Bottled fetuses. Pinned butterflies. Human skulls. A veritable celebration of the strange and macabre can be seen at the touring Oddities Market. Ripleys.com was on location at their stop in Philadelphia to get the grave dirt on this cabinet of curiosities.
The Dark Arts and Beyond
Adoration for antiques and abstract art was on full display with handmade works from a variety of artisans. Shadow boxes lived up to their ominous namesake with Roadside Linen Arts, who manufactures laser-cut, nostalgic renderings of vintage pop culture, film, and theater paraphernalia. Etched in Embers also fabricates shadow boxes and other woodwork with a twist. These pyrographic productions—the art of wood burning—include surreal renderings as diverse as the gaunt figure of death, characters from Beetlejuice, and the side-profile of a human head with a hyper-realistic depiction of a brain, complete with vein work creatively lifted from the innards of an orange.
A series of guests provided a carnival atmosphere when they brought larger-than-life sideshow banners—literally! Sideshow Banner Exchange’s Michael Papa, co-author of Painters of the Peculiar, brought a massive 10 ft by 8 ft (3 m by 2.4 m) banner of the 614 lb (278.5 kg) man billed as Buster, a work painted by the highly sought-after artist, Snap Wyatt. “Fat Man and Fat Woman sideshow banners typically sell the quickest,” Michael informed us.
“They’re just spectacular. I have a whole warehouse full of them. I can’t get enough of them. I feel like a freak, so I feel like I fit in with them.”
James, the curator of Freeman and Fugate Oddities Company: Purveyors in the Odd, Macabre, and Extraordinary, brought with him Timothy Frank’s Radium Skin Girl banner from the Palace of Illusions carnival sideshow in 1979. It was done in the style of Fred G. Johnson, whose banner paintings were displayed at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933. The banner mimics the classic style and motif with an orange border and a yellow banner advertising the Torture King, renowned human skewer and pain performer Zamora, who was once himself featured on our very own Ripley’s Believe It or Not! television program.
Also elevated to an art form were talking boards, commonly referred to as Ouija boards. Collected and curated by the Talking Board Historical Society, a registered nonprofit, Treasurer John Kozik affirms that the group’s mission is to “research, preserve, and celebrate the history of talking boards and the people that use them.” In their eight years of existence, the TBHS has raised funds for the headstones of both Elijah Bond, the first to patent the talking board in 1890, and Helen Peters, the woman who named the Ouija board.
“She was kind of written out of history, her story was lost. We discovered through a series of articles in the Baltimore Sun from 1919 that she was really the person responsible for asking the board what it wanted to be called. She was buried in an unmarked grave in Denver, and we put a headstone in telling her story,” explained Kozik.
Kozik, owner of the Salem Witch Board museum in Salem, Massachusetts, was first introduced to talking boards via his grandmother. “Watching her, she definitely believed that she had something channeling through her,” said Kozik, “Her board was dated to the thirties and is very well-worn from where the planchette was. She would move the planchette and spell out all these things faster than anyone could write it down. I was never allowed in the room to know what the questions were.”
“I know at one point the board lied to her and she put it in a trash bag. She never used it again and we were never allowed to look at it.”
Asc Alchemical provides an old school style of all-natural, unsynthesized perfumes and incense. With the scientific process behind the method of production based on alchemy recipes dating back to the 16th century, Asc Alchemical says it’s “basically witchcraft.”
The couple behind Dark Rain Design assembles a unique craft, even for an oddities festival—a menagerie of mechanized monstrosities that respond to human touch, like a smartphone. Sterling, co-creator of Dark Rain Design, explained that these fascinating, steampunk-themed robotics, coined Clockwork Critters, “are actually designed by repurposing parts from old kids’ toys. Steampunk is all about taking old things and making them into something new. So what we do is we take old toys from thrift stores that kids have gotten tired of that did cool mechanical things already, then reutilize those parts and do something new.”
