Having enjoyed London, Edinburgh, and York Dungeons, T. and I decided to visit the Berlin Dungeon during our stay in that city last week. If you haven’t visited one of the Dungeons, they’re actor-led interactive soft-horror ‘experiences’ that lead you through a number of themed rooms, often highlighting macabre aspects of the history of whatever city you’re in. The original London Dungeon opened in the 1970s as a horror ‘museum’, and I visited it as a small child in the early ’90s. Back then, I’m ashamed to say I was scared stiff by the exhibits, spent most of my time looking at the floor and couldn’t wait to get out. These days, the Dungeons largely dispense with any pretense of education and style themselves purely as entertainment experiences.
Considering Berlin’s, er, eventful history, we expected there would be a lot of original material that we hadn’t seen before in other Dungeons. We don’t speak German, so looked up whether there were English tours. There are (two on the day we went), so we booked ourselves on one of them. The website suggested prices would be cheaper if we booked online, so I did that. Unfortunately, the discounted tickets turned out to be unavailable, due to it being a ‘peak’ time (Friday afternoon, when most people are at work). Moreover, there is about a five Euro markup on the English tour compared to the German tour. Tickets therefore ended up costing over 20 Euros each, when I initially expected them to be more like 11 or 12. Not necessarily off to the best start, but whatever; we’d always enjoyed the Dungeon experiences before.
I started to experience doubts about the tour when I noticed how many people were turning up for it. In my experience, you normally go around a Dungeon in a group of 10-20 people. This ensures everyone has enough space–the rooms are very dark, after all–and also ensures a manageable number of people for the actors to work with. Many of the rooms are interactive, and the actors often summon volunteers for various purposes. There are normally 10-12 rooms, and in a group of 10 or 20 people that means everyone can expect to be called upon, more or less, and generally it creates a sense of camaraderie among the visitors, and people actually put effort in when they’re participating.
Unfortunately, our group was more like 35-40 people, and it really felt far too big. It normally took a minute or two to get everyone into the rooms, and the atmosphere really isn’t helped when the actors have to keep telling people to move and make space for each other. Most of the volunteers seemingly couldn’t be bothered, and the group was too large for any sort of dynamic or positive energy to emerge. There were also two people in wheelchairs in the group, and in my opinion the Dungeon couldn’t accommodate them properly. There were a number of rides and sections the wheelchair-users couldn’t participate in, meaning they had to take alternative routes; and again, the actors often had to ask them to move out of the way of doors or to stay clear of certain parts of the room, telegraphing what was going to happen next. I’m in favour of trying to make experiences like this fully accessible to everyone, whatever their physical limitations, but the Berlin Dungeon didn’t feel optimized for wheelchairs, and it was another aspect that didn’t help the overall atmosphere.
I assume that most groups aren’t this size and they make them larger because they’re English-language. Fair enough, you could argue, but perhaps not when you’re already paying a premium for an English tour. To make matters worse, several of the actors had really poor English, which I found unacceptable for an English-language tour, and also rather odd considering that the level of English spoken generally in Berlin is pretty good. Some of them were also just not very good actors. Considering that most of the actors in the UK Dungeons are very, very good, it was quite jarring. Also, beware that the ‘English’ tour may include people who don’t speak English or German, but have a friend who speaks English (and presumably not German) translating for them everything the actors say into yet another language, audibly for the entire group. Is this starting to sound like an experience worth forking out over 20 Euros for?
Some of these logistical problems could be forgiven if the Dungeon actually featured original or interesting rooms. But strangely, it makes relatively little use of Germany’s rich history. I’m not just referring to 20th century history–which doesn’t feature–but you might assume that things like the Reformation or witch hunts might come up. They don’t. Instead, you get more or less the same generic, staple experiences you would get in any Dungeon: the judge, the torturer, the plague, the inevitable drop ride at the end. It was massively disappointing.
Anyone who has been to a Dungeon will know they take photos of you before you enter, and when you’re on the drop ride, and try to sell them to you at the end. The photos are branded, and they’re taken with very expensive cameras, so they often look very impressive. T. wanted to get a couple of them. As I said, there were over 30 people in our group, and so getting to the cashier took a while. By that time, our photo had been replaced by others on the big screen display. ‘What number was your photo?’ the cashier asked. ‘We don’t know?’, we replied. This was followed by much tutting by the cashier as she tried (we assume) to find our photo on the system, while she moaned/abused us in German to her colleague. Seeing it was not going anywhere, we gave up and sadly were unable to spend the 9 Euros necessary to purchase the branded Berlin Dungeon photo. A sort of example of late-capitalism price gouging being undermined by abysmal customer service.
Overall, then, I would not recommend visiting the Berlin Dungeon, at least if you’re going on the ‘English’ tour. Maybe if you go on the German one it’s more fun, especially if you haven’t been on one before, get a smaller group, and are lucky enough to bag one of the discounted tickets they allegedly sell. But for me, the Berlin Dungeon proved to be horrific in all the wrong ways.