Saturday, November 29, 2014

Death, Science, Sexology: Interview by Mark Dery of Morbid Anatomy Museum Creative Director Joanna Ebenstein on Boing Boing

Morbid Anatomy Museum Provocateur in Residence Mark Dery recently interviewed our creative director Joanna Ebenstein about the importance of books in her life and in the greater Morbid Anatomy project. The result--a wide-ranging conversation touching on soulless California suburbs, Charlotte's Web, British New Wave, Lois Duncan, Rosemary's Baby, V. C. Andrews, post-mortem photography, The Mütter Museum, Frederik Ruysch, Walter Potter, Edward Gorey, wine coolers in the park and "Genleman's Erotica"--was just published on the wonderful Boing Boing website and can be read by clicking here.

Image: The wonderful book Design for Death by Barbara Jones

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving Everybody!

Image found here.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Henry Wellcome's Anatomical Venus: A Missing Link? Guest Post by Joanna Ebenstein for the Wellcome Collection Blog

I was recently invited to select a single object from Blythe House--the storehouse containing the remains of early 20th century pharmaceutical magnate Henry Wellcome's once million strong collection--for an episode of the Wellcome Collection's “The Thing Is…" From the over 100,000 amazing objects in the collection--including ivory anatomical mannequins, wax vanitas busts, antique sexual aids, Greek anatomical otives, torture devices, statues of saints and even a Peruvian mummy--I chose, it will not surprise regular readers to discover, Henry Wellcome's Wax Anatomical Venus (see above).

I had been curious about this enigmatic creature ever since Kate Forde and I featured her in the Wellcome’s 2009 Exquisite Bodies exhibition. Although diminutive--she is only three feet in length while most others are life-sized--she is still an extraordinarily uncanny and charismatic object. She was also a very mysterious object, with very little I could discover, despite my best efforts, about her provenance.

To prepare for this talk--hosted by journalist and historian Frances Stonor Saunders--I delved, with the help of my friend Ross MacFarlane, deeply into the Wellcome Library and its archives to see what I might be able learn about this mysterious artifact.

To read the full report I wrote for the Wellcome Collection blog detailing my findings--and to see many more images, including another animated GIF like the one above, compliments of Russell Dornan!--click here.

  1. Wellcome Collection’s Anatomical Venus in various stages of dissection as shown in an animated GIF. Courtesy of Wellcome Images.
  2. Catalog card for the Wellcome Anatomical Venus.

The Imaginary 20th Century: An "Interactive Wunder-Roman" : Guest Post by Norman M. Klein

Our good friend Norman Klein--author of the amazing The Vatican to Vegas: A History of Special Effects--has partnered with Cal Arts' Margo Bistis to create what he calls an "interactive wunder-roman" entitled The Imaginary 20th Century. Following is a guest post by Norman detailing this impressive and characteristically eccentric project; You can also find out more by clicking here.
In 1816, a letter by the philosopher Friedrich Schelling describes a novel that runs on wooden and iron gears, propelled by a river, like an early industrial loom. He called it a wunder-roman. This year, an interactive wunder-roman has been published online, and may be the largest archival novel to date-- of rare print curiosities-- certainly the largest in story form that can be navigated as if one were operating a giant machine. Here is an introduction:

According to legend, in 1902, a woman named Carrie, while traveling through Europe, selects four men to seduce her, each with a version of the coming century. Inevitably, the future always spills off course. We navigate through the suitors’ worlds; follow Carrie on her travels; discover what she and her lovers forgot to notice. In 1917, Carrie’s uncle sets up a massive archive of her life. For decades, Uncle Harry had worked for the oligarchs of Los Angeles erasing crimes that might prove embarrassing. Thus, as he often explains, seduction is a form of espionage. In 2004, this archive was unearthed in Los Angeles. 

The Imaginary 20th Century is a tale of seduction as well as espionage; of archiving and the transitive poetics of excavation. Featuring a narrated media archive of 2,200 rare images with a companion ebook, The Imaginary 20th Century is a collaborative work by Norman M. Klein and Margo Bistis, and published by the media museum ZKM.  With their team of artists and designers, the authors have reinvented Schelling’s wunder-roman as online narrative engine, where fact and fiction split off and return to each other to the story in a unique form.