Unlikely Animal Advocacy
The Oddities Market was all about repurposing, whether that be mechanics, bones, or entire animal corpses—not to mention the entomological variety of pinned and preserved insects. One of the most striking pieces on display was Brain Fever Artwork’s take on the theatrical poster of The Silence of the Lambs, with the image of the iconic death’s-head hawkmoth replaced with the genuine article. Sammi, the artist behind Brain Fever Artwork, revealed: “I actually went to school for medical illustration, so I kind of got used to dealing with really gross stuff. I’ve always had pet bugs growing up.”
Inanimate inhabitants of insectariums—terrariums with preserved insect figures—were not the only creatures displayed at the market, as taxidermy projects could be found in abundance. Though popular media can portray taxidermy with undertones of sportsmanlike combativeness or indifference toward the lives of animals, the truth is really the opposite. In all actuality, taxidermy could best be described as an expression of admiration and love for these creatures. Ostensibly an outward contradiction, but for these taxidermists, the idea of hurting living animals is anathema to their ideals.
Walking past Afterlife Anatomy’s table of assorted buffalo and bull jawbones, we came across a two-headed calf that, as the story goes, was bred in Nevada as a result of atomic bomb tests. It made its way to a bar in the seventies, where it was photographed partying with notorious Hearst Magazine’s heiress, Patty Hearst, before finally making its way to Katie Innamorato, proprietor of Afterlife Anatomy. She informed us that taxidermy competitions exist at the state, national, and international levels, which she has competed at over the past ten years. Prior to becoming a taxidermist, Katie initially aspired to be a veterinarian. However, she was too scared of hurting living animals: “It was just too much pressure for me to consider. Messing up a living animal is worse than messing up a dead animal. It’s a weird medium for it, but I love animals and that’s why I like trying to create them as best I can.”
Every practicing taxidermist at the market was emphatic about their hides, accompanying bones, and viscera being humanely obtained. Artist Tia Callahan from Second Chances Oddities declared that “everything’s cruelty-free. I take a lot of pride to make sure that everything’s ethically sourced.”
“I really just want to find the beauty in animals, even after death.”
Callahan’s goal is unquestionably achieved with her hauntingly romantic juxtaposition of spindly skeletons and assorted memento mori symbols set in beds of flora—dried, yet lush greenery, vibrant rosebuds, and even live succulent plants to decorate Victorian-motif frames and lanterns.
Wildlife and nature scenes were not enough for Brandon and Julie Howey. The self-taught taxidermists at Eerily Beloved specialize in anthropomorphic scenes that are horror, sideshow, and circus-themed. “We really wanted unusual taxidermy. We wanted to make stuff we wanted,” said the Howeys.
“There’s something about wildlife being preserved forever that’s extra special.”
The majority of their supply is sourced from roadkill, after which: “We give them to a bird sanctuary so they’re able to eat the carcasses. We just keep the skin.” They aspire to someday open a bar decorated with their brand of “offbeat counterculture.” Talk about a petting zoo brew!
Misty Hyneman of Cabinet of Creations holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience and specializes in the practice of diaphonization: the chemical process of clearing and staining a specimen. This mesmerizing process is applied to wet specimens stored in jars of a chemical called trypsin, which removes all color. With just the transparent version of the specimen left, dyes can be applied to create a brilliant spectrum of neon colors.
For Hyneman, this endeavor helped her conquer her fear of snakes after purchasing a specimen online: “I thought, ‘I’m going to conquer this fear… slowly.’ Then it kind of just turned into this amazingness! It took a couple of months before I stopped dissolving things because that’s really easy to do.”
Hyneman’s mother, Suzanne, assisted her daughter at the booth. For her, death was a regular part of southern life. “We’re originally from Alabama,” Suzanne explained, “When I was young, they always had the viewings in the home. I don’t know if they still do that or not. It’s really kind of a way to be at peace with things.” In regards to her daughter’s art, Suzanne said,
“It’s better than burying it. Now you’re extending its life beyond death.”
