A former police crime scene investigator from Surrey revamps unloved dollhouses to create dystopian scenes of abandoned asylums, and witches' covens. Maria O’Brien, who now works for the Police Care UK charity, finds her creations a “cathartic” form of “mindfulness”.

Using recycled items, Maria looks for innovative ways to bring her true crime ideas to life. The dollhouses and dioramas are handmade with incredible attention to detail and careful planning, right down to making sure the miniature bathroom fixtures are rusted the right amount, to the torn and decaying wallpaper in the bedrooms and blood spatter in the mortuary.

Maria found her love for her craft when she left the police force , just before lockdown. While taking some time out, Maria and her partner toyed with the idea of moving and renovating a house from scratch. After deciding to stay put, Maria realised she could put her creative skills to a different use. She said: “My colleague's mum was downsizing and had an old dollhouse and I thought I would have a go, and went on to buy several dollhouses.

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“The abandoned asylum was originally a house partly made of wood and metal. It was in my loft for a while, and when I brought it downstairs, my partner said that it looks like an old asylum."

Inside the abandoned asylum Maria renovated from an old dollhouse she was given. Maria revamped the whole thing, after she was inspired by her partner who joked that it looked like an old asylum before it was renovated. There is a 'grubby' bathroom, a spooky prison cell, a bedroom with torn wallpaper, and a mortuary with blood spatter up the walls
Inside the abandoned asylum Maria renovated from an old dollhouse she was given

Maria is often sent requests too, ranging from a miniature modern-day gym complete with bike, TV screen and weights, to a ghoulish recreation of Buffalo Bill’s basement from Silence of the Lambs, complete with gruesome bloodied handcuffs and skin suit.

Speaking on the reactions Maria got from her macabre work in the beginning, she said: “I recognise that this is a niche, and I accept that the first time I put something out there it got unusual comments. But a friend said to me ‘it’s not art if it doesn’t invoke emotion’, and it could be one in a million comments that are negative.

“For me, this is a form of mindfulness. I realise people think: ‘That’s really dark.’ But I’m like, ‘is it?’ I think that my policing career influences my work, where I saw murders and attended traumatic incidents. It's cathartic in some respects. You go from attending a burglary which is traumatic for the family and managing emotions for families so that they put their lives back together, to more complex events like murders , it's challenging.

The 'grubby' bathroom inside Maria's abandoned asylum dollhouse with overflowing toilet, rusted shower, and toilet roll strewn across the floor
The 'grubby' bathroom inside Maria's abandoned asylum dollhouse

“Research shows one in five police personnel have PTSD, and one in 10 are walking around with untreated Complex PTSD. At Police Care, we got to pioneer a brand new technique to help people recover from C-PTSD.”

As an avid photographer, Maria is also inspired by Urbex photography, capturing eerie images of decaying, derelict structures and buildings, and discarded items she finds while out and about walking her dog. Maria explains: “I recycle and reuse lots of things I come across walking around with my dog. For example, the shower room in the abandoned asylum has a toilet made from the lid of a perfume bottle.

"One of my pieces is made from an old wine box, it is a mini witches apothecary cabinet. I love mystical and mythical things, like the Wednesday Addams Netflix show,” which Maria is making a dollhouse of the school featured in the show.

An Edwardian themed diorama Maria made with a little man with grey hair sat next to a side table with a lamp on
An Edwardian themed diorama Maria made

“I’ve designed the stage from the theatre in NYC called CBGB, and would love to do the bathroom, it was really grubby. I’m a fan of the big punk venue that was huge during the 70s and 80s. I did once go to the Chelsea Hotel where historical writers and artists used to live, where Sid Vicious’ girlfriend Nancy Spungen died.

“Next, I’m making a themed haunted house for a lady who has jumping spiders. They are so pretty, and make really good pets. I usually have to have different projects on the go because each project needs time to set. For example, the wallpaper needs to dry before you put the skirting boards on, you then have to cut the carpet and fit the skirting boards, and build the beds from scratch.”


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