You can visit at,
  1. The Imaginary 20th Century, ebook cover.
  2. The Imaginary 20th Century, media archive, image cluster in chapter 3.2
  3. The Imaginary 20th Century, media archive, 1.2 chapter map

Thursday, November 13, 2014

"The Madonna of the Monster" or The Marian Cult of “La Madre Santisima de la Luz”: Morbid Anatomy 2014 Day of the Day Tour Report by Board Member Amy Slonaker

Following is a guest post by Amy Slonaker--Morbid Anatomy Museum Board Member and two-time attendee of the Morbid Anatomy Day of the Dead Tour in Mexico. I asked Amy--who is also a bit of a dilettante in the area of religious history--to write a brief report about the phenomenon of “La Madre Santisima de la Luz” as witnessed on our Mexican travels. The information contained in her post, Amy points out, came via the world wide web, so she warmly invites any corrections or addenda; you can email them by clicking here.

The Marian Cult of “La Madre Santisima de la Luz”
The 2014 Morbid Anatomy Day of the Dead Tour was another winner that focused on experiencing the celebration of Dia de Los Muertos in Mexico. It also brought us in touch with the Marian cult of “La Madre Santisima de la Luz.” We had seen her image in a church on last year’s tour but didn’t know her name. Imagine our delight to find this prayer card amongst so many others!

In 2013, while visiting the city of Guanajuato, Mexico, we came across a unique shrine to the Virgin Mary in the Templo de la Compania de Jesus (Temple of Jesuits).

We had never seen a representation of the Virgin Mary like this one which included a fantastical monster’s head with a gaping mouth. It wasn’t until the following year, in Mexico City, that we discovered two prayer cards at the religious mall behind The Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary of Mexico City featuring the same monster’s head, with the inscription “La Madre SS De La Luz,” “Most Holy Mother of Light.”

Now with a name to guide us, we traced the interesting origin of this image to Palermo, Sicily, in the early years of the 18th century.

The initial account of the creation of this image was written in Palermo in 1733, and then translated and published in Mexico in 1737(1). It goes like this:

A Jesuit priest wished to have a painting of the Virgin Mary to take with him as he preached throughout Sicily. He called upon a woman who was known to have received multiple visitations from the Virgin Mary. The priest asked the woman to consult with Mary as to how Mary would like her image to appear. Sure enough, the Virgin appeared and provided a detailed description of an image that included her saving a soul from the gaping maw of hell.

After a few missteps--including a painter who didn’t know how to follow directions, and a resulting illness/miraculous healing of the woman who received the vision--a second painting was created that successfully included the Virgin’s wish for a hellmouth.

This painting was then brought to the cathedral in Leon, Mexico, in 1732. From here, a healthy cult to the “Most Holy Mother of Light” spread in the region, accounting for the image of "Nuestra Señora de la Luz" we came across in nearby Guanajuato.

But the plot thickens. We found another example of “Santisima de la Luz” on an altar in the Iglesia de San Miguel Archangel in Mexico City, above a wax reliquary for a figure labeled "Santa Rustica." This time, all the aspects of the Virgin’s requested image existed except the Bosch-like, big-mouthed, hell-monster. What happened to the fanciful fiend from which the fellow on the left should be springing?

It turns out that the notion of Mary directly saving souls out of Hell was doctrinally flawed despite being totally in line with what Mary requested during her visitation of the woman in Sicily. Scholars have noted several versions of “La Madre Santisima de la Luz” in which the hellacious beast has been covered over or with its presence omitted in the initial rendering. While some researchers opine this was to rectify any doctrinal fuzziness, another explanation may be that the appearance of the Jesuit-sponsored cult of “La Madre Santisima de la Luz” arrived only shortly before the Jesuits were kicked out of Mexico in 1767 by order of Pope Clement XIV (2). Hence, the Jesuit-promulgated “La Madre Santisima de la Luz” became expunged and replaced with a more generic Virgin.

We look forward to more sightings of images of “La Madre Santisima de la Luz”-- some of which exist in the present-day United States in parts of California and New Mexico. But we can’t help  but hope that the next shrine we see includes a huge monster head.
  1. La Devocion de Maria Madre Santissima de la Luz, En Mexico, en la Imprenta Real del superior Gobierno, y del Nuevo Rezado, de Doña Maria de Rivera, en el Empedradillo. Año de 1737.
  2. Dominus ac Redemptor is the papal brief promulgated on 21 July 1773 by which Pope Clement XIV suppressed the Society of Jesus.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Sergei Eisenstein's Unfinished Film ¡Que viva México!

In the words of October's Scholar in Residence Salvador Olguín:
In 1930, after failing to secure enough backing for his motion picture projects in the US, which would have marked his entrance into Hollywood, Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein decided to go for the second best thing in North America, and headed south to Mexico. There, he shot extensively: about 40 hours worth of film. The idea was to produce a movie celebrating Mexico’s violent and diverse history. The title: ¡Que viva México!

Eisenstein would never finish editing the film. All we are left with is a version from 1979, and a legend.
Above is a wonderful clip from Eisenstein's unfinished ¡Que viva México!, compliments of our friend James Bell.

The Rise of--and Hysteria Related to--The 1960s "Death Disc": Guest Post by Eric Huang, Morbid Anatomy Foreign Corespondent

In the following guest post, Morbid Anatomy foreign corespondent Eric Huang reports on the little-remembered phenomenon--and hysteria related to--the 1960s "death disc," or songs in which the love interest dies "due to a lovers’ spat, jealousy, a cruel twist of fate, or suicide."

Just a few well known examples of "death discs"--which spanned such genres as rock, Motown and country and western--are "Leader of the Pack" by The Shangri-Las (1965); "Ode to Billie Joe" by Bobby Gentry (1967); "Tell Laura I Love Her" by Ray Petersen (1960); and "Teen Angel" by Mark Dinning (1960).

Following is the full and fascinating story, along with videos of ten of the best remembered "death discs." Thanks, Eric, for this excellent report!


In the 1960s, there was a trend in popular music dubbed, ‘death discs’ or ‘splatter platters.’ All were songs about love-lost in which the protagonist – often male and almost always named Johnny or Tommy – dies due to a lovers’ spat, jealousy, a cruel twist of fate, or suicide. The girl in the song is usually the one at fault. It’s her honor that he protects to the death, her infidelity/ambivalence that leads to his demise.

On a recent BBC documentary about songs banned in the UK, historians described how death discs were new outlets for women, finally able to sing about their tormented modern lives. The songs reflected a rejection of 1950s morality by a new generation, but it wasn’t a pretty picture: those who didn’t obey the rules always met with death. Jim Stark, James Dean’s character in ‘Rebel without a Cause’ (1955), is a prime example - as are Romeo and Juliet, who were resurrected in Franco Zeffirelli’s award-winning box office smash in 1968. This sexed-up adaptation of the Shakespearean tale had all the ingredients of an archetypal death disc tragedy: youth, rebellion, passion, death.

The plane and car crashes that ended many teen celebrities’ lives from the 50s onwards were a massive influence on this morbid music trend. Sports cars, motorcycles and high-flying airplanes represented another new way of life, one that was too fast for many. Death discs were about losing lovers in exactly this way: tragically in crashes just before a wedding day or right after a warning to be careful. The death disc hit, ‘Three Stars’, by Tommy Dee was about the very plane crash that killed Ritchie Valens, The Big Bopper and Buddy Holly in 1959.

Death discs spanned genres: from rock and roll to Motown to country and western. But the most popular death disc of all was ‘Leader of the Pack’ by the Shangri-Las. Singer Mary Weiss laments the tragic story of her hot-blooded biker boyfriend. They were deeply in love, but she bowed to societal pressure to ‘find someone new.’ Moments after breaking up, a fatal crash ends his life. So popular was this song about teenage death, that it toppled the Beatles from the US charts!

The popularity of death discs shocked the establishment. Journalist Alexandra Apolloni describes Seventeen magazine’s condemnation of these morbid songs:
A 1965 editorial made it clear that good Seventeen readers shouldn’t be listening to death discs: “I expect the Johnny Mathis version of ‘Wonderful Wonderful’ to live considerably longer than the Shangri-Las’ gory ditties about motorcycling or hot-rodding death scenes."
Nevertheless, ‘Leader of the Pack’ and numerous songs like it flourished in the 1960s. The music industry cashed in on a never-ending obsession with untimely death, turning young idols like James Dean and Marilyn Monroe – later Jimmy Hendrix, Ian Curtis, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse - into immortals.

