Séances for Houdini: A Halloween Tradition
Every year on Halloween, magic enthusiasts across the country gather to rouse Harry Houdini from eternal slumber.
When the great escapologist died on October 31, 1926, he left a promise to his wife Bess: If possible, I will contact you from beyond the grave. Every Sunday thereafter, at the noon hour of Harry's death, Bess Houdini would lock herself in a dark room, sit beneath a portrait of Harry, and wait for a message from beyond. If it were indeed possible to communicate from the next realm, Bess would receive a clear sign—before Harry's death, the pair had agreed on a secret phrase to convey: "Rosabelle, believe." ("Rosabelle" was the name of a song Bess performed in the early days of their courtship.)
In addition to these solitary, weekly listening sessions, Bess led a full séance every October 31st. This tradition continued for a decade after Harry's death, after which a resolute Bess put an end to the annual event. The final séance took place at Hollywood's Knickerbocker Hotel in 1936. As far as anyone knows, Harry did not make an appearance. Here is a partial audio recording of the proceedings:
Bess died in 1943, but the traditional Halloween séance for Harry lives on. This year, the Official Harry Houdini Séance is taking place in Danvers, Massachusetts—the site of the 1692 Salem witch trials. Atlas Obscura will be attempting to make contact with Harry during a 40-person ceremony at a secret Hollywood location.
If you would like to speak to Harry but can't make it to a séance on Halloween, you can stage your own version. The Houdini Museum, located in Scranton, PA, is encouraging individual communication attempts:
We are asking everyone on the web to attempt to contact Harry Houdini sometime during Halloween for the 24 hours of October 31st and email us with any results and lack of results. No kooks please, this is a serious seance test and seance tribute.
Once Halloween is over there is always the Magic Castle, which conducts Houdini séances on demand, provided you supply "light paperwork and a $300 deposit" and arrive in formal attire.
Other stories of posthumous communication:
Tsar Bomba: The World's Most Powerful Nuclear Weapon
Just after midday on October 30, 1961, the most powerful human-made explosion in history radiated from the Arctic island of Severny, creating a shockwave that broke windows up to 560 miles away. The USSR had just detonated Tsar Bomba, a hydrogen bomb with a yield of 50 megatons—more than 3,000 times the power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
Severny, part of the Novaya Zemlya archipelago north of Russia, is an island of strong winds, ice-covered mountains, and freezing summers. In the 1870s, Russia resettled a small population of its indigenous Nenets people from the mainland onto the island, in order to assert sovereignty over the archipelago, and protect it from a Norwegian takeover. The Nenets survived the severe conditions by hunting polar bears, reindeer, and seals. But their time on the islands was short-lived. In the 1950s, they were returned to the mainland, when the government decided it had new plans for the island: it was to become the Soviet Union’s most important nuclear testing site.
Detonations began in 1955. In 1961, Novaya Zemlya acquired the dubious honor of being the proving ground for Tsar Bomba, which weighed 60,000 pounds, measured 26 feet long and seven feet in diameter, and had a yield of 50 megatons. It remains the most powerful nuclear weapon ever detonated.
During its 40 years as a Cold War test site, 224 nuclear weapons exploded over Novaya Zemlya. The last reported detonation took place in 1990, although a seismic disturbance in the area in 1997 raised suspicions of secret ongoing testing.
Read about other bomb test sites around the world:
Terrible Lizards and Goofy T. Rexes: An Illustrated History of Dinosaur Parks
The world's first dinosaur park, Crystal Palace Dinosaurs in London, did not have a Tyrannosaurus rex. A glaring omission, you might think, but an understandable one: the park opened in 1854, over 50 years before the T. rex species was named.
Dinosaur parks, whether Victorian fields of stone sculptures or Jurassic Park-influenced, animatronically enhanced attractions, reflect not only the technology of their time, but the paleontological knowledge. As more fossils are discovered, and more revisions to classification and rendering made, these parks become time capsules populated by creatures that are often, in retrospect, kinda goofy looking.
In 1842, English paleontologist Richard Owen analyzed the fossils of three Mesozoic-era reptile genera—Megalosaurus, Iguanodon, and Hylaeosaurus—and found enough similarities to establish a new taxonomic group. He named this group dinosauria, from the Greek deinos ("terrible") and sauros ("lizard").
It was Owen who spearheaded the development of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs, a collection of life-sized models that would constitute the first publicly accessible prehistoric theme park. To realize this vision, Owen teamed up with sculptor and natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse-Hawkins, who was fresh from overseeing London's Great Exhibition of 1851.
