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Plainville's 'Witch's Dungeon' a draw for monster movie buffs

Cortlandt Hull
/
The Witch's Dungeon
Bela Lugosi as Dracula. In the background is a wax figure of Max Schreck as the vampire Count Orlok from the 1922 film "Nosferatu."

For many Nutmeggers, it wouldn’t be Halloween without a trip to the Witch’s Dungeon in Plainville. For over 55 years, the classic movie museum has astounded patrons with its lifelike re-creations of some of the most iconic horror movie characters of Hollywood’s golden age.

If you’re a fan of the old monster movies, the Witch’s Dungeon is nirvana. It’s chock-full of memorabilia, like masks and models used in those movies as well as autographs and classic movie posters.

But what makes the Witch’s Dungeon so interesting, and so astounding, are the figures. It’s not just a life-size model of Dracula on display, it’s a life-size model of Bela Lugosi as Dracula — the round face, the iconic widow’s peak, and of course, the hypnotizing stare.

“It’s hard to get that particular stare that he had, and I probably resculpted him six times before I was really satisfied with him,” said artist Cortlandt Hull, who opened the Witch’s Dungeon way back in 1965 when he was just 13. “All of the figures have glass eyes, so it looks like he is really looking at you.”

Hull is a trained artist and has focused much of his creative life to faithfully re-creating an obsession of his since childhood: movie monsters.

“Altogether there’s 25 of them, and each one is very accurate to the actor that played the part, as well as the costume," Hull said. "We try to put as much detail into it as possible and props as well. It makes you feel that you’ve walked onto the set when they were making the movie.”

A wax figure of Boris Karloff as Frankenstein's monster
Cortlandt Hull
/
The Witch's Dungeon
A wax figure of Boris Karloff as Frankenstein's monster

Some are actual props and parts of costumes from the original films. They’re all here : the Creature from the Black Lagoon, Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster, Lon Chaney Jr.’s Wolf Man and Lon Chaney Sr.’s disfigured Phantom of the Opera. Hull said he recently reworked the Phantom, and it wasn’t easy.

“There’s a characteristic pose of him with his arms folded. You wouldn’t think it was that difficult to have the arms folded,” he said. “But you try and get a costume on a character with its arms folded, it’s not the easiest thing in the world. It took three of us to wrestle with the figure to get the costume on him. And the costume was delicate — a tailcoat from the 1920s.”

Lon Chaney, Sr. as "The Phantom of the Opera"
Cortlandt Hull
/
The Witch's Dungeon
Lon Chaney Sr. as the Phantom of the Opera

Hull has been making these models since he was a kid. He says a convergence of interests led to this elaborate hobby-slash-life’s work.

“I was a weird little kid,” Hull said. “I loved to go to wax museums. But nine out of 10 times they would say on their billboard 'Chamber of Horrors.' Well, I expected it would be the classic movie monsters. No, it wasn’t. It was a guillotine or some mass murderer they made a figure of. That’s not what I was looking for. I wanted to see the classic movie monsters, and that’s in part how all of this began.”

Artist Cortlandt Hull poses with his very first creation, "Zenobia the Gypsy Witch"
Cortlandt Hull
/
The Witch's Dungeon
Artist Cortlandt Hull poses with his very first creation, Zenobia the Gypsy Witch.

Hull had help early on from his uncle, character actor Henry Hull, who played the lead in the 1935 horror film, “Werewolf of London.” Henry Hull introduced his nephew to Hollywood makeup artists who created these monsters. They became mentors for Cortlandt Hull.

“To be honest, I learned more from Dick Smith, who did 'The Exorcist,' and John Chambers, who did 'Planet of the Apes,' because people don’t realize, doing makeup like that, first of all, it’s going to be seen on an 80-foot or more wide screen — it better be good. Not only that, they also taught me a lot about subtle painting to make it look like a real person.”

Hull said that as the museum has grown over the years, so has the parade of monster movie buffs who make the pilgrimage to Plainville.

“Over the past five years we’ve been keeping track of where people come from, and we’ve had people from 27 different countries, and 40 different states,” he said. “And I’ve noticed more recently we’ve been getting younger people. I think before they were more caught up in slasher films, but I think they are getting tired of slasher films, so they’ve realized there’s more substance to these characters and the elaborate makeups that were made to make them possible.”

The Witch’s Dungeon is open weekend evenings year-round from 6 to 9 p.m. For more information, go to preservehollywood.org.

Ray Hardman is Connecticut Public’s Arts and Culture Reporter. He is the host of CPTV’s Emmy-nominated original series Where Art Thou? Listeners to Connecticut Public Radio may know Ray as the local voice of Morning Edition, and later of All Things Considered.

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