Confronting the secrets of Victoria's Chamber of Horrors

It may have had something to do with the way my father constantly admonished us to behave when we were little, to be seen and not heard, to be quiet, like Canadian children.

It may have been the fruit incident.

One minute, we were happily trundling north toward British Columbia, our 1960s station wagon crammed with relatives, kids and greasy brown lunch sacks. The next, my mother was screaming.

"The grapes! My god, get rid of the grapes! Throw them out the window! If that's a banana, toss it! We're almost to the Canadian border!"

Being only 6, I assumed the worst. Canadians hated fruit to such an extent that if you were caught with so much as a peach pit, you'd be shot on sight. It wasn't such a stretch, really; I'd heard similar things about Communists.

Most likely, though, it was the Chamber of Horrors that did it.

Our family visited it that day (after narrowly escaping the Canadian fruit police), although my personal memories of Victoria's Wax Museum are as dark and murky as good vinegar.

I do remember the pamphlet my sisters and I thumbed through each rainy Saturday afterwards, our wide eyes lingering over the twisted bodies, the grimacing faces, the scruffy wax rats of the wax museum's Chamber of Horrors.

My nightmares were filled with grisly images of torture from that Victoria basement — the Guillotine, the Rope, the dreaded Algerian Hook that pierced its screaming victim as neatly as a worm.

Being a somewhat simple child, I made certain associations. Canadians were a dark and dangerous people. Canadians were not to be trusted. Canadians, in fact, just might be evil.

As I got older, I outgrew this foolishness — mostly. Somewhere deep down, I retained a niggling uneasiness, viewing Canadians and their sprawling country with a modicum of fear and resentment, the way most people do their dentist. Like many, I disguised my fear beneath a barrage of bad jokes about curling and back bacon. Canadians made easy targets for ribbing. They were so well-behaved, so polite. Too polite, some might say.

Late at night, I'd wonder if their good-natured docility was part of a master plan. If they were simply lulling us into complacency until the day when they'd reveal the malevolent nature lurking beneath. Who was to say there wasn't an Algerian Hook in every Canadian basement. Who indeed, eh?

Revisiting one's fears

As an adult, I had to confront my fears, so I revisited Victoria. After we drove aboard the Coho, the lumbering ferry that runs between Port Angeles and Victoria, the iron doors clanged shut behind us like a prison gate. Ready or not, I was once again headed for Canada, land of fruit-haters, stifled children, and fear.

The next 90 minutes I spent chattering, devouring vending machine sandwiches and pacing the waxed institutional floor like a Green Lake race-walker. Outside the purser's office, things took a dark turn. "The following are not allowed into Canada," a prominent sign read. "Apples, peaches, pears, nectarines, hand guns, pepper spray, and mace." Apparently, the Canadians still had major issues with fruit.

I tried to get some kind of explanation from the purser, but he was tight-lipped.

"It's time to return to your car, ma'am," he told me quietly. "Please quit taking pictures of that sign."

Disembarking in Victoria, we inched our way through the customs line, sweaty passports in hand.

"What kind of weapon do you use for personal protection?" the border guard asked me casually, as if it were normal for everyone in Canada to possess an arsenal of glinting knives and well-oiled pistols.

"My rapier wit?" I blurted. I felt a chill start up the back of my neck as he leveled me with a stare.

"That'll do," he said, and we fled like rats into the city.

Victoria embraces the Inner Harbour like a sloppy lover, with most of the tourist haunts within easy walking distance of the international ferry terminal. Pedi-cabs and double-decker buses buzzed by as we maneuvered out of the customs area and onto the city streets. Driving past the elaborate domed Parliament Building, the futuristic Undersea Gardens and the ivy-covered Fairmont Empress Hotel, home to a famously swanky high tea, I felt my anxiety lifting. Everything was clean and bright and quintessentially British.

This was not an evil place at all, I thought, watching excited couples in yellow jumpsuits tumble off the Prince of Whales tour boats. Except for the architecture, the accents and the ambience, it could have been Seattle.

A circle of darkness

The Royal London Wax Museum was right along the water's edge, and within minutes of stowing the car, we were being ushered in the front doors by Captain George, the official (non-wax) greeter.

Soon I was standing face-to-face with Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, Princess Diana and six sad-faced women, all of whom had had the misfortune of marrying a fickle guy by the name of Henry. I sidled past the Architects of Victory (Churchill, Montgomery, Eisenhower and Roosevelt) and the Martyrs of Hope (Kennedy, Kennedy, Lincoln and King). But all were passing fascinations.

I had an appointment with my past, a date with the dark misguided memories from my childhood. I felt a delicious frisson as we approached the bowels of the building and I saw a child tear up a flight of darkened stairs, frantically searching for his mother. If there were a wax figure of Freud, I'm sure he'd have understood. The Chamber of Horrors called.

