William Shakespeare seems to have hated hedgehogs. We don’t quite know why, but it could have something to do with how the tiny animal is depicted by the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder. Special Thanks to Jamie Jeffers of The British History Podcast and Miles Stokes of Jay and Miles X-Plain the X-Men for providing voicework for this episode.
Nearly every English-language movie has a disclaimer in the credits that says something like “This is a work of fiction. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events, is purely coincidental.” Obviously this isn’t true. Historical epics, biopics, and other movies are clearly based on real people. Why does this disclaimer pretend otherwise?
The answer, it turns out, has a lot to do with Rasputin.
It’s not enough to just talk about the history of the Grand Guignol. We also want to bring you a little bit of what it was like to take in a night of horror there. On this special Halloween episode, we bring you three adaptations of Grand Guignol plays: Him!, The Ultimate Torture, and The Kiss of Blood.
The Grand Guignol was a small Parisian theater which regularly produced original works of horror. The theater, which operated from 1897 until 1962, showcased short plays about murder, insanity, dismemberment, disease, and other horrors, much to the delight of regulars and tourists alike. The theater produced over 1,200 original plays during it’s six decades of work, and today occupies a special place in the history of the horror genre. However, the Grand Guignol’s mythic status is sometimes at odds with how plays were actually staged, and how horror effects were achieved on stage. In this episode, we look at the history of the Grand Guignol in general, and how the artists who worked there achieved an atmosphere of terror and dread.
The Poetic Edda is one of our main sources for Norse mythology, and the poems in it feature tales of gods, heroes, giants, and (of course) Ragnarok. However, not everything in the Poetic Edda focuses on quests, battles, heroes, or monsters. Some of the major poems featuring the Aesir don’t feature the gods fighting frost giants or battling with monsters like Fenris or the World Serpent. Rather, they spend an awful lot of time insulting each other.
In a poem known as The Flyting of Loki or Loki’s Quarrel, the god of mischief crashes a feast and systematically goes around the room insulting each of the other gods. In Harbard’s Song Odin (in disguise as a ferryman) taunts and belittles Thor for no reason at all. Each of the poems is an example of flyting, a Northern European medieval practice of trading comedic, poetic insults for the amusement of onlookers.
Today Dracula is one of the most ubiquitous public domain characters in popular media. However, in the 1920s German filmmakers had to get permission from Bram Stoker’s estate in order to make a film based on the 1897 novel. Prana Films, however, was not able to secure permission from Stoker’s widow for an official adaptation. Instead, producer Albin Grau and director F.W. Murnau made Nosferatu, a Dracula film in all but name.
Franz Joseph Hayden was a brilliant composer and one of the most important figures in European classical music. He inspired luminaries such as Mozart and Beethoven, and even today his music is beloved the world over.
However, shortly after he died in 1809 his head was stolen.
Why? Because phrenology!
Roy Lichtenstein was one of the most successful American artists of the 20th century, and the figure most associated with pop art after Andy Warhol. Lichtenstein is known for his comics images like “WHAAM!,” pictured below, and his techniques brought be nday dots and comic-book colors into the gallery. However, Lichtenstein’s works were not his own invention: They were based on existing panels in war, romance, and daily comics. While Lichtenstein made millions of art sales, the artists he copied got nothing, not even recognition for the images they created.
This was a live talk at Rose City Comic Con with an accompanying presentation deck. Visual aides for this episode are here.
Since the late 1800s numerous figures such as Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud, and Malcolm X have expressed doubt about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. These deniers, variously known as anti-Stratfordians, have put forward a variety of other candidates as the possible author of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, including Christopher Marlowe, Francis Bacon, and Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. However, all of the evidence suggests that there is no mystery about who wrote the plays. All available evidence for authorship points to Shakespeare being exactly who we thought he was: The son of a glover from Stratford-Upon-Avon.
Notre Dame Cathedral, the world’s best-known example of Gothic architecture, was partially destroyed in a fire. The church requires extensive restoration, but this is not the first time that Notre Dame has fallen into ruin. When Victor Hugo wrote his 1831 novel Notre Dame de Paris (known as The Hunchback of Notre Dame in English) the church was in disrepair. Hugo’s novel inspired a restoration starting in 1844, and architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc created much of what we, until last Monday, associated with Notre Dame. The picture below is from 1847, during Viollet-le-Duc’s restoration. Note the lack of spire, which had yet to be built.
Change, even tragic change, is a fact of life for monuments, and in this episode we also look at how other famous sites have been transformed throughout their history.
Francisco Goya is one of the first modern artist, and toward the end of his life he painted his most well-known works, the Black Paintings, into the walls of his home outside Madrid. The most famous of the Black Paintings is Saturn Devouring His Son (pictured below), but it’s only one of fifteen disturbing, dark images in the series.
From 1954 until 2011 the Comics Code Authority exercised control over what could and couldn’t be in comic books. The first version of the code was one of the most restrictive content regimes U.S. media has ever known, banning subject matter such as sex, drugs, and supernatural elements such as werewolves and vampires. The Code was revised in 1971 and 1989, before slowly fading away after 2001 and then being wholly abandoned by 2011. The Comics Code Authority seal is now, ironically, owned by the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.