Tim Prince of Forgotten Boneyard self-produces and exhibits mind-bending creations that must be seen to be believed. Standing next to a totem pole of skulls swarming with crawling scarabs, which he modestly described as “literally just me having fun,” Prince divulged: “The entire reason I got into this was because I didn’t see anything else like I wanted to create.”
Prince disclosed that he finds inspiration in the works of Swiss surrealist artist H. R. Giger, who is best known for his Oscar award-winning design of the titular Xenomorph from the 1979 horror classic, Alien. This influence is readily apparent when taking in his otherworldly mount of Medusa’s Skull, a human skull fixed with snarling skeletal snakes. Prince’s work is all ethically obtained.
“I process a lot of roadkill, natural deaths from pet stores, and things from butchers,” says Prince.
Not unlike the funeral rites indigenous to Tana Toraja, which sees care for the corpses of loved ones for years prior to their internment, for taxidermists, the expression of love does not cease with death. This was the prevailing sentiment at the Oddities Market, which falls under the umbrella of the “death positive” movement.
Exhuming the Death Positive Movement
Taxidermy and insect preservation were not the only cadaverous holdovers from the Victorian era. Also present that day were an eclectic collection of post-mortem photography, medical slides, and a plethora of support for the death positive movement. Britney Jones from Mz. Jones’ Curiosities casually explained what is commonly thought of as a stomach-churning, imponderable concept—death.
“My husband was a funeral director, so he’s taught me how to embalm things the proper way.” Britney Jones and her husband, Neil, now focus on wet and dried-out specimens for mummification, while also utilizing chemicals to break them down to the bone. Neil’s mother was a pathologist, which normalized the concept of death growing up within his family. Britney initially wanted to be a funeral director but was dissuaded after discovering how difficult it was for women to join the industry at the time she aspired toward it.
“I wanted to do it ever since I was a little girl. I wanted to work with dead people. I watched it and it just felt right.”
When asked if she gets along better with the dead than the living, Britney admitted, “a little bit. We have a little bit better of an understanding that these things are going to die. It’s going to happen. Why bury it? Why hide it? Don’t sugarcoat it. It’s messy, let’s get involved. Let’s put it on our walls and show appreciation.”
Bad News Vintage stood just a few stalls down from Mz. Jones’ Mini Oddity Machine, a gruesome take on gumball and other candy vending machines that, with four quarters and the twist of a knob, gifted customers with bones, teeth, crystals, or wet specimens, including wasps, mouse paws, iguana toes, and the partial remains of bobcats, zebras, and wolverines.
Embracing death may be a bridge too far for some, but it wasn’t always like that. Just take a look at the disquieting practice of post-mortem photography. While he examined a lock of hair encased with a photograph of a deceased infant, Greg Trout from Bad News Vintage gave some insight on this bizarre practice: “It used to be common when child mortality rates were a little higher, people would preserve something about their child. Commonly a lock of hair because that was easy to preserve. The practice all but died out in the early 1900s.”
When asked what the draw of the weird and the morbid is, Trout responded: “I don’t really know entirely what draws anybody to anything. The best example I can give is I listen to a lot of music that people find unsettling. I don’t know what it is. I enjoy listening to it. I don’t want to question it much beyond that. I think it’s the same thing here. Why are these old, weird medical slides so interesting? I couldn’t tell you, I have no idea. I think just the fact that it happened, it’s a record of it happening, and it happened in a world we might not recognize today.”
Despite the macabre atmosphere, all ages are encouraged to explore the oddities on display. For a place so full of death, there’s a vast repository to display different ways of life. With the wild success of the Oddities Market, it is safe to say that the world of the wistfully weird has found itself a home on the road.
By Kris Levin, contributor for Ripleys.com
Kris Levin is a traveling storyteller, professional wrestling referee, and everybody’s favorite nephew. He can be seen internationally on IMPACT Wrestling as their most junior official, #KidRef, and on social media at @RefKrisLevin.