I was dying to see this museum made out of an old World War II bunker when I found out there was a tableau of a Middle Ages amputation complete with a screaming soundtrack. If ever a perfect museum had been created for me, Gruselkabinett was it. My friend Chris and I went on a rainy Tuesday, and from a block off, we could hear the long, drawn-out screams of kids–not screams of terror, but screaming because they could. We ended up at the closed gate to the Gruselkabinett, where a pack of seven- to nine-year-old boys were screaming with delight because of the echo factor in the courtyard to the bunker. They politely told me in German that the Gruselkabinett was closed today, but it would be open tomorrow. Then they asked me for a cigarette. I said, “Nein, nein.”
Chris and I returned the following day and found the bunker open. I was a little confused by the signs for admission–there was one price that was inclusive of everything and one for just the museum. I wanted the inclusive ticket, though I did not know at that time what “everything” meant.
We tried to go in the regular entrance to the museum but were told to begin our tour on the top floor. We climbed two flights of stairs and opened the door to a completely black room with a dim light shining in the distance. I could see the white, spidery fluff of fake cobwebs that had decorated my elementary school classroom at Halloween and had a feeling I was in trouble. Immediately I clamped onto Chris’s shoulder. She probably still has bruises from my fingers.
Slowly we shuffled to that far-off, dim lightbulb, and then a ghost floated in front of us–just a looming white mask with the person’s body covered by a black robe that blended in with the dark–and growled at us before ducking into the dark again. I screamed and screamed. We went from dark room to dark room, where cheesy wax tableaux were set up of Dracula biting a 1970s-style femme fatale or fake, moving plastic hands that were buried in sand. The exhibits reminded me of the wax museum in New Orleans, where I found the historical figures scary and creepy, but not nearly as scary as this visit–an unexpected haunted house experience. The ghost kept darting out from hidden places and corners and growling at us, accompanied by a goblin (also wearing a black robe so he or she could blend into the bunker’s darkness). These were two people who were really dedicated to their jobs.
Finally we ran into a group of Germans, who were thrilled to find “normal people,” and we formed a conga line to find our way out of the haunted house. Of course, nobody wanted to be in the back, and I must say there’s nothing like screaming together to break the language barrier. After we were in the regular bunker exhibit, we all exchanged sheepish looks with one another when we met in the different exhibit areas.
Almost all of the exhibits had to do with the end of the war in Berlin in 1945. The citizens who had not yet evacuated Berlin were forced down into the bunkers, where it’s dark and you cannot feel the passage of time. Each family was assigned one bench or step to sit on, which was so uncomfortable that sleep became impossible.
I listened to one woman’s story on headphones; she had been six when her family was forced down into the bunkers at the end of April 1945. She sat on the bench with her mother, and she said that nobody talked. She went to find the bathroom and found the first one locked. The second door she opened to find a man who had committed suicide, and she said she couldn’t touch door handles for a long time after that experience. Eventually she found a common area that everybody was using for a bathroom, some trying to discreetly cover up their mess with handkerchiefs or newspaper. Touring some of these tiny, claustrophobic rooms of the bunker, I thought I could still smell the strong scent of urine.
For some time after the war, people didn’t know what to do with these bunkers, and they still don’t know where all of the underground tunnels lead. One bunker is used as the monkey house at the zoo, and then there is Gruselkabinett, which combines a haunted house experience along with the history of the bunkers–a pretty innovative way to capture the horror of those days in April 1945, I think.