I’d been toying with the idea of taking my nieces to The Edinburgh Dungeon for a while.
After all, life has been pretty devoid of thrills lately.
We were prompted to commit to a morning of terror when we heard that the 21-year-old venue had relaunched its Mary Queen of Scots - the Cursed Crown experience. I had a sleepless night of angst before our visit, about whether the girls, aged eight and ten, were really old enough to go.
When I was a junior Goth, I loved tales of Edinburgh’s dark past, from half-hangit Maggie to grave robbers. However, I was terrified of ghost trains, as well as the basement chamber of horrors in the Royal Mile’s now defunct wax-works. The fact that other children in my primary school once did a sponsored sleep-over there still impresses me.
“Parental discretion advised”, they say at The Edinburgh Dungeon, and they don’t recommend it for children under eight.
In order to reassure the girls, we checked with the guy at the door that we could leave at any time. “Just talk to one of the actors, and they’ll take you out”, he said. (If we wanted to escape, we would essentially have to break the fourth wall).
Also, as I have a friend who used to work here, I told the kids about the bright corridors beyond the black painted rooms, and the lengths she’d go to to make gruesome-looking props.
Anyway, anticipation is worse than the reality. We all had the jitters in the socially-distanced queue, with faux rats hanging around, as well as a mannequin in a plague mask. Then we had our photos taken, holding plastic axes and looking scared. (These are Photoshopped and offered to you at the end, at £10 a pop - “or all six for £20”).
Once the show starts properly, each room increases in fright potential. It starts easy, with The Courtroom, and audience participation involving the judge. (Also, for those wondering if the actors wear masks, they do, except these are “antiqued”, probably with tea, and look a bit like ancient pairs of Y-fronts).
The girls especially enjoy shouting, “Liar”, at the volunteers in the dock, with its prerequisite and very non spooky Perspex screen.
Next is The Witches Judgement, which involves a spinning floor, and some more audience participation. I’m usually a victim of this, since I look as compliant as a golden retriever, but I’m glad to be spared. My husband is not, nor are two other visitors, who seem to be like audience catnip to the actors.
Probably one of the most memorable bits of this experience is The Cannibals’ Cave, based on the spurious tale of Scottish cannibal Sawney Bean.
The single actor does some kind of Oscar-worthy Silence of the Lambs/Deliverance-style monologue, which involves creeping round the room on a platform, and there’s a very scary shadow show. My hand is being squashed by a small and sweaty paw.
This used to segue into The Galloway Boat Ride, which involved sitting on little boats, which drifted along with the lights off, while creepy voices piped up in the darkness. Sadly, this is closed at the moment. Maybe just as well, as it’s the scariest bit, in my humble Dungeon opinion.
The relaunched Mary Queen of Scots room is probably the second most chilling bit. In common with all the rooms, you probably won’t learn anything much, but that’s not really the point. The actor gives us the spiel, “Lord Darnley, blah blah, Loch Leven, execution etc”, but we’re too jumpy to concentrate.
It becomes very Exorcist-like - the portrait on the wall drops, something clatters to the floor, the benches underneath us move, a fake bible moves on the table and, disappointingly, nobody’s head spins round and there is zero green vomit. However, the lights do go out, and flicker back on so we can occasionally see “Bloody Mary” jumping about the room in a red velvet cape and grey wig. Someone screams very loudly, and the girls dissolve into hysterical giggles.
I think they have stronger constitutions than me.
There are loads of other elements, but the final hurrah is Drop Dead: The Grassmarket Gallows.
I’ve been to The Edinburgh Dungeon a few times, and have always managed to swerve this. After all, actual fairground rides scare me more than thespians dressed as Burke & Hare. Unfortunately, the youngest niece is too small to go on it, so the uncle says he’ll stay with her and dodges the virtual noose. Thus, I am accompanying the eldest, and must face my fate. We clamber into the seats, and the rail is lowered onto our laps, then we’re slowly cranked up to the ceiling. “This is easy”, I think, as I stare blankly at the wall. Then we plummet like a fracking drill, my seat drops away, and there’s a discombobulating strobe effect. My legs are quivering.
“That was BRILLIANT,” says the niece, and I walk away from the ride like a recently swatted daddy long-legs. So this is what it feels like to be half-hangit.
On the way out, I managed to dodge the expensive photograph sales pitch and the gift shop. Another win.
We all survived, and the girls’ verdict was “not scary at all”, though my crushed hand will attest to something slightly different.
31 Market Street, Edinburgh, tickets are £21.95 for adults, £17.95 for children, see www.thedungeons.com/edinburgh