Of Dolls & Murder: new documentary explores doll-house dioramas of death

March 23, 2012

Of Dolls & Murder is a new documentary exploring a macabre world rendered in miniature: the “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death,” doll-house sized dioramas that depict — in stunning detail — 18 violent domestic crime scenes.

They’re like three-dimensional, grisly versions of the game Clue: A woman, found upended and drowned in her bathroom. Some splatters of blood and a knocked over chair in the nursery. A couple clad in his and hers pajamas, united by death in their boudoir.

The studies (which use a 1-foot to 1-inch ratio) were created in the 1930s and 1940s by a woman with ties to Chicago. Frances Glessner Lee grew up in what’s now known as the Glessner House Museum – the home built by her father Jacob Glessner, a man who made his fortune via the farm implement industry (he oversaw a merger that resulted in International Harvester).

Glessner Lee had a keen interest in crime, detection and the world of forensics. But unlike her brothers, she did not get to attend university. So it wasn’t until her middle years that she was able to break out of domestic confinement and explore her passions. From “The Rocks,” the Glessner summer home in New Hampshire, she started constructing the dioramas, using the model-making skills she’d developed in childhood.

For a woman held back by the sexism and class structures of her time, Glessner Lee’s impact was huge: Her dioramas have strengthened the observational skills of generations of detectives – they’re still in use at the Office of Chief Medical Examiner in Baltimore, Maryland. She also helped found the first forensic science department at Harvard University and in the 1940s New Hampshire named her a State Police Captain - the first female to receive the honor.

Dolls Director Susan Marks first encountered the Nutshells 10 years ago, and her interest hasn’t diminished – she chalks it up to a “fascination with a mystery that you can’t necessarily solve.” For Marks that mystery also extends to Glessner Lee and her insatiable eye for detail. Marks told me a story that provides us with a glimpse: Apparently Glessner Lee’s carpenter had constructed a small rocking chair for one of the scenes. The original had a knot in the wood: the tiny facsimile did not. So back to the woods went the craftsman, in search of a suitably knotty branch for carving.

There is something uncanny and yet fitting about a woman whose fate might have involved confinement to the home developing an interest in the vicious criminal activities that can take place there - and using her own domestic crafts to escape. Take a look at the film, but be warned: You just might catch the obsession of both Glessner Lee and Marks (voice-over narration by filmmaker John Waters and a soundtrack that sounds suitably David Lynchian won't help!).

Of Dolls & Murder screens at 7 pm March 25, in the Glessner House Museum at 1800 South Prairie Avenue.  Filmmaker Susan Marks, along with her co-producer and composer, will be in attendance.