When Halloween gets lost in translation

Pretty much kaput, Halloween means just about nothing to me nowadays. The thrill is gone. The chill is gone. I’m not 7, dig. 

Yet something about Halloween sticks, hovering like a blanket of graveyard fog. Each year I gladly inhale the occasion’s residual festive fumes, pumped in like so much giddy-making nitrous oxide. Hey, unlike zombies, I have a pulse.

Though costumes are long — and forever — doffed and I’ve retired the habit of sneaking morsels from the communal candy bowl (It’s for the kids, dammit!), I remain devoted to this perverse, very North American celebration of the gross, grim and ghoulish. (And, yeah, I lied: the Reese’s cups are mine.) 

But I effectively don’t partake in the big-picture party, unless you count sometimes serving as the eve’s Doorbell Dork, doling out Snickers and Tootsie Pops, smiling like the village idiot on cue when a particular and rather mystifying catchphrase (starts with trick) is shrieked by decked-out kiddies (and a few shameless, straggling grown-ups who can only dream they’re getting a Kit-Kat from this finger-wagging candy dispenser).

It’s a festival of enforced flamboyance. Excess is enshrined. Generally sane people douse themselves in corn syrup blood. Sex is flaunted in racy micro-fashions: cats and maids and devils. It’s masks and makeup and Marvel; wigs, witches and wizards; Pokémon, pirates and pop stars (and, yes, Pop Tarts) — the palette is as infinite as it is infantilizing. The id comes out to romp. 

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Halloween in Sevilla, Spain, 2016 — amateur hour.

In placid suburbia, lawn dioramas have grown ambitiously disgusting. I love the sinew-chewing zombies (with staticky sound effects), life-size, yoga-posed skeletons and tombstone-cluttered cemeteries, gnarled limbs popping out of the ground. I beseech you: gross me out.

It’s a bacchanal of fantasy and horror, whimsy and steroidal imagination. It’s pop cinema — slashers to superheroes — sprung to life. And it’s uniquely, wildly American (and, I hear, Canadian). 

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Halloween, Beirut, 2008 — not cool.

I’ve done Halloween in London, Paris, Beirut, Ho Chi Minh City, Kathmandu and Sevilla. As the locals tried to summon the spirit, they invariably botched the holiday, blundering with gauche costumes (er, blackface in Beirut and Paris) and feebly attended parties — strictly amateur hour, training wheels required.

Except when they’re not. Except when the night has been co-opted with the verve and vision matching the western prototype. All eyes on … Japan. It’s said that Japan has only been practicing Halloween in earnest for five years. But amateurs? Hardly.

The Japanese were born pros, built for Halloween. Nothing is lost in translation. Dress up and cosplay are daily mainstream occurrences. Stroll anytime through Tokyo’s Harajuku district for teen fashion so high, so rococo, it passes as a perpetual street costume party.

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Harajuku teen, Tokyo, in April 2006.

Which should make this year’s Halloween something special. I land in Tokyo on October 30, giving me less than 24 hours to steel for whatever that hyper-charged city has in store in the way of a woozy wingding.  

Because there is no way I’m not wading into the most outrageous Halloween hotspots — like bustling, youthful Shibuya, where a million revelers are expected — to get the full Japanese treatment: anime and cosplay characters, J-horror ghosts and vampires, video-game avatars and the universal diet of Star Wars, Harry Potter, Power Rangers and other mega-brands. (Oddly, Where’s Waldo? seems to still be popular. I’ll look into it.) 

This is what I wanna see, Halloween with kick (I’ll return with a full, bloody report):

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Witches? Zombies? No idea but I’m thrilled. 
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Nerd, nerd, nerd, nerd and nerd. That’s five nerds. God bless them.
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Grisly Disney: zombie versions of famous cartoon characters, including Minnie Mouse and Snow White.
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A gaggle of zombie fast food (flesh food?) servers. Do you want fingers with that human hamburger?

And the best for last …

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Monkeys Sea, monkeys do

Why is everyone so down on Sea-Monkeys? People scoff when I bring them up, which is pretty much never, and the novelty item’s star ratings are piddling to pathetic at Amazon. (2.7 stars? Wha?) 

Sea-Monkeys rule. If you’re 7. But really, I’ve owned them at least 10 times as a kid (and, all right, as an adult), those trippy, creepy, itsy-bitsy, dimly disappointing crustaceans that swirl around a small plastic tank on your nightstand before dying off, one by one, until all that’s left is greenish, brackish water that smells like the devil’s bing-hole. My freakish, fun-loving, easily-fooled brain adores them.

Instant Life

They come up because I recently watched Penny Lane’s 2016 short film “Just Add Water: The Story of the Amazing Live Sea-Monkeys.” (See all 16 mind-tweaking minutes of it here.) 

It jogged a zillion memories of my 9-year-old self hatching what are actually microscopic brine shrimp (which are used primarily as fish food), hoping, always hoping, for the anthropomorphic little families of so-called Sea-Monkeys to appear when I followed the directions to concoct a peculiar potion. 

The famous advertisements in comic books of the 1960s-‘70s depicted happy, three-pronged-crowned sea creatures, naked part-fish/part-people, hanging out, smiling, doing their whateva Sea-Monkey thang. And it showed human purchasers gazing at a bowl of them, grinning like fools. It was wonderful. And for a kid who thought Bigfoot and the Elephant Man were the dope, implacably seductive.

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So you order the Sea-Monkeys. Miniature plastic tank that you fill with tap water — check. Then add Packet #1, the water purifier, which, according to the short film, actually contains the Monkey eggs, “giving the Sea-Monkeys time to get big enough for you to see them” in a 24-hour period. Packet #2 is really blue dye that makes the day-old Monkeys even easier to observe. (There’s a small racket going on here.) The other packet, #3, is Growth Food. It smells like algae and fish guts.

No matter, what is happening is science. Namely, “cryptobiosis,” or instant life, meaning the Sea-Monkey eggs are dehydrated like NASA space food and pop to life with the addition of water. Think Cup O’Noodles or Taster’s Choice instant coffee, but with tiny monkeys. That aren’t actually monkeys.

Brine shrimp are what they are. At best, they grow about a half-inch long. They have spindly, monkey-like tails as adults and they swim with fluttering angel’s wings, flapping in circles around the tank, nose-diving, eating food at the bottom and, most curiously, latching onto one another in possible monkey coitus. Baby Sea-Monkeys do happen.

I’ve had a Sea-Monkey live about a year or more — a personal record. It was massive. When it died, my college dorm-mate and I burned it in a funeral pyre. I wish I was joking.

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Sea-Monkeys are a conflation of toy and pet, two of children’s favorite things. They are the brainchild of late eccentric inventor Harold von Braunhut, who created a “stage show, the illusion of instant life,” says the film.  

But the movie also reveals pure evil: Von Braunhut was an active and outspoken member of a major pro-Hitler white supremacist league. How to reconcile these two sides, the whimsical and the wicked?

“It’s the great mystery lurking behind the Sea-Monkey castle,” says Richard Pell of The Center for PostNatural History in the film. “How does the guy who invents all of these wonderful, playful fun things also promote such horrible ideas?”

I shake my head vigorously. I can’t answer this question. Some might even think Sea-Monkeys, those mutant, sci-fi creatures, are horrible ideas. Spawns of satan.

I then recall my own evil, sheer monkeyshines. As a kid, when I got bored with my tank-circling Sea-Monkeys, I once fed them to a trio of mail-order sea horses (who themselves croaked after about three days). Another time, I poured them into one of those hand-held water games of hoops or tic-tac-toe and swished them around like debris in a storm. Sea-Monkey sadist.

And yet here I am, decades onward, seriously considering buying for my birthday a Sea-Monkeys Ocean-Zoo for $12.98 from Amazon. I am so tempted I can hardly stand it.  

