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San Francisco's Newest Tourist Trap Tries to Scare the Hell Out of Tourists

Adam L Brinklow | June 19, 2014 | Story Galleries and Performance

Starting next week, marauding bands of heavies will be harassing unsuspecting visitors to Fisherman's Wharf, and crooked city officials will be looking the other way. But it's all in good fun, assuming this is your kind of fun. It could be worse in our city's tourist quarters—at least the anti-Semitic Elmo seems to have disappeared.

The San Francisco Dungeon, a cunning new tourist trap opening at the former site of the Fisherman's Wharf Wax Museum, is part museum, part community theater, and part excuse to scare the crap out of vacationing Midwesterners. We're hoping this is a growth industry. Let's get City Hall working on some tax breaks. The attraction includes eight rooms and an underground boat ride, each themed on various historical Bay Area locales. Costumed actors redolent with the potent scent of hamminess educate you on the dark side of San Francisco history, including crime, corruption, and pestilence, mostly via the tried-and-true memetic method of leering at you in an unwholesome manner.

This Dungeon is UK-brand historical scare-peddlers Merlin Entertainments' first American attraction (there are eight other Dungeons in cities like Blackpool and Berlin), so maybe they don't realize that around here dungeons are selling a completely different experience. Occupying about 10,000 square feet, one story underground, Dungeon introduces you to some genuine San Francisco ne're-do-wells like anti-Spanish gang leader Sam Roberts, who will be happy to educate you on 19th-century street crime by actually hustling you. Honestly, between the sidewalk harassment, the seedy saloon, and the inevitable jail cell finale, this is not that different from most nights out in the Marina.

There's a spooky Gold Rush camp and a plague-ridden Chinatown slum too. (Extras hurry you along by advising you to "Get out of the plague-y air." Which is just good advice, really.) Our favorite part is the courtroom, where the judge (again, based on an actual onetime San Francisco jurist who according to Herbert Asbury's Barbary Coast used to convict people based on their smoking habits) pulls defendants out of the crowd, pelts them with colorful abuse, and encourages them to claim insanity. Most of the guests at the preview were journalists, so we were all used to this kind of treatment.

The proprieters like to play up the degree of research that went into making Dungeon authentic.It does look like they've done their homework. The attraction employs three dozen local actors (who play eight roles on each tour) and was built by a Southern California contracting company that specializes in custom tree houses (really). General Manager Adrea Gibbs is a theme park veteran who got her start playing characters at Disneyland (but she refuses to tell us which ones). "There was lots of murderous Barbary Coast mayhem that we didn't get to include," Gibbs says.

We recommend adding some cholera and drowned migrant workers to the underground waterway. For authenticity's sake.

The San Francisco Dungeon opens June 26. Notify your insurance company.

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