Waterhouse-Hawkins spent three years sculpting over 30 dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures under Owen's guidance. After the animals were completed, Waterhouse-Hawkins celebrated with a banquet on the last day of 1853, held, in the words of Edward MacDermott's 1854 guide to Crystal Palace, "within the carcass of one of his antediluvian monsters." Twenty-one guests were seated to dinner inside a mold that had been used to cast one of the park's iguanodons. (MacDermott noted that "When the more substantial viands were disposed of, Professor Owen proposed that the company should drink in silence [to] 'The memory of Mantell, the discover of the iguanodon,' the monster in whose bowels they had just dined.")
Though public enthusiasm for the park was high—"terrible lizards" being an exciting and mysterious new thing for Victorians—Crystal Palace struggled financially. Sculpting each model was an expensive undertaking, and funding ran out before Waterhouse-Hawkins could create his full planned roster of stone animals. As palentological discoveries in the late 19th century caused revisions in the rendering of dinosaurs—influenced by the evolutionary theories evinced in Charles Darwin's On the Origin of the Species, published in 1859—Crystal Palace's creatures became less and less accurate. By the dawn of the 20th century, the park had become run-down and risible.
In the U.S., dinosaur parks didn't become part of the culture until the 1930s, which saw the construction of two roadside attractions: Dinosaur Gardens in Ossineke, Michigan, and Dinosaur Park in Rapid City, South Dakota. Both are still open, and both have obsolete depictions of dinos—after visiting Dinosaur Gardens this summer, a reviewer on TripAdvisor wrote that, while there, "a five-year-old girl pointed out that the forearms of the T. rex sculpture should have just two fingers, not three." (Technically, the T. rex is now understood to have a small vestigial metacarpal, but the kid was on the money.)
With its rounded silhouette and dopey smile, the T. rex at Rapid City is a Barney-caliber dinosaur, or perhaps even sub-Barney—it doesn't have teeth:
Compare that goofy supposed carnivore with a T. rex built for the 1964 World's Fair:
and a version created for JuraPark, a Polish dinosaur park that opened in 2004:
During the 1960s, with the Flintstones as a pop-cultural backdrop, further fossil discoveries and analysis caused a significant shift in paleontology—a "dinosaur renaissance," as paleontologist Robert T. Bakker called it in a 1975 article for Scientific American. In the article, Bakker presented evidence for a reframing of dinosaurs from "symbols of obsolescence and hulking inefficiency" to more sophisticated, complex animals with a still-living descendent: birds.
This revolutionary info-dump shifted scientific and public perception of dinosaurs. No longer were they terrible lizards, but more mammalian and easier to anthropomorphize. Pop-culturally, dinos were increasingly depicted as cuddly, friendly, and emotional, as anyone who went to Pizza Hut in the early '90s and received a Land Before Time hand puppet can attest. Then there was Jurassic Park—not so cuddly and friendly, but certainly anthropomorphized, as in the case of the doorknob-turning, villainous velociraptors.
With the influence of Jurassic Park and the development of animatronics, dinosaur parks have shifted from being collections of statues to high-tech, interactive, often frightening experiences. At Field Station: Dinosaurs in Seacaucus, New Jersey, Australian-accented guides lead school children through themed, technology-enhanced activities designed to educate them on paleontology—and scare the crap out of them.
Miles Portek worked as a Field Station dinosaur handler this year, operating a 15-foot, 90-pound T. rex puppet equipped with a microphone to amplify his roars and a camera for monitoring the reactions of the kids. It's a role he relishes: "My expressions will be the same as the T. rex," he says. "All the noises that the T. rex makes, I make myself. I'm roaring, I'm purring, it's basically a life's dream come true, to realistically be a dinosaur terrorizing children."
Here's what that looks like:
While many of the old dino parks have shuttered, and some have been repurposed—such as the Cabazon dinosaurs in California, popularized by Pee-Wee Herman and now housing a Creationist museum in the belly of the Apatosaurus—new dinosaur parks continue to open around the world. Giant, animatronic animals, however, don't come cheap, and a few of the flashy new parks strugge to recoup costs.
