Folklore Thursday: The Island of No Return

Hello, Constant Followers and welcome to #FolkloreThursday, the Dark Corners off-shoot of the weekly event started by the wonderful people at Folklore Thursday. Folklore Thursday was originally started to celebrate folklore and folks stories from around the world. This segment is Dark Corners’ tribute to the original concept, though I do not claim any credit or affiliation with that site.

Folklore can be defined as, “a body of popular myth and beliefs relating to a particular place, activity, or group of people.”

From what I learned in my brief study of folklore in college, this usually means that folk traditions are passed by word of mouth. Other folk traditions carried out in a given setting include attire, methods of construction, myth cycles, language (sometimes complicated by dialect), heroic figures, and cult religions not controlled directly by one of the primary religious influences: Judaism, Islam, Christianity, or Buddhism.

We’re continuing with the unknowable and the macabre this week with an examination the urban legends of the haunted island of Poveglia, and the face of a figure whose very presence inspires fear and revulsion to this day: the mysterious, ominous plague doctor.

But first, an introduction to urban legends.

Urban Legends

According to the textbook definition, urban legends are, “humorous or horrific stories or pieces of information circulated as though true, especially one purporting to involve someone vaguely related or known to the teller.”

Urban legends spread a lot like folk traditions. Almost no one you talk to can pinpoint an exact source. They may tell you they heard it from a friend, but it’s not very specific, or that it happened to someone they know. However, some are sparked by a rash of crimes (like the clowns in the woods in the Carolinas last year). There may be more than one version of the story, but here is one that is a local favorite in my home town, San Antonio.

A school bus stalled on a set of train tracks south of Mission San Juan in San Antonio, and was struck by a train. Every so often, rumors would surface in my home town that so-and-so parked their car on the tracks (as the area is a popular artist haunt, and San Antonio is a tourist town, heralded as the most haunted city in Texas). They would leave their car in neutral on the tracks in the dead of night and wait. People would report that they could hear voices of the children, or that their car would mysteriously roll forward, off the tracks, and the next day, you could see small hand prints on the dust on their car. As the story goes, the children’s ghosts would try to push the car off the train tracks.

A front page section of a newspaper from The San Antonio Express News in 1938. The headline mentions that the death toll of the school bus accident continues to rise.
It seems in 1938 there really was an accident involving a bus and a train.

It doesn’t help that it appears to have actually happened. However, whether or not the ghosts of the children killed in the crash actually push your car off the tracks is unknowable.

Lydia the Phantom Hitchhiker from North Carolina is another popular one. On a family trip to St. James Island for Cousins Week, my ex’s mother’s cousin told us she had actually seen the ghost of Lydia on her way home one night. The story goes that Lydia died in a car accident on Highway 70 South in North Carolina. In a book called The Vanishing Hitchhiker, Professor Jan Harold Brunvand documents over eleven different variations on the story circulating in North Carolina. However, the story seems to be as old as time itself. According to the book, hitchhiker disappearances were a real problem in the US, and almost every state in the Union has a story about a ghost girl who died in a car crash and who is trying to get back home.

Most urban legends today are being fueled by the speed with which we can now access and spread information. In the 1970s, the girl’s name was not Lydia. One usually heard “Mary” or another common name. It is only in recent years that not only has the ghost girl been given a name, but people have actually nailed down a destination called “Lydia’s Bridge” on Highway 70 south between Raleigh and Greensboro. Never mind that, according to research, it’s not even a bridge, but a culvert.

As Lidia says with a shrug, “Details.”

Other urban legends have sprung from pop culture. It is easy to confuse urban legends with pop culture, as sometimes one doesn’t know where the urban legend ends and the source begins. For example, Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark was popular in the 1990s, and documented several urban legends into print, including “The Hook” in which a couple decides to make out at Lookout Point. A radio announcer warns people that a serial killer with a hook for a hand is on the loose, just across the wood from where the couple is parked. Though the boyfriend blows it off, the girl becomes nervous and begs to be driven home, which the angry boyfriend does. When they arrive at her house, they discover a hook dangling from the car door. The story may have first appeared in a “Dear Abby” column, and news stories of teenagers going into the woods for some necking and getting slaughtered would have set whole neighborhoods on edge.

Though printed officially, and now out of the realm of the urban legend, it seems the legend is as old as the 1950s, and serves as a cautionary tale about teenage sex. In the story, the boyfriend guns the engine in anger and tears off into the woods, explaining how a bloody hook has come to be stuck to the car door handle. The couple narrowly escapes dying in the woods. In the instance of this story, the girl’s refusal to have sex saves them both from being murdered.

A more recent example of pop culture’s influence over our urban legends is a site called Creepypasta. It’s a user-generated content site designed to share frightening art and stories from around the world, a form of social media for the artistic and chronically bored. It is from a similar wellspring of daytime distraction called Something Awful that the Slender Man was born.

A black and white photo of an abnormally tall, faceless creature holding the hand of a young girl in a forrest. Slender Man
This is the Slender Man, originally a Photoshop contest entry that took on a life of its own.

The Slender Man was supposedly a tall figure in a pinstripe suit with no face. A few photographs of him holding the hand of a young girl were entered as part of a Photoshop contest on Something Awful. A video game in which you had to solve his riddles cropped up, followed by a slew of reaction videos on YouTube. In May of 2014, two twelve-year-old girls lured their friend out into the woods of Wisconsin and stabbed her nineteen times. She was able to crawl to a nearby roadside, where a biker rendered aid. She was able to recover, but it was the Nation who would spend the next several years reeling in shock. The girls claimed that they stabbed the other girl to please the Slender Man.

Though not originally an urban legend, the Slender Man took on a life of his own on the Internet in a frenzy of hysteria that led to actual crime, and ever since, children all over the country warn against traveling too deep into the woods, lest they fall victim to the Slender Man.

Urban legends can often be mistaken for folklore, but because they are not tied to any one particular group and often take their source from pop culture or the media, they are not classified as folklore. Television shows on networks like Scyfy and The Travel Channel perpetuate unsubstantiated claims and scripted descriptions of haunted places, mixing urban legend with fact, weaving a dizzying narrative to excite and frighten. There is no place on Earth that could possibly exude the kind of harrowing, nightmare aura and downright evil spirit, steeped in the blood of thousands talked about on The Travel Channel. There is no place on Earth quite like the small Venetian island of Poveglia.

Influences on the Legend of Poveglia

In the Venetian Lagoon there sits a small island. It is uninhabited, and has been so since 1968, after a sanitarium and long-term care facility had officially been abandoned. Several attempts were made by the Italian government to sell or lease it, hoping to revive the island.

A lagoon vista at sunset, with pastel light. The island of Poveglia's bell tower is plainly visible.
The small Venetian island of Poveglia, seen from a distance. The bell tower is plainly visible.

But, as urban legend would have it, apparently the island of Poveglia is accursed indeed.

What dark secrets lurk behind the crumbling walls and packed earth of Poveglia? Why has ScyFy’s Scariest Places on Earth dubbed Poveglia, “the Island of No Return”?

The Rich Occult History Of Venice

According to The Scariest Places on Earth, pre-Renaissance and Renaissance Venice was awash in blood. At the epicenter of the cultural revival, rebirth, upheaval, and wealth, Venice, according to myth and popular imagination, was fueled on the life blood of dark energy.

Much of this might be boiled down to urban legend and myth–and let’s all remember that television shows like Scariest Places in the World rely heavily on dramatic representation. There is even a disclaimer at the beginning of the show that warns that some reproductions are purely for dramatic effect. Translations can be made to say anything that suits the show’s purpose. Despite the unreliability of most made-for-tv documentaries, a resurgence in ceremonial magic during Renaissance Humanism may point to a prevalence of a sort of cognitive dissonance that allowed for both the belief in the ritual of the transmutation during the Eucharist and pagan ceremonial magic. Side-by-side, they don’t seem terribly different. By definition, ceremonial magic involves a complex ritual to produce a magical effect. What could possibly be more magical than a piece of bread and some wine turning into the body of Christ as it enters you? Among the wealthy and bored, even magical practices banned under canon law held much Romance and allure, such as chiromancy, or palm reading, which became popular during the Renaissance with the influx of Romani into Europe.

There are other aspects of Venetian life in pre-Renaissance and Renaissance Italy that point to the hint of licentious activities, and that was the cultural norm of mask-wearing. The “bauta” was the most common. It covered the whole face, and had a protruding bottom half that tapered, allowing the wearer to eat, drink and talk. Mask-wearing was generally accepted only by the elite.

A person of unknown identity stands in a black tricorn hat and black robe wearinga white bauta mask during Carnival.
An example of the full “bauta” costume and mask, popular now during the Venetian Carnival.

However, if a pauper or low-class person donned the mask, it was incredibly objectionable to force them to identify themselves. Mask-wearing was culturally inviolate. There was too great of a risk that one might offend a peer. Often this was how lower classes mingled with the wealthy. More specifically, the bauta also refers to the style of costume worn along with the mask, involving a tricorn hat and red cape. It is only too easy to wonder what darkness lay at the heart of a culture that reveled in assuming alternate identities.

The bauta may be best recognized by it’s use in, arguably, the greatest metal band in the world right now, Ghost, who brought back the bauta for their first and second incarnations. Ghost’s major selling point is that no one really knows who each of the band members actually is. Revealing their true identities, even among fans, is likely to get you ostracized and banned from groups on Facebook (I’ve never done it, but I’ve seen it before–Ghost fans are protective). It is a gimmick that is as highly favored among Ghost fans. Even Papa Emeritus (the Pope one) is actually wearing a mask.

Papa Emeritus wears a papal Mitre and black and green robes. His mask is painted to resemble a skull face. The Nameless Ghouls are dressed in black robes with cowels and bauta masks.
The band, Ghost, at Coachella in full regalia. Papa Emeritus is in the center, surrounded by the Nameless Ghouls. Notice the masks.

But of all the ways in which Italy may be steeped in a horrifying history, none is more horrifying than the toll taken upon the land during The Black Death.

The Black Death

According to History.com, the bubonic plague, or the Black Death (or what we refer to these days as “The Plague” or “The Black Plague”) arrived in Europe by sea in 1347, though by the time the Plague reached Messina in Sicily, rumors were already spreading of a pestilence carving a swatch through the East and Middle East.

The Black Death was the single most devastating epidemic to ever strike humanity. According to the CDC, the Ebola virus outbreak killed 22,620 people in West Africa in 2014, and still pales in comparison to the 20 million deaths across Europe attributed to the Black Death. Death by Plague was horrific. According to the History channel, one could lay down to sleep a healthy person, and be dead by morning. Poet and writer Boccaccio wrote, “the mere touching of the clothes appeared itself to communicate the malady to the toucher.” The Black Death was indiscriminate and efficient. The streets were lined with corpses of the fallen, family members fled the homes of plague victims, and mass graves were dug to accommodate the piles of corpses.

And out of the rising smoke of pyres and treading lightly over the fallen stepped a creature with the face of a bird beneath a wide-brimmed black hat and cloak that came to gloved hands and trailed the feet.

The Plague Doctors

Though long-since debunked, The Plague Doctors were not considered harbingers of doom during the Black Plague. They were revered, respected, and admired for their courage. For many they were a symbol of hope. It is through science that we discover that they were perhaps more harmful than helpful.

Standing in a camp site, Jeremy cuts an impressive figure in his black leather hat, cloak, and bird face mask. He is not holding his cane in this picture.
Jeremy Shoemaker dressed as a plague doctor for The Texas Renaissance Festival in Magnolia, Texas. How many people can say they have a fairly recent picture of a plague doctor?

In medieval times, it was believed that disease was transmitted in the air, a school of thought called miasma theory, which states that air smelling foul due to decay also carried disease, and that by purifying the air and making it smell good, one could dispel the diseased air. This lead to the bird-like beak of the plague mask, which was far from the nose of the wearer and stuffed with perfumes and herbs to purify the air the plague doctor breathed. Unfortunately, that was useless. We now know that illness and disease are spread by germs. Their black oilcloth cloaks that were worn under the mask, hat, and gloves were perhaps far more useful. However, it has been surmised that the disease was spread even if one touched the clothes of the infected. The plague doctors moved among plague victims freely, though they often prodded them with a stick to avoid contact. They truly were doctors–well some of them. Others were hack doctors hoping to make a little coin. Many were looking for a cure, but with every victim they came into contact with, they carried the contagion with them on their clothes. And as there was no treatment that worked, they often simply helped their victims into the grave. A common joke at the Renaissance Festival my friend attended was to ask for a picture, then flee the scene, afraid to catch the plague. Others took pictures from a distance. They did not want to bother him, but we joked that they were afraid he was bringing the plague with him. From a historical standpoint, that’s not even remotely funny.

Two plague doctors stand over a fire of burning bodies.
Did someone call a doctor?… No?

Folk Traditions of Poveglia

There are two very persistent tales of Poveglia.

The first is the Plague quarantine. Poveglia is situated right in the Venetian lagoon. It had formerly been an abbey or convent, and so it was equipped with a church and outbuildings to serve as a quarantine. Plague doctors would take shiploads of plague victims out to the island to keep them away from the populace. Unfortunately, the Plague killed so quickly that victims who were supposedly shipped out never returned. If the urban legend is to be believed, there were over 160,000 people buried or burned in plague pits (mass graves) on Povegelia.

The second tale is that of the doctor at the sanitarium. In real life, Poveglia’s structures were converted into an asylum. There, it is said, that the dark energy and spirits of the damned drove the doctor who worked there mad. He began lobotomizing and torturing the patients that came into his care, adding to the blood spilled on the island.

Let that fire your imagination for a bit.

Deep in the ruins of Poveglia appears to be some round apperature leading into a chamber. Rumor has it this is the crematoria of the mad doctor.
Part of the ruins of Poveglia island’s asylum and outbuildings.

It is rumored around the world that no sane Italian will set foot on Poveglia, and that ghost hunters have brought back poundage of definitive proof of supernatural activity on the island. Rumor also has it that those brave souls who dare enter the island at night never return.

But how true is any of this?

For Italian-born film director Emanuele Mengotti, the island of Poveglia proved to be a constant source of wonder. Growing up on the island closest to Poveglia, Emanuele was always full of curiosity regarding its dark legends.

“I have to say that to me, more than haunted, I felt attracted to that island since I was a kid with my parents,” he said in an interview, “I used to go there and my dad, telling me ghost stories about it, and it was very exciting for me!”

Contrary to the rumor that no Italians will visit the island, Emanuele has made many trips to the island.

“I loved to spend my time there and explore the island, sometimes even by myself! I was always getting lost and having to find my way back.”

A hallway in what is ostensibly one of the hospital buildings on the island, now fallen to ruins. Vines and shrubbery covers the left wall, and parts of the celing and windows have caved in.
Nature seems to be reclaiming Poveglia, wiping the stain of man from its face.

Drawing on this inspiration, Emanuele set out to create a stunning piece of cinema that at once inspired thrilling terror while exploring the old legends of Poveglia and the plague doctors who have gained the reputation of heralds of doom rather than benevolent rescuers. Emanuele is reinventing a vision of Italy and Poveglia through the lens of one who has walked where others dare not tread, though he does keep the pragmatic mindset of a local expert.

A man dressed in tall hat and white plague doctor mask stands in the waves on the coast, a strange vision indeed.
A still image from the concept preview of Emanuele Mengotti’s film The Plague Doctor.

“Unfortunately the info that you can find on the web are wrong. The interesting thing is that we are witnessing the origin of a Legend…twenty years ago the island was so different. You were still able to find old books–now its just ruins!”

According to historical accounts, that Emanuele was kind enough to confirm for me, Poveglia once served as a small quarantine base for ships bearing confirmed cases of the Black Plague. In the early twentieth century, some of the small buildings were re-purposed into a mental health facility, and it was again used sometimes as a quarantine for plague victims. There was a section meant for the mentally ill, but no mad doctor.

Still, the dark atmosphere and pervading sense of dread persists regarding Poveglia. It is this dark energy that Emanuele hopes to capitalize on as he brings his film to life. Emanuele says that many people still do believe the island to be haunted with the ghosts of plague victims. He says the atmosphere of the island is “creepy” and that it is, in fact, abandoned. Like many of us who are enamored of their own homeland, Emanuele is comfortable both with the historical facts of Poveglia and with the dark legends that fuel his imagination.

Conclusion

Urban legends may not be the modern equivalent of folktales, but they spread roughly in the same way and may sometimes take their sources from historical fact or popular culture. In the case of the Italian island of Poveglia, the remnants of the Black Death frighten and wrap the unwary tourist in a web of Romanticism and gruesome flights of fancy. Like the Alamo here in Texas, there are two sides to the same story. One just happens to be significantly more interesting than the other. Frankly I’d rather dance a jig with the ghosts of Travis, Bowie, and Crockett at the Alamo than walk among the restless spirits of 160,000 plague victims, but it seems history would have us recognize that Travis and Bowie probably don’t haunt the Alamo anymore than the rampant poltergeist of a mad doctor haunts Poveglia. Legend has it that all 113 men died at the Alamo. History says prisoners were taken, including Crockett, since he was a congressman, and therefore a political time bomb. Why listen to history books when the tales of death and destruction during the Black Plague are far more entertaining?

It is the legend and myth of a place that will stay with you long after you get home and take off your bauta mask or coonskin cap. Myth, legend, and folktale. Don’t care how many times Emanuele Mengotti may say the place is only creepy, you won’t catch me out on that island anywhere near dark.

 

African Folk Traditions, Ethnic Stigma, and Taboo

THe word "Taboo" written in block seriph letters across the open ocean at night, a common motif for the series.
Official logo for the FX Network television series, Taboo.

Hello, Constant Followers and welcome to #FolkloreThursday, the Dark Corners off-shoot of the weekly event started by the wonderful people at Folklore Thursday. Folklore Thursday was originally started to celebrate folklore and folks stories from around the world.

Folklore can be defined as, “a body of popular myth and beliefs relating to a particular place, activity, or group of people.”

From what I learned in my brief study of folklore in college, this usually means that folk traditions are passed by word of mouth. Other folk traditions carried out in a given setting include attire, methods of construction, myth cycles, language (sometimes complicated by dialect), heroic figures, and cult religions not controlled directly by one of the primary religious influences: Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.

This Folklore Thursday is taking a dark turn as we delve into the rich history of African religious and folk traditions, though we will then turn our attention to the Western stigmatization of pagan cults through the lens of the new FX television series, Taboo.

 West African Voudo and Juju, and Ashanti Obeah

Voudo and Juju

I’m keeping to the Western or Gold Coast for the purposes of exploring the major folk traditions of the Africans who were captured and sold into slavery during the Atlantic Slave Trade, as these are the ones who were most likely to be encountered by Western Culture, and whose magic is most closely associated with the television show, Taboo.

Voudo was largely practiced on the Gold Coast among tribes that belonged to what we now call Nigeria and Ghana. Voudo came to the United States through the slaves traded into the Carribean first–Haiti and Jamaia. It was later carried to Louisiana,the Carolinas, and Virginia, and is now unlovingly referred to as Voudon or Voodoo. However, Voudo does not always have the haunting and evil repugnance assigned to it by Christian slave owners of the Antebellum South. Voudo refers to the monotheistic religion that stems from Mesopotamian traditions centering around a single Creator with two aspects, the moon (female) and the sun (male) along with a pantheon of lesser spirits (Loas).

Voudo worshipers believe the gods of Voudo appear in their every day lives, and that pleasing the gods with small rituals will ensure health and prosperity. Though the manifestations of the Loas can sometimes occur, it is only under certain ceremonial circumstances along with the necessary offerings. Author Gail Z. Martin explores Voudon traditions among the Gullah people of Charleston, South Carolina in her Deadly Curiosities novels, Deadly Curiosities and Vendetta.

There are evil or dangerous spirits among the Loas, particularly the Guédé family headed by Baron Samedi, or “Saturday”, the Evil Doer. This group of Loas is closely associated with the dead. Baron Samedi can be ritualistically summoned with proper offerings of tobacco and rum.

Baron Samedi stands in what appears to be a Louisiana Graveyard, standing with his traditional staff and top hat, smoking a cigar. He has a boa draped across his shoulders.
Cosplayer Rick Lacour depicting the dangerous Haitian and Creole Loa Spirit, Baron Samedi, who is the traditional Loa of the Dead, and head of the Guédé family Loa, part of the overall Voudo pantheon. Photo by Matt Barnes.

Juju is often mistaken for Voudo, but the two words are not interchangeable. While Voudon worshipers believe in a spiritual connection to the gods and Loas that can be accessed through ceremony and offerings, Juju is the practice that binds or forms the pact, or agreement, enforcing compliance. The witch who practices good or bad juju can bind spirits and elements to amulets and talismans for use for against others. This is where the image of the Voodoo doll comes from, though it is in fact not at all related to Voudo.

Ashanti Obeah

It is the from the Obeah traditions that Southern white plantation owners came to fear the power of African magic.

Obeah is still commonly practiced among Western Africans and their descendants. According to Obeah Rituals, the Ashanti of Western Africa were of the Akan ethnicity that formed the Ashanti state, Asanteman, and were the geographical neighbors to the Dahomey and Fon tribes that went on to become the caretakers of Vodou in the Caribbean and Gulf territories of the United States. According to Obeah Rituals, the Ashanti of what is now called Ghana were some of the only Africans to successfully repel British occupation.

Obeah and Voudo are fairly similar. The practice of Obeah is second part of the two-part magic practiced by the Ashanti on the Gold Coast, and then later among the Jamaicans and Gullah practitioners of the Carolinas. The first part is an herb-based medicinal practice. Among the Gullah and in Jamaica, these are sometimes called “Root Workers”. It was purely for treating bodily ailments.

An African-looking man squats before a thatch hut. Though African in appearance, this photo was more than likley taken in the Carribean islands, where many Gold Coast Africans were sold as slaves during the Atlantic Slave Trade.
An Obeahman, sometimes called a “Root Worker” by Carribeans and the Gullah practitioners of South Carolina. Photo by Vlad Sokhln.

Obeah targets the spirit of the person. The Obayifo worked to heal spiritual wounds and ailments inflicted by witchcraft. The Obayifo traditionally had access to two spirits, one evil, and one neutral. Failure of the Obayifo to stay vigilant could result in the complete takeover of his body, which would require cleansing by another Obeah man.

But the Obayifo has a darker side to it. Among the Ashanti, an Obayifo can make pacts with the spirits, including the Sasabonsam, or Asabonsam, an evil spirit that was commonly connected to the Obayifo. This association has given rise to the belief among scholars and folklorists that the Obayifo is the root of the legend of the vampire. Several of the depictions I discovered included a creature who could hang upside down. According to Scribol, the creature was said to have wings that could be as wide as twenty feet. Other depictions include an simian type creature, like the one below from deviantARTist Darrel Tan.

Two clearly African warriors are stalked by the Asabonsan vampire, a creature who could hang upside down from a tree buy it's feet and fed off the blood of the living. It is unclear whether or not the creature was supposed to resemble a simian creature, or if this is a common trope assigned by Western folklorists.
A deviantART depcition of Asabonsam, the evil spirit that may have given rise to the legend of the vampire, most closely associated with the Ashanti witch, the Obayifo, who could form pacts with this spirit. Art by Darrel Tan.

According to  John L. Vellutini, author of the Journal of Vampirology, the Ashanti Obayifo (whose name is sometimes synonymous with the Sasabosnam or Asasabonsam), shares many similarities to the European vampire, though the literal vampire is not often found in African tradition. It was common among white slave owners to free Obeah men that were enslaved to keep them from practicing their black magic against the slave owners who bought them.

Other African Magic Systems

Witchcraft takes on many forms in African folk traditions, varies from tribe to tribe, and seems to have a very definite gender designation. For example, an old anthropology paper draws comparisons between the Nupe and Gwari tribes and their adherence to witchcraft, with women always as the witches (gacic), and the male possessing the power to see and deal with witches (eshe). Some central tribes believe that the witch lays in the belly of a person and controls their actions. The Zulu and Bantu use “witch smellers”, and they are always women.

But it is perhaps the Obeah from the Ashanti on the Gold Coast that loaned some of their witchs’ evil intent to the one “sworn to do very foolish things” in FX’s new television show, Taboo.

But first, a quick primer on British occupation.

What British Occupation Meant at the Close of the Eighteenth Century

It’s important to start off a comparison to Western pop cultural appropriation of African culture with the hefty reminder that much of what Western Civilization considered “magic” in the eighteenth century stems from the heavy stigmatization of pagan religions, though not just African religions. It is also important to note that religious and magical traditions among African slaves was actively suppressed. Not only did it further marginalize the already enslaved black people under British rule, but it can also be surmised that suppression also prevented the kind of fear that spread throughout the Colonies and Britain before the Enlightenment and that resulted in the European witch hunts. Not to mention that there was indeed a superstitious streak among white slave owners. If I had been a slave owner, I’d probably be a little afraid of the resentment that stemmed from enslavement that might drive a person to witchcraft.

In a grossly oversimplified reduction, by the end of the eighteenth century, the British empire was well on its way to colonizing much of the globe. The new television sensation, Taboo, opens on the story of James Delaney, who left home in 1800 on a purchased commission in the widely prosperous monopoly, the Honorable East India Company. This colonization, and the rape of the cultures unfortunate enough to fall under British occupation, came with a lovely Conversion to the Christianity best favored by the monarch of the time. In the year of our Lord 1802, when James Delaney sets out for Africa, that is King George III, who lost the Revolutionary War to the disloyal British colonists in New England in 1783, and who practiced Protestantism through the Church of England (Anglican church), which kept up a network of churches known as the Anglican Communion throughout the British colonies–with possibly the exception of the US. By 1814, when James Delaney returns to England under George III’s prince regent, George IV, the 15 United States were not doing anything England was doing.

