Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Maybe Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things


In 1972, director Bob Clark, who would later create cinematic icons like "Porky's" and "A Christmas Story" spent $70,000 to make his first film, a quickie horror flick called "Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things".

It was about a bunch of teens who dig up a corpse named 'Orville' they use in a Satanic ritual intended as a joke. But somehow this causes others of the dead to rise and well, complications ensue.

The movie went on to earn a boatload of money and launched Clark's career.

For the most part, people who make horror movies are pretty honest about their intentions. They're just trying to make a buck.

Others who engage in similarly ghoulish activities, however, often wrap their activities in the loftier guise of scientific study and education. But, make no mistake, it's really about the money, with most of it coming these days from the public purse.

mermaid 13

In 1842, showman P.T. ("There's a sucker born every minute") Barnum created a sensation by presenting the "Feejee Mermaid" in New York.

Certified as an actual mermaid captured off the coast of Fiji by noted biologist Dr. J. Griffin, the beast was actually the top half of a monkey sewn onto the back half of a fish. And Griffin wasn't a doctor at all but merely one of Barnum's carnie pals.

Still, the cream of New York society lined up to visit Barnum's exhibit, assured of its scientific and educational importance.

A few years ago, the same kind of audiences began lining up to see "Bodies: The Exhibition" a showcase of human bodies dissected to display internal organs or posed at various activities.

Great pains were made to assure the public that the cadavers had been legally acquired and meticulously preserved through a process called "plastination" perfected by an esteemed anatomist named Gunther von Hagens.

That, combined with the fact that the displays were usually housed in prestigious museums or science centers heavily subsidized by Government money gave the concept an air of respectability and importance.

When the first "Bodies" exhibit debuted in Toronto I somehow received passes to the opening. But having spent a few years working on the "Friday the 13th" TV series where we spent an inordinate amount of time creating realistic body parts, I really didn't have any interest and passed the passes to the upwardly mobile family next door, who thought it would be a wonderful opportunity for their kids to rub shoulders with Toronto's elites.

The kids, being a couple of normal 12 and 13 year olds, later regaled me with all the cool directions your testicles apparently went while playing various sports, being most impressed by the gravity defying testes of a certain skateboarder.


I didn't give much thought to "Bodies" until a couple of years later when I discovered the same exhibit featured in the casino atrium of the Las Vegas hotel I was staying in.

I wondered how such a scientifically important presentation had been demoted from internationally recognized halls of learning to tawdry sideshow status.

Then I noticed that the hotel across the street was featuring a treasures of the "Titanic" exhibit that had recently played at another prestigious Toronto museum while also being lauded for and sold on its educational importance.

In talking to one of the guys managing the hotel I learned that there's a kind of circuit these exhibits travel. Like movies that go from first run theatres to re-run houses to cable and then TV, most of these important cultural events eventually end up in Casinos and County fairs.

Many of the society matrons who lined up to be seen while seeing Barnum's "Mermaid" would be aghast to learn that you now find it in a "Ripley's Believe it or Not" emporium.

And you wonder how many soccer moms would have forked over $25 a head to "educate the kids" if they'd first spotted the exhibit at "The Agua Caliente Casino and RV Park".

I'm not saying that you might not learn a thing or two from getting a close up look at some skateboarder's nuts in mid-hammer or by checking out a diseased lung. But I'm wondering what your kids are also learning about ethics.

And I'm also not one of those people who places a lot of value on the mortal coil once its been shuffled off. But I do think there are some lines you don't cross.

So part of me wonders if some of the people who donated their bodies to science really wanted people gawking at the 5 month old they never got to carry to term because it was still inside them when they died.

And anybody who has taken even a rudimentary drawing class knows that a leg muscle in the midst of running has a completely different configuration from one climbing stairs. So that means von Hagens and his associates have to be doing a lot of manipulation with their corpses before they shoot them up with all those fancy resins.

Did those who thought their bodies would be used to train surgeons really okay being contorted from a marathon runner to a ballet dancer before spending eternity swinging a baseball bat after some Dutch rubber expert had calculated which direction their dick was going to point?

