Of Dolls and Murder

Doors 7:30pm £5 on door

Feature-length documentary film, Of Dolls and Murder, narrated by iconic filmmaker John Waters, exposes an unimaginable world of miniature homicides. Lurking inside this surreal collection of dollhouse dioramas thrives a criminal element that is all too real. These “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death” reveal a dystopic rather than an idealized version of domestic life. Created as a teaching tool by an unlikely grandmother Frances Glessner Lee, the Nutshells are home to violent murder, prostitution, mental illness, adultery and alcoholism.

But the story doesn’t end with the dollhouses of death. Rather, the dollhouses mirror our ongoing and insatiable fascination with murder – true crime or otherwise. Popular television shows like CSI help us escape into a safe haven where crime solving easily wraps up in under one hour.

From CSI and real-life detectives, to criminally minded college students and a visit to “The Body Farm,” Of Dolls and Murder illuminates the tiny world of big time murder.

The screening will be followed by a Q&A with Dr John Troyer,  Deputy Director, Death and Dying Practices Associate, Centre for Death and Society, University of Bath, who features in the film.

Filming Locations

Of Dolls and Murder was filmed in Baltimore and Bethesda, Maryland, Knoxville, Tennessee, St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota, Chicago, Illinois, and Los Angeles, California.

Director, Writer, Producer

First time feature documentary filmmaker, Susan Marks, combines her life–long fascination with the darker side of kitsch into a documentary film about dollhouse crime scenes and real-life homicide investigation. Marks is also a Jerome grant recipient, screenwriter and author.

The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death

Created in the 1930s and 1940s, The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death is a series of eighteen intricately designed dollhouse-style dioramas. The creator, Frances Glessner Lee, was a millionaire heiress who is affectionately known as the “Patron Saint of Forensic Science.”

Lee designed these detailed scenarios, based on composites of actual cases, to help train detectives to sharpen their investigative skills. Each Nutshell contains a doll corpse (or several) in a death scene that could be easily misinterpreted.

The dioramas first were used in the 1940s for a law enforcement lecture series known as the Harvard Associates of Police Science (HAPS) through the Harvard Legal Medicine department. In 1966, when the department dissolved, the Nutshells went to the Maryland Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME), where they are on permanent loan. The Nutshells are still used today as teaching tools in the HAPS seminar series that Lee founded.

Originally, Lee and her carpenters created 20 Nutshells. One was destroyed in transit to the Maryland OCME and another is missing. The Nutshells are not open to the general public, nor are the solutions available in order to preserve their integrity as a teaching tool.