Utne Blogs > Arts and Culture

Miniature Murders Come to Life on the Big Screen

by Elizabeth Ryan 


Tags: Elizabeth Ryan, Arts, murder, crime scenes, dioramas, Baltimore, John Waters, Susan Marks, documentary, film, Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, Urbanite, Baltimore City Paper,

Baltimore’s Urbanite first hipped us to a unique set of hand-crafted crime-scene dioramas known as the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, which are used to teach police detectives and investigators about solving murders with forensic science. Now the mini-murder scenes are the star of filmmaker Susan Marks’ forthcoming documentary Of Dolls and Murder. The project gets a hand from cult filmmaker John Waters, who is a fan of the miniatures and narrates Marks’ film. Marks told Baltimore City Paper, “We never even considered anyone else.” Here’s a little more history on the Nutshells and the trailer for the film:

Frances Glessner Lee, a crotchety Chicago heiress and self-trained forensics expert, painstakingly crafted the Nutshells in the 1930s and ’40s. A pioneer in the then-emerging field of legal medicine, Lee created the Nutshells as training tools for police detectives and other death-scene investigators, who would hone their observational skills as they attempted to determine the dolls’ likely cause of death: homicide, suicide, accident, or natural causes. Lee was nothing if not thorough; she based the dioramas on crime scenes she visited or read about and sat in on autopsies to make sure she got the details right. Each death scene is a composite of real cases, often tweaked to make the cause of death more puzzling, the clues more enigmatic. “[As] teaching tools, these [are] wonderful dolls that were made so well that they’re still being used” in the biannual seminars of the Harvard Associates in Police Science, Marks points out.

For Marks and her filmmaking team (co-producer/editor/composer John Kurtis Dehn and cinematographer Matt Ehling), the Nutshells are not only valuable because they’re frankly creepy, but also because of what they have to offer about the pursuit of justice both in the ’30s and today. Crime television juggernauts such as CSI and its spin-offs have made fiber analysis and DNA-typing part of common parlance, but the Nutshells encourage a return to investigational fundamentals: hyper-acute observation in which nothing can be taken at face value.

Sources: Urbanite, Baltimore City Paper