Review: San Francisco Dungeon

San Francisco Dungeon poster

San Francisco’s year-round terror tour provides screams of fear and laughter. Care to find out what lurks within its depths? Then come along with us – if you dare!

As if it’s not enough that San Francisco has the Golden Gate Bridge, the city boasts something else that Los Angeles sorely lacks: a frightening, year-round walk-through experience. We’re talking about the San Francisco Dungeon, near Fisherman’s wharf. This sixty-minute tour through the darker corners and more demented denizens of San Francisco history plays like a more sophisticated and elaborate version of a seasonal Halloween attraction; instead of masked monsters, long corridors, and jump-scares, you get a series of nine scenes that range from a maze and a boat ride to dramatic vignettes that require you to stop, sit, and sometimes participate. The results will literally have you screaming – first with laughter, then with terror.

The San Francisco Dungeon is the first American version of an attraction that has locations in London, Edinburgh, Amsterdam, Hamburg, and other European cities; though beyond the reach of our usual radar, the reputation of these Dungeons raises some high expectations. The exterior of the San Francisco Dungeon certainly looks innocuous enough: a sign above a busy sidewalk, with a barker luring victims toward the box office. The decor inside is wooden, suggesting the old west or a mining town – aspects of local history that will soon come to life before your eyes.

After purchasing your tickets, a souvenir picture is taken of you and your friends; then you descend a staircase into the lower depths of the dungeon, into a waiting area, where you are separated into large group that go in one at a time (no conga line here!). Theoretically, shows begin every ten minutes, but our group waited much longer (closer to a half hour). Fortunately, the wait is ameliorated by the surroundings, which set the tone for what is to follow.

Projections of a ghostly figure periodically appear on the wall, hinting at what lies inside and warning you to silence your cell phones (or “talk boxes,” as the 19th-century phantom calls them). A terrarium houses a live rat or two. A trio of locked doors seem to contain restless spirits who continually rave from inside and occasionally test their bonds, ratting the doors with a metallic clank (if you’re standing close, you’re likely to be startled out of your skin).

Finally, the main entrance opens and you proceed inside. You’re greeted by the first character, a sort of master of ceremonies who reminds you of the rules and sets the stage, explaining that you are embarking on a tour covering over a century of sordid events, ranging from gold rush greed to plague. Then one visitor is invited to spin the “Wheel of Misfortune,” which inevitably stops on a dire prediction of your chances of survival.

No scares yet, but a little nervous laughter of anticipation. There is more to come…

The Descent

Do you dare descend into the San Francisco Dungeon?
Do you dare descend into the San Francisco Dungeon?

The Master of Ceremonies leads you to The Descent, which is a large version of the “Falling Elevator” gag at many Halloween haunts in Los Angeles. The sheer size of the room, which accommodates a group of 15-20 visitors, adds an extra impact to the jolts, which is also enhanced by flashing lights that give the M.C. a chance to shift position in the dark intervals, suddenly shifting from across the room to face-to-face in the blink of an eye.

There is also a nice effect with a gap in the walls revealing a glimpse of what is in fact a large tube filled with red-tinted water (though you might not realize this in the darkness and confusion). All things being relative, as bubbles boil upwards, they give the visual impression that the elevator is moving in the opposite direction: down – and fast!

The Descent is a nice “opening act” and definitely worth experiencing if you’re a novice to this kind of attraction, but more seasoned enthusiasts will find it somewhat familiar.

After escaping from the elevator, you move on to…

Gold Rush Greed

This scene consists of a living mannequin (a blank face with video projected on the visage to bring it to “life”) in the form of a monk who relates the terrible fate that befell the local Indians when the White Man came out west looking for gold in the 19th century. Though enhanced with red lights to suggest the Fires of Damnation, this scene is a slight letdown after what proceeded, lacking much drama or tension.

Gold Rush Greed leads directly to…

Lost Mines of Sutter’s Mill

This is the San Francisco Dungeons’s literal “maze”: a hall of mirrors with multiple pathways, requiring you to find your way out. The suggestion is that you, like so many greedy gold-miners before, might never emerge again.

The mirror illusion is well done – you never see your own reflection until you practically walk into the glass pane – and the maze is challenging enough to be a bit suspenseful. However, it suffers from the size of the groups allowed into the Dungeon: you may find yourself at the end of a line of stopped people, wondering whether everyone has given up or someone has found the exit and is simply waiting for the door to open (like every other scene the San Francisco Dungeon, your duration is carefully timed, to prevent you from catching up with the preceding group).

