London: Terror and Wonder + Witches and Wicked Bodies

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So I went to two different exhibitions last week, and as they had related subject matter (which would have been nice to post about in the lead up to Halloween, but alas Terror and Wonder didn’t even start til November), I’m combining them into one post.  The first of these is the Witches and Wicked Bodies exhibit in the Print Room of the British Museum, which is free, but they make you work for it – the Print Room is at the very top of the museum and you have to climb about a million sets of stairs to reach it (though I’m sure there’s probably lift access available). I haven’t always had the best luck with special exhibitions at the British Museum, even the ticketed ones…I went to one on erotic Japanese art last spring and it made me so angry that I never ended up blogging about it because what I had written was just one long irate rant (even angrier than my usual posts) and I felt that my rage at how stupidly, ridiculously overcrowded it was prevented me from having anything positive to say about the exhibition.  However, due to my continued unemployment, I was able to visit Witches and Wicked Bodies early on a Friday afternoon, and I think the time I went combined with the fact that the exhibit doesn’t seem to be that well-advertised and is out of the path of the casual museum visitor meant that there were only about twenty other people looking at it (which would be a lot for some smaller museums, but the exhibit was spread out over two huge rooms, so it still seemed pleasantly empty).

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As the exhibit is in the “Print Room,” the focus is on prints and drawings of witches throughout history, starting with the early modern period (my crappy photographs of these prints are illustrating the entire post, even the parts about Terror and Wonder, because the British Library doesn’t allow photography).  The exhibit tracked the changing perceptions of witches over the centuries, from the 16th and 17th centuries, when being charged with witchcraft was a very serious matter indeed, especially once James I (VI of Scotland) became King of England, and could extend his persecution of witches over the whole of Great Britain; to the Victorian era, when witches were no longer portrayed as old hags and were shown instead as nubile young women.  There were at least fifty different prints here, including quite a few showing the witches of Macbeth, with detailed descriptions of each.  I love dark, weird old art like this and so I really enjoyed this exhibit.  They also had a small display tracing the evolution of Hogarth’s engravings in another corner of the gallery, so it was really a win-win.  In my opinion, this was that rare exhibit that was actually worth braving the hordes of tourists in Bloomsbury (also you don’t have to go through the Egyptian Gallery to get to the Print Room, which is a bonus!), and if you have an interest in witchcraft, I recommend popping into the British Museum to check this out before it finishes in January.  4/5.

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And moving on to the British Library, where I headed directly after seeing Witches and Wicked Bodies, to see their special exhibit on the Gothic imagination.  Terror and Wonder costs a tenner, so it was a bit of a splurge for me, museum-wise, but it was on a subject that interests me so I just sucked it up and hoped it would be worth the money (unlike a literature class I took as an undergrad, also called the Gothic Imagination, that might have been ok if the professor hadn’t been a total creep).  Again, because I visited during off-hours, I just waltzed up to buy a ticket and walked right in, but it might be worth booking in advance on the weekends.  I don’t think I’ve ever been to a temporary exhibit at the BL before, so I don’t know what the usual set-up is, but I feel like they really made an effort to get into the Gothic spirit, as all the walls were painted either black or blood red, and there was dim lighting and lots of gauzy black curtains hung about the place.

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Since it was held at the British Library, after all, most of the focus was on literature, and the exhibit began with Horace Walpole and The Castle of Otranto, and the Gothic architecture of his Strawberry Hill House; moving on to the overblown fiction of Ann Radcliffe, which rather hilariously included a display of the seven “horrid novels” recommended to Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey.  The major Gothic monsters, Frankenstein’s creature and Dracula, each got an extensive section, as did real-life “monsters” like Jack the Ripper.  They were even projecting clips of a number of Gothic films on the walls: cue my staring at that dishy Colin Clive in The Bride of Frankenstein, and averting my eyes from the extreme creepiness of the final scenes of The Wicker Man.

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They had many wonderful books and objects in this exhibition, but some of my favourites were a portable library owned by Sir Julius Caesar (who lived in the 16th century, was visited by Elizabeth I at his estate in Mitcham, and was utterly unconnected to the Roman of the same name) that was disguised as a giant book, containing about forty small volumes hidden inside; a broadside about one of the Whitechapel Murders, showing gruesome sketches of the victim that somehow also managed to be quite campy; a stage playset for Dracula designed by the brilliant Edward Gorey (I love John Bellairs’s Lewis Barnavelt series, especially the early editions that were illustrated by Gorey), and finally, one of the Were-Rabbit models used in the Wallace and Gromit film, which was adorable.  This exhibit was surprisingly big – when I read that it featured 200 objects, I thought, “That’s nothing, you could cram that in one room!” but everything was spread out and contained nicely informative captions, and every time I thought I was reaching the end, I’d turn a corner and find more stuff!