Here is a playlist of ten 1960s death disc faves:

"Leader of the Pack" by The Shangri-Las (1965)

"Condition Red" by The Goodees (1968)

"Teen Angel" by Mark Dinning (1960)

"Tell Laura I Love Her" by Ray Petersen (1960)

"Patches" by Dickie Lee (1962)

"Johnny Remember Me" by Johnny Leyton (1961)

"Ode to Billie Joe" by Bobby Gentry (1967)

"The Hero" by Bernadette Carroll (1965)

"Ebony Eyes" by The Everly Brothers (1961)

"Car Crash" by The Cadets (1960)

"The Paris Morgue Closed to Sightseers," 1907

Doing research for the 2015 Morbid Anatomy Museum Wall Calendar, I came across the wonderful tidbit above from the a 1907 issue of Australia's Kalgoorlie Miner. For more on the Paris morgue--which attracted throngs of tourists throughout the 19th century eager to view the bodies of the unclaimed dead--see these recent Morbid Anatomy posts (1, 2, 3). To find out more about the calendar--and pre-order a copy!--click here.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

"Vesalius & the Invention of the Modern Body" Symposium, St. Louis, Missouri; February 26 - February 28, 2015

For those in the St. Louis area: February of next year, St. Louis University and Washington University will be co-presenting an interdisciplinary symposium to celebrate the 500-year anniversary of the birth of Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564), founder of the study of modern human anatomy.

The symposium--which runs from February 26 - February 28, 2015--is open to the public, and will feature some of our favorite international anatomical scholars including Michael Sappol of the National Library of Medicine; Andrea Carlino of the University of Geneva
; Jonathan Sawday of Saint Louis University; and Rebecca Messbarger, author of The Lady Anatomist: The Life and Work of Anna Morandi Manzolini. Morbid Anatomy founder Joanna Ebenstein will also be speaking.

Schedule follows. To find out more--and get tickets--click here. Hope to see you there!
This interdisciplinary symposium will celebrate the 500-year anniversary of the birth of Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564), founder of the study of modern human anatomy. Saint Louis University and Washington University plan to jointly host three days of events especially inspired by the landmark publication of Vesalius’s De humani corporis fabrica (Basel, 1543 and 1555) and the new critical edition and translation of this work, the New Fabrica. The conference program will feature a roster of internationally-renowned speakers, including keynote speakers Daniel Garrison, Malcolm Hast, and Sachiko Kusukawa. In addition to the presentation of academic papers of leading research, the schedule will also include an anatomy demonstration, rare books workshops, and a publishers’ exhibit hall.
Because the Fabrica represented a collaborative project involving a scientist (Vesalius), a humanist (Johannes Oporinus, the printer), and an artist (Jan van Kalkar), the goal of the conference is to encourage a network of scholars working in disparate fields to explore the potential for future interdisciplinary research. 
February 26
Saint Louis University — Medical Center Library

6:00 - 7:00pm OPENING SESSION
Welcome Remarks by [TBD] Location TBD
An Updated Census of the 1st Edition (1543) and 2nd Edition (1555) of Vesalius’ de Humani Corporis Fabrica in the USA

Stephen N. Joffe MD FACS FRCS (Edin, Glas) FCS (SA)

7:00 - 9:00pm RECEPTION* and TOURS
Saint Louis University Medical School (more info to follow)

*The Welcome Reception is sponsored by the generosity of Dr. and Mrs. Stephen N. Joffe

February 27
Saint Louis University — Frost Campus

DuBourg Hall - Pere Marquette Gallery 
Publishers’ Exhibit Hall open

8:00am-5:30pm DuBourg - Grand Hall

Opening Remarks: Philip Gavitt (Saint Louis University)

SESSION 1 - Public Dissections as Spectacle in Early Modern Europe DuBourg Hall-Pere Marquette Gallery
Session Chair: Anne Stiles (Saint Louis University)
  • Andrea Carlino (University of Geneva)

  • Cynthia Klestinec (University of Miami Ohio)

11:00am SESSION 2 - Discovery and Deconstruction of the Body: Cultural Contexts of the Fabrica 
DuBourg Hall – Pere Marquette Gallery

