September 3, 2013

Where Tragedy Meets Time


Outside the building, a line forms before the plague doctor. He is in full costume, this one: in the brim hat and the nightmarish, long-beaked bird mask, he looms atop the stairs with his arms folded. "Online booking? Online booking?" he asks, in the voice of a teenager. "Do you have the ticket on your phone there... ah, yep, you're alright. Go ahead up there to the right, yeah, straight up there." He moves down the queue, sorting the general from the priority customers and answering everyone’s questions, like whether debit cards are accepted here. (They’re not.)

This is the London Dungeon: a camp medley of historical horrors. The macabre highlights of early modern Britain are rendered here in theme park form. The story of Anne Boleyn’s execution is told through a fun boat ride, and Jack the Ripper himself makes a surprise appearance: with knife, top hat and cape, he twists and thrusts under strobe lighting.

In one historical re-enactment, Guy Fawkes returns as a ghost and successfully follows through on his foiled bomb plot. The wooden floor shakes safely as 'Parliament' is 'blown up'. The London Dungeon offers many such jump scares, all of which simulate the visitor’s violent death. The whole experience culminates in a 'mass hanging', which is a 10-metre plunge in a chunky rollercoaster seat.

There’s something called 'dark tourism' – travel to sites of genocide or destruction on a grand scale, like the Killing Fields of Cambodia or the Chernobyl exclusion zone. This is not that.

"Do you know what my name is?" booms one of the London Dungeon’s live actors, portraying a doctor lurking in a graveyard. "Robin. Robin Graves. Ah… you see what I did there? Robin Graves. That’s what I do!"

He faces an unresponsive crowd. "ROBIN GRAVES!"

At the London Dungeon, history strains through a thick pun fog. An executioner, standing at the gallows, invites a volunteer to come get hanged. "Come on up here and I’ll show you the ropes. Show you the ropes. Ah… you see what I did there?" His voice shrinks to a murmur. "Please laugh."

The lame humour is intentional, and smoothes out the rougher edges of the brutal violence being portrayed until it's family friendly. The Dungeon is, indeed, a popular tourist spot for families with young children.

A middle-aged couple walk through the Dungeon, holding the hands of their young twin daughters.

"Do you know about the Gunpowder Plot?" asks the dad of the daughter whose hand he holds.

"Yes," replies the six-year-old.

"They wanted to blow up the Parliament, which funnily enough is right across the river from where we are. But it's a bit of a joke now, because nobody would want to blow up Parliament today."

She thinks about this. "Why?"

"Well," he says, "because we don't kill people anymore."


The actor is blandly handsome. He stands in the stairwell of the bus’s lower deck, microphone in hand, and prepares his square, thirty-something face to mug desperately into a camera. He’ll be broadcast to a closed circuit television upstairs, viewed by the 15 people who are sitting on the upper deck of the dark, funereal bus. The bus has been christened the Necrobus. This is painted on the black exterior in big letters.

"Welcome," he says into the microphone as the bus starts rolling, "to the London Ghost Bus Tour!" He begins speaking in a cartoon villain's voice and sticks with it. "Tonight, for our journey, which should last about an hour and a half, we'll be taking you to sites of horror. Murder. Mystery. Don't worry, there'll also be a couple of... comedy moments."

"My name," he announces, "is Dick Stroker." The reaction from the few passengers upstairs cannot be heard. The actor is alone on the lower deck, save for the driver: a weathered old man sealed off behind a glass window. An illustration on the exterior suggests that a manic skeleton is driving the Necrobus. Not the case. The actual, very human, driver doesn't look like he would find this amusing or has ever found anything to be amusing. He keeps his eyes on the road and says nothing.

After pausing for what could have been laughter, Dick Stroker continues.

"Here we go."


This is going to be graphic, he warns.

He’s right. Though he doesn’t go into detail at the beginning, over the course of the two-hour walking tour through Whitechapel, he’ll explain just how Jack the Ripper slaughtered five women, and in precise terms, what he did to their breasts, vaginas and internal organs. The tour guide will proclaim this information to the crowd like a town crier, as little girls listen in the front row and furrow their brows.

This Jack the Ripper walking tour meets every night outside the Tower Hill underground station, as do about a dozen other Jack the Ripper walking tours. Each makes its own claim to authenticity or entertainment value, and grizzled touts lean on fences, smoke cigarettes, chat amongst themselves and point to placards clarifying that this is a cash only deal.

The tour runs through London's East End and stops at several of the Ripper's murder sites. When the convoy leaves Tower Hill for the next destination, late arrivals catch up to the guide at the head of the pack and pay the nine pounds for their tickets.

"I don’t have the exact change," one of those people says to the guide. He is in his late thirties, athletic, and speaks with a Californian accent. A woman walks with him, hands in the pockets of her leather jacket. He extracts a wad of crisp twenty pound notes out of his wallet, explaining by way of apology to the tour guide that he only changed his money at the airport this morning.

"Oh, I might have coins, let me see," his English friend says helpfully. She starts to look through her purse.

It’s not a problem, the tour guide says, and fishes around for change in a Ziploc bag. Finances settled, the man replaces his wallet. The English woman links her arm with his.

"First time in London?" the guide asks casually.

"First day. I just flew in this morning."

"Are you in London for long?"

He looks at the woman on his arm. "Well…" he says, "permanently, actually." She rests her head on his shoulder; long black hair draping down his back. And you can tell that he really means it and that she knows.

No comments: