Ailsa Easton, 37, is the creative director of eight dungeon attractions across Europe, including The London Dungeon. She lives in Hastings, East Sussex with her pet snake Ghosty.
"I’ve just moved into a three-storey former baker’s and sweet shop in Hastings, overlooking the English Channel, with my 10-year-old albino corn snake Ghosty. I’ve turned one of the five bedrooms into a walk-in costume wardrobe because I love dressing up and taking part in history re-enactments in Hastings. I’ve used another room for my taxidermy, including a badger and an owl.
I want the best of both worlds – living on the coast and working for The Dungeons in London – so I’ve been doing a three-hour commute each way via train, tube and bus to Merlin Entertainments’ studios in Acton for the last 10 years. It means I have to get up at 5.45am, have a quick coffee, throw on jeans or a vintage floral skirt and top, and head to the office, arriving for 9am.
My job is never boring. One minute I can be creating a gallows set to stage a pretend hanging, and the next, researching what a doctor’s mask looked like in the plague era, or how a burnt witch might smell.
Each of our dungeons is themed around their location’s history. So our flagship site in London, which moved to the underground vaults of County Hall on the Southbank in March, explores 1,000 years of the capital’s murky past – from Anne Boleyn’s execution to Sweeney Todd’s barber shop – in a 90-minute walk-through tour. Eighteen 360-degree sets feature two rides, 20 actors and a tank of live rats.
I’ll catch up on emails in the morning, liaising with hundreds of freelance contractors including set designers, lighting technicians and prop makers. I’m responsible for refreshing the existing dungeon sites each year, as well as developing brand new attractions, such as the Berlin Dungeon which opened in March.
The starting point for each dungeon is my imagination and a lot of research. I read loads of books, from children’s series Horrible Histories to texts on dungeon-style pain and punishment (research for our ‘Torturer’ set). For historical accuracy, I’ll consult experts at places such as the Museum of London.
My fridge is empty except for frozen mice for my pet snake ghosty
I brainstorm with our shows director at the start of each project, and we’ll always have a laugh acting out new ideas. He’ll then develop the script and roles, while I work on the physical environment. For example, in the Jack the Ripper set, we wanted an actor to welcome you into The Ten Bells pub saying, “Come in out of the rain,” so I got a rain curtain [a self-contained water feature] made for the entrance, as well as strobe lighting and thunderstorm audio.
The dungeons are a sensory experience, so one of the best parts of my job is testing new smell samples. In Mrs Lovett’s Pie Shop, which introduces the story of Sweeney Todd, an aroma machine pumps out the smell of fresh meat pies, and on the Guy Fawkes set, there’s a lurking smell of gunpowder.
If I’m in the office all day, I’ll have a quick lunch of fish and salad from the canteen before heading back to my desk. All the creatives at Merlin sit together so we can brainstorm. The Legoland team cover their desks in Lego, but mine’s spray painted with a picture of Jack the Ripper and I have a mini noose hanging off it.
I’ve worked in live entertainment for 16 years, developing scare attractions and horror shows at Alton Towers and Madame Tussauds following a degree in theatre design. The dungeons are about scary fun rather than complete terror though, so when I’m backstage in the actor corridors, I listen for the visitors’ screams followed by laughter – then I know I’ve done a good job..”
I leave the office any time after 5pm and often meet a group of around eight other regular commuters for themed party nights on the train home – I live on my own so I make an effort to be sociable. We’ve had origami nights, whisky nights, and a Jubilee night where we all wore masks of the royal family.
I’ll grab a salad from M&S to eat on the train, as I’m not a big cook. I use my oven to store books and the fridge is empty except for frozen mice for Ghosty. I spend the evening calling friends and family then I’ll read in the bath before bed – usually Stephen King or Colin Dexter – I rarely get to sleep before midnight