Murder House

Well, well well, what murderous musings and toothy tales do we have online today? 

Grinding my molars as I peruse websites for private oral health services in Aotearoa and a theme arises- here is an interesting quote to illustrate my point:

‘Remember the days of ‘the murder house’? Many of us can recall the gruesome memories of painful treatments, overfilled teeth and archaic equipment…’

Is this a justified, historically accurate statement, or a bit of fun poked at past dental nurses at the benefit of recruiting some dentally anxious parents and their children? Well, the deep dive into google search engine found a wealth of perspective, stories and experiences of the School Dental Service (SDS) Murder House era. I started to understand there is more to the historical and current accounts of the SDS Murder House era, and on-going urban legend than meets the eye. 

Susan Cartwright’s thesis, The Murder House Case Studies: An Education in Dental Anxiety, looks at an adult population who would have had experience of the SDS pre 1980’s. The participant responses are  compelling stuff, given most recalled a ‘murder house’ type dental experience during their childhood. She then goes on to say that it was hard to ascertain whether the memories had been from personal experiences and/or stories heard.

Why is the SDS Murder House social construct still used in 2022 to continue the rhetoric around the public- funded community services and expected patient experience. The name ‘Murder House’ makes me cringe. No one has died or made to endure excessive discomfort on my watch and I doubt any murder has ever happened within a clinical space during the history of the school dental service in Aotearoa. However, after reading a bit more (and watching that darn creepy sort of film – link below) I have far more empathy for the children who experienced dental care at that time, and also the dental nurses that did what they had to do, with the tools, knowledge and norms of the time. Can we criticise historical dental care when it aligned with the values, technology, equipment and materials available of the time? I still think the term  ‘Murder House’ demeans the care and mahi done by past and current oral health professionals in the publicly funded health system. 

 I don’t believe that premeditated substandard dental care or intentional harm was the norm during the ‘Murder House’ era- although after watching The Murder House short film I can see why imagery and dialogue like this adds to the perceived and actual memory of childhood dental care (

The Murder House short film commentary on the NZ on Screen website,  has statements such as:

 ‘ My teeth were full of fillings, but I had never ever experienced any pain from having a problem. I am sure they just drilled for the sake of practice.’ 

 ‘The nose tingling smell, the grating sound of the drill… uuughh makes me shudder to this day; that awful injector thingy with the (vile metal tasting) filling contents that they used to ram into the many holes they made, and then they’d scrape away at the surface with the hooky-pokey thing until it squeaked and screeched that it was smooth enough; you’d have a rinse and see a fleet of black filling bits swirl around the basin and sail down the sinkhole ! That folding arm of the drill… those air puffers… the chair… ‘

I bet we have all heard something like this in the clinic – how to you respond ? Is it with justification or with empathy and understanding. How might your patient perceive the environment and care received currently? Has this got you thinking? 

So back to private dental services advertising the ‘Murder House’ era of dental care in Aotearoa. Is capitalising on standard dental care of past and patients’ past dental trauma the right thing to do? I am sure there are enough amazing things to advertise without alluding to fear-based, professional defamation type statements. There is absolutely no value in undermining any health profession.  

What a journey learning more about the The Murder House in the SDS context. The Murder House era is part of our legacy, but does not have to haunt us, or be used by other health professionals to hurt us. 

Becky 🙂

Much aroha to Diane Pevreal for input on this blog.

Photo reference; Screenshot of short film Murder House

Cartwright, Susan. The Murder House Case Studies: An Education in Dental Anxiety. Master of Education Thesis. AUT University. First published 2010. URL

Hames, Emily. Open Wide: A Short History of the Murder House in New Zealand. MOTAT Museum of Transport and Technology. First published: 10 July 2020. URL 

NZonScreen. The Murder House. 1998.  URL

White, Rebecca. The Murder House. New Zealand Geographic. First published: September 2016. URL   the-murder-house 

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