Mary Shelley’s House of Frankenstein will open in Bath, UK, this June. It will be the first attraction devoted to Mary Shelley and her 1818 novel, written largely in Bath when she was eighteen.
The chilling attraction features four floors, including a foreboding basement, immersing visitors in interactive, disturbing multi-sensory environments and an abundance of body parts. Mary Shelley’s House of Frankenstein is an unnerving experience that celebrates the first sci-fi novel through a blend of horror, thrills and literary exploration.
Co-creators Jonathan Willis and Chris Harris, both Bath residents with a theatrical background, talked to bloloop about their partnership, and the creative process behind the unique attraction.
A meeting of minds
“I met Chris when I was putting on a theatrical production in London,” begins Willis. “We both trained in theatre. I had been working in New York and when I came back, put out an advertisement for a new play that we were going to put on in London’s Fringe.
“The team got a whole huge mass of submissions. A whole room full of 400 or 500 scripts, all of which were absolutely terrible. It was like Mel Brooks’ film The Producers. We were in despair. If we had been looking for something like Springtime for Hitler, we would have found it, but we were actually looking for something quite good.”
There was a knock on the door the day after the deadline:
“This was Chris, and he had written a script called Pixie-Led. We didn’t have much hope, of course, that it was going to be any good, because we had just read 400 that were terrible. It was fabulous. We were in hysterics.
“So we put it on in the Fringe. It got to number one in Time Out, and queues around the block. We transferred it to Off-Broadway and kept in touch ever since. I’ve done various theatrical things in the interim, as has Chris. Chris has done an amazing radio play with Gary Oldman, and ironically I’ve done a movie with Gary Oldman as well.”
The idea of Mary Shelley’s House of Frankenstein is born
Some years later, both relocated from London to Bath. When they were sitting together in a pub, Chris Harris mentioned his idea for Mary Shelley’s House of Frankenstein.
“Part of my job, when I was doing the movies, was raising funds both for movies, but also for starting other kinds of ventures as well, mostly media related. I’ve got a large database of supporters that we’ve had for many years.
“Chris mentioned this idea – he is the creative guru behind this whole project – and it was a total no-brainer. Of course, it was going to work. There was no question about even considering not doing it. We had to do it, and we decided to press ahead.”
“Sometimes, when you start a new venture, it’s like stirring treacle; it’s really difficult to get things going. Sometimes that’s life telling you that you shouldn’t be going ahead because it isn’t going to work. Then sometimes when you start something, everything falls out serendipitously, and that’s definitely been the case with regard to this one.
“The people who we’ve got working on the project with myself and Chris are all fantastic with no gaps, and the venue fortuitously has come about; the most perfect location.”
While it may not have been the ideal time to begin a new venture, Willis says: “The COVID situation hasn’t really affected us that much. We had to wait for planning to take place, a process where it just goes through the Council, so it didn’t really delay that. And then the lockdown ceased, so it didn’t get in the way of construction projects.
“We’ve had some amazing people come in and help to start building out the property. The Council couldn’t have been more supportive, and has been right behind us; we’ve had a lot of local support, which is wonderful. Raising the funds to be able to do it all has been relatively smooth and easy because everybody else can see the potential of this project. It’s not something you have to sell to them.
“Mary Shelley’s House of Frankenstein going to be fantastic. It’s going to be a world-first in terms of multimedia sensory projection. Also, it’s obviously going to be educational, historical, and cultural, but also really super-scary and theatrical. People are going to come out of this in a totally different way than they come out of other visitor attractions.”
The life and work of Mary Shelley
It will be a world-first in so far as it being Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, rather than in terms of other multi-sensory things that people are delivering, says Harris:
“The fantastic thing about this project is that – and this is just in my experience throughout my life – anything that doesn’t need an explanation tends to flow quite smoothly.
“Everybody knows Frankenstein. People already get it – some of it, anyway. Everyone is expecting a green-skinned, flat-headed monster, which obviously we will deliver because that’s what everyone wants. But we’re also exploring what it was that inspired Mary to write the book.”
“We are focusing very heavily on Mary Shelley at House of Frankenstein because the more I learned about her, the more enamoured I became about this extraordinary, phenomenal person. For me, she should be one of the top 100 Britons. She’s not sufficiently highly regarded.
