On the corner of Cumberland Street and Clifford Street, just a stone’s throw from the River Ouse, York Dungeon is a popular visitor attraction in the heart of the city that seems to tell 2,000 years of the city’s history with actors, sets and special effects, alongside a few gruesome artefacts along the way!
The immersive experience is part of the Dungeons chain, opening in 1986, just 11 years after the first attraction of its kind (the London Dungeon) opened as a wax exhibition of macabre historical tales. Like its London counterpart, York Dungeon is not actually based in a dungeon, and nor has the building been used for any such purpose in its history.
Being so close to the river has affected York Dungeon more than its southern counterpart, with severe flooding leading to closures and refurbishments in 2001, 2004 and 2012. During the most recent flooding impact, a remodel took place that reduced the size of the torture chamber, one of the grisliest (and most popular) features of the Dungeons.
York Dungeon, as part of the wider Dungeons brand was also rebranded in 2013 to coincide with the relocation of London Dungeon, with actors being given updated scripts to include comedy elements. Despite the lighter family-friendly approach, York still aims to inform visitors about the gorier aspects of the city’s story, covering the Vikings, plague, Guy Fawkes, witch trials, ghost stories aplenty and even renowned highwayman Dick Turpin, who was hanged at Knavesmire in 1739.
Using animatronics, audio-visual presentations, live actors and even olfactory displays, York Dungeon wants to make the stories come to life as much as possible, so people can really feel like they are reliving the past, getting a front seat at some of the most grisly stories from our country’s past.
There is always an annual Halloween special event that seeks to go even further with the chill factor, recreating in even more detail some of the local ghost stories, with a feature in 1997 using hologrammatic projection to tell the tale of a ‘Lost Roman legion’ that stalked the city’s streets.
Despite being the smallest of the Dungeons chain, York has proven to be one of the most divisive, twice causing controversy for marketing decisions deemed to be in the poorest of taste. In 2004, the ‘Satan’s Grotto’ display at Christmas was condemned by a local uptight vicar, and in 2007, the manager of the Dungeon offered free entry to anyone who had an anti-social behaviour order (ASBO). Despite protestation from local councillors and MP Hugh Bayley, the move went ahead, although staff at the Dungeon reported that no one actually took up the offer.