(For the Sea-Monkey completist — who isn’t? —  visit the official Sea-Monkey site here.)

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Actual Sea-Monkeys, aka brine shrimp, in captivity

5 best books of the year

  1. “Cherry” by Nico Walker — Walker’s precocious debut novel is tough, streetwise and gruesomely war-torn. It is ugly, scabby — drugs, crime, graphic combat violence — yet lovely still, bristling with heart, candor and raw youthful love that throbs unvarnished truth. What emerges is a pungent, probing snapshot of America today, what has been dubbed “(perhaps) the first great novel of the opioid epidemic.” 

2. “There There” by Tommy Orange — This smashing debut is a novel of ambient beauty and a penetrating portal into urban Native American culture. It’s a world at once broken, squalid and, by the skin of its teeth, empowered. The writing swings, crackling with observational fire. Much of it hits home, like a lightning jag, pulsing with candor and woe.


3. “Kudos” by Rachel Cusk — My favorite book in Cusk’s remarkable Outline Trilogy, this slim volume continues a minimalism that feels maximalist, a headlong plunge into the circumscribed but deeply philosophical world of a single female protagonist who’s on a first-person journey amidst many places and people. Cerebrally and queerly enthralling.

4. “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” by Ottessa Moshfegh — A young woman is determined to hibernate from life via shelves of pharmaceuticals and we don’t quite know why. She is a wreck, in cryptic self-exile. This wiggy, sometimes wayward study in alienation is at once comical, unnerving, depressing and iridescent.

5. “Inseparable: The Original Siamese Twins and Their Rendezvous with American History” by Yunte Huang — The lone non-fiction book in the bunch, this sensitive, captivating and occasionally creepy biography of conjoined twins Chang and Eng is a strange tale, a sad tale, one of courage, dignity, triumph and increasing oddness, yet one of naked humanity and pulsating historical vitality.  

Bonus best: Classic book of the year, “The Easter Parade” by Richard Yates, from 1976, whose grim opening line sets a searing tone: “Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life … ” By the author of 1961’s caustic suburban masterpiece “Revolutionary Road.

And, as always, I chucked aside the predictable pile of unsatisfying titles, including Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s hyped stories “Friday Black” and Lauren Groff’s collection “Florida, which is brawny, but I was distracted by stronger stuff. (I also thought her 2015 novel “Fates and Furies” was hysterically overestimated.) 

Good but overrated: “The Mars Room” by Rachel Kushner. I gladly finished it. Not bad, not brilliant. Same goes for Nick Drnaso’s perplexingly ballyhooed “Sabrina,” the first graphic novel to make the Man Booker Prize longlist. A few grades above meh.

The weird and wiggy, worldwide

As one who seeks out the freaky and far out in my travels, serendipity seems to be the best GPS for the fiendishly, often funnily, strange. Mostly this is in the form of art, mainly sculpture and statue and the occasional painting. (Or some decidedly unfunny human cremations in India and Nepal — I’ll spare you.)

Sure, it’s superficial this fascination. (So weird! So hilarious!) What does it mean? Not much. It’s aesthetics of the outré, stimuli out of left field, tailored, perhaps, to the oddballs among us. It’s striking, warped and wonderful. The more ghastly the better. The more shocking the cooler. (Note: I have yet to stumble upon art or artifact that’s sincerely blasted my senses. It’s out there, and I will find it.)