“So we are talking about what inspired her to write it, but also, with an effects company in London, we’re creating the monster as she wrote it; as she envisaged it. She talked about an 8-foot monster. We think that really is a world-first. We haven’t come across anybody who’s created the monster as she wrote it in a four-line description.”
A local connection
Harris goes on to outline how he came to be drawn to Mary Shelley in the first place:
“She was the final piece of the puzzle. Prior to that, I had a whimsical thought several years ago about how great it would be to have a museum – for want of a better word – that explored the science of fear and phobia; about what made us scared. You would go into an environment where, everywhere you go, it plays with your senses, giving you a visceral feeling.
“I revisited the thought about three years ago. I had another think about it, though I had no plans to do anything with it.
“In the course of researching it, I suddenly realized that Mary Shelley lived in Bath for five months. This is also where she wrote a substantial portion of Frankenstein. So my idea shifted from the original concept of exploring fear and phobia to telling Mary Shelley’s story. But doing it in a similar way, creating an atmospheric environment that is dark, moody, and visceral, creating a sense of foreboding.
“At Mary Shelley’s House of Frankenstein, you’re walking into dark rooms with flickering lights, and having her story told, not in a Rocky Horror theatrical way, but in a way that’s a little more like a thriller, as it were; something a little bit more tense.
“The aim is to create something psychological rather than jump scares. However, there might be one or two of those as well.”
Creating atmosphere at Mary Shelley’s House of Frankenstein
The atmosphere will be achieved in a number of ways:
“The aim is to deliver a visceral, entertaining experience. And we will do that with strategic use of ominous ambient music, scary soundscapes, temperature controls, aromas, lighting effects, special effects, projections using motion sensors, pressure pads, directional sounds,” says Harris.
“We are looking at a few fun electrical things that make a horrible noise and look terrifying. For example, a Jacob’s ladder high-voltage travelling arc, which would need to be behind a glass screen.
“In addition to the 8 ft monster, we’re commissioning a giant copy of the Italian sculptor Camillo Pistrucci’s sculpture of Mary Shelley’s head. We’ve taken that model and we’re having a huge, imposing 5-foot by 3-foot head made. This will be wall-mounted and underlit, staring down at us. We’re going to map that with video horror projections.
“Essentially, it’s going to be a dark, ominous, ambient sort of visceral theatrics where you’re walking through a room, hit a little motion sensor, and a directional speaker whispers something to you. As you’re walking around, you are being caught out by these little things. That’s the plan.”
Appealing to a wide audeince
Mary Shelley’s House of Frankenstein is aiming at as wide a demographic as possible, Harris explains:
“But also families with slightly more grown-up children. There are a lot of attractions in Bath, but not many aimed at families with older kids.
“You can imagine a scenario where the teenage kids say, ‘OK, Dad, Mum, I’ll go round the Royal Cresent. You can take me into the Roman baths, and I know I can’t jump in. I’ll even go into the Abbey and look at a bunch of dead people. But you’ve got to take me into the House of Frankenstein.’”
“There are so many fantastic cultural things happening in Bath that are of interest to grownups; that’s one of the reasons why we love living here. But I think if families can see an extra angle; if they can now bring slightly older children who will come in and enjoy this process, I think that’s going to be beneficial to us, and also beneficial to the visitor numbers to Bath generally.”
“Because it’s a horror attraction, we can’t gear it to young children, because it dilutes the whole thing. Realistically, parents and guardians need to use good judgment about bringing any kid under 12. You wouldn’t bring a 5-year-old in.”
What is the enduring appeal of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein? What makes it universally relevant still?
“That’s the extraordinary thing,” says Willis. “Ever since it was written, it has been used as a metaphor for us so many different things, throughout science, politics, religion. Nowadays it’s Silicon Valley. It’s Frankenfoods or it’s AI. It’s all sorts of different things.
“Ultimately, I think, although it’s a science fiction novel, it’s a story about people. It’s about alienation; about needing to be accepted, wanting to be loved, understanding who your creator is. It’s a story that was modern when it was written and is modern now. Nothing has changed, it’s just that the language is a little different.
“The main thing is the question about who really is the monster. It’s about us suppressing the monster within. It is a phenomenally well-constructed story.”
It is also a perfect story for an attraction now, with the trend for participants actively driving their own experience, wanting to relate and to be immersed in a story they help to build.