One of the more ostentatious examples in recent years is Palmersaurus, a dinosaur park that opened on Australia's Sunshine Coast in December 2013. The park is named after its creator, Clive Palmer, an egomaniacal billionaire and politician who describes himself as a "National Living Treasure" in his Twitter bio and has plans to build a full-sized replica of the Titanic. Palmersaurus, billed as "the world's largest dinosaur park," consists of 160 robotic dinos that roar at the push of a button. The only problem is that no-one's coming to see them.
The dinosaurs are located at Coolum Resort, a once ritzy, now neglected vacation spot whose golf course was used for PGA tournaments until the arrival of Palmersaurus caused the PGA to withdraw from the location. Palmersaurus' mascot, a 33-foot-tall, roaring T. rex nicknamed Jeff, was installed right next to the green, in a move widely considered tacky and embarrassing. Bewildered former Sunshine Coast councillor Russell Green told Australia's ABC News "It's almost turning into a scene out of Happy Gilmore where you putt down the fairway, you bounce the ball off T. rex's left leg and get it into the 18th hole—it's quite bizarre."
By contrast, streams of visitors still stroll among the restored prehistoric sculptures at Crystal Palace. Though they may not strictly resemble the dinosaurs that roamed the earth during the Mesozoic Era, they serve as enduring reminders of our paleontological progress.
A Cloying Kernel of Evil: The History of Candy Corn
Halloween provides a cavalcade of whimsical scares for children and adults alike, but nothing chills the bones quite as much as the piles of candy corn left at the bottom of pumpkins and pillowcases across America.
A 2013 National Confectioners Association survey found that the vast majority of Americans—72 percent—prefer to eat chocolate on October 31. Just 12 percent of respondents named candy corn as their top Halloween treat. Despite being the consolation prize of confections, candy corn is a ubiquitous part of Halloween and continues to sell billions of kernels each year. The waxy little treat may not be loved, but its relentless domination of an otherwise pleasant night of ghouls and sexy nurses is over one hundred years in the making.
The true creator of candy corn is a mystery lost to time, but the first reports of the multi-colored sugar drops began in the 1880s when the candy began appearing during the Halloween season. Soon after the candy's sporadic appearance throughout the states, the Wunderle Candy Company began mass-producing the treat under the name "Chicken Feed."
In 1898, the homespun recipe for the candy had been adopted by the Goelitz Candy Company who quickly eclipsed Wunderle as the primary purveyor of the faux corn. Despite the sudden adoption by large candy conglomerates, the process for creating candy corn remained remarkably labor intensive. After mixing a cavity cocktail of sugar, corn syrup, fondant, marshmallow, and water, the slurry would be dyed one of the three candy corn hues: orange, yellow, or white. Laborers would then take 45-pound buckets of the hot liquid candy and pour it into long rows of trays of kernel forms, making three passes, one for each color of the corn. Once this back-breaking work was complete, the molds would cool and candy corn was unleashed upon an autumnal population.
The agrarian America of the late 19th century embraced the sweet little treats that recalled the season's harvest time roots and farm-fed lifestyle. In fact, candy corn became so popular during the candy season that confectioners even experimented with other vegetable-formed candies such as candy pumpkins and turnips. Due to the slow, laborious candy creation process of the time, treats such as candy corn were only made from March to November, so the tide of candy corn would only wash across the nation around the time of Halloween, hence the inextricable link between the holiday and the candy.
Candy corn remained a stalwart product for companies through the 20th century as candy trends came and went. The simple recipe for the candy has been unchanged throughout, although the strongmen with the buckets of sugar were eventually replaced by industrial machines which now heartlessly crank out "All Hallows' Tears" year-round.
Breaking its bond to Halloween, candy corn is now produced for a number of holidays in a rainbow of abominations such as the red and green "reindeer corn," or the pastel "rabbit corn." But no matter the coloration, the recipe remains the same, and the chalky sweetness of its frontier roots will continue to haunt candy bowls long after all other treats have gone.
Spooky stories to get you in the mood for Halloween:
Why So Grave? Cemeteries That Take a Quirky Approach to Death.
There are over 600 wooden headstones at the Cimitirul Vesel, or Merry Cemetery, in the Romanian town of Săpânța. All are painted bright blue and adorned with portraits of the people they memorialize. These paintings don't necessarily capture the dearly departed at their best moments. In fact, they often gleefully depict the manner in which the person in question died, whether by a beheading or a speeding truck.
The really good stuff, however, is found in the epitaphs painted in Romanian on each grave marker. "Underneath this heavy cross lies my mother-in-law," reads one. "Try not to wake her up. For if she comes back home, she'll bite my head off."