Shakespeare’s Tempest is a fantasy, but it’s backgrounded by European encounters with the New World. When the play was written in 1610 or 1611 European sailors had already been exploring the Americas for over a century. References to the New World show up in both the play’s text and themes, and scholars have often viewed the tempest through a colonial or postcolonial lens, though it still escapes easy allegory.
This episode was recorded live at The Steep and Thorny Way to Heaven, a Portland art space.
In the first decade of the 20th century you could pick up a phone in New York City and listen to the world’s first ever electronic synthesizer. The Telharmonium was the invention of Thaddeus Cahill, and the 200 ton musical instrument used rotating cogs to produce electronic sounds, accessible to anyone who subscribed to what’s arguably the progenitor of all musical streaming services.
Confederate statues have been in the news lately. Memorials always reflect the time they were built in moreso than the time they commemorate, and the vast majority of confederate statues were built in the Jim Crow era, in the early 1900s as part of a neo-Confederate propaganda campaign to bolster the South’s reputation. Most of the statues were built quickly and cheaply by the Monumental Bronze Company, which mass-produced both Union and Confederate monuments.
Aside from glorifying white supremacy and slavery, the statues (in this podcaster’s opinion) are bad history. Eastern bloc memorials such as Budapest’s Memmento Park could offer some guidance about what to do with monumental propaganda to an oppressive regime.
For almost three hundred years Europeans were not entirely sure what rhinos looked like. The most popular image of the beast was a print made by Albrecht Durer in 1515, which shows an Indian rhinoceros as a plated, scaled, animal with an extra horn between its shoulderblades. The print also includes text about how rhinos hunt and kill elephants. Durer never actually saw the rhino, which was a gift from the sultan of Cambay the the king of Portugal, but that didn’t stop his print from becoming one of the most influential pieces of media of all time.
“Gothic” has described a lot of things: Mustachioed barbarians just outside the Roman empire, grand cathedrals such as Notre Dame and Chartres, eerie literature like Dracula and Frankenstein, and music by bands such as Joy Division and The Cure. This week we dive into why “gothic” has been the go-to adjective for various forms of art, and what the common threads are connecting architecture, literature, and music.
Pictured below: The Abbey in the Oakwood by Caspar David Friedrich, painted in 1809. It features a procession of monks bearing a coffin before a ruined Gothic abbey.
Anymore it seems like scary clowns outnumber standard, whimsical clowns. Clowns are monsters, figures of fear, and they seem more likely to laugh with homicidal mania than laugh with joy. How did that happen? How did a figure of fun and comedy turn into a figure of fear? How did clowns get scary?
Easy: Clowns have always been scary.
There is a statue on the moon. In 1971 the crew of Apollo 15 placed a small figurine and a plaque on the lunar surface to memorialize American and Soviet astronauts who had died in the pursuit of space exploration. The memorial, dubbed “Fallen Astronaut,” was meant to enshrine their memory in space. However, the artist who made the figurine itself, Paul Van Hoeydonck, had other ideas.
Van Hoeydonck did not see the statue as a memorial. Instead, he wanted to make a statue that represented all of humanity reaching for the stars. He also wanted to be known as the man who made the statue on the moon, and hoped to sell replicas of the work in his New York gallery. The public reaction to Van Hoeydonck’s attempt to commercialize space was mostly negative, and he never gained the fame or success that he thought the moon statue would bring him.
Teddy Roosevelt buried a time capsule in Portland in 1903. One hundred years later, Roosevelt’s time capsule was nowhere to be found. The box laid by the president that was meant to preserve history for 100 years could not be found a century later. However, time capsules are generally not valuable finds for serious historians or archaeologists. The artifacts preserved are generally out of context from people’s daily life, and therefore they lack the provenance that is of interest to future scholars. For the most part, time capsules serve mostly to get the public interested in history, rather than preserve it.
This episode was part of Stumptown Stories, a Pacific Northwest history collective in Portland, Oregon.
Claymation was a dominant force in American popular culture during the late 1980s, which characters such as the California Raisins and the Noid achieving a sort of pre-Internet media ubiquity. The creative force behind Claymation was Will Vinton Studios, a Portland, Oregon production house that first rose to fame with the hallucinatory 1975 short Closed Mondays which won an Academy Award for Best Animated Short. Despite a fair amount of critical and commercial success, though, Will Vinton Studios only made a single feature film, The Adventures of Mark Twain, and in the 1990s Claymation ceased to be the powerhouse that it once was.
The live event featured in this episode was put on by Stumptown Stories, a local Portland history collective dedicated to popularizing weird and overlooked episodes in Pacific Northwest history.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton is an antidote to the traditional (and boring) way that America’s founding fathers have often been portrayed. The Founders are often shown as almost godly (like in the statue of Washington pictured below), without flaws, above mere mortals, and removed from the normal experiences humanity in general and politics in particular. However, Hamilton, the rap musical about America’s first ever treasury secretary, acts as a sort of antidote to that. In it, the founding fathers are very human, and that humanity and complexity makes them all the more compelling and inspiring.
