Oct 30 2019209 The Ribbon Around Her Neck

Alvin Schwartz is best known for traumatizing children with Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. However, one of Schwartz’s most terrifying tales for kids is from a different book, In a Dark, Dark Room and other Scary Stories. The story The Green Ribbon frightened an entire generation of schoolchildren with a narrative about a woman who wore a green ribbon around her neck every single day of her life… because it was keeping her head on.

Schwartz was a folklorist, and his stories all had antecedents in other works or in oral tradition. The Green Ribbon dates back to at least 1824, with Washington Irving’s short story The Adventure of the German Student. Several other versions of the story exist, all of which feature a ribbon-wearing woman whose head only stays on because of a thin layer of fabric.

The Girl With the Ribbon as she appears in In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories

Oct 26 2019208 Nosferatu

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.

Oct 09 2019206 The Adventures of Franz Joseph Haydn’s Severed Head

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!

Oct 30 2018179 Buried Alive!

Being buried alive was one of the most common phobias of the Victorian era. Fear of premature interment in a coffin inspired the creation of the London Association for the Prevention of Premature Burial, an Edgar Allan Poe short story about fear of being buried alive, and safety coffins designed to let in air and light and, in the event of early burial, allow the still-living person contact with the outside world.

Oct 22 2018178 Wendigo

Cannibalism is one of the the most prevalent taboos across human societies, and people who practice cannibalism have frequently been demonized throughout history. The Wendigo, a creature from Algonquin folklore, is one of the most vivid examples of how cannibalism is demonized. The story goes that if someone consumes human flesh, they will become a flesh-eating monster that never truly satiates its desire for human flesh.

The image below is from Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, illustrated by Stephen Gammell.

Oct 09 2018177 How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Be Okay With Ghost Tours

Some reflections on giving tours, ghost tours, and how the Philip experiment is kind of like Dungeons and Dragons.

Sep 30 2018176 The Cadaver Synod

In 897 Pope Stephen VI put the corpse of one of his predecessors, Formosus, on trial. The current pope ordered that the former pope’s dead body be dressed in papal finery and put on a throne to stand trial. Stephen VI acted as prosecutor, accusing his predecessor of attempting to have two bishoprics at once and coveting the papacy. The current pope then ordered the Formosus’ body stripped of its finery, the fingers on his right hand be cut off, and his body thrown into the Tiber.

The painting below, Pope Formosus and Stephen VII, is the work of French artist Jean-Paul Laurens and painted in 1870.

Apr 24 2018161 North Korea Part Eleven, The Tomb of the Eternal President

The 1980s and early 1990s were a bad time for North Korea. The DPRK had to endure South Korea hosting the 1988 Olympics, the country sunk billions of dollars into wasteful infrastructure projects, and the Cold War ended, depriving them of Soviet aid. After that, North Korea suffered a symbolic blow in 1994 when Kim Il Sung, the Great Leader, died at the age of eighty two.

Oct 30 2017142 Icelandic Dracula

Icelandic Dracula, also known as Makt Myrkranna or Powers of Darkness, is amazing. The translator/author Valdimar Asmundsson made significant deviations to Bram Stoker’s text. There’s more sexy moonlight vampire temptation, Dracula is a straight-up supervillain who wants to overthrow the democratic governments of Europe, and there’s an underground ape cult. The book was hiding in plain sight until 2014 when a scholar finally noticed, over a hundred years ago, that the Icelandic novel was a very early variation on Stoker’s vampire tale.

 

Oct 24 2017141 How Dracula Was Dracula?

Dracula, anymore, is as much of a character type and a trope as he is a single character. Different takes on Dracula abound, from Bela Lugosi to Sesame Street’s Count to numerous other media. There was also, though, a historical Dracula. Vlad the Impaler was a prince of Wallachia in the 1400s, and is often cited as the inspiration for Stoker’s Vampire. But, was he? Was the real Dracula anything like the character type we know now?

 

 

Oct 15 2017140 The Adventures of Oliver Cromwell’s Severed Head

When he died, Oliver Cromwell was embalmed and given a funeral befitting a head of state. However, upon restoration of the British monarchy, Cromwell was exhumed and given a postmortem execution. His severed head was placed on a spike over Westminster Hall, and for twenty years his dead visage leered down upon London. The head was eventually dislodged by a storm, and for years it found itself in the hands of several owners, exchanged for debts, exhibited as a curiosity, and passed around at drunken parties.

Oct 29 201554 The Uses and Abuses of Mummies

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.

Mummy Seller 1875

Related Links:

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