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I was taken right through to modern horror films and fiction, which left me with some new books to check out, particularly some of the children’s literature (you can laugh, but I do still really love a lot of children’s fiction.  For example, I own a couple of Chris Priestley’s scary story books, and some of them honestly did freak me out.  That’s coming from an adult, albeit one with an overactive imagination who doesn’t like being left alone in a dark room at night, so make of that what you will).  It ended with a display of some photographs from Goth Weekend in Whitby, which was probably the weakest section of an otherwise strong exhibition.  I don’t often think things are worth their entry fee, but with Terror and Wonder, I think £10 was justified, because I left impressed, and feeling sufficiently entertained. The only caveat is that due to the set-up, wherein the exhibition space was divided into a number of smallish, oddly-shaped rooms (which admittedly added to the atmosphere), I could see it being unpleasantly crowded at peak times.  As it was, there were only a handful of people in most of the rooms with me, and there still tended to be small pile-ups around the more interesting objects as everyone crowded around at once.  So, if you can, try to visit during a weekday.  Anyway, it’s on until the end of January, and I’m actually blogging about it in good time for once, so if you’re a bit morbid like I am, I’d definitely advise that you go see it.  4.5/5, and a minimal amount of bitching from me.  How unusual!

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A Bewitching Day in Salem

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Sorry, but a pun was unavoidable.  Happy Halloween everybody!  Today I’m writing about one of the Halloweeniest places on Earth; Salem, MA.  Salem is somewhere I’ve always really wanted to visit; in fact, it was on my “Places I want to Visit” page until I finally remembered to remove it.  Before this trip, I’d never even been to New England, but I felt sure it would be as atmospheric as Hocus Pocus had led me to believe.  Although some parts of the trip were kind of a bust, I’m happy to say that Salem wasn’t one of them, although it was EXTREMELY touristy, as I was anticipating.

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Salem is not terribly big, and is primarily composed of the following: shops and restaurants, most of with a witch theme, or spooky-sounding name; overpriced museums and haunted houses, again sticking to the witch theme; and some of the most adorable 19th century houses I’ve ever seen.  Some of Hocus Pocus was indeed filmed in Salem, and the overhanging trees perched in the tree-lawns of some of the streets, coupled with the old houses made it feel as though it would be a great place to do some trick-or-treating (although, as the houses lacked the ample front yards and pumpkin-strewn porches of suburban Ohio, it didn’t exactly take me back to my own childhood memories of Halloween night.  Oh, nostalgia).

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Obviously, Salem is famous for the Salem Witch Trials, which is up there on the list of disturbing events in American history, and it’s thus a bit odd that it is a hotspot for modern Wiccans, but then again, Whitby is a goth hangout, and the Dracula of Bram Stoker’s novel wasn’t even real, so maybe not so weird after all.  Although Salem has a long and rich history outside of the witch trials, the whole witch thing really came front and centre sometime around the ’60s, when a few episodes of Bewitched were filmed in Salem (and there’s a Samantha statue in the middle of town), and it was only exacerbated by Hocus Pocus, until it really became the main focus of the town.  There’s lots of opportunities at the local witchcraft shops to have your fortune told, which is not really my cup of tea, mainly because I’m cheap and tend to laugh at inappropriate times in those kinds of situations.  To be honest, I was really into Wicca and “magick” when I was a teenager, so I know perfectly well how to “read” Tarot cards, and sometimes I do, just for fun, but I’m certainly not going to pay for a reading.  Anyway, because museums are really my thing, I went to three of them whilst in Salem, as I wanted to get a mix of the cheesy and serious.

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The first was the Salem Witch Museum, the one in Washington Square (because there are a LOT of witch museums, and they all have similar names).  Because I studied the trials pretty extensively in high school and beyond, I didn’t really want to do a walking tour that would just focus on basic history; I wanted something over-the-top, and this was the place the proprietor of our B&B recommended (she sold me on it when she said it was like the Hall of Presidents in Disneyworld, although there were sadly no animatronics to be found).  You’re not allowed to take pictures, presumably so you can’t show people how lame it is, so we parted with $9.50 and joined the massive queue of people for the next showing.  We were ushered into a large theatre, with manneuquins arranged in various tableaux along the walls.  There’s a recorded narrator, which sounds like it was done in the 1960’s, that tells the basic story of the witch trials, and a spotlight shines on each scene as he discusses it.  There’s a devil with red eyes that glow intermittently, which is the only bit that could even sort of be construed as scary.  Following about half an hour of blathering, we were then directed into a smaller room, and given a tour by a staff member who discussed modern witch hunts and Paganism with us.  I would have probably enjoyed it more if it wasn’t packed with obnoxious teenagers on some sort of field trip (and if the staff didn’t keep asking me if I was with said teenagers).  The whole thing was extremely lame, and very overpriced, but I do like outdated attractions, so I didn’t hate it or anything.  2.5/5.

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Next, I visited a more serious museum, in the form of the Salem Museum.  This is housed in the old town hall, and is more of a historical society, with free admission.  The walls were hung with informational posters, and there were a few cases with objects from Salem’s history, but there wasn’t a lot in there, and pretty much served as an overview of Salem’s history.  They did make the bold claim (ok, via a quote) that Nathaniel Hawthorne was handsomer than Lord Byron, which I have to dispute, though I suppose Hawthorne had the advantage of not being a drunken, syphilitic libertine.  I do feel guilty about skipping the House of the Seven Gables, but I’ve never read the book, nor The Scarlet Letter, so I felt I wouldn’t be able to appreciate it properly (it is a glaring omission, considering I was an English major, (I’ll get round to it eventually!), but I do remember being creeped out by “The Minister’s Black Veil,” if that’s any help!).

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Salem was also where Parker Brothers was founded, so the museum had a room at the back devoted to the history of the company, which was by far the best part.  I LOVE board games, and I’d really like to start collecting antique ones if I ever have any sort of income, so I enjoyed looking at all the Victorian morality games, and the various versions of Monopoly manufactured over the years.  I should also mention that there is a man dressed as a pirate who runs the gift shop/greets people (I mean, he does work there, he’s not just a random weirdo or something), and that part of a witch-hunt play thing takes place in the attic of the museum building, so you may suddenly see an angry mob coming towards you, screaming “Witch, witch!” so be prepared for that.  2.5/5

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Thirdly, there’s Count Orlok’s Nightmare Gallery, commonly agreed to be the best waxworks in town, and you know I love a good wax museum.  Unfortunately, Count Orlok’s kind of defeats the purpose of visiting a wax museum by not allowing photography.  I mean, why go through the trouble of making replicas of famous movie characters if you’re not allowed to get your picture taken with them?  What’s the point?  Still, I did pony up $8 for it, and in fairness, they were very good waxworks (note: zombie above was not done by Count Orlok’s), which made the no-photo thing even more galling.  My favourite was of course Winifred Sanderson, but there was also Beetlejuice, lots of characters from Hammer horror, life masks of Bela Lugosi et al, and lots of other modern monsters.  They only had a few of the Universal monsters, and Dracula and Frankenstein were not among them, and they didn’t have anything from the Evil Dead series, which is my favourite horror trilogy (really, all I can handle is over-the-top cheesy horror, anything actually scary just gives me horrible nightmares), but that might be for the best as I think I might have cried if I couldn’t get a photo with Ash.  During October, they run a haunted house in the afternoons where people jump out at you, but it’s pretty small in there, and I wanted to be able to actually look at stuff uninterrupted, so keep in mind that you have to visit before 2:30 if you feel the same.  3/5, I would have rated it higher but for the stupid photography rule.

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There’s lots of other stuff to do around town; I hear the Witches and Seafarers Wax Museum is hilariously crap, but I didn’t feel like blowing more money, and I was scared they wouldn’t allow photos either.  There is an old-timey photo studio that does witch portraits; obviously, I couldn’t resist, but they have my boyfriend in them too, and he’d be extremely embarrassed if I posted them on here.  I had really good pizza and ice cream from Flying Saucer Pizza and the Salem Screamery, respectively.  Of course, I also paid a visit to the cemetery, which is a lovely, if sadly unkempt New England style graveyard with verse and death’s heads on many of the old stones.  Simon Bradstreet, husband of the Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet is buried here, as is John Hathorne, great-great-grandfather of Nathaniel, and one of the douchiest judges in the witch trials, which is probably the reason why Nathaniel changed the spelling of his surname.

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Next to the cemetery is the witch memorial, so you can pay solemn tribute to the victims of the hysteria. It’s probably one of the few sites relatively untainted by modern tourism left in Salem, although that said, I didn’t go in the Witch House, the only remaining site directly connected to the trials.  But, when in Salem, it’s best to just give in to the touristy madness, and take advantage of all the activities around town in October.  I’m glad I finally got the chance to visit, even though Binx never turned up.

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