Those who could not be converted spiritually where often converted permanently by way of an unmarked grave. Only those who converted served any purpose to the Crown. This was no exception to the Western African merchants who were only too happy to sell their native traditions out for a cut of the profits in the Atlantic Slave Trade.

Some Representations of African Magic in Western Art

Magic from the Dark Continent has been a source of fear and confusion for centuries. There are two references to African black magic in Western culture that I can name off the top of my head.

The first is not actually Western. The OVA adaptation of Kota Hirano’s Hellsing originally included the ultimate villain of season one as a magician from the Dark Continent, Incognito.

Incognito, the African Vampire, confronts the English vampire Alucard in the Tower of London. He holds a machine gun pointed at Alucard, straps and gold chains hang from his naked, tatooed body.
The sexless demon or vampire Incognito is clearly modeled after the Ashanti Sasabonsam. Here he holds a machine gun full of depleted uranium shells. Alcuard unlovingly makes fun of his “magic from the Dark Continent” as “quaint”. Full images of Incognito also show warped legs, as if he might be able to hang from a tree. On the backdrop of London in this anime, this is incredibly racist.

This plot line was never followed through, as it derailed too far from Hirano’s original plot involving the rise of a Fourth Reich, not to mention the fact that it involved a very “colonized” view of Africans. The fact that this anime was set in England did not help matters. Hirano was a miserable writer at best, but one thing he did manage to get right is that the England’s natural enemy was not Africa, but rather Germany.

Another example of the biased representation of African folk traditions comes from the Father of Contemporary Horror, Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Lovecraft had no love, pun intended, for immigrants of any kind. He had even less love for the people of color he was forced to live with in Brooklyn while in exile following the failure of his marriage to Sonia Greene. Lovecraft had zero problems lashing out at those immigrants he despised in several stories, though the one most closely associated with African folk traditions is “The Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn.”

In Lovecraft’s story, Arthur Jermyn is the descendant of the decadent line of Jermyn, whose great grandfather had ventured into Africa and taken a strange wife that no one had ever seen from a tribe who seemed to have some strange obsession with an ape princess–Lovecraft was indelicate at best. It is discovered that Jermyn is related to this ape princess, who was mummified and brought to England for him. When he discovers the unwholesome truth of his bloodline, he douses himself in oil and sets himself on fire.

Though not a comprehensive list, this is definitely a pair of examples that best illustrate the overall stigma associated with anything that has come from Africa. Of course, it is much easier for white colonists to enslave blacks if they are first dehumanized and stripped of dignity, even in their religious beliefs. It is this dehumanization that manifests in the absolute hatred and terror that strides on confident legs through London in the early nineteenth century. His name is James Delaney.

Western Stigma: African and Native American Traditions in Taboo

Tom Hardy wearing a suit and hat in the style of Regency England. He is white and ashy, with crackeds in his face paint, and he has a red triangle down one cheek. "Taboo" runs down the image long-ways.
Tom Hardy stars in the FX television series, Taboo.

H. P. Lovecraft says that “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” Naturally the British and Westerners Civilization as a whole were wary of anything they could not easily and quickly understand. Like the Borg, it was easier for the Empire to assimilate first and ask questions later. I’ll touch on how the empire more than likely used the folklore of the African people to dehumanize them and make it easier to enslave them in my review of Taboo at the end of the series, but right now I want to focus on the stigma surrounding James Delaney.

There are two notable points of disgust regarding James Delaney’s reception by the East India Company and his own relatives: unbeknownst to most, Delaney is half Native American; James Delaney spent a great deal of time in Africa. According to the social norms of Regency England, neither of things are good.

The first point to pick apart is the Native American lineage. Delaney’s mother was bought from the Nootka tribe of Vancouver Island. I’ll get to the importance of this particular setting in my full review, but for now, it is important to remember that in the second episode, Delaney’s mother was insane and committed to Bedlam. No word yet on how this will be further treated in the show, but the trope of mixed-race children going or being born half-insane or fully-insane is not new territory. Author Larry McMurtry often employed villains and madmen and madwomen of mixed-race or racial ambiguity, a sort of stab at a perverse Manifest Destiny that white men are the only thing capable of stabilizing the Western Frontier.

An Indian man, a Comanche, sits in a baren yard. H wears blue coton and has long hair. He is Blue Duck, son of Buffalo Hump. He spread terror across the Great Plains of Texas in Lonesome Dove. Here he is depicted in the prequel, Comanche Moon.
Blue Duck is the son of the Commanche war chief, Buffalo Hump. In the Lonesome Dove saga, he spreads terror and mayhem across the Plains. His mother was Mexican. He is one of the several examples of insanity or madness among mixed race characters in Larry McMurtry’s novels. This is a still from the film adaptation of Comanche Moon.

Where Taboo derails from this norm is the fact that though considered mad by many, Delaney is not insane. Director Anders Engstrom and Kristoffer Nyholm and writers Tom Hardy, Edward Hardy, and Steven Knight take care to differentiate Delaney’s cruel nature, hardened soul, and worldly knowledge from true insanity, unlike writer Larry McMurtry of the 1990s, for whom most of his mixed race characters were cut and dry and possessed no redeemable qualities.

The second point: James Delaney’s venture into Africa.

Ventures into Africa were ill advised and dangerous in Regency England and her Empire, as well as highly stigmatized. Trade with Africa was limited to Egypt and slave trading. Only the insane traveled into Africa. Taboo it set in 1814. Real exposure of the African interior did not begin until 1856, when Sir Richard Francis Burton began his many dangerous expeditions to Mecca and the African lakes that brought renewed sense of wonder and fancy to a largely ethnocentric English market. Sir Richard nearly died in Africa, which won the continent no points.

What is Really Taboo about James Delaney?

Though Delaney’s time in Africa isn’t the only taboo featured in the show, his character is largely fueled by the events leading to his return to England.

Rumors fly of unholy rituals performed with powers conferred on Delaney during his time in Africa, which it seems the East India Company was at least aware of. Word of Delaney’s secret doings in Africa traveled annoyingly fast in Regency London. A madman, Old Delaney, standing on the banks of the foreshore of the Thames calling to his son in Africa is bound to stir up gossip. Delaney’s half sister accuses him of eating flesh. Delaney has little interest in confirming or denying any of it.

The accusations of his eating flesh no doubt stem from the folk traditions of the Gold Coast who claimed the creature Asabonsam stalked the woods. Knowing a little of African folk traditions, it’s easy to see where some of the images from Taboo have their source. At the end of Episode 2, we see Delaney savagely rip out the throat of the Malaysian assassin sent to kill him with his teeth, validating accusations from Zilpha that her half-brother ate flesh in Africa (this is the half-sister that is also the other reason why this show is called Taboo). Though it is unclear where this will lead in the show, it is not too hard to imagine that Delaney embodying some version of Sasabonsam.

Tom Hardy is naked and standing in the middle of a shallow stream. He holds a spear. His body is tattooed.
Tom Hardy stalks the jungles of Africa. Notice the similarities to James Delaney’s tattoos and Incognito’s.

We can see that Delaney’s behavior is a sort of backwards hegemony, in which he has been driven to a hatred of half of his own lineage, the white Anglican, by a deep-seated guilt and rage that comes from the treatment of the people he becomes kindred to, and from being mixed-race himself. He embraces the African traditions and turns his black hatred on England, possibly to avenge the people he has seen enslaved, and possibly to avenge his mother, a purchased Native American in exchange for trading rights in the Nootka Sound.

The second episode also seems to suggest that Delaney’s close identification with the African tribes he mingled with is fueling an incredible sense of guilt and obligation, especially towards those slaves who were lost on the slave ship he was sailing on, bound for Antigua and the US, upon which he ostensibly died. We see this in episode two as Delaney, tattooed, sweating, his nerves rattling, possibly with what we call PTSD, uses a ritual to cleanse the hold of a ship he has purchased that formerly transported slaves.

James Delaney, played by Tom Hardy, squats naked in the hull of his ship by lantern light. His tattoos are clearly visible, and he is visibly upset. He has just finished carving a rooster into the hull of the ship in a ritual.
James Delaney huddles in the hull of his newly acquired ship after he cleanses it and performs rituals, ostensibly for those who had been carried as slaves on the ship.

We’ll be able to see in practice that the show’s writers knew that Delaney’s time in Africa would have impaired his judgement by Western Standards. Delaney’s time in Africa is half of the resentment from everyone associated with the Delaney Trading Company, inherited by testate will and by the laws of primogeniture in England. In addition to whatever supernatural powers Delaney possesses as a result of his time in Africa, the Eighteenth-Century implications of what he is are much more mundane. Rumors that he ate flesh further discredit him in the eyes of British society and in the eyes of the organization hoping to take what is rightfully the property of the Delaney bloodline.

I wonder what will happen when the general public is made aware that he is also half Native American…

Conclusion

Though not all African traditions are steeped in blood, it is easy to see how the East India Company and Western slave owners latched onto the darker traditions of the Africans they enslaved. Angry and in pain, it is no wonder that perhaps some of those trafficked into the British Colonies turned to their darker spirits to aid them against the whites that did them harm. Thanks to the Atlantic Slave Trade, some of those dark traditions now form part of the overall African folk traditions of the Gulf Coast and Antebellum South of the United States, many of which persist into the Twentieth Century. The new television show on FX Network, Taboo, capitalizes on some of those dark traditions that circulated in back-room rumor and parlor gossip. The popularity of shows like Taboo illustrate that we as a Western society are still drawn to the strange and unfamiliar, as horrifying as it may be.

I will conduct a detailed post-colonial viewing of Taboo in my review following the close of the first season.

TL;DR: African folk traditions are rich and abundant and vary from tribe to tribe, and some of those traditions made it all the way to the United States during the Atlantic Slave Trade. Also watch Taboo on FX on Tuesdays at 10pm Eastern.

Folklore Thursday Guest Blog: Snegurochka The Snow Maiden

Hello, Constant Followers and welcome to #FolkloreThursday, the Dark Corners off-shoot of the weekly event started by the wonderful people at Folklore Thursday. Folklore Thursday was originally started to celebrate folklore and folks stories from around the world. This segment is Dark Corners’ tribute to the original concept, though I do not claim any credit or affiliation with that site.

Folklore can be defined as, “a body of popular myth and beliefs relating to a particular place, activity, or group of people.”

From what I learned in my brief study of folklore in college, this usually means that folk traditions are passed by word of mouth. Other folk traditions carried out in a given setting include attire, methods of construction, myth cycles, language (sometimes complicated by dialect), heroic figures, and cult religions not controlled directly by the primary religious (and in some case, institutional) influences.

This Folklore Thursday, Lidia Plaza leads the discussion on the Eastern Orthodox Christian folk tradition of Snegurochka, the Snow Maiden, and illustrates her interpretation of the mythic figure through the contemporary folk tradition of Cosplay.

Snegurochka: the Snow Maiden

Lidia Plaza

For many people, Christmas is essentially over, but for most Eastern Orthodox Christians, Christmas has not yet begun.  Due to the quirky differences between the Julian Calendar (followed by the Eastern Orthodox tradition), and the Gregorian Calendar (followed by the majority of other Christian traditions), when we in the West are finishing celebrating Epiphany (if we do celebrate it), those in the East will be preparing for Christmas on January 7.

While Christmas in the West means Jelly-Bellied Santa, Red-Nosed Rudolph, and, more recently, an obnoxiously-situated Elf on the Shelf, for Eastern European countries Christmas means the tall, staff-carrying figure of Ded Moroz (Old Man Frost or Father Frost), and his beautiful, pale granddaughter, Snegurochka (Snow Maiden).  Yet just as Rudolph and Elf on the Shelf are more recent additions, Snegurochka was not always a part of the Christmas tradition.

A figure in blue robes trimmed in white fur stands on a snowy field holding his ice scepter, the depiction of Slavic "Father Christmas" Ded Moroz
The tall and imposing winter wizard, Ded Moroz, of Slavic tradition.

Origins of Snegurochka

It’s not entirely clear when or where Snegurochka originated.  Some believe she has roots in Slavic pagan beliefs, while others argue that she came from folktales outside of the Slavic world.

A model poses in a snowscape as Snegurochka, the Russian Snow Maiden. Her headdress is beautifully trimmed in pearls and beads, and her hair is snowy white.
Photograph of a depiction of Snegurockha. Photograph by Viona Ielegems.

In any case, Alexander Nikolayevich Afanasyev first published the story of Snegurochka in the mid 19th century as part of his multi-volume collection of Russian folktales. In Afanasyev’s version, Snegurochka comes to life from a little snow doll made by two childless peasants, Ivan and Marya.  One day, some girls invite her to walk in the woods, and when it gets cold, the girls make a fire.  As part of a game, they take turns jumping over the fire, but when it is Snegurochka’s turn, she evaporates in a small cloud.

