Monday, October 27, 2014

Chills Down Your Spine

by Erin Doane, curator

“Where there is no imagination there is no horror.” 
~Arthur Conan Doyle, Sr.

Now and then I come across objects in the collection that make the little hairs on the back of my neck stand up.  The objects themselves are not particularly creepy or scary but they trigger uneasiness within me.  Some objects, like a Ku Klux Klan robe, a gas mask from WWI, or the glasses worn by a guard when he was beaten to death during a jailbreak are so closely associated with violence that it is part of their very existence. 
Glasses worn by Harry M. Swartz when he was murdered, 1938
Other things just have a spookiness about them, like dolls.  I, personally, have no strong feelings about dolls but I know that many people find them completely disturbing.  So, for those of you out there that would not want to be alone in a dark room with a doll, I must warn you that there will be dolls at the end of this post.  There will be several of them, actually, and Kelli has assured me that they are indeed very creepy.  You have been warned. 

So, why do we find certain objects creepy?  I have some theories about that.  First of all, I think people naturally have an aversion to death.  People generally don’t like things that remind them of their own mortality.  Victorians were kind of an anomaly in this area.  It was common for them to keep mementos of their loved ones after they had passed away including jewelry made from their hair or postmortem portraits.  Photographs of deceased children were quite common in the late 19th century.  Today most people find such things very creepy.
Plaster casting of the hand of the deceased 3-year-old girl, 1906
Actual dead things are also pretty creepy.  People have always turned to fur as a way to stay warm but fur is also fashion.  I will admit that I do like fur (it is one of my guilty pleasures) but I only buy vintage so no more little animals are slaughtered.  Peeling the skin off another animal to wear it is rather disturbing.  It makes me think of the skin suit from Silence of the Lambs. It is no wonder that some people get the chills when they see a fur stole, especially if it has little glass eyes.
Mink stole, c. 1930s
Many people fear going to the dentist or the doctor.  Much of that fear is probably caused by the scary tools they might use on you.  Part of the creepiness of medical instruments is just letting your imagination explore how they could be used.  Things that pull teeth, saw bones, drill into skulls, and pierce skin will always give me the shivers.  [As a side note, the official opening of our newest exhibit, To Do No Harm: Medicine in Chemung County, will take place Thursday, November 20th from 5:00 to 7:00 pm.  I hope to see you there!]
Clockwise from top left: trephine, bone saw, syringe, tooth extractor
And now dolls.  I won’t be offended if some folks stop reading here.  I think the reason so many people find dolls unbearably creepy is their faces.  They were meant to look human and that is what is most unsettling.  A human face on something inanimate just makes you wonder if it is going to blink or talk or do something equally terrifying.  All the killer dolls in movies and tv are not the cause of this fear.  They are only the expression of something so universally shared.

Dolls, dolls, dolls, dolls, dolls, dolls, dolls, dolls, dolls….

…and a clown.

Happy Halloween!

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