Here, meanwhile, are irresistible curiosities I’ve come across around the world: 

 

Cast of Joseph Merrick’s, aka the Elephant Man’s, skull, Royal London Hospital. One of the most interesting, most hideous and saddest skeletal specimens ever.
Latex cast of the Elephant Man from the 1980 David Lynch film “The Elephant Man” at the Museum of the Moving Image, New York. This is the mold they used to make-up John Hurt as the real-life Elephant Man.
“Crucified Woman,” an unsettling work by supreme provocateur Maurizio Cattelan, hanging in the Guggenheim in New York City. Note the pigeons. I have no idea what’s going on.
Cracked cherub in Iglesia de El Salvador, a gorgeous church in Sevilla, Spain. I love the little fella’s decrepitude and pink and bulgy doll-like creepiness.
Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona. Stacked: a sheep, a pig, a cow, all with unicorn horns. Interesting, until you realize it’s just bad art.
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Rugged hiking man with primates. The bloke’s head is like a bobble-head.
The Met, New York City. Exactly how I wake each morning.
Body cast of Chang & Eng, original Siamese twins, Mutter Museum, Philadelphia. Gross and glorious.
A baby through Picasso’s eyes, Paris. I just like this poor warped toddler, so bulbous and twisted — and probably demonic.
Peter and Paul Fortress, St. Petersburg, Russia. At the resident Torture Museum. Highlight: the saliva string and puddle.
Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, DC. Trump in two years, in his cell. 
Malformed Baby Jesus, flea market, Barcelona, Spain. So distorted and freakish I desperately wanted to take it home and cuddle it.
Hanging horses by crazy Cattelan, Guggenheim, NYC. Something out of Fellini. See the little Pinocchio puppet by its front legs. Discuss.
Monkey murder. I really haven’t the foggiest. I wish I did, but I don’t. Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. 

A not-so-tall tale, in short

True story: A woman came into the cafe and she was so short, I thought she was a dwarf. On my third or fourth glance, I realized she was indeed not a dwarf, just spectacularly diminutive, stout and normally proportioned, yet Lilliputian.  

Is my vision that bad? Am I seeing things? Has my fascination with human anomalies and “very special people” warped my lens on the world so that normality contorts into the freakish? 

Upon entering, the child-size woman was immediately surrounded by cafe baristas crying her name in joy as though they had not seen her in many ages. This was a moment of celebration. Hugs were fulsomely exchanged, and every employee had to crouch considerably to administer an embrace that would not be too awkward. 

Who was this center of such lavish attention, this magical elf? From where does she hail? Was she treated so kindly out of pity? That seems doubtful. Short, maybe, but also a human being, and one with many adoring friends. 

Arriving later, a very rangy barista saw the woman and bent down dramatically to hug her, his body a folding, upright accordion. She asked him if he’d sprouted even taller since they last met. No, he laughed.

She also laughed, chuckling, “Maybe I just shrunk.”

Siamese twins: Freaks? Marvels? No. Human.

“There is the 19th-century obsession with abnormality — that insatiable desire of humans looking at other humans as monsters.” — “Inseparable” by Yunte Huang

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Chang and Eng Bunker, the “original” Siamese twins

Siamese twins don’t keep me up at night, don’t chill my bones, not like Julia Pastrana, enshrined in her time as the Ugliest Woman in the World, or the appetite-suppressing Grace McDaniel, the Mule-Faced Woman, that poor, poor dear.

Freaks they may be, but Siamese, or conjoined, twins aren’t freaky enough for me. They are marvelous and reality-bending, sometimes shocking but usually just remarkably human and, despite wincing deformities, almost normal. They are not, as so many freak show stars are reduced to, depraved monsters.

Take Chang and Eng, the most famous of all conjoined twins. Whisked from their native Siam (present-day Thailand) as teenagers by Western opportunists who swore to bring them back to their aggrieved mother in five years time, the twins embarked on a journey that would take them to America and England as wildly celebrated sideshow attractions. They would never return home. 

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It was the early 1800s and the boys, who became forever known as the “original Siamese twins,” wowed spectators used to ogling human marvels, from the limbless to the scale-covered and, later, the extreme likes of the Elephant Man and Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy.

A London newspaper wrote, “Without being the least disgusting or unpleasant, like almost all monstrosities, these youths are certainly one of the most extraordinary freaks of nature that has ever been witnessed.”