Three girls look on in dismay and surprise as Snegurochka evaporates into a vapor as she joins their game of jumping over the fire. Image is an oil painting.
Some girls invite Snegurochka to play a game by jumping over the fire, but Snegurochka evaporates. This version first appeared in Afanasyev’s Nineteenth-Century folklore compilation.

In other versions, she is the daughter of the gods Father Frost and Mother Spring, but she lives with an elderly, childless couple.  She grows attached to a young man, but finds she is incapable of love.  In an act of pity, Mother Spring gives her the ability to love, but when she does, the warmth of her heart causes her to melt.

Snow Maidens of the World

Of course, Snegurochka is not the only snow child in the tales and myths of the world.  The Germans have the Schneekind (Snow Child), a boy who melts, although in earlier accounts, the boy’s origin and fate are not so enchanted.  In one version, a man returns to his wife after a two-year absence, and his unfaithful wife explains her newborn son by saying she became pregnant when swallowing a snowflake while thinking of her husband.  The husband raises the boy until he is old enough to be sold as a slave, and explains the boy’s absence by saying the child melted in the heat.

An actress recreates Yuki-Onna in the in a very loose gesture of the Kabuki style of Japanese theater.
Though not an accurate representation of Yuki-Onna or Kabuki theater, here is a depiction of the snow spirit that steals the breath from sleeping travelers and leaves only blue corpses.

The Japanese snow maiden, Yuki Onna, is a much more supernatural character who lulls unfortunate souls to a deep, permanent sleep and uses her icy breath to leave only a frost-covered corpse behind.  However, not all spirits of the snow are so malicious. While not a child, the snow-person most of us are familiar with today is, of course, Frosty the Snowman.

Snegurochka and the Persistence of Folk Traditions

Yet while these snow-characters are understandably associated with winter, the association with Christmas is less obvious.  In the case of Snegurochka, it was ironically the spirit of Soviet anti-Christmas that sealed her fate as a Christmas character.  In the nineteenth century, just as the character of Santa Claus was becoming wrapped up with Christmas in Western Europe, Ded Moroz became synonymous with Christmas in Eastern Europe, thanks in part to the popularization of Snegurochka.  In 1873, Aleksandr Ostrovsky’s play “The Snow Maiden” was performed at the Moscow Imperial Theater with music written by Tchaikovsky.  Five years later, the folktale became a ballet thanks to composer Ludwig Minkus’ “The Daughter of the Snows.”  Finally, the story became an opera in Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1881, “The Snow Maiden: A Spring Fairy Tale.”  By the turn of the twentieth century, Snegurochka figurines could be found adorning fir trees and every children’s New Year’s pageant had a Snegurochka.

All of these traditions, as well as many others, were ended during the Soviet anti-religious campaign.  Yet, just as the French had discovered in one of their own revolutions, it wasn’t so simple to just abolish religion or secular traditions.  As a kind of compromise, New Years celebrations were allowed starting in 1935, along with the Yolka (New Year’s tree), Ded Moroz, and Snegurochka.  New Years Eve remains the winter holiday for many living in post-Soviet countries, though now the holiday season has been re-injected with traditional Christmas themes and iconography.  Modern Snegurochka and Ded Moroz (who, through various adaptations of the story, became her grandfather) live in Veliky Ustyug, but during the New Year’s celebration they deliver gifts to good children.

Dead Moroz and Snegurochka stand on a blue-lit stage dressed in winter blue finery. Presentation is by the Moscow Theater.
Father Frost, Ded Moroz, and his Granddaughter, Snegurochka, live on stage at the Moscow Theater. Ded Moroz rose to fame following the popularization of the folk tradition of Snegurochka.

Christmas Traditions in Post-Soviet Ukraine

After the fall of the USSR, post-Soviet peoples had to figure out how to revive the old Christmas traditions in a time when most people had grown up without them.  In 1993, my family and I lived in Lviv, Ukraine and I got to witness part of this transformation firsthand.  I was very young at the time and my memories are few and far between, but some things I will never forget.  First and foremost, I was delighted to discover all the new opportunities to receive presents; there was Western Christmas (December 25), New Years Eve (December 31), and Eastern Christmas (January 7).  I will also always remember the first group of carolers that came to our door.  Unlike the rag-tag gang of off-tune singers I’ve been a part of here in America, Ukrainian Christmas caroling is more of an elaborate folk performance, and a cherished part of the Christmas tradition.

A group of Christmas carolers in Ukraine are dressed in traditional Christmas costumes as they demonstrate the majestic pagentry of Eastern Blok Christmas traditions.
These Ukrainian Christmas Carolers make the Fencing Club’s attempts at caroling look paltry and sad, and one year we even had two flutists.

Of course, none of that had been allowed for decades, and as the small group crowded our doorway of our tiny, Soviet-style flat, my three-year-old self couldn’t help but notice a tiny, weathered lady in the far corner.  She had leathery wrinkled skin, wet with tears that streamed down her face as she sang songs she probably hadn’t sung since she was my age.

However, what I remember best about Ukraine was the New Year/Christmas pageant put on by my preschool.  I was cast in the role of “The Spirit of the New Year,” at least according to my family’s limited understanding of Ukrainian.  I had to recite a short poem (which I still remember) and I wore a silver dress with a snowflake crown, very much like modern depictions of Snegurochka.

A little girl in a white dress and headdress, backed by six more little ones on a small school stage in Lviv, Ukraine.
A three-year-old Lidia Plaza performs as The Spirit of the New Year in her Ukrainian preschool’s New Year Play in Liviv, Ukraine.

“my three-year-old self couldn’t help but notice a tiny, weathered lady in the far corner.  She had leathery wrinkled skin, wet with tears that streamed down her face as she sang songs she probably hadn’t sung since she was my age. “

 

Snegurockha in South Texas

While Santa almost always wears red, Ded Moroz and Snegurochka often wear silver and blue, some say in a Soviet effort to distance the characters from Christmas.  Inspired by an old picture of me in my outfit, I decided to spend some time this Christmas season doing a Snegurochka-type look.

Lidia Plaza stands in her living room after finishing her makeup and costume for Snegurochka. She wears a red blouse, a white wig, and a red beaded headdress.
Lidia Plaza designed the headdress and makeup herself, drawing on both the Eastern Blok depictions and utilizing colors most closely associated with Western Christmas.

The blouse I found at a thrift store many years ago, but the crown I made myself.   It was a bit of a rushed job as the holidays are not exactly a season of free time, but it was a lot of fun and I hope you enjoy it.

About the Guest Blog

Lidia Plaza graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a double major in History and Anthropology. She was the winner of the 2013 Bram Stoker Undergraduate Award in Historical Studies for her thesis on the rise in theft of textiles in Eighteenth-Century England. She is currently seeking positions in grad school where she hopes to bring her unique expertise and eye for detail to the field of artifact conservation. She lives in Austin, Texas with her husband, Jeremy, and their two dogs, Squirt and Dottie.

Contemporary Folk Traditions: Texas Renaissance Festival

(As a note, when it comes to pictures, I give credit where it is due, and if no credit is given, it is because I took the picture myself).

Hello, Constant Followers and welcome to #FolkloreThursday, the Dark Corners off-shoot of the weekly event started by the wonderful people at Folklore Thursday. Folklore Thursday was originally started to celebrate folklore and folks stories from around the world. This segment is Dark Corners’ tribute to the original concept, though I do not claim any credit or affiliation with that site.

Folklore can be defined as, “a body of popular myth and beliefs relating to a particular place, activity, or group of people.”

From what I learned in my brief study of folklore in college, this usually means that folk traditions are passed by word of mouth. Other folk traditions carried out in a given setting include attire, methods of construction, myth cycles, language (sometimes complicated by dialect), heroic figures, and cult religions not controlled directly by the primary religious influences.

Today we’re looking at the contemporary folk traditions of the thousands of patrons who visit TRF year after year.

The round official logo of the Texas Renaissance Festival features the king holding a flagon of ale, or mead, above the tagline, "Life Up Your Cares".
The official logo of the TRF.

Every state has that one attraction that is an absolute must for every group of friends. For Texas, that attraction has been, and perhaps always shall be, the Texas Renaissance Festival. Texas residents who share the love of the renaissance fair know that the TRF is not just any fair, and there are others in Texas that have relatively the same things: there is Sherwood Forest, Austin Celtic Festival, and others, but there is something special about the TRF situated between Magnolia and Houston. Of all the attractions to visit in Texas, the TRF has a certain magic to it that is difficult to place, and after almost eight years of attending, I am still not tired of it.

Camping

A small fire pit and bbq are surrounded by a pair of small tents. This was one of our fist official group outings to the Renaissance Festival.
Lidia and John sit around the remains of the camp fire of our first official group outing in 2009.

The TRF is a wonderful event to attend as a group, which is even better for those who decide to camp. Whether treking out with eleven of your best friends or going as a family event, camping is a huge part of the TRF. Recently, the park had to expand its camping grounds, pushing and reducing regular parking back away from the main road. Camping at the TRF is its own attraction. In previous years, camping also included the large “Boob Tents”, where fire dancers entertained and alcohol did flow. However, as the TRF grew in popularity among families, the Boob Tent was banned, and a new tradition arose: the bonfire. It had originally been a ring of logs around a massive fire that could be seen from all over the camp ground. Unfortunately, the large brush fires of 2011 saw the end of the bonfire as well, as Texas went into a burn ban for the foreseeable future. Now, the bonfire area has a large dedicated wall to protect the surrounding grass.

A fire pit in the center of a group of friends dressed in medium cold weather gear. It is dark, and the grass is wet.
The usual suspects seated around the campfire. This year we sang each other songs. Of course, Lidia brought s’mores. November 2016.

Camp attendance dropped off during the fires of 2011, when the warmest Ren. Fest. season in our memory descended on Texas. With no camp fire, and no camp fun, many park attendees felt little inclination to attend. Camping is part and parcel of the entire experience. Of the few years we all declined to attend the festival, it was mostly because we would not have had time to camp.

Behind our tents this year, someone decided to bring two massive hot air balloon burners. They occasionally lit them, or left them running. The park security allowed this, but only because officers were stationed at the camp site until the evening died down.

The last two Texas Renaissance Festival seasons were cooler, with 2015 being unusually cold for November in Texas. I imagine the cloak tailors made a killing last year. After the rains of 2015-2016, the burn ban has been lifted and we are now able to have fires again. This year, Lidia brought s’mores, and Jeremy brought his small violin.

Not only is camping a huge part of the festival experience, but so is the music. Nothing will ever beat the year all of us brought instruments, and sat around the camp fire singing or playing different songs. I’m not going to say the alcohol did not play a major role in how we sounded, but had we been a cohesive band, we might have attracted a fair number of gawkers.

This year, Zarissa sang us Scottish love songs that her grandfather had written while she played Jeremy’s violin. We were all so entranced with the experience that none of us snapped any pictures. What’s nice about the Renaissance Fair is that “there is always next year.”

The camp grounds feature both weekend adventurers and weekly warriors. Lately, the Isle of Tortuga camp group changed it’s banner to the “Aisle of Tortuga”, as they now occupy one of the old parking lot lanes of the camp grounds.

The castle. That was new for everyone. However, this is just one of the things that makes camping at the TRF special.

Tents line the sides of a large "castle" that had been constructed out of playwood and painted slate gray. The gate "gate" opened toward the "road".
An intrepid group at the TRF built an entire castle in the camp grounds this year.

The Park

The Texas Renaissance Festival is massive. According to the main site, the park sits on 55 acres of park and camp grounds.

Each weekend of the TRF season features a different theme. Our group’s two favorite themes are the 1001 Dreams Weekend (roughly the weekend of Halloween) and the Celtic weekend. This year we changed it up a little and attended the Yule weekend, which was themed Celtic Christmas. The Holiday or Yule weekend is always the last weekend of the season, roughly the weekend of Thanksgiving. This years was our first Holiday weekend attendance, but it far from our last. The park was gorgeously decorated for the event. Large Christmas trees (and large Christmas tree costumes dotted the crossroads of the park.

A guard in the official TRF park livery hitches his thumbs in his belt as I snapped this picture in front of Santa's pavillion at the front entrance to the park. Santa sits in front of a large Christmas tree on a pillared pavillion, greeting patrons and checking his list twice.
A noble guard stands watch, ready to help any attendee who needs it, and also to keep order in the line of spectators waiting to sit on Santa’s lap in front of the entrance to the park.
Patrons gather around one of the pavillions at the front of the park listening to a band perform Christmas carols on violin, flute, tin whistle, and guitar.
One of the pavilions at the entrance to the park, close to Santa’s pavilion, played a series of Christmas carols for patrons as they entered.

