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Inside the Medieval Torture Museum in Hollywood

Jun 27, 2023Jun 27, 2023

The same tourist-trap Hollywood Blvd. block that’s home to the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Odditorium and a permanent Guinness World Records exhibition now boasts a new novelty attraction dedicated to pain and suffering. The five-month-old Medieval Torture Museum focuses on what its founder calls “the dark side of history” while capitalizing on today’s fascination with the aesthetics of primeval anguish seen on-screen everywhere from House of the Dragon to The Northman.

At the entrance, a museum worker standing beside the late comic Red Skelton’s Walk of Fame star needles passersby: “Are you brave enough?” You can be, for $30 a pop. The warren of galleries is down a stairwell in a 7,000-square-foot basement. The dungeon fantasia is a conjuring of tall flickering votives, piped-in monk-ish chanting and — most germane — an exhaustive mélange of torture devices, often paired with mannequins contorted in extreme distress, to really tie the rooms together. Expect the classics (stocks, gallows, shackles) along with curios like the Spanish boot (apparently also popular among French and British inquisitors, it was slowly tightened to break the bones of the feet) and an array of malign contraptions intended to mutilate sexual organs. “Many of them were bought at auctions and from private collectors,” says owner Eugene Grach, explaining that the objects on display are a mix of originals and reproductions. He adds that while he believes some pieces are authentic, “we purchased the exhibits from someone who knew someone who knew someone else. So, we do not know which specific items were used and which were not.”

Institutions publicly showcasing the history of torture have become an increasingly common feature across Europe, from Amsterdam and Bruges to Prague and Siena. But they’re generally more restrained, white-gallery-wall storehouses. This American rejoinder is, according to Grach — who’s visited the continental counterparts — meant by contrast to lean into the imagined mise en scene. “Our exhibition is designed not only to present historical artifacts, but to convey the feelings and emotions of those who lived in that era,” he says. “People are inexplicably attracted by tragic events. For example, we involuntarily turn our head towards a car accident on the street.”

While the menagerie is called the Medieval Torture Museum, its purview extends to punishments innovated and popularized in the modern age, including the electric chair and the Colombian necktie, in which throats are slashed. Notably missing from the thorough display, however, are three techniques — lynching, waterboarding and force-feeding — that American citizens and U.S. soldiers have employed in the recent past. “If we decided to visualize these three items, it would be problematic,” says Grach, who notes that lynching is a form of hanging, depicted in the exhibition, and the other two procedures both are derived from the ancient interrogation method of inserting a funnel into the mouth of a bound person.

Grach, an émigré from Donetsk, Ukraine, who left the country after Russia first invaded the Donbas region in 2014, had no background in curation or immersive tableaux before founding his museum. (The Hollywood location is the third branch; the first two outposts are in Chicago and St. Augustine, Florida.) He explains that the endeavor has required the expertise of Medievalists, voice actors and set designers — plus a group to produce his afflicted mannequins, which are made of polymers and silicone, not wax.

“Initially, it was a big problem to buy figures of believable appearance,” Grach says. “We even tried to order them from adult doll factories, asking them to cover their mouths and remove their genitals. In response, we received a reasonable question: ‘How will we use them then?’ As a result, actors were hired to take facial prints. Several times we had to redo it. One actor even lost part of his mustache.”

Visitors exit through the gift shop, which includes T-shirts emblazoned with a stretching device and the slogan “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Longer.” Grach observes, “after spending an hour in the museum, immersed in its eerie atmosphere, people go outside, look at the world around them and realize with a sense of relief that it is not so bad.”

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