Like The Descent, the Lost Mines of Sutter’s Mill is a good but familiar. So far, there is little to distinguish the San Francisco Dungeon from a more conventional haunted house attraction.

That, however, will soon change…

Streets of San Francisco

For the first time, visitors will find seating – in a room that represents the undercover lair of a criminal gang known as the Hounds. Dispensing with the simple scare techniques, Streets of San Francisco is instead a brief historical vignette, with a costumed actor regaling visitors with details of the Hounds. He then selects a couple of suspected spies from the audience: one is “locked” in a cage; the other “strapped” into a chair as various torture implements are wielded menacingly.

The effect here is more comical than horrifying, as it quickly becomes apparent that none of these implements will be used. Instead, the “victim” is the but of a joke: a large device to emasculate a suspected traitor is replaced with a much smaller one, supposedly appropriate for the “size” of the male victim.

This scene establishes the template for what follows, with characters directly interacting with the audience, breaking the comfortable separation between actor and viewer – at first to humorous effect, but gradually shifting towards something more horrific.

The Court of San Francisco

“Give ’em a fair trial, and hang ’em high!” is the motto here, as a Judge presides over a small courtroom, plucking visitors at random and forcing into the dock as he pronounces sentence. Your humble servant was put on trial as a horse thief ; as we can say is that justice is swift and certain – and completely unhindered by testimony from the defendant, who is interrupted before he can enter a plea, let alone defend himself.

Audience participation is stronger here, as all of the guests sitting in the courtroom are invited to shout out the Judge’s motto in unison, which infuses the scene with some giddy energy. As in the previous scene, the tone of the Court of San Francisco is slightly goofy – at one point, the Judge pauses to listen to off-screen testimony from a neighing horse!

At this point, hardcore horror fans may find themselves wondering whether the San Francisco Dungeon truly lives up to its name. It is definitely boisterous fun but so far not very frightening, except in a tongue-in-cheek fashion.

Fear, fortunately, awaits in the next room…

Miss Piggott’s Saloon

Miss Piggot in her saloon - ready to shanghai unwary customers.
Miss Piggot in her saloon – ready to shanghai unwary customers.

Stop in and have a drink – and get shanghaied! Miss Piggott seems a convivial enough hostess as she tends bar, but her stories of her customers have an alarming ring to them: apparently it is not uncommon to wake from a drunken stupor and find oneself aboard ship and miles out to sea, an unwilling new crew member. Unfortunately, this is not a fate that befalls only those who drink too much; Miss Piggot has a special potion she slips into the cups of likely “volunteers.”

As if to simulate a blackout, the lights extinguish, plunging the room into darkness. Voices quickly swirl around you – Miss Piggott conversing with her partner in crime, who demands you sign up for an ocean voyage. Prepare to scream when…

You feel the barrel of a gun pressed into your back!

It must be some kind of mechanical effect hidden in the backs of the benches inside the saloon; however it is achieved, the result is a genuine shock. The simultaneous shouts from the audience commingle with the nefarious characters heard scuttling about in the darkness, generating an incredible wave of communal fear – one of the greatest scares we have experienced at any haunted house attraction, ever.

When the lights finally go back on, your ordeal is far from over; instead, you are verbally herded out the door and onto…

Shanghai Kelly’s Raft Ride

This is a short boat ride in the darkness, representing a raft ferrying you to a ship. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your point of view, the raft is intercepted by another vessel that fires its canon; the near miss sends a spray of water into your face (more like a light mist, so don’t worry about getting soaked).

Being targeted by a canon may not seem like fun, but at least it convinces Shanghai Kelly to drop you back on land, so that you can continue your trek through the San Francisco Dungeon, instead of setting sail for parts unknown.

Shanghai Kelly’s Raft Ride is good for a laugh, but after the time it takes to get safely seated inside the boat, you may find yourself expecting a slightly longer ride (you barely go around one curve, and that’s it). Space limitations are no doubt a consideration; nevertheless, the ride promises more than it delivers.

No matter – as you disembark, you are figuratively going from the frying pan into the fire of…

Chinatown Plague Steets

You walk the back alleys of early 20th century Chinatown, where bodies lies strewn with the garbage – un-buried victims of the plague. A man (actually a mannequin) stands over a trash bin, and you are assaulted with noxious noises as he vomits – no doubt a symptom that he, too, is infected.

Escaping from one hell into another, you enter a morgue, where the regular coroner has gone missing – or worse – leaving a somewhat unreliable looking chap in charge.