In addition to the Holiday theme, there were some major changes to the park this year. The Magic Gardens have been completed at last. One of the major attractions and stopping points in the Garden was the shrine of St. Felix.

A skeleton propped up on red cushions in an ornate case is a replica of the bones of Saint Felix.
The Shrine to the Saint Felix at Texas Renaissance Festival in the Magic Gardens. The shrine is meant to be a replica of the bones of Saint Felix, who was beheaded as a Christian heretic who would not worship the Roman emperor. He supposedly picked up his own head and walked 30 paces before falling down.
A picture of the ivied garden gables at the Texas Renaissance Fair.
The gardens of the TRF are some magical venues, excellent for taking pictures, and often booked out for weddings.

The parade is another TRF tradition. This year we popped into the leather book store before being rushed out into the “street” at the trumpeted fanfare to greet the parade of vendors and performers who make up the shining spectacle of the park every year. One of the most magical aspects of the park is the sense of ritual. Each year, patrons come expecting things to be the exact same as the year before, and for the most part, they are. It is comforting. Fond memories mix with the expectation of the moment. The parade is one of those rituals that has changed over the years, yet has always been the same.

A large, old looking set of seven-foot-tall puppets mingle with the parade of vendors in costume as they wend their way down the main thoroughfare of the park. They are dressed in red and purple velvet, and appear to be a holdover from the '70s.
The Oversized King and Queen and their court in the TRF parade of vendors in 2009. Image courtesy of Alicia Wright.
The Oversized King and Queen at TRF 2016, coming down a much more cramped thoroughfare, reminding everyone of how much the park has changed over the years.
The King and Queen and their Oversized court at Texas Renaissance Festival 2016. It’s nice to see that some things never change.

Costumes!

So many of the folk traditions at the TRF are subtle, but the costumes are not one of those traditions! Elaborate costumes are a staple of the TRF. Though it was once a taboo to wear fairy wings on any weekend but the 1001 Dreams weekend, costumes of all types have become very popular, and there does not seem to be any sign of that coming to an end any time soon. Though the TRF is technically a “Renaissance” Festival, the costumes are not exactly historically accurate. This can be seen in the number of chain mail bikinis and pirate costumes favored by many patrons. Costume styles are almost cliquish. Groups often come wearing similar fashions, especially for the barbarian and pirate themed weekends. This also has a lot to do with the products available for purchase. Those who dress up tend to get their costumes from the same vendors, which lends a streamlined appearance to the costumes. If we all seem like we planned our outfits together, it’s because they all came from the same place. The Steampunk movement also has a heavy representation at the TRF despite being–in its purist form–a Victorian era fashion.

Many patrons spend years amassing their Renaissance Festival costumes. My own is a sort of “Joker” wench style that I usually layer leggings and long sleeves under with a shawl (it’s not the park that is cold–it’s the walk back to the camp site in the dark that always gets me). Though I did not grab any good pictures of me in my costume for 2016, here is a good picture of my usual costume from 2014.

I am standing between two trees at Sherwood Renaissance Festival in Elgin in 2014. I am wearing my "Joker" green and purple wench costume consisting of a purple overskirt, green underskirt, and purple bodice. I am fond of wearing black leggings and a black blouse with it, with a shawl of green and purple paislies.
I have been wearing this costume since 2012 or so. This is my Joker wench costume. The bodice is double-sided, and is supposed to be worn with a lavender colored blouse that I actually don’t like. This picture is from the Sherwood Renaissance Festival, but it’s also what I wore to TRF this year.

As I mentioned, costumes range from historically accurate to outlandishly fantastic, and none are more outlandishly fantastic than the character costumes that seem to get bigger with every passing year. One of the stars of this year was the familiar and frightening aspect of Krampus, the Eastern European punisher of naughty children. I dropped a curtsy and allowed myself to be suitably chastised.

I stand between a white faced she-devil that laughed maniacally and a tall, menacing, horned figure of Krampus, complete with red velvet robe, long white hair, and thick bunch of twigs for beating the naughty children.
A familiar piece of Eastern European folklore. I had to get a picture with Krampus. Say hello to my Christmas card. I made a point of dropping a curtsy to the lord of punishment before the picture.

Making another appearance was the Raven Lady, another very familiar face.

The Raven Lady, a lady in a purple and black gown with the head of a raven, walks in the vendor parade every year.
The Raven Lady made several appearances this weekend, and as always, was lavish and resplendent in the vendor parade.

The Bat and the Dragon squared off as if to do battle for supremacy, but because they are only men in costumes on stilts, they hugged it out instead.

On the left, a man in a very large bat costume. On the right, a man in large dragon costume. They both walk upright on stilts, and they are both over seven feet tall.
Two costumed men in stilts masquerade as the Bat and the Dragon. Occasionally they cross paths and square off, but they usually end up hugging it out.

The King and Queen of costumes are actually my two best friends, Jeremy Shoemaker and Lidia Plaza. This year, Jeremy wowed patrons and attendees in his Plague Doctor costume, which he perfected at Halloween and reprised on Saturday. Next year I’m going to make him charge a fee to take a picture with him.

My best friend wore is very elaborate Plague Doctor costume on Satruday at the TRF. Most of the pieces of the costume he had purchased from previous Ren Fair visits with the exception of the hat and mask.
The Plague Doctor stands back and assesses the damage before heading in…to our camp site to break down the camp stove before we head into the park.

Lidia wore one of her regular ensembles–and she has several that she mixes and matches. Lidia is a dedicated costumer with a long history of outdoing her fellow patrons with hand-made costumes. Lidia’s costumes, unlike so many in the park, do tend to be more historically accurate, as Lidia majored in history with a specialization in textiles at UT Austin and plans to go into conservation after grad school.

Jeremy and Lidia stand next to the wall of the Spanish fountain garden. Lidia is wearing a version of the dress she wore for Halloween, and Jeremy is dressed as a very convincing plague doctor.
Lidia stands next to her husband the Plague Doctor–I mean Jeremy. Contrary to popular belief, a plague doctor did not necessarily mean you were not going to get the plague.

Attractions

No matter how many times I attend the Texas Renaissance Festival, the one thing that we never change is our program.

The TRF spans an entire season. It starts in October and runs through most of November. Because of the length of the season, the acts for each season almost never change, and neither does their material. That is totally fine, by the way, as loyal spectators and patrons would not have it any other way.

Dead Bob is a skeletal puppet that uses call and response to lead his audience–when he’s not insulting his audience. Dead Bob is a famous act the world over for his scathing comedy and–dare I say it–dead pan humor. The call is “Hey audience!” who responds with, “Hey Bob!”

Dead Bob is perched on the arm of his masked, "dummy" as he gives his performance.
Though this picture is from the Michigan Renaissance Festival, Dead Bob can also be seen at the Texas Renaissance Festival. Image courtesy of Jason Hynes.

Though we did not see them outright this time, Tartanic is a powerhouse at the TRF. Tartanic is world-famous for its traditional Celtic music. Here is Tartanic on opening day of the TRF in 2016. Tartanic also played us out of the park on Saturday night during the fireworks display. Video is courtesy of Suzanne Chapa.

The acts and performances rarely change from year to year, and their material varies only a little. Veteran festival goers remember, for example, Arsene the magicians old material and appreciate his new material very much–at least “new” material that he’s been performing for the last five years. Sound and Fury are fond of mixing various pop culture references into their material, as they are a vaudeville improv group that draws heavily on the energy of the crowd and mixes Shakespeare’s old baudy humor with Twenty-First century euphemisms for private parts.

It’s not unheard of then, for an act to suddenly shift material a little to reflect the political climate of the time. In this respect, the traditions of the TRF do not vary much from the traditions of Renaissance and late Renaissance performances. If anything, this enhances the sense of ritual that comes with the TRF. The performances say “Renaissance” but the jokes say “Instagram meme”.

The Great Rondini is an escape artist and sword master who makes several appearances in Texas during the Renaissance Festival seasons. I couldn’t get close enough to the stage for pictures with Rondini this last weekend, but fortunately the Sherwood Renaissance Festival in 2014 offered us a more intimate meeting with Rondini.

On a stage at Sherwood Ren. Fest. Kelsey (left) squares off en piste with the great Rondini (right). Rondini is holding a rapier, but Kelsey is holding an epee, her weapon of choice when we all fenced at university.
Kelsey (the same Kelsey that cosplays Black Widow) shows off her epee skills with the Great Rondini at Sherwood Renaissance Festival in 2014.

My friends and I speculated that at least a few of the acts would be colored by the election results from earlier in the month. We were not disappointed. The Great Rondini made several off-color references to white people chaining a black man and other small references that marked him as a supporter of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. He saluted the veterans in the crowd and announced that he would accept no money from his fellow servicemen, and even heckled an audience member. Rondini bent down to have a man test the strength authenticity of his hand-cuffs, but the man seemed hesitant. Rondini exclaimed, “It’s okay. You can touch me. I’m just a black man.”

Under the great billowing canopy of one of TRF's many stages, the escape artist and swordmaster The Great Rondini invites the veterans of the crowd to stand and be recognized and honored for their service.
The Great Rondini invited the service veterans of the crowd to stand. He saluted them and proclaimed that no service man or woman would never accept tips or donations from his fellow veterans.

Rondini performed amazing feats of magic by escaping a chained straight jacket. More than one audience member looked away as he dislocated his shoulder to slip out of the chain looping his back.

Four audience members that assisted Rondini into the straight jacket and chains stand behind Rondini as he makes his way unsteadily onto the platform, preparing to escape from his bond.
The Great Rondini escaped a chained straight jacket, though his method had a few audience members cringing in their seats.

Yet another favored performer who draws more than two hundred spectators per show is the world-renowned whip-cracking performer Adam “Crack” Winrich, who may or may not be sponsored by Axe Body Spray. Adam Crack has performed on America’s Got Talent and has broken 16 Guinness World Records for whip cracking. Whip cracking is not easy, as the whip must be swung in such a way as to cause the tip to break the sound-barrier, which causes the “crack”. He punctuates his feats with his signature, “I know!” as the crowd oohs and awes. Perhaps 60 or 70 percent of the audience has seen his show before, and so the oohs and awes are more of the same call-and response interaction that is customary to TRF shows.

Dakota stands with her hands on her hips, prepared for anything, with a rose poised above her face in her mouth. Adam, playing the harmonica as he goes, snaps the whip, and snaps the rose in half.
Adam cracks his whip over the face of his assistant, Dakota, as he snaps a rose out of her mouth.

He calls Dakota, his assistant onto the stage to demonstrate his precision with a whip, cracking roses out of her hands and out of her mouth. He begins as he always does.

“And if this goes horribly wrong, my name is Dead Bob!”

The crowd laughs, but it seems–to new comers–that he might be serious, so he calls, “Hey Audience!”

To which the crowd replies, “Hey Bob!”

“And that ladies and gentlemen is how you build an alibi!”

Adam stands on the stage, his stance wide, and his signature "I know!" on his lips as he prepares to knock the soda can off of his head with a whip that is on fire.
Adam has removed his hat to avoid catching himself on fire as he performs stunts with is world-famous fire whip.

Adam’s performance is not as audience participatory as some other shows, and this is due in large part to the fact that Adam’s stunts are quite dangerous and require skill and practice. Adam sells a DVD set that will teach the participant how to crack a whip. Try to have an acre of space on which to practice, though.

The last of my group’s favorite acts is Sound and Fury, the improvisation group from California that performs a “pg-13” show in the evening and is trending towards an unscheduled “Dicking Around” after 6 pm. As always, the evening show is “Testicles: and the Sack of Rome?”

At the Globe Theater stage, Sound and Fury give their last real performance of the day. From left to right: Ryan, Patrick, and Richard.
Ryan, Patrick, and Richard comprise the trio of vaudeville improv comedians, Sound and Fury.

Sound and Fury is a unique group. Despite the Shakespearian bent to their “plays” the group performs in the style of vaudeville, a form of variety performance that was popular in United States in the 1880s that was spawned from concert saloons, dive bar performances, dime show theater, side shows (or freak shows), and American burlesque. Sound and Fury combines Renaissance style theater material (like the Greek tragedies), with the baudy humor Shakespeare, the vaudeville style of 19th century America, and modern pop culture references. “Testicles: and the Sack of Rome?” often includes references to Trojans (condoms), The Matrix, The Village People, The Wizard of Oz, and a lot more, mixed into the comedy. At the end of the first “act” the trio will perform a one-minute “encore” in any language the audience requests. This year was Gaelic. Patrick and Richard squared off on stage while Ryan acted as “CG” with Patrick yelling a stream of what sounded like Gaelic–which the group pulled off at least moderately well, considering none of them speak it–before muttering, “You piece of shit,” concluding the farce of foreign language. Last year was “redneck”, which had Patrick swinging wildly at Richard yelling, “You better not be one o’ them Obamas!”

