By LISA CAPOBIANCO
When Cortlandt Hull founded the Witch’s Dungeon Classic Movie Museum in 1966 at just 13 years old, never did he expect it to become the longest running classic horror and fantasy attraction nationwide.
The museum began 50 years ago on the Hull family’s property as a tribute to the actors and makeup artists who created classic movie characters. Hull’s mother, Dorothea Hull, was a professional stage costume designer who assisted with costuming, and his father, Robert Hull, was a painting/decorating contractor who built the original museum in the image of a small Swiss chalet. Hull’s uncle, Louis Gagnon, did all the electrical wiring and designed colorful laboratory gadgets.
“We all worked together—it was a family affair,” said Hull. “As a kid, if I didn’t have that kind of support there’s no way I could have gotten it off the ground.”
Together they provided a venue for people of all ages during the Halloween season—at a time when the holiday was celebrated by either bobbing for apples, trick or treating and masquerade parties, said Hull.
Hull, who was fascinated with wax museums as a child, desired to see movie monsters during the Halloween season, and felt that something different was needed.
“In 1966, Halloween was not what it is now,” said Hull, adding the museum made so many people happy. “There was no attraction per se to go to back then.”
During its first season, Witch’s Dungeon originally opened its doors on Halloween weekend, which became mobbed, recalled Hull.
“It was amazing,” said Hull. “Word really spread fast.”
But as the museum added more weekends to its hours of operation, more visitors stopped by. Within two years, said Hull, Witch’s Dungeon doubled the size of its building because the museum became so popular.
“We never thought that would happen,” said Hull.
When the museum moved to the Bristol Historical Society in 2014, it tripled in size.
From Vincent Price to Bela Lugosi to Lon Chaney, the wax museum style-tour features a variety of life-size, re-created figures—all staged in an elaborate scene or diorama based on the classic movie they starred in. As visitors step inside, they are guided through a live tour led by the costumed hosts, “Farnsworth, The Butler” (played by Rob Lansley) and “Carmilla Kamstein” (played by Jodi Dickson). The hosts provide visitors insight on the classic films, makeup artists and actors.
“The longevity has to do with the fact that the characters we have in there are multi-generational,” said Hull, adding the museum is more about the artistry, the makeup and the actors who play the classic characters. “It’s not blood and gore. It’s classic characters where pretty much all ages can enjoy, and I think that’s what has made it different.”
Since its move to the historical society, Witch’s Dungeon also has expanded its audience while seeing certain visitors return ever year. During the past two seasons, the museum has attracted movie fans from over 25 states and 17 countries.
Tom Dickau, former president of the Bristol Historical Society, said he has enjoyed working with Hull.
“As past president, one of the things I definitely wanted to do was work with Cortlandt,” said Dickau, who is now an active volunteer for Witch’s Dungeon. “It has benefitted both organizations, and I learned so much myself through Witch’s Dungeon coming in.”
Looking ahead, Hull hopes the museum will be expanded even more once an elevator is installed in the historical society’s building.
“We hope to eventually be able to expand Witch’s Dungeon not only being open in the fall, but open all year round on the second floor,” said Hull, adding how the museum has a ‘superb’ relationship with the historical society. “It’s not just a Halloween attraction because it is about the movies. It’s something that could appeal to the public all-year round.
As this year marks the 50th anniversary of Witch’s Dungeon, many special events are coming up. Part of the celebration includes the sale of 250 double-sided medallions are currently available for $15 each during opening hours at the Bristol Historical Society, during the “Hollywood at the Bijou” movie shows, and at City True Value Hardware on Farmington Avenue. They also will be available for sale during the season of the Witch’s Dungeon, which starts Sept. 30 and during the Mum Festival in September. The medallions, which also serve as the historical society’s Christmas ornament this year, are available for mail order.
Profits from the sale of the medallions will benefit the historical society and Witch’s Dungeon.
Made of solid pewter, one side of the medallion highlights “Zenobia The Gypsy Witch,” a character that Hull sculpted a year before Witch’s Dungeon began. Zenobia, who serves as the mascot for Witch’s Dungeon, was named after an obnoxious schoolmate that his mother told him about.
“I thought it would be more unique to have a witch that was a gypsy witch,” said Hull, adding his mother had ideas for Zenobia’s costume.
Actress June Foray, who completed a special voice track for Zenobia, was ecstatic when Hull recently sent her the medallion. Foray will turn 99 years old in September.
“She always loved the fact that she was associated with being Zenobia even though she had done a witch voice for a Disney cartoon and a Warner Brothers cartoon previously,” said Hull, adding that Foray has seen the growth of the museum over the years.
The other side of the medallion captures the history of Hull’s family history with classic movies. His great uncle, actor Henry Hull, is displayed on the other side of the medallion in his character as the werewolf from the 1935 film, “Werewolf in London.”
For Hull, it was exciting to showcase his great uncle—the first movie werewolf.
“Uncle Henry was the first major movie werewolf, and I think it’s about time he got his recognition,” said Hull, adding that his great uncle encouraged as Hull was growing up. “I wanted him to be a part of this, so I thought it was only right he be included.”
For more information about the medallions or to order one via mail, e-mail Tom Dickau at firstname.lastname@example.org.