Meanwhile evidence seems to be mounting that some (maybe all) of the folks on display may not have wanted to end up skinned and looking very much alive under any circumstances.


Following a Congressional Inquiry and an investigation by New York's Attorney General, the company behind the numerous "Bodies" shows now acknowledges on its website that "the bodies were not formally donated by people who agreed to be displayed". And what's more, "cannot independently verify that the human remains you are viewing are not those of persons who were incarcerated in Chinese prisons".

Indeed there is now mounting proof that most of them were purchased at $300 a pop from the government of China, which already openly admits it is executing prisoners for transplant organs. The fact that most of the specimens on display are in excellent physical condition further implies that their deaths may have been far from natural.

Kinda puts a different perspective on that cut-open mom with her unborn fetus, doesn't it?

Although "Bodies" exhibits are still a mainstay of Canadian museums and science centers, they are now banned in a number of much more lucrative American markets like New York, San Francisco and Seattle.

I guess that means it's still okay to teach Canadian kids there's nothing wrong with exploiting the dead or dehumanizing someone in the name of science or education -- and especially if there's money to be made.

But you'd think a federal government that prides itself on standing up for human rights or companies like Telus, which sponsors the current Vancouver "Bodies" incarnation, might want hard proof they're not participating in some sideshow scam with more real horror attached than any Hollywood shlockmeister ever imagined.

And if you still don't believe making a buck is what is really driving this enterprise, check out the latest use Gunther von Hagens has found for his little rubber friends.

He's selling them online.

For a mere 70,000 Euros ($99,000 Cdn) you can buy your own Chinese corpse. A head will set you back 22,000 Euros ($31,000). If those are out of your price range, you can get a transparent body slice for about $150 (shipping and handling extra).

Not a bad profit margin on $300 worth of dead guy and some acetone.

No word yet on when the human skin lampshades and necklaces of ears and teeth become available.


Anonymous said...

You know, I agree and disagree.

If the exhibit is put together of people who didn't consent than that is terrible. If the bodies are really of murdered Chinese prisoners than it's even worse. I can't do anything but condemn that.

If, on the other hand, there weren't any nefarious goings-on to acquire the bodies, I don't think there is anything inherently wrong or disrespectful about displaying them. You seem to feel that this is something that shouldn't be seen on principle -- the dead should be hidden from the living out of respect. I think of this as a sort of modern mummification, and wouldn't have any objection to being plasticized and displayed after death.

Clint Johnson said...

Right from the very beginning, I saw this guy as a sociopath who had found a way to mutilate corpses with societies blessing. I had assumed that he had done it all above board and was just relieved that he had went this route- because if he hadn't, I am pretty sure that he would have been found with a basement full of dismembered victims. It isn't far off from that if he got the Chinese government to do his killing for him.

Gmajor said...

I never saw the exhibit myself; It creeped me out when I first heard about it and I had doubts about its usefulness as an anatomy exhibit. Some friends of mine saw the exhibit and loved it. I used to be a massage therapist, and in first year, for our anatomy education, there was a required field trip to Humber to view the medical cadavers there. It was all handled very respectfully and professionally. This exhibit horrified me at the time and I am even more horrified at their true origins.

I've reposted a link to this blog post on Facebook and Twitter.

jimhenshaw said...

Hi Anonymous,

nice to hear from you again. Don't be such a stranger.

I actually don't think the dead should be hidden from the living. Yet I doubt many science centers would include a body naturally rotting away as part of this kind of exhibit.

And there's not much added educational value fom exhibits like these that you couldn't get from one of those "see through man" plastic models that have been around for generations.

This is done for dramatic effect and drama usually makes money.

Brandon Laraby said...

As someone who paid to see the exhibit when it first came out -- not knowing any of this (and just finding out about it now) -- I have to admit that I found the exhibit engaging and educating. I spent many years doing life drawing back in art college and even when I was there it was packed with students with their pencils and pads.

If what you've said is true then I think it's a horrible thing. Even worse considering the fact that it taints what I felt was actually a very important and enlightening set of discussions -- not only about our bodies, but also of our Humanity and the boundaries of Death itself.