Dicking Around with Sound and Fury is a treat. It is far more intimate than the regular show. They regaled the audience with adventures in Dungeons and Dragons (and the audience is usually receptive to this, as a large portion of Renaissance Festival patrons tend to also be members of the Geek Culture). The trio tell stories that may be new to some, but are often the same from the year before, prompting the audience to request stories like the “Collar Bone Story” or “Thwomp” (ask Patrick about “Thwomp”). Sound and Fury push the limits of stage appropriateness with dirty limericks and this year Richard stopped an on-stage improv “kiss” between Ryan and Patrick during a skit about an affair at a soup kitchen by demanding that the audience pony up $20 before he would allow it to continue. $20 was quickly collected (another $10 prompted the Collar Bone Story), and Ryan assailed Patrick with a meaty man-kiss full of beard!

The best part of the TRF is, because of the remote location and huge crowds, cell phone use is virtually nonexistent. It is far easier to make calls from the camp site on most networks, but the lack of information flooding into the park via social media makes it hard to get the news. This is a blessing and a curse, as the atmosphere of the park is lived entirely in the moment, but at a pretty significant deficit of being cut-off from the rest of the world (which is largely historically-accurate–like the way we all smell at the end of the weekend).

This year, Ryan ran out onto the stage at the end of Dicking Around with his guitar and announced to us the passing of Ron Glass, the gentle soul who played Shepherd Book on Firefly. Firefly–for those not deeply immersed in the Geek Culture–is the story of a band of rogues as a Space Opera Western, a phenomena that ended after one season on Fox, had one film, and has never been rebooted, reprised, nor is there even plans of a reunion. FIrefly has a special place in the hearts of many in both the Geek and Popular Cultures, and to hear that 2016 had claimed yet another beloved celebrity had many in the crowd reaching for phones with no cell service in hopes of proving Ryan wrong. Of course, he was not. Having confirmed that at least 60 percent of the audience knew who we was talking about, Ryan led us in a group song to the theme of Firefly. The Texas Renaissance Festival is a place of wonder, and it is one of the last places in the modern world where magic can still be made by one man and guitar on a rickety stage. That night under the canopy of the “Globe Theater” stage, a group of dedicated fans joined the performers in honoring a beloved character and brilliant actor.

In the foreground, Ryan plays guitar while Richard uses his mic to allow everyone in back to hear. Patrick stands at the back, watching, as we all sing the theme song to Firefly.
Ryan played guitar, while Richard lent his microphone to amplify the sound as we all sang the theme song to Firefly in honor of the passing of Ron Glass.

Back to the Modern World

As we packed up our tents and changed back into blue jeans and t-shirts for the ride home, with camp site pickup trucks blaring Twenty One Pilots, we were once again hit with that strange sense of elegy that comes from leaving the TRF and returning to the modern world. It is incredibly strange to leave the campsite and come home to the world of cell phones and social media, and in my case, cars that go very fast. Perhaps that’s why I’m sitting here writing this at ten o’clock on a Tuesday night. I don’t know if I was ready to leave.

Thank you again, TRF! We’ll be back next year! And you can catch the dynamic trio at Sherwood Renaissance Festival in Elgin in February or March, more details coming soon.

Folklore Thursday: The Seriousness of Cosplay

Hello, Constant Followers and welcome to #FolkloreThursday, the Dark Corners off-shoot of the weekly event started by the wonderful people at Folklore Thursday. Folklore Thursday was originally started to celebrate folklore and folks stories from around the world. This segment is Dark Corners’ tribute to the original concept, though I do not claim any credit or affiliation with that site.

Folklore can be defined as, “a body of popular myth and beliefs relating to a particular place, activity, or group of people.”

From what I learned in my brief study of folklore in college, this usually means that folk traditions are passed by word of mouth. Other folk traditions carried out in a given setting include attire, methods of construction, myth cycles, language (sometimes complicated by dialect), heroic figures, and cult religions not controlled directly by the primary religious influences.

Today we examine the contemporary folk traditions of the counterculture of cosplay.

German veteran cosplayer Svetlana Quindt (AKA Kamui Cosplay) poses in her Wonder Woman cosplay. Here she poses in a rocky backdrop under a clear sky, her stance is powerful and shows off the red, gold, and silver of her Wonder Woman costume,which she hand-built using Worbla's Finest Art.
German veteran cosplayer Svetlana Quindt (AKA Kamui Cosplay) poses in her Wonder Woman cosplay.

What is Cosplay?

Cosplay is defined as, “the practice of dressing up as a character from a movie, book, or video game, especially one from the Japanese genres of manga and anime.”

In its purest form, cosplay originated as a costume style derived from Japanese anime and manga. The object of the costume was to recreate the anime or manga character to such an extent that the person became the character. The cosplay is often judged on accuracy and attention to detail. Even forcing one’s own hair–or styling a wig–into the often unrealistic anime or manga style presented in the source material is taken into account. Seen below is one of my personal favorites: a cosplay of Sebastian Michaelis from Kuroshitsuji Project, or Black Butler.

Cosplayers depicting Sebastian and his master Ciel Phantomhive from Black Butler pose for the camera. Sebastian stands in the foreground while Ciel, dressed in his lady's outfit from His Butler: Capricious.
Cosplayers depicting Sebastian and his master Ciel Phantomhive from Black Butler pose for the camera.

Anime and manga utilize a literary character called “bishonen”. This refers to a male character in anime and manga that exhibits feminine facial and body characteristics. Usually a Bishonen has long hair (but not always), a pointed chin, high cheekbones, and his clothing can sometimes be drawn to suggest the presence of breasts. I go into detail about this in my anime/manga breakdown. A bishonen male is also often characterized by incredible power and audacity. He is usually a threat to more traditionally masculine characters.

I chose the above version because it illustrates several tropes of Japanese anime and manga that are unique to the fantasy subgenre. I touched on this in a guest lecture I taught at the University of Texas at San Antonio in 2014. The class was a two-part lecture entitled “Cultural Eroticism in Japanese Anime and Manga”. Day two of the lecture involved cosplay as a gender fluid fantasyscape. Because the trope of the bishonen male is represented as an androginous gender in cosplay, to achieve the most realistic depiction of an anime or manga character, it is common and acceptable for women to portray male characters. In the example above. Sebastian poses in front of Ciel Phantomhive dressed in his lady’s dress from the episode, “His Butler: Capricious” in which Ciel must infiltrate the mansion of the Viscount Lord Druitt and discover is he is in fact Jack the Ripper. Ciel is a characteristic “bishojo”, a young male with androginous facial features. Here we see Ciel swap his gender for a female identity. In the cosplay depicted above, we see a male character dressed as a female. In the cosplay culture, this is acceptable and expected. However, though it is not always the case, Ciel and Sebastian are often played by females, introducing a triple gender swap: a female playing a male pretending to be female.

This is a depiction of Sebasian and Ciel (right) and Claude and Aloise Earl Trauncy (left) in cosplay. All of the characters depicted here are played by females.
Sebasian and Ciel (right) and Claude and Alois, Earl Trauncy (left).

Notice that each character depicted above has the suggestion of breasts. That is because all of them are females playing male characters. Notice that each character’s hair matches their source.

A promotional still from Kuroshitsuji Project, AKA Black Butler. From left to right: Alois, Claude, Sebastian, Ciel.
From left to right: Alois, Claud, Sebastian, Ciel.

Judging by the appearance of the costumes versus their source material, you can see how seriously cosplay is taken, but that is nothing compared to how seriously cosplay is judged. In the Japanese culture–that has rapidly spilled into the United States–failure to commit fully to the character is not acceptable. Amateurs are labeled as such. Those who fail to fully depict the character can be torn down a peg rather quickly. Good cosplayers enjoy celebrity status online and in the convention communities.

This is not the case in the United States.

Cosplay in the United States

As I discussed in my lecture, gender stereotypes in American literature–even in the American “Comic” or “Con” Cultures–are drastically different than the gender stereotypes of Japanese anime and manga. Women are expected to portray women. Men are expected to portray men. Though it is not often the case, and sentiment is shifting, women who step into male costumes can expect at least a low-to-medium risk of being labeled a “fake gamer girl”. As I discussed in my previous article regarding anime and manga, this stems from a “Sorry Mario, your princess is in another castle,” complex in which a female is a prize to be won by a male if he is good enough and strong enough. Females are supposed to be the last achievement, the unattainable made attainable by strength and success. It is still common for women in social media and in the Con Culture to be sexually harassed in public and threatened and humiliated online.

Though many women embrace their sexuality and prefer female characters, particularly strong ones (Wonder Woman and Black Widow are just two examples), many women in the online SFX community embrace male characters as well.

Black Widow (cosplay by Kelsey Moore) poses dramatically in a photoshoot.
My personal friend Kelsey Moore’s Black Widow Cosplay.
Self-taught YouTube sensation Ellimacs poses as Lord Voldemort from Harry Potter.
Female, self-taught sfx artist and YouTube sensation Ellimacs poses as Lord Voldemort from Harry Potter.

Cosplay rules are not as strictly followed in the US Convention Community. Cosplay has come out of the realm of anime and manga and now encompasses video games, books, film, and even music (I mean, just look at KISS’s old fanbase). Usually the most recognizable forms of iconography are all that is needed to achieve cosplay success. However, there are cosplayers that take it to the extreme. This is done through the amazing world of cosplay armor-making

The Evolution of Plate Armor in Cosplay

A young lady plays a Troll from World of Warcraft. She has long, red hair, and striking blue maks on her face to characterize her as a troll. Her armor is huge, constructed of Worbla.
Blizzard Entertainment hosts its annual BlizzCon, featuring this Troll tank from World of Warcraft.

Armor has come a long way from the functional plate armor protection worn by feudal soldiers. Cosplay armor has become a life skill that many in the Geek culture consider not only the pinnacle of artistic success but also the purest expression of true fandom. Judging by the attention to detail in this cosplay of a Troll from World of Warcraft, you can see that cosplayers enjoy lavish costumes to go with our lavish games.

Cosplay armor is a mixed media project. It can consist of anything from EVA foam heated and warped into plates to a thermal plastic called Worbla that can also be heated and warped into any shape necessary.

Three views of a Mass Effect Cosplayer in the gray armor of an N7 Armor set from Mass Effect.
This cosplayer used EVA foam to create is Mass Effect Cosplay.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This BlizzCon attendee is dressed in the armor of a ranger from World of Warcraft
Another example of BlizzCon armor, this time using Worbla. The most convincing part of the costume is the GoPro on one of his pauldrons.

Though there is no real playbook to how to design a cosplay armor set, Worbla has become widely available (and almost affordable) to the general public in the last ten years. Worbla is a thermal plastic that, when heated, becomes soft and malleable. By pressing patterned Worbla over craft foam and allowing it to cool, one can create stunning pieces of armor. The skill level depicted above is Master Class. Getting Worbla in the pattern, shape, and appearance of the character in question takes time, practice, patience, and skill. Though Worbla comes in a variety of colors, it is important to finish, prime, and paint the Worbla armor to give it the illusion of being made of metal. Worbla starts out in large sheets.

I took a picture of my Worbla Black Art arranged on the floor in the patterns I used to create the armor pieces.
Pieces of Worbla shaped into patterns arranged on the garage floor.

It is then stretched over craft foam and heated until it is soft. Then it can be formed into whatever piece is being created. Gauntlets, breast plates…spinal columns, and so on.

Last week I finished assembling my armor pieces. I arranged them in pairs on the floor. It's made of Worbla Black Art.
My basic armor is finished and ready to be detailed.

Like anime and manga cosplays, the cosplayer is looking to recreate the effect of the character from top to bottom. The cosplayer uses a combination of color, fabric, hard material, paint, and iconography to distinguish their character. For example: a Tyrial cosplay consists of Tyrial’s swords, and his wings. A Stormwind soldier from Warcraft depicts the Alliance emblem on shields and tabards. Some cosplayers cast their ears and faces to create prosthetics to wear as elf ears and larger facial features to match those of the fantasy characters they are trying to portray.

A young lady with black hair has her head turned in profile to show off her long, conichal ears, the ones closely associated with the elf races in World of Warcraft.
This lady has crafted a pair of ears belonging to a Blood Elf from World of Warcraft.

Conclusion

Though highly-regarded as a self-serving fantasyscape by both the Japanese and American popular culture, Cosplay Culture is a thriving industry driven by fans who push the limits of homemade crafts every year, creating artwork that Hollywood would be proud of, perfecting costumes single-handedly that take Hollywood artists months to create with help in just a few weeks (if you don’t have a job). Though relegated to the weird and subversive by many, Cosplay offers its participants a creative outlet based on community and connection, and it is steeped in evolving traditions that continue to shape the definition of what it means to be a Geek in the Twenty-First Century.

Folklore Thursday: The Use of Linen Bandages–An “Oh My Ra” Post

Hello, Constant Followers and welcome to #FolkloreThursday, the Dark Corners off-shoot of the weekly event started by the wonderful people at Folklore Thursday. Folklore Thursday was originally started to celebrate folklore and folks stories from around the world. This segment is Dark Corners tribute to the original concept, though I do not claim any credit or affiliation with that site.