A body rests on the table, and the scene turns into grotesque Grand Guignol as the mad doctor extracts guts from within. Another “volunteer” is selected from the audience, but this time, instead of mere threats, there seems to be actual mayhem performed – behind a curtain, but with enough shadows and silhouettes to effectively suggest the bloody action.

The scene climaxes when the doctor attempts to show us a lab rat, which turns out to have escaped. In a gag worth of Hollywood showman William Castle, you feel scurrying motions in your seats as if the wayward rodent is crawling between your legs! Incredibly, the effect is even more unnerving than the pistol in Miss Piggott’s saloon, eliciting shrieks of terror from the audience, who are then quickly hustled outside, toward…

The Ghosts of Alcatraz

A guard warns of restless Ghosts of Alcatraz.
A guard warns of restless Ghosts of Alcatraz.

The final scene takes place in a large cell of the infamous prison. A guard or warden – female, strangely – relates a horror story about an unfortunate inmate, beaten and abused until he took his own life, whose ghost now haunts the unused corridors of Alcatraz. The lights go out; sounds erupt. In the strobing flashes that follow the guard appears first here, then there – perhaps in front of you next. Then the dead prisoner himself is suddenly there in the flesh roaring in rage and ready to attack but then he is gone again, in the blink of an eye, and the guard shouts at you to leave while you still can.

The Ghosts of Alcatraz provides a startling and satisfying climax to the previous horrors, sending the frightened audience out at a gallop, eager to escape but glad they took the journey.

The exit takes you through the gift shop, where you can buy souvenirs of the San Francisco Dungeon (mugs, shirts, etc), including a nice booklet that includes the photographs taken when you first entered, along with images and information about the attraction. The cost is approximately $35 dollars, but the book makes a nice conversation piece on the coffee table.

Conclusion

San Francisco Dungeon Halloween 2014As a year-round event that must appeal to tourists with children, it may not be fair to compare the San Francisco Dungeon to seasonal Halloween haunts; however, the Dungeon itself invites the comparison by promising to be 2014’s “Home of Halloween” in San Francisco. So, how does the Dungeon stack up?

With its underground setting, the San Francisco Dungeon initially evokes the feel of the now-defunct Old Town Haunt Halloween attraction in Pasadena; cut off from the world above, the settings seem more authentic, believable. The initial walk down the stairs to the waiting room seems to take you into another world where anything can – and probably will – happen.

Most of the settings rival those in Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood. With the exception of the mirror-maze, which feels like a fun house attraction, you feel immersed in believable environments.

What takes place in those environments runs the gamut from black comedy to suspenseful shocks to grotesque gore. The early scenes are milder than one would expect after the anticipation of the waiting room, but to be fair, the San Francisco Dungeon promises to be “hilarious fun” that is “sometimes scary,” so they are delivering what’s advertised. Though the ratio of laughs to screams is initially low, the San Francisco Dungeon pays off like a ruptured artery at the end – guaranteed to satisfy your thirst for horror.

We especially appreciate that this is no mere walk-through with monsters lurking around corners. Breaking the tour up into specific scenes, in different time periods with different stories and characters, provides a level of variety seldom seen in haunted house attractions; the experience is akin to sitting through a series of interactive mini-plays – closer to Delusion: The Haunted Play than to a maze at the Knotts Berry Farm Halloween Haunt. Frankly we wish more Halloween events in Los Angeles operated like this.

The Dungeon is definitely worth the money, but is it worth a trip to San Francisco? Locals and tourists who happen to be visiting the area should prioritize the Dungeon on their itinerary, but what about Los Angeles Halloween fans? Should they be planning to journey northward this October?

We would recommend waiting until you were in the area for some other reason, then take advantage of the opportunity. However, there are hints that the San Francisco Dungeon will up the ante for Halloween, which may make a dedicated trip worthwhile. If so, this would be a perfect time Hollywood Gothique fans to enjoy Halloween in the Bay Area; you can find lots of listings at our San Francisco doppleganger, Haunted Bay.

San Francisco Dungeon logoLocated at 145 Jefferson Street in San Francisco, The San Francisco Dungeon is open 360 days a year. Hours are 12pm until 8pm (last entry 7pm) from Sunday through Thursday and 12pm until 9pm (last entry at 8pm) on Fridays and Saturdays. Times change seasonally, with longer hours during the Halloween season, so check the official website for more information. Tickets are $22 online in advance, and $26 at the door; there are discounts from groups of 15 or more, and combo tickets for the Dungeon and Madame Tussaud’s wax museum next door. The San Francisco Dungeon is recommended for ages 10 and over.