The new Hell’s Museum at Haw Par Villa turns 1 year old today! They’re taking advantage of the fact that it’s spoopy month to celebrate their birthday by extending opening hours to midnight for two nights, yesterday and today. We decided to drop by on Friday night to see whether the Hell’s Museum experience is even more atmospheric at night (Hell’s Museum normally closes at 6pm).
It did seem a little strange to have the more western elements of Halloween amidst the very traditional Chinese setting of Haw Par Villa. The visitor centre, which plays multiple roles as the ticket collection, souvenir and refreshment shop was decked in Halloween decorations like Jack o’Lanterns and skeletons.
At the entrance to Hell’s Museum, a large tree had been TP-ed, a truly US Halloween tradition. For better or worse, the special Halloween decorations were relatively minimal. After all, it was the sheer experience of being at Haw Par Villa at night which was the main attraction.
Except the Hell’s Museum experience isn’t quite a Halloween experience. It is a museum first and foremost, so the tour began with a 7-minute video mini-documentary about the various world religions and their approach to death.
Yes, there was an actor dressed in white with long hair who scared a few of the viewers. But that jumpscare was almost a welcome respite because the video did seem to go on a bit longer than we’d have liked.
The museum itself is a fascinating insight into death and the afterlife and is very, very educational. It takes a very objective and respectful approach to the similarities and differences of how all of Singapore’s 10 officially-recognised religions perceive what happens when die.
Outside, there are recreations of a funeral wake, altars to the dead, and even a gravestone (which was really sad because it’s a stark reminder of how fast Singapore is exhuming graves). These were not well-lit (again because the museum is usually closed by 6pm). While it made the experience creepier, it also meant that reading some of the information panels were a chore.
The main attraction of Hell’s Museum is the 10 Courts of Hell, newly refurbished and air-conditioned for the comfort of visitors. This was where the main Halloween haunted house aspect was supposed to take place.
At the start of the path from the museum to the 10 Courts of Hell, visitors were given a mini torch that was covered in coloured plastic. This allowed for enough light to see the exhibits but not enough to brighten up the whole area. It’s a good idea for Halloween – the last thing you want to do is have too much light pollution ruining your experience, but it wasn’t quite practical.
Because the 10 Courts of Hell are still ultimately a museum, the staff were caught between ensuring that the exhibit wasn’t too crowded, while also letting those inside the museum view the dioramas at their own pace. This ended up causing a huge queue waiting to enter the exhibit.
Inside the exhibit were just two actors hiding in what little corners they could to provide jumpscares, but ultimately were not as effective as they’d like because unlike a normal haunted house, the guests were in no hurry to keep moving along.
All in all, I think it’s a great idea for the Museum to celebrate its birthday by extending opening hours one weekend a year. But ultimately there’s no need to double down on the Halloween experience. Visiting the Hell’s Museum (and Haw Par Villa as a whole) at night is in itself a creepy and evocative experience without feeling the obligation to provide jumpscares.
Is the $18 ticket price for Hell’s Museum steep for the experience? Yes, but Hell’s Museum and Haw Par Villa aren’t publicly funded and thus relies on its ticket prices to pay for the costs of maintaining the site. In many ways, it truly goes one step further and takes the original purpose of Haw Par Villa and gives it a deeper meaning. One that allows us to see that humanity’s fascination with death, especially in Asia, has allowed so many different traditions to flourish, and also reminds us that death is the great equaliser.
(P.S. Also, gotta love a museum that isn’t afraid to be snarky about its origins, as they did on one diorama description.)
The writer would like to thank Bernice from Journeys Pte Ltd for the kind invitation!