Folklore can be defined as “a body of popular myth and beliefs relating to a particular place, activity, or group of people.”

From what I learned in my brief study of folklore in college, this usually meant that folk traditions were passed by word of mouth. Folk stories can be spread down through the generations by telling and re-telling. Other folk traditions are carried out in a given setting include attire, methods of construction, myth cycles, language (sometimes complicated by dialect), heroic figures, and cult religions not controlled directly by the primary religious influences.

This week I began the tedious task of staining my linen bandages for my project series entitle, “Oh My Ra”, showcasing the process by which I construct a Worbla armor cosplay of the Tomb Kings from Warhammer, the incredible body of lore centered around the tabletop game of the same name. The Tomb Kings of Warhammer were entirely based on the Ancient Egyptian culture.

Plot Holes In the History

(Taken predominately from the reading of Bob Brier’s book, Egyptian Mummification: Unraveling the Mysteries of An Ancient Art)

There is no definitive guide to Egyptian mummification. Techniques varied between the very early (perhaps as early as the Fourth Dynasty) and very last dynasties. Toward the end of the reign of the indigenous kings, the techniques had been taken over first by the Greek, then by Roman occupiers. There are a number of other supporting theories as to why there is no definitive guide, no play-by-play rule book to the sacred act of mummification. One is that during each of the unstable periods (called Intermediate Periods), the practice was not as closely adhered to as in previous or following ages. Since these periods could last upwards of centuries, it’s logical that certain of the practices were lost. Another is that politics and current events often shaped the practice of mummification, and post-humous retaliation has made for an inconsistent timeline for many of the known mummies, muddying study and identification. The reign of Amenhotep IV, who renamed himself Ankhenaten (known to the general public as the father of Tutankhamen) is just such an example of political upheaval affecting the mortuary cults of Egypt. The Pharaoh that would be called Ankhenaten cast down the priests of the old gods and proclaimed himself the high-priest of a monotheistic religion which his son, Tut, was only too happy to disband upon his father’s death.

Perhaps the most logical reason mummification had no set rulebook–the way Christianity has the Holy Bible upon which to base it’s assertions regarding the afterlife–is that mummification and the mortuary practice was an entire industry. Whole sections of society were devoted to the industry of mummification: coffin makers, tomb designers, priests of the numerous cults in each region, even hawkers of the mummies of dead animals for the shrines to Thoth and others all had a part to play in the daily life of the average Egyptian and their deep-seated connection to the afterlife. The economy of mummification was dependent on each citizen’s caste; the level of devotion, the size of the funeral, and even the process of how your body was mummified all depended on how much money your family had. Of course, royalty was treated as such, but as the dubious historian Herodotus described, there were certain levels of care that were taken with each body. When a family member died, his remaining kin beat their breasts, tore their hair, covered their faces with mud, and made their wailing way down to the embalmers’ hut. The undertaker would wheel out wooden caskets (according to Herodotus), each depicting an available level of embalming. The cheapest were undoubtedly for paupers. The very wealthy got some of the best treatment short of royalty–for a price.

Though Herodotus couldn’t be trusted in most things as far as he could be thrown, it is easy to imagine, and verified by certain remains found, that each person’s fate was determined by how much gold they could pony up at the end.

The most prevalent theory regarding the undocumented way in which mummification was handled was that the art was passed from master to apprentice, and each priest and sacred person associated with the mortuary cults were taught the ancient practice as his master before him had learned it, making the industry of mummification the most epic pieces of oral tradition, and with that, the best kept secret in history. We are still learning about this process, and though technology has gone a long way to aiding our search for the truth in this matter, it seems that there will always be a few things lost to the sands of time. One thing that is very well documented, easy to see, and verified by numerous examples is the prevalence and importance of wrapping the body in linen bandages.

Linen Bandages

 There were a number of reasons linen (spun fibers of Flax woven into a light, comfortable cloth) bandages were used. For many, linen garments were all you were buried in. The poor would be buried in whatever linen shirts or skirts they possessed. The very rich could be buried in their expensive linen bed sheets. Even Pharaohs and queens were buried in linen bandages torn from their bed sheets and curtains. Linen is a wonderful cloth. It’s fibers are breathable, making it perfect for desert wear. A few layers of it as bed sheets made very adequate blankets to keep off the desert night chill. When washed and used, time and water and use cause the thin, but stiff, linen fibers to soften, making it a light-weight, warm, soft fabric that anyone would be happy to have in their home, not least of all myself.

Certainly the expense of most textiles had a large part to play in the material used for the bandages. Lidia Plaza, my partner in the on-going (sometimes screaming hell parade) project, wrote extensively regarding the reasons for the theft of textiles in the Eighteenth-Century, attributing the expense of textiles to theft and citing court records as her primary source. Textiles, up until recently, have always held their value. The price of precious metals would dip and rise, and most other markets for consumer goods were shaky, but textiles could be horded (sometimes for decades and generations), passed on as heirlooms, sold for hard coin, used, reused, and resold second hand. This seems to have held true for the Ancient Egyptians.

Linen bandages were the most expensive part of the mummification process. Though the production of linen  was profitable, it was by no means cheap, and lean floods in the Nile Valley could spell doom for whole Flax crops, driving the price of linen sky-high. It was illogical to purchase and shred fresh linen for the use of mummification when even the most sad pauper had a linen shirt to use. It was not until much later (think Greek and Roman occupation) that linen bandages were made specifically for mortuary preparation. Though some corpses were covered in up to a hundred yards of linen, it was not until much later that the art of linen wrapping really took off, and linen was cut and sewn specifically to be used as bandages.

This is an example of a Greco-Roman mummy. There is a "fayum" portrait over the cartonage, and the linen bandages have been wound into intricate geometric shapes.
Notice the portrait, or Fayum, and intricate linen wrappings.

This is an example of a Greco-Roman mummy. Notice the intricate pattern of weaving over the cartonage, and the Fayum portrait depicting a Grecian youth. The Greeks noticed the late dynasties’ penchant for stylized weaving of the layers of linen, and so adopted it themselves.

Linen bandages were also torn from bed sheets and curtains as a fitting addition to the slew of objects the mummified person would need in the afterlife. Soldiers were buried with weapons. Artisans were buried with their tools. Royalty were usually buried with all manner of leisure and sport objects. Anything the person would find useful in the afterlife, or that had served them well in this life, would be buried with them. It made sense to be buried in the same linens you slept in. What could be more comforting? Mmm, smells like me.

#OhMyRa Linen Bandages and My Tomb King Cosplay

I would have torn up my own bed sheets, but I sort of like those. Instead, I got on eBay and bought myself 30 square feet of European Linen. Though I’m operating on a budget, this was relatively inexpensive. I bought five yards for $32 American from a lovely lady in Maryland that worked with me on shipping, making this the least expensive part of this cosplay. As an example, each of my forehead prosthetics will cost $40 a piece. You cannot beat linen for authenticity and cost-effectiveness. Avoid fabric stores. Their overhead contributes to their ridiculous prices. Avoid old linens, and read descriptions carefully. I almost bought eighty-year-old linen (1930 or so). You will feel terrible that you ripped thirty feet of linen from 1878. Fortunately these types of fabric hold their value. Linen from 1878 (unless the seller can’t verify the date) will usually be priced accordingly.

Here I can be seen tearing long strips of cloth off of a fifteen foot long section of linen fabric.
I tore my own bandages for my Warhammer Tomb Kings Cosplay.

True to tradition, I decided to tear linen strips instead of cutting them. First of all, I can’t cut in a straight line. Second, I did not have all night. And third, well, I don’t think any other Egyptians used their Singer scissors to cut through their linen. Nope, good old fashioned tearing. I did snip the fabric in order to start the tear.

I continue to tear bandages. It took an hour or so to finish tearing the entire fifteen feet.
It took an hour to tear all of it.

By the end of it, my mouth was so tight I could hardly talk, my shoulders were knotted, and I had a migraine the next day, but it was all done in one night.

I began rolling up the bandages for safe storage and arranged them on my bed.
Roles of linen bandages torn from European linen.

From a sheet of linen fifteen feet long and a little less than a yard wide, I managed to get fourteen rolls of linen bandages that are four inches wide and fifteen feet long.

Next came the passive task of staining the bandages to a brown color. Now, I don’t need to tell you how off-base the average YouTuber is  when it comes to the reason behind the color of their linen bandages (usually cut from pillow cases, or store-bought gauze. Savages. Usurian forbid!). For the most part, any costume fanatic, SFX fan, or cosplayer will tell you that clean bandages aren’t ideal. Stained, dirty bandages are the order, but not for the reason you might think. Linen bandages did not necessarily take on their brown color from being “aged”. Most often linen bandages were brown in color because resin was used to adhere the bandages to the body and lock in that extra fresh Natron essence. Amulets were woven into the body’s bandages and protected with resin. So much resin was used on some bodies that they had to be hacked out of their coffins before untried “Egyptologists” could get a look at them.

My purpose for the Tomb Kings Cosplay is to give the impression that my warrior body was in its tomb for some time before emerging at the call of Nagash the Undying. However, I won’t be achieving this with bandages alone. In addition to my bandages and armor, I will also use liquid latex and grease paint to give the impression that I am in fact, dead on my feet. Therefore, the bandages will not be brown from age, but rather as a result of having been used in mummification as part of my mortuary preparation.

I used my stainless steel kitchen sink and filled it with hot water, instant coffee, and tea bags to stain my linen a brown, "resin" color.
Staining linen bandages for that “resin” look.

To achieve the “resin-stained” look, I filled my sink with instant coffee (the first time) and loaded it up with my torn bandages. However, in my impatience, I forgot about the process by which fabric is stained, and why it is so difficult to remove staining. You see, fabric is woven of these things called fibers, usually of some plant or animal material. When I spill smoothie in my car as I roll up to work, and I clean it up with a shirt, chances are that the shirt will not be washed immediately. It will sit in my hot car and bake in the Austin sun. When I get home, I’ll throw it in the hamper, and there it shall remain for some time. On Thursday, I will pull the shirt out of the hamper and wash it at Lidia’s. I will pull it from the dryer, examine the smoothie stain, raise my eyes to the ceiling and declare, “How did that happen?”

With my batch of staining linens, I decided to pull them out after only an hour or so. I rinsed them, like an idiot, and hung them up to dry. They were not entirely stained. I had rinsed all the pigment out before it had a chance to soak into the fibers. The Lipton tea batch came out much better.

I am using a plastic tub to soak linen bandages in a Lipton tea stain.
Staining linen bandages was the story of September 2016 for me.

The bright brown tea stain gave me the impression that the bandages would “naturally” take on the color of resin as it soaked through the bandages from previous layers. Since I’ll be wearing armor as well, it is probably not necessary to darken bandages for my base layer. No one will see that layer and it’s an extra step that I don’t have time for. However, I am currently soaking more bandages in a coffee and tea mix stain. I don’t want to appear too uniform . Like the mummies of the al-Bahri cache opposite the ancient city of Luxor, I intend to look a little re-wrapped. Imagine a corpse lying in state for several centuries. Despite whatever care (or lack of care–there were perhaps six bad embalmers for every good priest) was taken with my body, a dead guy standing up in his tomb and walking out is going to cause some damage to the physical form. Like the priests of the Twenty-First Dynasty that re-wrapped and tried to salvage the ravaged and plundered bodies of their own ancestors (what a shock that must have been!), I intend to give the appearance that at some point I had to be re-wrapped. Therefore, layers of darker bandages will be layered over lighter bandages, giving the viewer who comes across me the impression that despite my very intimidating appearance, I’m actually falling apart.

Several strips of fifteen foot long linen bandages hang up to dry in my unused bathroom.
As you can see we dried the bandages in the bathroom known as “The Turkish Prison”.

You can imagine there are very few places to hang that much linen to dry in my apartment. I made use of the unused bathroom tub we have. The drain doesn’t work right, so we don’t use it, as I can’t even get water to drain to clean it. We’ve nick-named it the “Turkish Prison” tub, and it is here that I decided to hang my linen to dry. As you can see, the stain took very well on the tea-stained bandages. The light makes everything look stained and dingy in that bathroom. So I took the following outside on the balcony.

I laid several roles of linen bandages on my porch next to an unstained role. The difference is very stark. The stain definitely changed the color of the bandages.
Easy to see how different the stain makes the bandages look.

It is easy to see the difference in the bandage color. Though I did not use resin, and actually I don’t plan to do much adhering of the bandages except to my face and head for the sake of my art (if not for the sake of realism), the tea and coffee stains have given my bandages the appearance of being stiff with resin, having aged alongside me in my coffin. True to form, the tea and coffee took my previously soft linen and stiffened it considerably, to the point where it will be nearly impossible for someone of my moderate strength to tear the wider strips down into thinner strips for my fingers. It will be time-consuming, but I may have to do a straight-line mark with red chalk or Conte crayon, then use a seam ripper to get the torn effect.

