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London Dungeon’s performance manager reveals the show’s scariest secrets


Phil Matthews once freaked out a guest so much they punched him in the face (Picture: London Dungeon/ Metro.co.uk)

Despite being a horror fan, Phil Matthews, 41, never thought he’d end up scaring people to death for a living.

Now London Dungeon’s performance manager, he’s in charge of designing blood-curdling acts to tell London’s gruesome history.

From torture chamber proposals to being punched in the face, he tells all about being a real-life horrible historian.

So how did you end up working in a dungeon?

I trained as an actor and auditioned in the original London Dungeon at Tooley Street.

It was a great audition – I got to play a plague victim and then I ended up in the torture chamber.

One of the other actors who was auditioning ripped the fire extinguisher off the wall in an attempt to be more scary – but he didn’t get the job.

I joined in 2006, and started writing and directing shows ten years ago.

Phil started at the London Dungeons as an actor and worked his way up to writing and directing

Were there disturbing signs when you were younger that horror was your future?

I was interested from when I was very little, much to my mum’s dismay. I’d draw all these gory weird monsters and I loved my pop-up haunted house book – so she was freaked out.

I watched a lot of horror films way too soon and became obsessed!

What do you do as performance manager?

I come up with the idea, write the script and work with a team in the performance department to create the show, then cast and direct the actors. We can do up to ten shows an hour so it needs stamina.

The latest is The Dentist. It’s the most nightmarish version of a dentist ever – featuring a Victorian backstreet dentist. I looked at dentists’ history.

They began as blacksmiths using tools they’d use on a horse and people rubbed ground-up oyster shells against their teeth to clean them, which removed the enamel.

It’s said rotten teeth were a show of wealth, because it meant you could afford sugar. I devised a show using special effects, projections and some really gruesome moments.

Has a scare backfired?

I was pretending to be a statue and this guy looked at me for a long time. I moved suddenly to scare him – and he punched me on the nose! It was an automatic reaction and he was so apologetic.

Has demand at the Dungeon changed?

Essentially it’s the same. The London Dungeon looks at history and shows you the most grotesque sides of it and people always want the next ‘wow’ moment. If we just had waxworks on display, they’d be bored.

But they enjoy being scared. We’ve had people wet themselves and run away. I devised a séance show, and we had special effects and an ouija board. We had an engineer who came in to work on some of the special effects – he ran out too.

Have you ever felt that the site was haunted?

Since the séance show was put on, staff find that same area scary – they say there’s an atmosphere there.

I was talking to the ladies who work in our studio who are in the building after everyone else has left – they told me they saw a person walking around.

When they went to find them, the figure disappeared. So they’re convinced strange things happen.

Do you make the scary props yourself?

We have so many costumes and props that we need a whole department – and their workshop is overflowing with bodies everywhere and all sorts of costumes and torture instruments hanging from the walls.

I’d say ‘We want this demonic dentist’, they’d research what they could about a real Victorian dentist and get an accurate period costume, then we’d make it grubby to fit the backstreet look.

The spooky costumes are based on historically accurate designs (Picture: London Dungeons)

Do you have nightmares?

I find it hard to have nightmares because I love horror so much. I always look for something that will actually scare me…

What happened with Covid?

I was furloughed but it was a chance to do research. I was watching horror films and did a podcast but I’ll never forget coming back to work after lockdown.

I’d sat in the sun in the garden and I walked into a horrific, dark torture chamber and I breathed a sigh of relief.

What advice do you have for those who want to work at the London Dungeon?

You need a passion for the darker side of life and for history. Stamina is important. It’s a physical job and having great vocal strength is important.

The dungeon is the actor’s gym: it’s a great place to come and work on all the skills you’ve been taught at drama school.

Phil met his wife while playing the Dungeon’s terrifying judge (Picture: Chris Gloag)

What does your wife think of your job?

We met at the London Dungeon – she was working there too. She was the clerk of the court and I was the judge sending people to their executions.

I saw her in the torture chamber, torturing prisoners. We became friends in the break room.

Mistakes – you’ve made a few?

I was doing a Jack the Ripper show on stage. It was so dramatic – I was nailing it and the audience were in the palm of my hand.

At the end, I said ‘Follow me’ in my dramatic voice, stepped down the steps – then slipped and fell over.

All the drama dissipated and the audience howled with laughter.

Do you have hen and stag dos?

Even better – people propose. If they write in and say they want to pop the question, we can write it into the show – we’ll get the judge to call the man up and say, ‘I believe you have something to say’.

It’s amazing to see and so heartwarming – the actors love to get involved in this.

Tickets for The Dentist are available until Aug 31. @londondungeon

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