw up or wee themselves, or anything like that, you're doing something right.

Chris Harris: Well, she only got to the first room. 

Mikey: Oh wow, bless her.

Chris Harris: I know she was quite young. But no, it was good. It seemed to work really well. It is a strange one, you know? You turn the lights off and it's a big building, you don't know kind of where to go, there are people sort of just milling around, creeping up behind you, whispering at you, and touching you in, obviously, appropriate places. But it's a fun event, and I think, actually, it's going to be a lot more scary than it was last year. That seems to have been the reaction we got from the test people who did it. So, yeah, fingers crossed. 

Chris Harris: I should say, we're offering it for longer this time, from the 21st of October all the way through to the 31st, and it starts at 6 and then on till late. We've also got a bar there serving, there's sort of themed drinks and cocktails that we offer. It's a lovely bar, actually, again, it's a really weird little themed bar for Bloody Mary, so it's a nice place to hang out.

Mikey: All on theme, all on brand. I love it. Absolutely. So, 10 nights of scares at House of Frankenstein. I like the fact that you're, I mean, don't get me wrong, I go to lots of different scale attractions. I love a good jump scare and whatnot, but it is nice to have different elements, and different tactics, on how to scare people. It doesn't always have to be a jump out and shout, "rah" at you. The way you described the house, you know the ambiance of it, the atmosphere of it, something more, I'm not going to say relaxed scare, but of an on-edge scare, it will keep you more on edge and the fact that people are just creeping up to you and wandering round. It's going to be, like you say, quite psychological, so it's going to play on your mind more than anything.

Chris Harris: I think so. That's the nice thing about the house, just normally in the daytime, people arrive with their own sort of preconceptions anywhere. As soon as you walk into the house, there is that slight feeling of all this is quite ominous actually. So, the visitors are doing a lot of the work themselves. So, we have got people in the house that will jump out and scare the hell out of you, in terms of the After Dark particularly. But, I think, we have tried to go more for, as you say, that psychological sort of, just keep it sort of subtle. I think that's the thing about the house as well, it's a strange one and modesty aside, it's very cool. The house is a really cool house, and the way it's done out, just the way it's worked out, it's just, it feels it's very satisfying. 

Chris Harris: There's some beautiful props in there, all handmade by sort of local special effects people, prop makers. Again, we were so lucky to get them during that period. There's about, altogether I suppose, I think, I can't remember, it's about 1,200 objects and bits around the house, in the lab. There's this beautiful lab that's been created with hundreds of items in there, body parts, as I said, all this sort of the popular culture stuff, there's specially made objects that have that sort of Gothic Victoriana about them. Mary was born in Regency Times, but she lived most of her life in Victorian times, so we went to that sort of Victorian steampunk sort of feel to it. But it's a very cool house, I think, just the way it feels. But yeah, as you said, After Dark is a little bit more psychological.

Mikey: Yeah, absolutely. So, it's scary in the daytime, it's going to be even scarier at night, basically.

Chris Harris: Yes, I think that's a good way of putting it. 

Mikey: It sounds awesome. I mean, I know that our listeners would be very excited to not only check it out in the daytime, but also like we say, for the After Dark event from the 21st to the 31st of Oct. this Halloween season, for Halloween 2022. So, what's the best way to get there to get their tickets? Is that direct from your website?

Chris Harris: Yeah, houseoffrankenstein.com, just go there and just look out for the After Dark tickets, and they're on sale for £15 After Dark.

Mikey: Perfect, excellent. So, you can get the After Dark tickets there, the opening, and the daytime tickets as well. Are you open still throughout the day during these special events?

Chris Harris: We're open seven days a week, in terms of the daytime. So, the main offer is actually obviously in the daytime, and then we do our turn around, just getting the House dressed for the evening, the actors get their costumes on, their bits and pieces, and so we're ready to go at 6:00 o'clock. But we are open all day. I should point out, they are two very different experiences. The house is very different to After Dark, because obviously the house tells story of Mary, and the After Dark experience is just trying to scare you.

Mikey: To scare the hell out of you. Sounds just like what we like here at scare track. I think the last thing really is, how can all our listeners support you guys and follow you over on social media?

Chris Harris: Just find us on Instagram, Twitter, all the usual social media pages. In terms of supporting us, really just come and visit. I think, just generally, attractions across the board, whatever it is, not just us, other scare attractions, if you're half thinking about it, go! Because people need your money. I mean the tourism industry, particularly in this part of the world, is down about 35-40%. It's still it's struggling and so it just needs the support of fans, people who love this sort of thing, go and support us or support someone else, but certainly sort of support the industry.

Mikey: Yeah, absolutely. Chris, first up, I really appreciate you taking time out and coming onto the Scare Track Podcast. We will very, very much be excited to make a visit to Mary Shelley's House of Frankenstein very soon as well here on Scare Track. Have an amazing Halloween run. Best of luck!

Chris Harris: It's a pleasure, Mike. Thanks for having me on the show and look forward to seeing you in Bath at some point.

Mikey: Yeah, absolutely. Thanks so much, Chris.

 

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Mikey

Host of ScareTrack Podcast

Mikey has been reviewing scare attractions since 2012. With a BA Honours Degree in Theatre to his name, Mikey uses his specialist knowledge of Artauds Theatre of Cruelty along with other detailed research when reviewing attractions. Mikey has conducted numerous haunt seminars and hosted an extreme haunt panel debate at recent scare conventions. Along side ScareTrack, Mikey also admins the ‘Scare Actors Group’ on facebook. This group helps aspiring and seasoned scare actors find new and exciting acting opportunities. Mikey enjoys attractions that aren't scared to try new ambitious ideas.

Chris Harris

Co-Founder of Mary Shelley's House of Frankenstein