Session Chair: Sara van den Berg (Saint Louis University)
  • Jonathan Sawday (Saint Louis University)
  • Glenn Harcourt (Independent Scholar)
12:30am LUNCH BREAKLunch at Saint Louis University – Refectory, DuBourg Hall
; Shuttle service from DuBourg Hall to Young Hall

2:00pm SESSION 3 - Mapping the Interior: 3D Anatomy Demonstration Young Hall Auditorium

Shuttle service from Young Hall to DuBourg Hall

4:00pm KEYNOTE ADDRESS - Creating the New Fabrica
DuBourg Hall – Pere Marquette Gallery

Introduction by: Jonathan Sawday (Saint Louis University)

Keynote Speakers: Daniel Garrison and Malcolm Hast (Northwestern University)

6:00 - 7:30pm RECEPTION*
Pius XII Memorial Library – 2nd floor/TBD

*The Keynote Reception is sponsored by the generosity of Pius XII Memorial Library

February 28
Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine

EPNEC Center

8:45am OPENING REMARKSby Thomas Woolsey

9:00am SESSION 4 - Anatomical Specimens in the Early Modern Period
EPNEC Center

Session Chair: Amy Eisen Cislo, Washington University in St. Louis
  • Rebecca Messbarger (Washington University in St. Louis)

    Re-casting the Vesalian Dissection Scene: Wax Anatomical Figures of the Italian Enlightenment
  • Joanna Ebenstein (Morbid Anatomy Museum) From the Anatomical Theatre to the Anatomical Venus: The Intersection of Entertainment and Edification in Public Anatomies

10:30am COFFEE BREAK11:00am SESSION 5 - From the Renaissance to the Present: 19th and 21st Century Anatomical Imager
EPNEC Center

Session Chair: Elisabeth Brander, Bernard Becker Medical Library
Michael Sappol (National Library of Medicine)
    The apotheosis of the dissected plate: Spectacles of layering and transparency in 19th- and 20th-century anatomy
R. Gilbert Jost (Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine)
    Visualizing the Human Body Using Modern Imaging Techniques

2:00pm SESSION 6 - Small SessionsBecker Medical Library
  • Suzanne Karr Schmidt – Rare Books
Marisa Anne Bass – Rare Books
Jane Phillips Conroy and Glen Conroy – Tour of Anatomy Labs
3:30pm BREAK

EPNEC Center
Introduction by: Rebecca Messbarger (Washington University in St. Louis)
Sachiko Kusukawa (Cambridge University) The Body in the Book: the Fabrica and the Epitome (1543)

5:45 - 7:30pm RECEPTION
EPNEC Center
Image: Hand Colored Frontispiece to Andreas Vesalius’ De humani corporis fabrica; sourced here. Citation: "This presentation copy for Charles V is the only one known to have been hand colored under the direction of Vesalius. It is, by way of an anonymous donor, now in the New York Public Library. This image is from their Seeing is Believing exhibition."

The Churches and Mummies of Mexico City and Oaxaca: Photos from the Morbid Anatomy Museum Day of the Dead Trip, 2014

The Morbid Anatomy Musuem crew has just returned from our annual Day of the Dead field trip in Mexico. This year, our trip--as always, under the guidance of Scholar in Residence Salvador Olguín--took us to Oaxaca and Mexico City, where we saw markets, mummies, churches, skeleton puppet shows, three day of the dead celebrations, and much, much more.

We have just posted a set of photographs--from which the above are drawn--documenting some of the fabulous churches, mummies and street scenes we saw whilst in Mexico; you can see the full set--at much higher quality!--by clicking here.

For more, you can see Day of the Dead celebration photos here, and photos from our visit to Enriqueta Vargas' Tultitlan-based Santa Muerte Shrine by clicking here. If you would like to be put on the wait list for the 2015 Day of the Dead trip, you can email Salvador at info [at] or sign up for the Morbid Anatomy Mailing List (and thus receive an alert when it is announced) by clicking here.

