MADAME TUSSAUD'S NEW HORRORS.
Your heart is pounding. Your breath is short. Behind you, someone is lurking in the shadows. Sweat begins to build on your brow. You pinch yourself in hopes that this is all a dream.
But to your surprise . . . you find that you are actually at the newly renovated Chamber of Horrors exhibit, which opened earlier this summer at Madame Tussaud's famous wax museum in London.
The new $1.5 million Chamber of Horrors brings to life the history of crime and punishment with authentic sound and visual effects, eerily lifelike figures and chillingly realistic settings. Visitors embark on a diabolical journey full of spine-tingling excitement, witnessing re-creations of actual events - and coming face-to-face with the very people who were responsible for them.
Genuine artifacts from Newgate Prison can be seen in a spookily realistic re-creation. The death masks originally made by Madame Tussaud - during the French Reign of Terror, she used heads from decapitated bodies to make molds of the faces of famous people - along with the guillotine blade that beheaded Marie Antoinette, bring the bloody French Revolution to life.
Visitors can also see the notorious Mr. Christie of 10 Rillington Place meet his fate on the gallows. The clock counts down, a lever is pushed, a trapdoor opens and the lights black out as Christie takes ``the drop.'' The accompanying sound effects enhance the scene's realism with chilling impact.
The chamber's enduring popularity for more than 200 years is testimony to the fact that, in spite of social changes, the fascination with crime and punishment remains strong today. Thousands of visitors from around the world have been drawn to the Chamber of Horrors to see the real-life criminals and events depicted.
Today, Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum is one of London's most popular attractions, drawing 2.5 million visitors annually - and on some weekends, it may seem as if they're all standing in line at once. Among the diabolical sights in the new Chamber of Horrors:
Visions of Hell. The exhibit depicts the brutal ways prisoners have been tortured, from immersion in hot coals to stretching on the rack.
The Ripper Street. The sound of voices and the tinkling of a piano set the scene as visitors catch sight of Jack the Ripper's latest victim.
An execution by guillotine during the French Revolution.
Ladies' man John George Haigh, better known as ``the acid bath murderer,'' is believed to have visited the Chamber of Horrors just days before his arrest for the murder of several young women. His figure is dressed in the clothes he bequeathed to Madame Tussaud's from his death cell at Wandsworth prison, along with instructions that his hair should be kept carefully brushed!
Charles Dickens had a morbid fascination with the Chamber of Horrors and was a frequent visitor and reviewer. In 1850, he even started a false rumor that anyone who stayed the night in the chamber would receive a cash reward. As a result, Madame Tussaud's has had thousands of letters from people asking to take up the challenge.
Only one man has ever been known to spend the night in the Chamber of Horrors, way back in 1844. When he was found the next morning, Police Constable John Theodore Tussaud was slightly worse the wear from drink, having fortified himself to get through the experience.
BBC stuntman Brian Johnston only lasted until 11 p.m. when he tried to stay the night a few years ago. He was released in a state of nervous exhaustion.
Madame Tussaud's wax museum, at Marylebone Road NW1 (Baker Street is the nearest underground station), is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays and 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on weekends. Admission (it varies according to the exchange rate) is about $13.50 for adults, $8.50 for children. Information: (071) 935 6861.
Photo: Jack the Ripper lurks in the shadows of a London str eet, reproduced in Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum Chamber of Horrors.