Count Orlok's Nightmare Gallery

April 20, 2009 — Despite modern advances in technology, science, philosophy, and mathematics, as well as all the remarkable insight into the fundamental nature of the universe that have occurred as a result of those advances, we live most of our lives in only two dimensions these days.

A large portion of our attentions, efforts, and leisure is dominated by, well, screens. Computers, televisions, cell phones, cinemas—if it’s flat and interactable in passive ways, we’re into it. But the unavoidable thing is, whether it’s a Redwood, a bottlenose dolphin, the Sears Tower, or a scantily clad Brazilian model, sharing a physical space with something affects us and engages us in ways that are unduplicatable in 2D.

You already know all that, though, so I’m going to skip the next two paragraphs of artful segue to get to my main topic straightaway: Count Orlok’s Nightmare Gallery, a movie monster museum located in Salem, MA, on 285 Derby Street, right in the heart of all the famous Salem attractions that are so easy to be ambivalent about.

I visited Count Orlok’s a couple of years ago, but obeyed the rules of the house and didn’t take any pictures. Unfortunately, pictures are my memories, so as a result I didn’t remember much about it. Then, during a recent port-fueled bout of reminiscing, Count Orlok’s flung itself back onto the windshield of my attention. One drunken midnight e-mail later, we received a personal invitation for a private tour from the creator and owner of the attraction, James Lurgio. It’s one of the few times that playing the OTIS card has worked. The name usually carries the weight of an anorexic dandelion spore.

James's full-size creature characters aren't of wax, as you'd at first assume for a character museum. More impressively, these figures are made of resin, latex, and silicone, much like the actual costumes, appliances, and masks used in the movies that featured the monsters in the first place. In fact, many of the artists he’s hired to create the pieces in his collection actually work in the movie industry, some on the actual movie the piece is based on.

Upon entering Count Orlock’s, we found James at the keyboard of a computer while towering behind him was Lon Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera at the keyboard of a giant organ. The juxtaposition was great, unintended, illustrative of my second paragraph, and one that deserved attention in oil on canvas. After a brief introduction that included the fact that James had just appeared on the show Ghost Hunters the previous night for his experiences at Belcourt Castle in his home state of Rhode Island, we spent the rest of the night in Mortal Kombat® with our monster movie knowledge. He won. He has the knowledge of a man with a large collection of life-size ghouls, though, so that kind of put me at a disadvantage. Any kind of dedication to anything always puts me at a disadvantage.

Besides the Phantom, the entryway to Count Orlok’s also showcases free of charge a selection of the more copyright-protected Universal Monsters: Boris Karloff’s Mummy and Frankenstein, Lanchester’s Bride, Lugosi’s Dracula. Those should be enough to sell you on the rest of the gallery, though, and if it doesn’t I categorize you as a certain type of person.

As befits its subject matter, the gallery itself is spookily lit with a few dramatic corner turns and some of the displays set up in surprising locations. The collection is well balanced between classic and modern monster characters and more or less follows chronological order, starting with the gallery’s namesake from the 1922 German film Nosferatu and extending all the way through other silent-era creations, Universal monsters, Hammer Studios horror characters, 80s slashers, and other less easily classifiable icons of the genre. All told, I estimate about 50 different characters currently on display...but I’m expecting a correction on that any second now because I’m the worst at estimating.

Highlights for me included Vincent Price from House of Wax, Alfred Hitchcock alongside the shawled and wigged skeleton-in-a-rocking chair we’ve all come to know as Mother from Psycho, The Darkness from Legend, and Linda Blair from The Exorcist...but if those four hadn’t of been there, I’d have easily found just as many to replace them. Peter Cushing’s there a couple of times, as is his partner-in-horror Christopher Lee. Monsters of recent vintage are also uncorked, from The Shining and Fright Night through to George Romero’s one-zombie-movie-too-far Land of the Dead. In fact, the gallery has a whole room dedicated to zombies, and if this article were in a legitimate print magazine that statement would be called out in large print somewhere on the page.

Besides full-size figures, the collection also boasts a few movie props and movie prop replicas, as well as a life casts of famous actors and directors of the macabre. James had one life cast in particular, that of Vincent Price, turned into an actual corpse with that famous face for display in haunted houses…another of James’ passions. It’s the first time in my life someone told me, “Look what I’ve got here,” before opening a coffin.

Like any museum, from the Louvre to the Liberace, Count Orlok’s runs into the problem of how to engage its audience with static displays designed for quiet appreciation. Modern audiences need push buttons, fast-edited motion, and, of course, screens. To keep things interesting, James changes up his displays regularly. While I was there, he took us to a back room where Elvira was spread in pieces all over the floor. He says he plans on putting her beside Hannibal Lector where she’ll be perpetually offering him a can of fava beans.

In addition, James multi-purposes his assets by turning the gallery into a haunted house in October, offering it up for special events, and showing public-domain horror movies during Salem’s off-season (or “shoulder season,” as he calls it, as he dislikes the other term due to the tumble-weed-strewn ghost town images it conjures...and he’s right. Salem has solid offerings throughout the year and should really put more work into selling itself as a year-round attraction). During that shoulder season, Count Orlok’s Nightmare Gallery has a limited opening schedule, so check out the gallery’s website for more information...and when you go, watch out for the tumbleweed.

All in all, it’s definitely well worth the $8-for-adults-$6-for-children. Unlike most of the attractions in Salem that exist only to capitalize on the town’s main tourist draw, Count Orlok’s is a work of devotion. It’s a personal collection that would still exist somewhere even if it didn’t have a public space.

Besides, you can only tell the Salem witchcraft trials story so many times and in so many ways in four square blocks before it becomes uncompelling. With all the zombies, vampires, killer clowns, and classic creeps on display at Count Orlok’s, it’s a great break from all the Salem witchery. That sentence would have been another call-out.