And thanks so much to the forty or so folks who joined us on our trip this year, from such far-flung locales as New Orleans, London, Oakland, Portland, Chicago, Los Angeles, Virginia, San Francisco, and New York City! Hope you had a great time, and hope to see you again next year.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Santa Muerte Shrine, Tultitlan, Mexico

Santa Muerte--literally "Holy Death" or "Saint Death"--is the sacred figure of death personified as a woman. She is venerated by an ever growing number of people in Mexico and beyond, and is especially popular with disenfranchised members of society such as criminals, prostitutes, transvestites, homosexuals, prisoners, the very poor, and other people for whom conventional Catholicism has not provided a better or a safer life. The phenomenon is thought to have its roots in a syncretism of the beliefs of the native Latin Americans and the colonizing Spanish Catholics.

We at Morbid Anatomy have long been fascinated by the phenomenon of Santa Muerte (on which more here) and, whilst in Mexico last week for the Morbid Anatomy Day of the Dead field trip, we had the very good fortune--thanks to our good friend Dr. Andrew Chesnut--to visit to the epic Santa Muerte shrine in Tultitlan, Mexico. Founded in 2007 by Jonathan Legaria Vargas (aka “Comandante Pantera"), the shrine--marked by a 75 foot tall figure of "The Skinny Lady"--consists of a series of small pavilions devoted to Santa Muertes wearing different colored gowns, and thus bearing different powers; Red, for example, is love; Gold is money; and black is protection). Each pavilion is stuffed with candles, drawings, flowers, stuffed animals, liquor, cigarettes, incense and other offerings; one pavilion is even devoted to healing broken Santa Muertes!

In 2008,“Comandante Pantera" was killed by gunfire. Since then, the shrine has been lovingly run by his mother, Enriqueta Vargas. In a very touching way, this shrine to Saint Death also seems to act as a memorial for her lost son.

Above are a few photographs of the shrine. You can see a full photoset by clicking here.

Thanks so much to the lovely Señora Vargas the rest of her crew, who were incredibly gracious and welcoming to us all. We also invite you to stop by The Morbid Anatomy Library to see some of the artifacts we acquired in the shrine's most excellent giftshop. To learn more the history of the shrine and the Santa Muerte phenomenon in general, check out the Most Holy Death website by clicking here. You can learn more about Enriqueta Vargas and her shrine by clicking here.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Naturally Hypernatural: Visions of Nature - Conference at the School of Visual Arts, NYC; Friday November 14 - Sunday November 16

The Morbid Anatomy Museum's creative director Joanna Ebenstein will be giving a talk as part of a conference at New York City's School of Visual Arts. Entitled "Naturally Hypernatural: Visions of Nature," the conference will take place from Friday November 14 through Sunday November 16. You can find out more--and purchase tickets--by clicking here.
Naturally Hypernatural: Visions of Nature is an interdisciplinary conference investigating the fluctuating “essences” of “nature” and the “natural” in the 21st century. Each of these terms carries with it an enormity of philosophical questions ranging from the alteration of life itself to dialogues concerning the notion of the Anthropocene, a term used to describe man’s intervention into the natural world. The talks presented here will focus on contemporary issues in the visual arts as they intersect with the biological and geological sciences, confirming that nature remains an intrinsically mysterious, ever more mutable entity.  At the present time, cellular parts are being remixed in laboratories to create synthetic organisms while geological transformations are forecasting wild swings in weather conditions. Human reproduction regularly occurs in Petri dishes while cucumbers are grown in space. The artificial and the natural now combine to form novel entities, never before seen on earth, while animal species dwindle down to extinction every day.  Animals and plants are exhibited as contemporary art, while the real is conflated with the imaginary. Technological advances and their theoretical undertones have migrated into art practice producing New Media installations, Bio Art exhibitions and a global community of art practitioners adapting novel productions to cultural resources.   In addition, visual art has become a social practice platform with projects that intersect with urban farming, DIY biology and extremes in performance art.  Naturally Hypernatural: Visions of Nature brings together artists, historians, curators, philosophers and scientists to examine and comment on these ideas.
In addition, there will be an exhibition of work by students, alumni and faculty, generated through SVA’s Bio Art Laboratory, the first of its kind in the U.S.A.
Friday, November 14, 2014
4:00pm - 5:00pm Conference Registration
5:00pm - 5:15pm Introduction by Suzanne Anker
5:15pm - 7:30pm