Minutes later, I was staring at a squatting man trapped within the Cell of Little Ease, a hamper-sized box with sharp spikes protruding from every surface. The Guillotine came next. Then a man swinging gently from a noose. Other horrors followed, each one exactly as I remembered from that well-worn purple pamphlet: The Rack, The Man in the Iron Cage, the Death Masks of the French Aristocracy, Hitler. I wandered through the darkened circular room, squinting at dimly-lit placards, gasping at the fake blood, the gruesome corpses, the other tourists.

At the end of the hall, I found myself in front of the display case housing that apex of terror from my childhood, the dreaded Algerian Hook. I stared at the poor suspended victim, wondering how long his waxy body had hung there, screaming soundlessly at passers-by.

In the glass, I seemed to see the dim reflection of a young girl, an imaginative thing who had somehow convinced herself that Algeria was a lesser-known province of Canada.

After a moment, the reflection slowly faded and I left the grisly display for the clean open air.

An escape to safety

Soon afterward, we were driving north toward Butchart Gardens, where tourists from all over the world gathered to photograph dainty flowers and enjoy a quaint custom known as afternoon tea.

There was tea — there was a pot somewhere on our table, I'm almost sure of it — but afternoon tea at Butchart Gardens, we learned, was much less about the tea and much more about the two- and three-tier trays full of goodies that came with it. Ours arrived with rolled curry sandwiches, tiny sausage quiche, poppyseed cake, buttery cookies and scones with Devonshire cream. The whole mess was served on the veranda of the original Butchart home, where our kind hostess allowed us to sit for an hour or more, stuffing our faces with 14 varieties of pastry.

Afterwards, we lumbered through the 55 acres of gardens, exclaiming like grandmothers at the variety of the roses, the beauty of the landscaping and the wild, unadulterated color. Exotic guests wandered about us on all sides; butterflies flitted in and out of our consciousness like childhood memories.

Tired, we veered off the path and found a pocket of peace just east of the Sunken Garden, on a rolling patch of lawn where during the summer, fireworks displays were launched. Plopping onto a set of empty bleachers, we took a moment to breathe in the lush green fields in front of us, a distant flock of Canada geese the only crowd in sight.

It may have been the dark decadence of the chocolate truffles, or the blue purity of the delphiniums, or maybe it was the inevitable harmony that comes when you face your fears and they disappear like so many freshly baked tarts. Whatever the case, I realized that despite the fact that I was in the land of what had always been the unspoken enemy, I felt calm and happy. The sun was shining, the flowers were swaying and the dreaded Algerian Hook was centuries away, where it belonged. There were no xenophobic resentments, no strange irrational fears.

It had taken me years, but I had finally traveled to a magnificent place — a Canadian place — and I felt at home sitting there, as still as a wax figure in the subdued summer breeze, as quiet as a Canadian child.

Diane Mapes is a free-lance writer who lives in Seattle. She grew up 50 miles south of the Canadian border on a farm that grew strawberries, a type of fruit.


The Royal London Wax Museum with its Chamber of Horrors is at the edge of Victoria's Inner Harbour at 470 Belleville St. There are 300 wax figures in all, plus Ye Olde Head Stand, where you can have your picture taken with a shelf full of disembodied noggins. Admission $4.50-$9 Canadian (about $3.35-$6.70 U.S.) or $27 (about $20 U.S.) per family. Hours 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. now through Dec. 31. For more information: 250-388-4461 or

Butchart Gardens is 14 miles north of Victoria at 800 Benvenuto Ave., Brentwood Bay. Fifty-five acres of flowers, fountains and photo ops. Gardens are open year-round. During October, look for hordes of dahlias, chrysanthemums and flaming red Japanese maples; from Dec. 1-Jan. 6 Butchart's holiday display features thousands of Christmas lights, miles of evergreen swag and roaming bands of carolers. Admission and hours varies by season. Open 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. through Tuesday, then 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Oct 15-31. Open nights in December. Current admission: $18 (about $13.50 U.S.) for adults, $9 (about $6.75 U.S.) for youths 13-17, $1.50 (about $1.10 U.S.) for children 5-12. Afternoon tea available daily. For more information: or 250-652-5256.

The Fairmont Empress Hotel is at 721 Government St. along Victoria's Inner Harbour. Built in 1908 and elegantly restored (a couple of times), the Empress has played host to kings, queens, movie stars and even a ghost or two. The afternoon tea brings in more than 800 people a day during the summer. Room rates vary by season. In October, prices range from $159 Canadian (about $118 U.S.) for what they term a "moderate room" to $1,000 Canadian (about $743 U.S.) for the Fairmont Gold 2-bedroom suite. For information or reservations: (search for Victoria's Fairmont Empress) or 250-384-8111.

For other hotel reservations, Tourism Victoria has a toll-free help line: 800-663-3883.

Getting there: The Victoria Clipper passenger ferry zips between Seattle and Victoria year-round (except for two weeks in January). Call 206-448-5000 or see for rates and schedules.

From Port Angeles on Washington's Olympic Peninsula, you and your car can reach Victoria via the Blackball Ferry Line (albeit not from mid-January to mid-March of this coming year). For more information: 360-457-4491 or

General information: Tourism Victoria, or 250-953-2033