San Francisco Dungeon
San Francisco, California
Dungeons are fun. Dungeons are awful.
Ah, the old dungeon dichotomy, squeezed in a skull clamp of conflicting emotions. We tsk-tsk torture, we sternly disapprove of murder, yet we're first in line to glimpse a tongue yanker up close.
The world's dungeon tourist attractions traditionally serve up tidbits of medieval barbarism and dastardly crime history, geared for tourist shocks (and a few laughs). In an era of waterboarding, video decapitations, and nightmare pandemics, dungeons have to work harder than ever to make the old atrocities more appealing to customers who might otherwise sit at home watching cable news.
The San Francisco Dungeon shambles and toils admirably, dank chambers populated by vile and entertaining characters out of San Francisco's own history. Opened in 2014 near Fisherman's Wharf, it fills a basement beneath a block of souvenir stores and restaurants -- completely remodeled after the previous attraction cleared out. There's even a new "dark boat ride."
It's the first American version of a successful franchise that includes eight dungeons in Europe. Starting in London with torture scenes and a few actors in period garb, Merlin Entertainment expanded over the decades to craft a "360 degree" experience that leverages sordid local arcana with surefire gimmicks, using a dungeon as a vehicle for storytelling.
According to Adrea Gibbs, SF Dungeon's general manager, "The whole approach for the Dungeon experience is predicated on the 'Horrible Truth.' Terrible things occur in society that tend to resonate from culture to culture."
Crime, disease, pain, homicide... all neatly map to atrocious local behavior that can be combined with proven scare effects from other dungeons. Characters are steeped in facts and personality disorders, and then live performers ad lib, making every tour unique. For the San Francisco Dungeon, the history explored by its nine actors spans 1848 to 1907 or so.
The adventure starts from a dimly lit waiting area, next to a glass habitat of live rats (we later learn they're from a local rat rescue organization, and the 16 rats are cared for by staff and performers on the "Rat Team").
Colonel Jack Gamble is our host -- informative, but quirky. He finds a "volunteer," Eileen, and has her lead the group -- up to 36 on a busy tour -- into a large mine shaft elevator, which creaks and shudders as it descends.
In the mines, we encounter a ghostly Spanish priest, his face projected into a monk's cowl. Father Francisco Palou laments the depredations on the native population and the arrival of unruly gold rushers. Something about his accent and the room acoustics make him the most unintelligible character on the tour -- everyone else we meet excels at loud enunciation.
The Lost Mines of Sutter Creek is a mirror maze, disorienting the group as phantom miners unhelpfully point the wrong way to exit (if you really love mirror mazes, there's another a few doors down at Ripley's Believe It or Not).
Gang Antics with the Chappy Chipper
We eventually stumble into a rustic room with a fireplace, an iron cage, a chair fitted with restraining straps, and a wall of torture implements. Feral wench Bobcat Betty warns about the "Hounds," a violent nativist street gang. But Betty's not your friend, as her two "volunteers" will attest. One is locked in the cage, and the other is strapped to the chair and threatened with the "chappy chipper."
Bobcat Betty's rant is interrupted by a police raid, and our tour group is hauled into an 1851 court of law. Judge Alcalde Meade presides, grills tour members on the stand, and renders questionable but swift judgment. His motto is on a sign: "Give 'Em a Fair Trial and Hang 'Em High."
After the story concludes in each room, the group is prodded into the next. The settings are dramatically lit and meticulously detailed -- lots of iron and old wood planks (Some wood was salvaged from demolished buildings at a WWII Japanese internment camp in Arizona).
Miss Piggott's Saloon
In Miss Piggott's waterfront saloon, our group is seated in high-backed wooden chairs. Miss Piggott is a hard-drinking seductress, with an evil glint in her eye, lipstick on her cheek, and convenient mallet to subdue troublemakers.
"She's based on a real person, a crimp," Gibbs said. Crimps drugged and sold men as unwilling sailors to departing ships. "If bar patrons looked like prime targets, she could murder them and steal all of their goods. Or if the ships needed crews, she could help shanghai victims."
Her partner in crimping is the infamous James "Shanghai" Kelly. Suddenly, the saloon plunges into complete darkness, and we hear Kelly whispering at ear-level as seats are randomly bumped from behind.
We're pretty sure this will lead to a "dark boat ride."
The Dark Boat Ride
We're shanghaied. We slide onto bench seats in a boat on water. The surroundings are so dark it's impossible to tell if it's only a few inches of water, or if the distance we navigate is more than lap pool length (Gibbs tells us later: "Putting in a large basin of water was a challenge."). But the effect works. Halfway across the bay, we're stopped -- the ship captains don't want us! A plague has broken out in San Francisco, and we might be infected.
We're diverted to Chinatown, where bubonic plaque rages, merrily felling city inhabitants. One corpse lies on a slab, casually autopsied by a creepy fellow called "Scabby The Rat Catcher." San Francisco, 1900 to 1904, boasts it was home to America's first plague epidemic (Our dungeon visit was just before Ebola arrived in the U.S., so that 360 degree aura of unhealthiness is probably even more convincing now).
A kid who's seen enough abuse earlier in the tour adamantly refuses the Rat Catcher's badgering to "volunteer." The Rat Catcher reluctantly selects a more willing specimen. But the special effects woven into the room assure that everyone will exit as a contagion vector.
The final chamber is a cell block at Fort Alcatraz, pre-federal penitentiary. A cadaverous guard weaves his tale of murder and penal mayhem. Repeated blackouts and unexpected jolts undo the composure of a few more tour members.
Then it's out to the gift shop, and an opportunity to buy a staged souvenir photo snapped before the tour started (No photography is allowed during the tour, to preserve its dungeon ambiance).
Back outside we notice a scruffy character in a top hat trying to shanghai sidewalk passersby, hoping they'll step inside the San Francisco Dungeon. He looks familiar. Emperor Norton? Yes. A colorful, long-dead SF character (self-proclaimed Emperor of the U.S. and Protector of Mexico), but he failed to make the cut for the main storyline downstairs.
He didn't murder or torture anyone.