Keynote Speakers 

  • Lucas Evers - Bio Art and creative biotechnology in the Anthropocene - some innovative misunderstandings
7:30pm - 8:30pm Opening Reception for the exhibition Blue Egg: Visions of Nature
Saturday, November 15, 2014
9:00am - 10:00am Conference Registration and Breakfast
10:00am - 12:00pm  Panel 1: Conditions of Possibility
12:30pm - 1:30pm: Lunch
1:30pm - 4:30pm: Panel 2: Water-Bodies: A Relationship of Paradox
4:30pm - 5:00pm Coffee Break
5:00pm - 7:00pm Panel 3: Anthropocene
  • Roy Scranton - The Compulsion of Strife: Nature, War, and the Anthropocene
7:00pm Dinner Reception
Sunday, November 16, 2014
9:00am - 10:00am Conference Registration and Breakfast

Panel 4: Dead or Alive 10:00am - 12:30pm  
  • Joanna Ebenstein - The "Once-Alive and the Eerily Lifelike" at The Morbid Anatomy Museum
12:30pm - 2:00pm Lunch
2:00pm - 4:00pm Panel 5: DIY Biology
  • Joseph DeGiorgis - The Aquatic Studio: the fine art of using novel and traditional scientific techniques to capture images of life
4:00pm - 4:30pm Coffee Break
4:30pm - 6:30pm

Panel 6: Colonizing Nature

Monday, November 3, 2014

The Uncanny: Liminal Spaces and the Seduction of Melancholic Mystery: Guest Post by Romany Reagan

Following is a guest post by Romany Reagan, PhD Candidate, Royal Holloway, University of London, on the idea of the uncanny. If this topic interests you, we hope you'll join us for her illustrated lecture "A Theoretical Ghost: Analysing the Uncanny Through the Lens of Charles Dickens' Night Walks" tomorrow night--Tuesday November 4th. More information and tickets are available here.

The Uncanny: Liminal Space and the Seduction of Melancholic Mystery
By Romany Reagan, PhD Candidate, Royal Holloway, University of London

The uncanny is apprehension rather than experience, dread rather than terror. It inhabits a liminal psychological space, existing in our peripheral vision and built on uncertainty. The moment our imagination is satisfied into certainty — whether that be of safety or of horror — the moment ceases to be uncanny. If a ghost were to be proven to be a ghost, it would no longer be uncanny; it would be paranormal. Under this term fall an entire franken-family of concepts: the ‘death drive’, doppelgängers, ghosts and the spirit world, déjà vu, allegory in literature, cemeteries, ruins, oral storytelling, telepathy, the unconscious mind in psychoanalysis, dolls — and practically everything under the heading of ‘gothic’.

The uncanny can be something gruesome or terrible, such as death and corpses, live burial, the return of the dead. However, it can also be something strangely beautiful. It can excite our curiosity, but at the same time be frightening. It is the irresistible seduction of mystery. It comes in the uncertainties of silence, solitude and darkness. The uncanny has to do with the sense of a secret encounter, it is highly personal and not usually something felt with others. It is perhaps inseparable from an apprehension, however fleeting, of something that should have remained secret and hidden but has come to light.

While experience of the uncanny is brought about by outside stimulus, it is not an independent entity. It lives in our sensory perception — filtered through personal experience, and therefore impossible to document with impartial empiricism. The uncanny has to do with a strangeness of framing and borders, unstable definitions of reality and the experience of liminality.

Why do stories, images and experiences of the uncanny attract rather than repel some people? Are these people perhaps searching for answers to some very personal philosophical questions when they do not feel their answers lie elsewhere? The drive towards, and not away, that which sparks feelings of uncertainty and unease is perhaps driven by a quest for knowledge; or a need to feel the ‘secular sublime’ for those who do not classify themselves as adhering to any particular religious dogma. Ernst Jentsch suggests, “the feeling of uncertainty not infrequently makes its presence felt of its own accord in those who are more intellectually discriminating when they perceive daily phenomena, and it may well represent an important factor in the origin of the drive to knowledge and research”.[1]

Study of the uncanny is relatively new, and there are no explicit theoretical explorations of it before the twentieth century. Concepts surrounding the uncanny are constantly oscillating. It is difficult, therefore, to catalogue with an assurance of comprehensiveness within the field, or consensus amongst theorists, everything included under the umbrella of the term. As professor Nicholas Royle points outs in his study on the subject, “everyone’s relation with the uncanny is in some sense their own and no one else’s”.[2]

German philosopher Friedrich Schelling first introduced the uncanny as a term in 1835. However, it was not officially acknowledged as school of thought until it was later expanded upon by the German psychologist Ernst Jentsch in 1906. Even thought Jentsch wrote about it first, it is Sigmund Freud’s 1919 essay ‘Unheimlich’, or ‘The Uncanny’, that is credited with being the seminal study on the subject.