Also in this episode: Your humble podcaster getting yelled at by a Supreme Court Justice at the age of sixteen.
Last week Asano, Lord of Ako was ordered to commit seppuku, and his newly unemployed samurai were plotting revenge on Kira, the noble whom they blamed for their lord’s death. This week, the 47 ronin extract their revenge on Kira, and the incident becomes one of the most retold narratives in Japanese history.
The image below illustrates a scene from Kanadehon Chushingura, the most famous fictionalized version of the 47 ronin story. The characters in Kanadehon Chushingura have different names than the actual historical figures whom they purport to represent, audiences in 1748 and onward would have recognized the fiction as being roughly analogous to actual events. Anymore, Chushingura refers to the entire body of media either directly about or touching on the 47 ronin incident.
For years, mummies were a commodity. Beginning in the sixteenth century, Europeans used mummy dust (as in real, actual, ground-up human corpse) as a medication to cure just about everything, and the pigment mummy brown was the color of dry, dusty corpses because it was literally made of dried, dusty corpses. Despite being an extraordinarily macabre commodity, there was still demand for mummy dust, so much so that a trade in counterfeit mummies (that is, bodies that had been dried out and treated with bitumen) sprung up, and the recently dead sold alongside ancient corpses.
As a pigment, mummy brown was easy to work with, but prone to fading and cracking. It remained available until the 20th century, and modern versions of the color are made of minerals rather than corpses. Mummy dust and mummy parts also remained available for purchase until the middle twentieth century, though mostly in curiosity and oddity shops. The photo below shows a mummy seller in 1875, when mummy brown and medicinal mummy dust would have been on the wane.
The Life and Death of Mummy Brown from the Journal of Art in Society
The Gruesome History of Eating Corpses as Medicine from Smithsonian
Mummy Brown and Other Historical Colors from the always-delightful Veritable Hokum
This episode was part of Stumptown Stories, a Portland history lecture collective. Stumptown Stories meets on the second Tuesday of every month at downtown Portland’s Jack London Bar, and various authors, journalists, podcasters, and historians get into the good, the bad, and the downright weird of Portland’s past. This past Tuesday, September 8th, I talked about the origins of the Portland Building, the world’s first ever postmodern office building. In the early 1980s the Portland Building, and the design philosophy that it embodied, was considered the future of architecture. However, in the intervening decades postmodernism has not fared well, and is now considered a blind alley that’s been largely abandoned by architecture at large.
Before Batman, before Superman, before even the Phantom, there was the Golden Bat. “Ogon Batto” (as he’s known in Japanese) is, arguably, the world’s first costumed superhero. The skull-headed, ruff-wearing, sword-wielding hero’s backstory was one that would fit in any of the wackier comics that Marvel and DC would later publish: He was a dweller of Atlantis from 10,000 years in the future, and sent back in time to fight injustice. In particular, he battled against Nazo, the evil Emperor of the Universe.
Golden Bat wasn’t a comics character. Not exactly. He was from a form of storytelling called “kamishibai,” a words-and-pictures form of public performance popular in Japan during the first half of the 20th century. Kamishibai storytellers would set up in public spaces and tell tales of samurai, ninja, pulp heroes, cowboys, and superheroes to crowds of eager children, thrilling them with outrageous tales from the worlds of history and science fiction. The medium produced, among other characters, the Golden Bat, a superhero who proceeds Clark Kent by almost a decade.
A contemporary example of kamishibai. It is, obviously, in Japanese.
Manga Kamishibai by Eric P. Nash, which collects multiple kamishibai tales from the Golden Bat and others.
One of the most high-profile maritime disasters in French history also inspired a famous, and gigantic work of art. In 1816 the French frigate Medusa ran aground in the Bay of Arguin. The captain and several officers escaped on life boats, but 147 people were abandoned on a hastily built raft. For almost two weeks the raft-goers suffered from starvation, dehydration, and malnutrition. The desperate survivors descended into violence and resorted to cannibalism before being rescued (by chance) by another vessel. Of the 147 people abandoned on the raft, ten survived.
A few years later, in 1819, the 25-year-old Romantic painter Theodore Gericault painted a gigantic, larger-than-life painting entitled The Raft of the Medusa. To compose his masterpiece, Gericault sought out dead and decayed bodies, contacted survivors, and memorialized the tragedy like a man possessed.
The Mona Lisa wasn’t always an icon. Before 1911 Leonardo’s painting was certainly known and respected, but it wasn’t yet the most famous, most adored, most duplicated, and most parodied piece of art in the world. It was not yet the symbol and pop culture juggernaut that it is today. What made the Mona Lisa famous its theft at the hands of Vincenzo Peruggia who, along with two accomplices, lifted the painting off of the wall of the Louvre and simply walked out with it. He kept the portrait in a box in his apartment for over two years before attempting to ransom it, and, upon its return, the Mona Lisa went from merely a respected piece of Renaissance art to the single most famous painting in the world.
The image below shows the blank spot left by Peruggia, and the four wall hooks that had previously held the Mona Lisa before its 1911 abduction.