The Merry Cemetery is a unique delight, but you don't have to go all the way to Romania to see a quirky graveyard. Here are three final resting places in the USA that honor the dead in a more light-hearted fashion than your standard urns-and-angels cemeteries.
Established in 1896, Hartsdale Pet Cemetery in New York was the first place in the United States to offer dignified burial plots for beloved animal companions. Over 80,000 pets have found their final homes here—mostly dogs and cats, but you'll also encounter the graves of rabbits, birds, reptiles, monkeys, horses, and even a lion.
During the 19th century, funerals at the pet cemetery were conducted with the solemnity befitting a human memorial, with the bereaved owners arriving by carriage dressed in head-to-toe black. These days, while the burial process is no less emotional, the epitaphs are endearingly witty. ("Left no ball unchased," reads the gravestone for 10-year-old Speculaas, Daughter of Wolmed.
Due to its popularity as a winter refuge for Big Top performers, Hugo, Oklahoma, is also known as Circus City, USA. This explains why the town's Mount Olivet Cemetery contains a graveyard devoted to clowns, elephant trainers, tightrope walkers, and trapeze artists. Showmen's Rest bills itself as the final resting place for "all showmen under God's big top." Many of the headstones are carved with pictures of performers in their element: The Great Huberto is shown walking the high-wire, umbrella in hand, while the gravestone of ringmaster John Strong shows him, life-sized, in a top hat and tails.
Gravestone sculptors at Hope Cemetery in Barre, Vermont, often eschew the usual angelic imagery and opt for more modern markers like an armchair, bi-plane, soccer ball, or race car. Barre, home to the world's largest granite quarry, has attracted gifted granite sculptors since the late 19th century. Hope Cemetery is an outdoor showroom for their memorial art—about a third of the headstones have been carved from Barre granite. Some were even carved by the people whose graves they adorn.
Ironically, sculpting the gravestones is what contributed to the death of some of Barre's artists. Prior to the implementation of better workplace ventilation in the 1930s, sculptors were at high risk of succumbing to silicosis—a lung disease that results from inhaling silica dust during carving.
Some more quirky cemeteries around the world:
Reversible Destiny: The Apartments Designed With Immortality in Mind
"Do you want to live in an apartment or house that can help you determine the nature and extent of interactions between you and the universe?"
This is one of many big questions posed by Reversible Destiny, a foundation established with the goal of extending the human lifespan via architectural design.
Reversible Destiny—founded by Shusaku Arakawa, a Japanese neo-Dadaist and associate of Marcel Duchamp, and Madeline Gins, an American poet with a background in physics and Eastern philosophy—has produced several homes and recreational sites designed to create a more robust body and mind. Chief among them are the Reversible Destiny Lofts in Tokyo, a set of nine apartments built in 1995 that come with instructions for use.
The lofts have spherical rooms, undulating concrete floors riddled with bumps, and candy-colored walls. Poles and ladders run from floor to ceiling in unexpected places and electrical outlets dangle from above. Each apartment resembles a playground designed without regard for child safety regulations.
The concept behind the unconventional design is that inhabitants will be forced to use their brains and bodies in unusual ways in order to navigate the space. There is no chance of settling into routines and rote movements, because the challenging architecture makes it impossible. The goal is to never become comfortable—comfort, according to Reversible Destiny's philosophy, means death. Arakawa and Gins, no great fans of mortality, sought to make death illegal.
In addition to the Tokyo lofts, which are still available for short-term stays, the foundation built the Bioscleave House, also known as the Lifespan Extending Villa, in East Hampton, New York, and the Site of Reversible Destiny, a park in the small Japanese town of Yoro. Both feature Arakawa and Gins' disorienting design elements, such as uneven surfaces, mazes, domes, and shocks of color.
Despite their valiant efforts to defy death, Arakawa and Gins both succumbed to the inevitability of linear time—Arakawa died in 2010, and Gins in January 2014. Their work, however, survives as a vibrant testament to their audacious lives.
More architecture designed to challenge and confound:
Leave Me Be Beneath a Tree: Trunyan Cemetery in Bali
In the traditional Balinese village of Trunyan, the dead are not buried. They are not cremated or burned on a pyre or, as in the case of the Zoroastrians, hoisted up a hill to be torn apart by vultures. They are simply laid on the ground and left to rot.
