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Creepy, macabre, and bloody: Halloween assignment illustrates breadth of Ransom Center's collections

By Bethany Johnsen

Arthur Conan Doyle's Ouija board. Photo by Pete Smith.
Arthur Conan Doyle's Ouija board. Photo by Pete Smith.

Bethany Johnsen is an undergraduate intern at the Ransom Center who has been working with Cline Curator of Literature Molly Schwartzburg to gather materials for students for a visit on Halloween.

For the students in University of Texas at Austin English Professor Janine Barchas’s freshman honors seminar, a Ransom Center visit on October 31 will bring more than the usual bag of treats: a Halloween-themed presentation introducing students to the Center’s resources.

I assisted Ransom Center Cline Curator of Literature Molly Schwartzburg in putting together the presentation, and this process revealed the provocative connections that such a subject affords, and will, we hope, suggest to these students ways they might use the collections over the remainder of their time as students. With so many items relating to the supernatural, morbid, or just plain unusual to choose from, limiting the presentation to a manageable size was perhaps the most difficult part of the process.

With a topic as huge as Halloween and all its creepy associations, where does a curator begin? We wanted to pull from various collections to display the richness of the Center’s holdings. So while hours could be spent on the objects of horror from just, say, film, we restricted ourselves to the torso model of Robert De Niro’s makeup for his role as the monster in Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 adaptation of Frankenstein and the mask of (imitation) human skin from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974).

Of course, the modern scary movie invokes a tradition long predating the twentieth century. The presentation will highlight older examples of fascination with the occult, from a sixteenth-century book entitled The discouerie of witchcraft,: wherein the lewde dealings of witches and witchmongers is notablie detected, the knauerie of conjurors, the impietie of inchantors…, (and so forth) to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Ouija board. And in case such historically important artifacts lack a certain flavor of whimsy, we were sure to include a blood-stained handkerchief from the personal effects of  printer T. J. Cobden-Sanderson, accompanied by a note reading “Dickie’s first cut sometime in November 1885.”

But many of the picks were not as immediately obvious candidates as century-old child blood.  Following a suggestion to investigate the Edward Gorey collection, given the American illustrator’s enormous influence on the contemporary Gothic aesthetic, I combed through his manuscripts to and came across a page that had—in addition to such phrases as “gothic,” “flamboyant,” and “arc cassé”—the words “danse macabre” scrawled across it. This page was not immediately remarkable in a series of brittle papers covered by Gorey’s doodles, but we were intrigued by “danse macabre” anyway. The dance of death, as we call it in English, is an artistic and literary genre that arose in the late medieval period to represent allegorically that death unites everyone, regardless of station or class; we must all dance with death. This symbol must have had special resonance in an age when death, and the harshest class distinctions were so ubiquitous. The Center holds wonderful examples of “dance of death” iconography from many periods, images that can be rather jarring.

Like Halloween traditions themselves, the Center’s holdings span many nations and centuries, and it is this diversity that allows the researcher to pursue unexpected links, like those that arise between twentieth-century artists and late medieval allegories.