That’s the start of the true story told in the sensitive new biography “Inseparable: The Original Siamese Twins and Their Rendezvous with American History” by writerly crack reporter Yunte Huang. It’s a strange tale, it’s a sad tale, one of courage, dignity, triumph and increasing oddness, yet one of naked humanity and crackling history, including illuminating nods to the Civil War, Herman Melville, Lincoln (who apparently liked cock fighting) and Mark Twain, who, transfixed, wrote a story based on the twins.

Conjoined twins have existed since at least recorded history, in royal courts (alongside impish dwarves and the cruelly deformed), Indian villages to brimming metropolises. “The occurrence is estimated to range from 1 in 49,000 births to 1 in 189,000 births, with a somewhat higher incidence in Southeast Asia and Africa. Approximately half are stillborn, and an additional one-third die within 24 hours,” notes a scientific journal.  a6667e8dffd824d02b052c8f2a63dba2

Those are abysmal survival odds. Indeed, the whole conjoined-twin phenomenon seems like a hateful prank played by a sadistic God. But somehow Chang and Eng made the best of it, despite inevitable exploitation on the sideshow circuit, invasive, humiliating medical examinations by gawking, prodding doctors, and of course racial prejudices of the era.

They were also comparatively lucky. Chang and Eng were joined by a mere cord of ligament at their sternum, as opposed to twins conjoined at their skulls or buttocks, sharing multiple organs, rendering them certifiably handicapped, facing heartbreaking physical hardships. (Bittersweet aside: If they were alive today, modern medicine could easily and safely separate Chang and Eng.)

They were bound for life by “the connecting band — the key to the twins’ mystery,” writes Huang. The band looks like a slab of rubber stretched to the brink, rather like an arm on Stretch Armstrong, bridging their stomachs. The twins did share a fused liver, an oversized organ on permanent display in a pan of liquid at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia. (I’ve seen it, twice. It is disgustingly glorious.)

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Chang and Eng’s death cast at the Mutter Museum, Philadelphia

A single bellybutton was nestled in the center of the flesh tube, which actually grew with daily wear and tear. Once, “as Eng tried to stand up, he was pulled down by the fleshy string that had tied him to his brother,” says Huang. “Over the years, constant tugging had stretched the cord from its original four inches in length to five and a half, allowing a little more flexibility.” (Some Vaseline and a good masseuse might have done wonders.)

Here the story veers to, at minimum, vigorous eyebrow raising. After lucrative years on the exhibition circuit as “freaks of nature,” Chang and Eng moved to rural North Carolina where they bought land, owned 32 black slaves (!!) and married two white sisters and, spectacularly, sired 21 children. (They had separate genitalia.) In the book’s chapter “Foursome,” Huang explains how the twins had sex: gingerly. Tangled limbs, “Pardon me’s,” whispered apologies, averted eyes — one envisions a hot, or not so hot, mess.

During the Civil War, the Bunkers pledged allegiance to the Confederacy, which didn’t work out so well for the brothers financially. Soon they were on the freak circuit again to cover costs. They died of natural causes at age 62 in 1874.

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The remarkable cast of a 19th-century freak show.

“Freaks,” “marvels,” “wonders” — sideshow performers, trading in dubious self-exploitation, were labeled florid epithets to amplify their bizarre and exotic natures. It must have been a beating on their psyche and self-worth, robbing them of a portion of their soul, exposing themselves to dehumanizing gawking. It’s an ugly, despicable racket.

Chang and Eng might have, by virtue of their mostly normal appearances, been spared the worst of it, avoiding fainting audience members, brutish hecklers and degrading qualifiers, like “terrible” and “horrifying,” in their promotional material.

Yet nothing was ordinary for them. They were extraordinary, suffering under constant “otherness,” a state critic Leslie Fiedler so sharply dubbed “the tyranny of the normal.”

Still, they were in their own way normal. Wives, children, struggles, longevity, relative happiness. They were like the rest of us strivers and survivors — human, all too human.