Trunyan Cemetery, accessible only by boat across Lake Batur, contains 11 bamboo cages built in the shape of triangular prisms. When a member of the village dies, their body—wrapped in white cloth with the head exposed — is placed in one of these cages. When the cages are full, the body that has been there the longest is removed to make room for the next inhabitant. The remains of the long-time resident are placed on a pile along with any other corpses that have been evicted by newcomers until all the flesh, fat, and muscle has decomposed.
When the bones are all that remain of a deceased villager, the skull is added to the growing row beneath a large Taru Menyan tree. This tree is not just decorative—the pleasant, incense-like fragrance wafting from its leaves helps neutralize the odor of the decomposing corpses.
Read about other remarkable burial traditions:
Colonia Fara: An Italian Summer Camp for Happy Little Fascists
The ugly effects of Mussolini's rule are still visible in the small Italian Riviera town of Chiavari, where the beachfront vista is marred by a Fascist building with a fascinating story. The now-abandoned, trash-strewn eyesore was built in 1935 to serve as Colonia Fara, a summer camp for Italy's Fascist Youth.
At the time, the government operated several paramilitary youth organizations under the banner of Opera Nazionale Balilla. Divided into sub-groups according to sex and age, children of the ONB received training in athletics, marching, rifle shooting, and technology—all the ingredients to create a happy little Fascist.
Colonia Fara was one of many summer camps established across Italy during the Mussolini regime to shape the minds and bodies of the nation's youth. Mussolini himself came to inaugurate the building in 1938, but Colonia Fara did not serve its intended role for long—the outbreak of World War II saw it repurposed as a military hospital.
Post-war, and with Italian Fascism vanquished, Colonia Fara became a refugee camp for Italians fleeing Istria, a former Italian territory that was handed to Yugoslavia via treaty in 1947. After brief stints as a youth hotel and a school, the building was abandoned for good by 1999. Its crumbling walls are now scrawled with graffiti.
Recurring talk of the building being converted into a hotel or luxury apartments has thus far failed to result in any demolition or refurbishment. Meanwhile, over a hundred Italians have taken the time to write reviews of the building on TripAdvisor, with 74 giving it the worst possible rating of "Terrible."
Other fascinating architectural remnants of fascism:
Asamkirche: The Rococo Church Where Death Hides in Plain Sight
The ridiculously ornate rococo interior of Asamkirche (also known as the Church of St. Johann Nepomuk) in Munich is crammed with winged cherubs, swirling frescoes, and fiddly golden ornamentation. It’s hard to know where to look, but one sight in particular draws the eye: a golden skeleton jamming a big pair of scissors at the lolling head of an innocent cherub. On the skeleton’s back, ready to be hauled out an any moment, lies a scythe. It’s Death!
Look closer and you’ll see that Death’s scissors are poised to snip a golden string being held by the cherub. If you’re thinking “metaphor,” you’re a sharp one. That string is the thread of life, and Death can cut it at any moment.
The church designers—Baroque-loving brothers Egid Quirin Asam and Cosmas Damian Asam—placed this gilded memento mori right by the entrance when they created it in the mid-18th century. Though Asamkirche is now open to the public, it was originally designed as a private place of worship for the Asam brothers, who apparently preferred to begin each church visit with a dramatic reminder of their own mortality.
Correction, Oct. 21, 2014: The post originally contained photos of a different rococo church in Munich, Heilig-Geist-Kirche. They have been removed.
Other ostentatiously ornate rococo places:
Chouara: A Striking 11th-Century Tannery in Morocco
Wedged among the ancient buildings and serpentine passageways of Fez’s Old Medina in Morocco is a grid of stone wells, each filled with a colored liquid. This is Chouara, an 11th-century tannery that still operates as it did a thousand years ago.
Cow, sheep, goat, and camel hides are brought here to be preserved, dyed, and turned into the handbags, jackets, and wallets sold in the surrounding souks.
The process begins with the raw skins being soaked in a mixture of cow urine, pigeon feces, quicklime, salt, and water—the liquid in the white wells. This loosens the hair from the hides and makes them softer. After a few days of steeping in this concoction, the skins are hauled out and hung from rails on the balconies to dry. Then comes the dyeing. Tannery workers plunge the skins into the colored wells, leaving them there for a few more days to absorb each hue. The dyes all come from natural substances, such as indigo, henna, saffron, poppies, and pomegranates.
Visitors are welcome to observe the tannery in action, and are even given a gift upon arrival: a small spring of mint to hold under the nose when the smell becomes too much.
More amazing sights in Morocco: