The holidays are coming and you’re having friends and family visit. If you plan to take them to Cannery Row – with its shops and restaurants, the Aquarium and bike/kayak rentals – add the Spirit of Monterey Wax Museum (aka the Steinbeck Wax Museum) to your list. It’s in the indoor mall of Monterey Canning Company, and for a tourist attraction it’s an informative one, but also kinda creepy.
You might be in the indoor mall browsing businesses like Old Time Portraits and Jerkyville USA Gourmet Jerky when a booming voice suddenly invites you to “Learn about 500 years of Monterey and California history!” You look over a little balcony from where the voice came from and see three animatronic figures dressed in 1930s fishing industry garb in front of a fishing net.
You buy a ticket (at the nearby As Seen on TV store), then descend downstairs. It’s a little cramped. There are weathered old props like wharf pylons and antique posters. Maybe you look for an attendant, but you are the only live person down there. Perhaps. There is a turnstile and a nearby wax figure – and there’s something unsettling about this guy.
It’s not just his vacant eyes staring at nothing. He’s frozen with tension; his shoulders are too broad; his skin pasty; his suit is ill-fitting, as if he took it from his last victim.
Signs direct you past an old man in a straw hat, looking down as if he’s remembering the biggest mistakes of his life. This figure is rendered marvelously real, which means that you expect he will reach out and grab your arm as you pass.
But you do pass, and enter a dark room with the walk of history, historical scenes rendered with period mannequins, backdrops, clothing and props. The first scene is an Ohlone encampment populated with tribal members dressed in animal skins.
It’s a self-guided tour. Press a button and one of the Ohlone animatronic mannequins, a man inexplicably hiding behind a tree, mechanically moves his head, eyes and mouth, telling you: “Four-thousand years before ‘discovery’ by Westerners, my people, the Ohlone Nation, hunted and relocated seasonally in our tribal areas that stretched from San Francisco Bay to Big Sur.”
It’s a nice touch that he pauses sarcastically on the word “discovery.” He’s wearing feather earrings, buckskin, and has his hair in two braids. Is it historically accurate? We’ll leave that to historians.
The scenes are enclosed behind a wooden fence, like that of a corral, separating the viewer from the animatronic wax figures. But it’s dark down there. And it’s hard to shake the feeling that a rogue mannequin is waiting to get you, maybe force you to trade places with it.
Mannequins in the background appear to be lurking.
Once that first segment is over (the 16 or so narrated historical re-enactment stations take about 30 minutes to play out), it goes dark. You press another button and the next scene lights up – in this case, the arrival of Europeans and the Spanish exploration and mission era.
Father Junipero Serra is there in his iconic robe, among Native Americans (now dressed in European clothes). Set to a tune of Spanish guitar, a baritone narrator tells us that Serra and his mission friars told the Indians that peace would be theirs if they moved to the missions and learned about Christianity.
“What they weren’t told,” the narrator says, “was that failure to obey would result in beatings and imprisonment.”
There is a Native American man in a stockade with a look of woe and anguish.
You continue to the next scene, and the lights come up on an animatronic bear, towering over you and growling, a collar around its neck and chained to the ground. Another bear is locked in a deadly battle with a bull. Two onlookers, looking like ventriloquist dummies, cheer on the gory contest, their limbs moving slowly. This is an exciting scene that teeters on becoming an academic lecture on early California government.
There is a scene of some violent crime, though its exact nature not quite clear (but you’ll want to keep it that way). There is an execution that appears like a jump scare in a horror movie. One scene is a vignette of a blacksmith using his iron tools, but it’s oddly lit with blood-red light so it looks like a scene from Saw. Mannequin characters in the background appear to be lurking in shadows; their wigs are sometimes askew; their eyes seem to track you; you find yourself watching their hands. You may feel the urge to run.
And so it goes, creepy scenes (some intentionally so, though the smiling mannequins are unsettling too) that nevertheless impart a respectable amount of local history. John Steinbeck makes an appearance and narrates part of your journey, but he also looks dangerous, lit from above and confined behind a fishing net.
One Yelp reviewer called the wax museum “dark and musty” and warned, “I wouldn’t bring young kids here.” Another wrote “absolutely loved this place” and “felt totally creeped out the entire time.”
In an annotated booklet, owner Rod Riggs invites visitors and locals alike to experience it. Take his advice. Even if you know this local lore, you haven’t seen it with this level of immersion, surrealness and dread. You and your holiday visitors won’t forget this history lesson.
SPIRIT OF MONTEREY WAX MUSEUM is open 11am-7pm daily, 700 Cannery Row, Monterey. $9.95/general admission; discounts for children. 655-7744.