MOLLY BROWN HOUSE’S VICTORIAN HORRORS by Ryan Dunn

Denver’s Molly Brown House photo circa 1889.

MOLLY BROWN HOUSE MUSEUM’S VICTORIAN HORRORS:
RETURNS FOR ITS 27TH HALLOWEEN

By Ryan Dunn
Published Issue 082, October 2020 

One of the oldest and most beloved Denver Halloween traditions will continue on this year despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Victorian Horrors, an annual celebration of Gothic literature held at the Molly Brown House Museum in Capitol Hill Denver, will take place this October and feature a redesigned program that adheres to Colorado Covid-19 guidelines.

With visitors allowed into the Molly Brown House in groups of eight every 20 minutes, a prerecorded audio tour will guide guests through the house and will feature taped readings of contemporary gothic stories from Molly Brown’s era.

This will be the 27th year that Victorian Horrors has been held at the Molly Brown House. The tradition began in the 1980’s as a way to introduce audiences to the books and stories that Brown would have been reading when she lived in Denver around the turn of the 20th century.

The event has evolved from its beginnings as a ramshackle environmental theatre production featuring a few actors performing readings in the house to its current incarnation as a sprawling affair complete with authentic décor, props and lighting that support the stories being told in the house.

Many of the actors who participate have longstanding ties to the program, including David and Julie Payne, who have been a part of the event for each of its 27 years, and John Wittbrodt, who will return to play Edgar Allan Poe for the fourth time. Victorian Horrors pays its actors a fee that allows the production to be competitive with the fall theatre schedule and maintain venerable relationships with its actors.

While gothic literature peaked in the 1800’s with the emergence of towering authors like Ann Radcliffe, Mary Shelley, and Poe, their works had become classics by the time Brown moved into the Pennsylvania Street manor. The stories included in Victorian Horrors often reflect the cannon of literature that Brown and her family would have read at the time.

The gore in Poe’s poems and the grotesque themes that are foundational to the Victorian gothic genre bring a spooky twist to the event. Brown lived in the house in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s with her husband James Joseph “J.J.” Brown, long before her fateful passage on the RMS Titanic that earned her the famous “unsinkable” appellation.

“We like to say that the Victorians sort of invented Halloween as we know it here in America,” said Andrea Malcomb, the director of the Molly Brown House Museum. “In Margaret Brown’s time in the late 1800’s, Halloween would have been another opportunity to get young people together as part of courting and dating so young people could get to know each other at Halloween parties, play games, and have an opportunity to interact.”

While typical years involve a nontraditional tour route that brings visitors in close proximity to the actors, the pandemic has necessitated some alterations to the production. Actors came to the house in September to record their readings for the audio tour, and guests will be able to stop in one room during their tour to interact with a live performance over Zoom. The live performance will be done by a rotating cast of actors who will portray the floating head of an author reading their works from beyond the grave.

Stories are selected from a running list of works kept by the actors and the museum staff. The staff meets with the actors in early July to make their selections, with the group making an effort not to repeat any given story more than once every five years. The traditional Hispanic-American folktale La Llorona and the H.G. Wells novel The Invisible Man will comprise two of the five stories portrayed this year.

In addition to the readings, this year’s edition will feature an oddities expo showcasing various curiosities of the Victorian era such as taxidermy, skeletons, and strange rarities kept in jars. The Learned Lemur and Atomic Folk Art are partnering with the Molly Brown House for the expo and will have items available for purchase.

While this year’s production may differ from years past, the museum staff have worked to ensure that the beloved event stays true to its roots.

“It’s a very popular event and we’ve had people who have come to just about every single year and they love it and they request stories and authors and they have favorite actors,” said Malcomb. “So, it’s something that the community really loves as an event and plus it serves as a really great fundraiser for our organization because of course we are a nonprofit museum. It all goes to help keep our doors open.”


27th Annual Victorian Horrors 
Where: Molly Brown House Museum | 1340 Pennsylvania St., Denver
When: October 16, 17, 23, 24, 29, 30 | 6-9 p.m.
Tickets: $20 / $18 for Historic Denver members, seniors and children Available for purchase by phone: (303) 832-4092, ext. 16 or online at www.mollybrown.org.


Ryan Dunn is a recent graduate of the University of Denver’s journalism program and is currently a contributing writer for the Brighton Standard Blade in Brighton, Colorado. He has a background in political, educational, and investigative reporting and has written a number of historical features for Birdy on topics including the invention of Christmas lights and the abandonment of St. Elmo’s; a ghost town in Chaffee County. A native of the San Francisco Bay Area, Ryan enjoys playing hockey and writing music for his band Blankslate in his free time. His recent work for the Brighton Standard Blade can be found here.

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