New Documentary ‘Of Dolls & Murder’ Explores Macabre in Miniature

In a small room in the Maryland Medical Examiner’s Office in Baltimore there is a series of 18 reproductions of imagined crime scenes waiting to be solved.

Created in the 1930s and 1940s, the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death is a collection of macabre dollhouses that each depict a different, deadly crime. The strange juxtaposition of child’s plaything and forensic science — the murders are all meticulously and graphically rendered — yield a haunting result.

Created by Frances Glessner Lee over almost a decade, the collection was designed as a tool for crime solving. By peering into the tiny world, detectives could analyze the clues and learn how to ask the right questions from an exclusive vantage point.

For Lee, every element of the scene was significant. She took care to treat every aspect with equal care, from knitting socks on tiny straight pins to asking a carpenter to create tiny working locks for the doors. With no tiny detail taken for granted, finding the clues that mattered became a much more challenging feat, but also a more fruitful opportunity.

'Of Dolls & Murder'Filmmaker Susan Marks encountered the Nutshells long ago, and years later was still fascinated. Marks decided the best way to get over “that haunting” would be to make a documentary film. ‘Of Dolls and Murder’, narrated by Baltimore native John Waters, takes the viewer into the real world of forensics starting with the Nutshells and visiting morgues, TV crime drama’s, and detective headquarters along the way. The macabre miniatures, however, remain the focus of the film as Waters tells the story of each crime scene.

Film co-producer John Dehn was on the fence about the project until he encountered the dollhouses in person.

“You become immersed in them in a way that, if it was not done so well, you wouldn’t,” he says. “You can actually go down in there like you’re six inches tall. Because of the detail, the effect is much more.”

Over the years, the Nutshells proved to be so helpful that they are still used today as a teaching tool. Science and innovation, it seems, are no replacement for investigatory skills.

“You can have all the latest technology in the world,” says Marks, “but it doesn’t change the fact that if you read the crime scene wrong, all that science isn’t going to help you.”