“Another of my day jobs is to make films,” says Harris. “We have moved into the interactive gaming space, so all our forthcoming movies are interactive. They go onto the gaming platforms – Xbox, PlayStation, Nintendo, and Steam. People have up to 200 different choices throughout the course of the film. There are as many as eight different endings, from which you can also cut a linear movie that you can put on DVD.”
“Interactivity is the way the market is going. People want to be involved, rather than passive observers. Why not embrace that as part of your entertainment offering? We’re doing that with the visual arts, but also with this House of Frankenstein project: people are involved; they touch and feel, and all five senses are affected.”
Willis returns to the concept’s inception:
“The original idea of the Museum of Fear and the psychology of phobias came about from taking my nieces, about 12 years ago, to Dr Fright’s Halloween Nights, in Earls Barton in Northamptonshire.
“These were ramshackle mazes made out of MDF, wire and hay bales, with chainsaws galore, and fire and people jumping out of dark corridors. The fear was fantastic. The kids were beside themselves with excitement for this terror. It was fun. That’s what fascinated me about fear – it is so interesting in terms of how we seek it out.”
If I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear.Mary Shelley
“Horror movies are a huge industry, obviously. There’s a part of us that loves being frightened in the cinema, but not necessarily walking along a lonely canal walk. This endeavour has always been about exploring terror in a subtle, visceral way. We’re not going to have a clown jumping out of a corridor with a chainsaw. We want to try to create that fear in a way that the visitor is actually doing a lot of the work.”
“There are limitations in a townhouse, to be honest, in what you can do,” says Willis. “We don’t have an open plan where we’ve choreographed every step of the way. Because of the nature of the building, this is a lot about self-exploration. People are guided around because we’re telling a linear story, and they need to go from different rooms at the right time. But not to the point where it becomes a homogenized attraction where they’re driven here, here, here and here.
“They will hopefully find themselves in different parts of this house, which is a strange four-floor building. The House of Frankenstein has a terrifying basement, which will zap up the horror; there’s a vault there and a cold room. It’s scary before we even address it.”
Horror and comedy
Horror, of course, is never far from comedy:
“It’s a fine line to tread,” Willis continues. “And that’s the danger. People laugh at horror moments, to release tension. We’re not going to go so serious it becomes funny. There are elements of humour in what we’re doing; there will be things in there that will make them smile.
“We have got a whole section on popular culture, and there is some phenomenal stuff out there. The monster is being used in a plethora of merchandise and memorabilia. From costumes for dogs to compression socks to a flower pot. I bought a flower pot the other day. Who would even conceive that as an idea, let alone that it’s gone through the entire manufacturing process? Not one person in that entire process went, ‘Really?’ “
“Everything has been Frankenfied. Goofy has been. Eeyore has been. We have plenty of fun stuff, and lots of vintage items, too.
“We are trying to play on people’s fears, but we’re not taking ourselves massively seriously. With Mary Shelly’s House of Frankenstein, we are creating an experience that, hopefully, people will really enjoy in a visceral way. We want them to come out feeling that the experience was creepy, but also feeling happy. That’s the ultimate aim.”
Maybe they will want to go and read the book too. This will be offered as a free download when visitors purchase their ticket.
Expanding Mary’s Shelley’s House of Frankenstein
The House of Frankenstein will open in June, although the original plan was to open on 14 May, the date when Mary Shelley finished the novel.
In terms of the future, the pair are already planning new ventures.
“We would like to ally this to other elements in Bath. We want to do a House of Frankenstein’s Monster Ball every year in the Assembly Rooms in Bath; a proper Halloween dressed-up Halloween event. There will be dancing, and a parade through town.”
“Then we’d like to open a Mary Shelley café in Bath, called Scary Mary’s. It will be a themed café where things happen. The food, which will be good, will also be themed – Ghoul-ash, Bloody Mary, finger sandwiches, frankenfurters, etc. There will be elements of the Rainforest Cafe in Shaftesbury Avenue, so a proper theatrical experience, with holograms being projected down onto the tables.
“On top of that, we want to have a House of Frankenstein walk. This would be a historical walk around Bath where stuff happens. We can have smoke and things in people’s windows, and actors jumping out, and a proper Paranormal Activity or Carrie ending.
“If you take all four of those assets, The House of Frankenstein, the Monster Ball, the Café, the Walk, and we could potentially franchise around the world. There could be a Berlin, an Amsterdam, a Beijing version.”
The website is now live and taking bookings, with day, group and escape room tickets on sale.