Freud defined the feeling of the uncanny as the, shiver of realizing that modern reason has merely repressed, rather than replaced, primitive superstition. All supposedly educated people have ceased to believe ‘officially’ that the dead can become visible spirits, yet Freud suspected that, at times, almost all of us think as primitive cultures did on this topic. This return to pre-modern beliefs was itself the product of thinking of human subjectivity as a history of developmental layers that could be stripped away in an instant of dread, returning us to a ‘savage’ state.[3]

Many people experience an uncanny feeling in anything relating to death and dead bodies, to the return of the dead, and to spirits and ghosts. The uncanny thrives within questions, and no other question has plagued us through ages more persistently than to wonder, “what happens when we die?"

Haunting is an important component of the uncanny, yet it is always the question rather than the answer that is key to the definition. In studies of hauntings, spatialization has been the classic starting point. In haunted houses and haunted castles: ghosts are almost always locked into buildings and ancient sites. Ruins have traditionally been thought of as uncanny, haunted places. As well as simply being the traces of the buildings in which people long since dead once lived, ruins have themselves often been figured as skeletons, corpses or ghosts. The sight of a ghost is necessarily spatial. Indeed, the idea of a haunted place depends upon the very materiality of a ghost assuming a habitual routine in place. As scholar of the uncanny Dylan Trigg observes, “a placeless ghost is, after all, as inconceivable as a placeless memory; the shadow in the hallway does not linger aimlessly, but dwells in a specific place, indeed, if not even in specific things within that place. The sense, therefore, of a presence intensifying and diminishing in proximity to particular things is entirely consistent with the idea of the ghost as retaining a phantom relationship to the same world it did when alive”. [4]

While most people don’t relish the thought of snapping awake at 3am to hear something ghoulish banging about in the basement, when removed slightly from our immediate experience, this fear isn’t entirely unpleasant. In popular culture we find evidence of people running towards these feelings with dark glee. Simply look at the prevalence of horror films. Even when we know very well that we are being fooled by merely harmless illusions, many people cannot suppress an extremely uncomfortable feeling when watching these films. In life, we usually do not like to put ourselves in danger or expose ourselves to fear. However, in the cinema or theatre, or while reading, we gladly immerse ourselves in these emotional worlds: we experience certain powerful excitements which awake in us a strong feeling for life, with complete impunity and without having to accept the consequences of the causes of these unpleasant feelings.

The uncanny can be composed of things widely considered gruesome or terrible, but there is an element of curiosity that tempers our horror. The uncanny hints at a promise of answers that saves uncanny images and themes from being simply horrific — something that hints to unveiling an elemental truth, which excites us to lean in closer. That is what makes the uncanny attractive, yet at the same time frightening. There is an aspect of not being able to help yourself, the curiosity and intrigue is at equal war with your fear. This is also what separates the uncanny from the strictly melancholic. Excitement in the face of mystery, and attraction to the not-instantly-knowable, speaks to a creative engagement with one’s environment, not an introversion. There is an active curiosity that drives engagement with the darkness. Within the darkness there are more questions than answers; but the questions are why we like coming here, aren’t they?

  1. Frederick Simpson Coburn, 1899
  2. Sigmund Freud
  3. ‘The Ruins of Holyrood Chapel’, Louis Daguerre, 1824
  4. Photo by: Ella Guru, Abney Park Cemetery, 1987

  1. Jentsch, Ernst, On the Psychology of the Uncanny, 1906. Essay. p4
  2. Royle, Nicholas, The Uncanny, (Manchester: Manchester University Press), 2003. Book. P26
  3. Freud, Sigmund, The Uncanny, 1919. Essay.
  4. Trigg, Dylan, The Memory of Place: A Phenomenology of the Uncanny, (Athens: Ohio University Press) 2012. Book. p294