Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Freaky Halloween

Last Sunday I went to the Mutter Museum. They were holding a special event(pdf) that I only found out about from a Minnesota based weblog; I really need to get out more. Since I went to see Gunther von Hagens' Bodyworlds exhibit a few moths back when it was in town, I thought I'd compare and contrast the two.

The first obvious difference is that the Bodyworlds specimens were specifically prepared for the exhibit. The Mutter specimens were created as study aids for medical students. The presentation at Bodyworlds was very impressive. I'm sure that if they had plastination back in the nineteenth century, many of the Mutter specimens would've been preserved in that manner. Finally, most (not all) of the Bodyworlds bodies were "normal." Very few Mutter specimens can be described with that word. "Freaks" might have been the more appropriate term in less politically correct times. For example, one display case had the colon of a man who died from constipation (at his autopsy, 40 pounds of feces were removed from him).

Obviously, my recollection of Bodyworlds is not as fresh as the Mutter, but I do remember it was interesting. However the Mutter was absolutely transfixing. Maybe it was the melding of history with science a la macabre that did it, but I'll be going back!

It starts out just like a more mundane medical museum. You are greeted by a portrait of B. Franklin and treated to some of his writings and correspondence about medicine. You get to see one of his pairs of bifocals (which he invented) as well as other medical instruments from that day. The museum moves on to others like Benjamin Rush (founder of the Philadelphia College of Physicians) and Thomas Mütter (founder of the museum) and a short history of medicine. Then you move to the specimen room. Wow! What a change.

From conjoined twins to the "soap woman," you get to see a veritable plethora of misshapen and deformed body parts. I stopped a little longer than usual to look at the skulls with microcephaly (not to be confused with the shrunken heads from South American tribes) because they reminded me of the conflict surrounding the Hobbit of Flores. So it was kind of a surprise to see some microcephalics featured in the movie they showed afterwards. It had nothing to do with the museum, but the subject matter was related. I was seated in an uncomfortable armless chair (they hadn't thought to stagger the rows so I got a really good view of the back of the head of the guy in front of me) watching an old grainy movie with horrendous sound quality.

There was also a movie with the Bodyworlds exhibit. It wasn't about the show either, but it was an IMAX movie about the human body. It was quite an impressive spectacle. There's no contest as to which movie was better. The movie they showed for Bodyworlds was the worst thing about the exhibit. The best part about it though, wasn't even the movie itself, but the Welcome to Philadelphia preview they showed beforehand (which I'm sure they show before all their shows). Seeing the skyscrapers of Center City from above then zooming in (all in IMAX) was cool!

The movie they showed at the Mutter was Tod Browning's 1932 cult classic Freaks. It was about a group of travelling circus "freaks" (carnies). It was originally billed as a horror flick, but I saw it more as a morality tale. The ugliest people in the film were the ones who were beautiful on the outside. Although there was one scene where all the freaks are crawling on the ground in the rain that reminded me of many modern horror movies.

Many of the afflictions I had just seen in the museum were featured in the movie. Besides the microcephalics, there were the conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton--whom we shall call "the normal Hilton sisters." One of the most impressive scenes was watching the human torso, Prince Randian, light a match with one corner of his mouth will holding his cigarette in the other corner. At the Q & A after the movie, one of the emcees (a museum curator) mentioned that the scene before that was of him rolling the cigarette, but it got cut. Too bad that in 1932, the cutting room floor meant death. Another highlight (and a pretty good actor, actually) was the half-boy, Johnny Eck (check out his wesite). He had a twin brother who was normal (full body) and they got started in show biz doing vaudeville. Johnny's brother would play the part of a heckler during a magic act. The magician would respond by inviting him on stage to get sawed in half. When the audience was distracted, a switch would be made and the brother would be replaced by Johnny and a dwarf inside a pair of pants (that way the two halfs could run around the stage after the sawing was done).

All that almost makes me want to become one of them.

1 comment:

llewelly said...


All that almost makes me want to become one of them.

You can indeed become one of them. Slowly, step by step, correct each of the hideous deformities that make you unlike The Great Arturo, who teaches us that this process will lead us to Peace, Isolation, and Purity. Arturo, like Prince Randian, was born pure. For the rest of us, it is a state we must struggle to attain.