Up until now, the scariest thing at Fisherman's Wharf has been the infamous Bushman lunging out from behind a trash can, flailing fearsome tree branches (where does he get those, anyway?) and growling "Argh!" at passing tourists.
That, and the parking.
Ah, but now, you might find yourself trapped. Trapped, like rats. Trapped, with rats, between a mine shaft and a dark place at the San Francisco Dungeon attraction, which just opened next to -- and in conjunction with -- the new Madame Tussauds wax museum across from Boudin near Pier 39.
"We're going to have a family of rats to greet you, right here in this glass cage!" said the dungeon's artistic director, Kieron Smith, at the start of a press tour a couple of weeks ago. He fairly bubbled away in his British accent, speaking with such glee he might have been talking about adorable puppies instead of abhorrent rodents, the gleam in his eye hinting at a "bwah-hahaha" to follow.
And follow it did. Not from Smith, but from the ghosts of grizzled Gold Rush prospectors, Barbary Coast baddies and Alcatraz inmates leading visitors through a walk-through labyrinth of really, really dark hallways (you think your eyes will adjust, but they don't), eight themed rooms and a mini boat ride, offering tales from the raucous, ruffian-rife, raw-and-wretched underbelly of San Francisco's past.
I have to say, anything spooky is right up my own personal dark alley, so it wasn't a hard sell to get me to go on the tour -- once, anyway. Granted, this is definitely a tourist attraction, but it can be enjoyed by locals, too -- once, anyway. Just let your inner tourist emerge, leave your Four Barrel coffee at the door and wear dark glasses so no one sees you go in.
Mine was an abbreviated visit because they had to get a lot of us media riffraff through before the opening -- so we didn't even get to go on the boat, darn it. But it's all nicely done with terrific sets and costumes, tidbits of real-life history played out by super fun local actors, who chew hard on the scenery and spit it back out (maybe that's why one rummed-up ruffian was faux vomiting in a barrel in the faux back alley of Miss Piggott's faux saloon).
So let's take a walk on the seedy side.
Down two sets of steps, deep into the darkness, past the then-empty-yet-foreboding rat cage, large doors opened slowly, silently. I somehow ended up being at the front of the group of about 20 people. A leering, top-hatted character pointed the way with his cane. We filed in, then he broke his silence and barked -- right in my face. "Welcome! I am Colonel Jack Gamble. On this journey from 1848 through 1907, you will meet infamous criminals who will entertain you and guide you and ... murrrrderrrr you!"
He asked my name. "Uh, I think it's A-A-Angela," I replied. He had me spin a Wheel of Misfortune ringed with rusty nails, to determine our collective fate. Whaddya know, it landed on "Retribution." This caused another door to open into another dark room. "Annnnngela, you first," Gamble hissed, turning to the rest of the group. "Trust no one. Especially Annnnngela."
I considered changing my name.
Thankfully, the door closed behind us, and Gamble remained behind. The room shuddered and shook like a quake simulator; another door opened, and an old panhandler pounced out from around a corner, "You're after me gold, ain't cha!"
We stumbled our way through the mesmerizing mirror maze of the mines, through more dark hallways and into a brick-walled scene, where we were greeted by Sam Roberts, the head of the San Francisco Hounds, a sinister crime organization officially called the Society of Regulators. Backed by his collection of blackjacks and brass knuckles, Roberts threatened a potential victim from our group with red-hot tongs on the tongue.
In the next room, a spot-lit Judge Meade with a bad gavel-smacking habit led an 1851 court of "law," with the motto "Give 'Em a Fair Trial and Hang 'Em High." He placed a woman on the witness stand. "Do you plead insanity? Of course you do!" he pronounced, smacking the gavel. "Everyone boo her!" Everyone happily did, and we moved on -- through the saloon, a scene of bloody-gutsy back-alley surgery, a Chinatown slum and on to the haunted Alcatraz cell where there's, well let's just say, an effective use of special effects lighting and sound.
As far as I know, there were no actual dungeons in the city's history -- until perhaps the 1990s advent of Bondage-a-Go-Go -- so the name could be considered more of a metaphor for the downtrodden and depraved in the late 19th century. Also, the attraction is housed in the basement section of what used to be San Francisco's original wax museum, so that works, too.
In this case, "dungeon" is actually a brand name of similar popular, themed attractions in Europe, where they have several medieval-torture and inquisition dungeons in London, Amsterdam, Berlin and more. San Francisco is the first city in North America to host one, so that's kind of cool. They're all run by Merlin Entertainments, which also operates the likes of Legoland and Madame Tussauds in the United States.
At the end of our tour, the press group got to go home with swag bags of insulated "Dungeon" logo water bottles and a chocolate gavel. And in the noble tradition of Disneyland, the attraction funnels you through a gift shop on the way out -- and into the entrance of the adjoining, brand new Madame Tussauds, where a hard-to-believe-it's-wax Johnny Depp stands poised at the door. I expected him to move. And maybe flail some tree branches.
Now that would have been scary.
Follow Angela Hill on Twitter @GiveEmHill.
The new attraction at Fisherman's Wharf brings some of the city's lurid lore to life with actors, a dark boat ride and a maze of themed vignettes.
Where: 145 Jefferson St., San Francisco, next to the new Madame Tussauds wax museum; sanfrancisco.thedungeons.com
When: Open year-round, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Cost: $19 to $26
Good to know: It could scare small children, but kids 10 and up will love the faux blood and guts. There are hoodlums and a few working girls scattered throughout.
The first Northern California edition of Madame Tussauds, the celebrity-filled wax museum, opened on Fisherman's Wharf last week with a who's who of waxy celebrities, including a few local heroes. Here are just 10 from a cast of 65:
Leonardo di Caprio