I’ll be very excited to see how the armor fits over the linen. This was a crucial step. If you know anything about Worbla, you’ll know that if you are using it for armor, you’ll need to mold at least a few pieces directly onto your body. To get a correct fit, it’s very important to be wearing what you’ll be using under the armor when you mold it. In my case, I’ll be wearing exactly bra and underwear, and at least two layers of linen bandages.

I hope it’s cold this Halloween. I have a feeling I’m going to be a little warm.

Keep your eyes and ears peeled to my InstagramTwitter, and Facebook pages as I reveal more of the coming makeup project, more linen fun, and pictures of my Worbla armor as it slowly begins to take shape.

Next week, #OhMyRa will continue with our series of tribute posts to the greats of contemporary and pre-code horror. We started with Boris Karloff and The Mummy. Next, we’ll examine the genius of Lon Chaney and his work on The Phantom of the Opera. For more #OhMyRa fun on Thursdays hit up #FolkloreThursday on Twitter.

In The Beginning There Was Boris Karloff: an “Oh My Ra” Story

“Of all the fictitious mummies, the one that has had the greatest impact and success is Imhotep, the resurrected Egyptian priest played by Boris Karloff in the 1932 film The Mummy. The reason for the success of this fictional treatment above all others is the humanity of the mummy. Imhotep, or Ardath Bey, as he is called in his resurrected state, has a full range of emotions–he lives, fears, and gets angry. He is the lover desperately seeking to be reunited with is love. There is a psychological completeness here that is lacking in the many fictional treatments that precede the film, (Brier, Bob. Egyptian Mummies: Unraveling the Secrets of an Ancient Art; William Morrow and Company Inc; New York, NY 1994 p 299-300).

A black and white photograph of Boris Karloff in a suit and tie.
A portrait of Boris Karloff (1887-1969).

When I was a little girl, I wanted to marry Yul Brynner. I wanted to have lunch every day with Vincent Price, and I wanted to grow up to be Boris Karloff. No, it doesn’t make any sense, but when you’re five years old, you don’t do things that make sense. When you’re five years old (and female), and the old Universal Horrors and Cecil B Demille films are new and bright in your eyes, and your best friends are actors that had been dead for years, you might imagine you’ll grow up one day to be as great as any of them, even if it meant growing up into the forty-two-year-old male British actor, Boris Karloff.

Humble Beginnings

“There is a psychological completeness here…” Bob Brier says in his account of his attempts to reconstruct the methods by which the most skilled of Ancient Egyptian embalmers preserved the dead of old Egypt, Egyptian Mummies: Unraveling the Secrets of an Ancient Art. I’ve long thought that there was something special about Karloff’s mummy, Imhotep, but I suppose I lacked the finesse of Brier’s assessment. The “psychological completeness” of the character of Imhotep/Ardath Bey is uncharacteristic of the portrayal of mummy characters prior to the 1932 film, but it is entirely typical of the style and genius displayed by Boris Karloff in his career as one of the Princes of Hollywood Horror.

Boris Karloff got his start as a two-bit actor making his rounds in Hollywood. In 1926, at the age of 42, he was near to giving up when a chance conversation with Lon Chaney encouraged Karloff to keep trying. Soon he was working on gangster films, where he was likely to have overheard the conversation that sparked his interest in a new Universal horror film (Vieira, Mark A. Hollywood Horror: From Gothic to Cosmic; Harry N Abrams, Inc., New York, NY 2003 p 36-37).

In March of 1930, Carl Laemmle Jr. secured the rights to the Mary Shelly adaptation of Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (stage adaptation) for $20,000, which was half of what it cost him to secure the rights to Dracula in 1929. Hoping to cash in on the success of Dracula, Bela Lugosi was originally planned for the part of the monster, but he was obstinate through the original testing, insisting on his own makeup, and generally downplaying the entire thing. The role was non-verbal, and that was not at all to Lugosi’s liking. He proclaimed to deaf ears that any tall extra could play the part (Vieira, 37).  The honor of directing the film would fall to James Whale, a director and expert from the London stage that was already making a name for himself by bringing his adaptation of Waterloo Bridge to a conclusion ahead of schedule and under budget, aspects of character that were to be much admired in a director during the waxing Depression amid slumping box office profits for studios across the board (Vieira, 37). During edits, Whale noted the possibility of a sympathetic monster, and washed his hands of Bela Lugosi for the part, knowing the actor that gave life to Dracula was not likely to engender sympathy. Whale had seen Karloff in the mystery film, The Criminal Code, and loved the work. Whale’s lackeys found Karloff in the studio commissary (somehow I always feel like people came upon Karloff while he’s eating). Whale invited him to coffee and talked his ear off about nothing until he came to the point, inviting Karloff to test for a “damned awful monster!”. Karloff didn’t flinch. He took the offer. He said, “Of course I was delighted at the prospect of more work because it meant another job if I was able to land it…at the same time I felt rather hurt because at the time I had on very good straight makeup and my best suit–and he wanted to test me for a monster!” (Vieira, 38).

The Genius of Boris Karloff

“Whale and I both saw the creature as the innocent one. Within the heavy restrictions of my makeup, I tried to play it that way,” Karloff said of his performance as the monster in the original Frankenstein (1931) (Vieira, 39).

Boris Karloff is in the makeup for Frankenstein's monster. He crouches behind a piece of machinery or something. The photo is in black and white.
Frankenstein’s monster crouches behind some piece of machinery or workings.

The genius of Karloff’s character is easily seen from the first moments the creature stirs to an abnormal state of animation. Despite the intense makeup, heavily hooded eyes, and huge costume, Karloff and director James Whale created a monster that was at once frightening and endearing. There is no point of the film that does not inspire sorrow for the monster who never asked to be. No part of the monster, for all of its heterogeneous parts and lumbering gate, suggests it is anything but an infantile victim born to doom. Karloff adds a childishness to the monster as it learns to speak and interact with the sweet friar the finds him. Karloff adds the well-meaning but overly anxious aggression of an abused animal to the scene in which the monster drowns the little girl. Putty was used to give the monster, heavy, dumb eyes, disguising Karloff’s own bright, intelligent ones. Karloff was entirely human inside the monster, lending a semblance of humanity that the creature was supposed to possess. He lurched, lumbered, pawed, and groped his way through the character with such sincerity and feeling. He caused the filming crew at Lake Sherwood to stay inordinately late arguing with James Whale about the necessity of showing the drowning of a young girl on screen (38). He wore struts and pavement boots to lend him awkward height. I watched the film in one sitting one morning before work, and cried through most of it. His sleeves were shortened to give him the appearance of his arms being too long for his body. His head was layered in cheese cloth and collodion to give it the seamless, square shape. He was a marvel of modern cinema effects, and deep inside Karloff’s makeup was the “psychological completeness” Bob Brier noticed in another of Karloff’s monsters who took the screen some years later, in 1932, on a high-budget film that further cemented him into the fabric of early pre-code Universal Horror.

The Mummy

Boris Karloff lays with his arms across his chest. He is upright in a coffin in full makeup for his role as a risen mummy. The coffin is propped up. Karloff's eyes are closed. Imhotep rests in uneasy sleep.
Boris Karloff propped up in his coffin in his portrayal of the wicked priest, Imhotep.

Though Frankenstein was Karloff’s most iconic role, it was not the first film I had ever seen him in. The first time I ever saw Karloff on film, it was in the 1932 film, The Mummy. As a child, I spent my days enamored of the Ancient Egyptian culture, though childishly enough I thought there were only two Pharaohs: Ramses I and Ramses II. This is due in large part to the fact that as a child, I did not have access to extensive historical documents such as those available to me now, and in truth Yul Brynner’s portrayal of Ramses in The Ten Commandments might have informed my speculation about the existence of other Pharaohs. It made sense. Ramses was Pharaoh. There were two Pharaohs named Ramses (actually there were about eleven, but eight-year-olds don’t know that) badda bing badda boom. It was not until I saw Karloff on-screen that I could subscribe to the idea that there had been other mummies, and maybe other Pharaohs. It was only natural that I should be introduced to Boris Karloff in a film regarding the rising of an Ancient Egyptian mummy. I was drawn to the makeup, the frightful aspect of the monster, and then I was quickly bored. I was a child. What I wanted was to visit a museum and sit next to a mummy (ideally one that looked just like Karloff) and have him whisper to me all the secrets of the dead civilization. What I got was an old love story. Blah.

Years later, watching the film over Halloween, I was awestruck. Karloff’s portrayal through the painful makeup of Imhotep was so frightening, so imposing and intimidating, and he was taller than everyone else in the film. He was angry: at himself, at those who murdered him; he was angry at the loss of his beloved; he grieved like no other lover in the world; he knew the unimaginable and nameless terror of being mummified and buried alive. He rested in his uneasy tomb for 3,700 years. When he awoke, he was in a new world, but he had already been broken. He had now the stone heart of the conqueror, and the Scroll of Thoth gave him power over life and death. He was polite and civil in one moment, and commanding in the next. Perhaps the most endearing aspect of Karloff’s portrayal was the scene before he attempts to kill and mummify Helen Grosvenor, the reincarnation of his lost, forbidden  love, the vestal virgin of Isis, Ankh-sen-amen. Karloff kneels beside Ankh-sen-amen’s couch, imploring her to look into his own eyes to spare her the horror of her shocking surroundings, knowing she had traveled down the centuries to inhabit a body that was not her own, with her own coffin laying lifeless in a museum case behind him. He utters such kind words to her before revealing the magnitude of the horror of his own being, the unnatural life he now possessed, and the unnatural life he intended to work upon her. Then it is revealed: the sweet priest Ankh-sen-amen had known in Thebes was dead and gone, and the only thing that was left was the hard shell of a man bereaved beyond endurance, tortured before a slow death, and then animated to a semblance of humanity. Though he loved her, he was not best pleased at her hesitance. It made no sense to him, and Imhotep laid it out for her in an accusing tone, “For thy sake I was buried alive! I ask of thee only a moment of agony. Only so can we be united!”

My major criticism of the film is purely a historical one that has nothing to do with the picturesque. The entire embalming process was not known then, and it is not fully known now. Helen/Ankh-sen-amen and Imhotep stand in the museum–as if that made little enough sense–as a brainwashed Nubian servant stirs a boiling pot of something (as I said, this part makes little sense historically). I am a little perturbed these days to hear her moan, “That is the bath of Natron. You shall not plunge my body into that!”

First, it espouses the largely debunked theory that the Natron bath was actually a bath, as in Natron dissolved in water into which the corpse was submerged. Though that theory still circulates, Bob Brier asserts that the Natron bath was actually a bath of dry Natron used to desiccate the bodies after internal organs had been removed. Second, it encourages a very picturesque and unhealthy notion that Lovecraft probably touched on a bit in his story “Under the Pyramids” (ghostwritten for Harry Houdini), the notion that the Ancient Egyptian practice of preserving their dead came from an unnatural obsession with death, rather than as a celebration of this life, and the next. This unnatural obsession was not only a point of acute horror of the process described by the Ancient Egyptians in which the Ka of the mummified human could re-enter the body and allow it to be resurrected, but also a point of horror that came with the fear of what is not fully understood, a purely Hollywood reaction to an Ancient Civilization’s unknowable motivations and half-understood rituals. Historically accurate was not going to sell a film, and so the mummy is evil. End of story. Thank you for choosing AMC Theaters. Don’t forget to dispose of your popcorn bowls in the trash can conveniently located beside the exit.

Yet, for all my talk of historical accuracy, what must have the general public thought of the photographs of Seti I and Ramses I when they were unwrapped? Vieira points out that the discovery of Tuts tomb in 1924 was still very relevant during the film’s inception. There was mystery, horrors unimaginable, and a metric ton of market potential to capitalize on the whispered fears of a general public who stared at the desiccated faces coated in resin, their features preserved for more than 3,000 years. There were people inside those linen bandages. It was this aspect of Karloff’s mummy that was so frightening. Inside this shambling corpse was a very angry soul, but a soul nonetheless.

Boris Karloff stands before the Pharaoh in white linen shirt, white linen head dress, and skirt with gold inlays. The film is in black and white. He is flanked by guards, he is now a prisoner, caught working unspeakable black magic to regain the life of his lost princess.
Handsome Boris Karloff. All right, I think he’s handsome.

Also, can we talk about how handsome he was? I mean seriously, the man I swear is somehow related to Jeremy Irons. Even that lisp was cute.

Karloff the Eternal Sufferer: SFX for The Mummy

The makeup used on Karloff for this film was the most painful of his career. For a man who could portray the stolid, angry, rigid figures of the films he played in, he detested the makeup. He commented that the makeup for The Mummy was, “”the most trying ordeal I have ever endured,”” saying the, “”physical exhaustion was nothing compared to the nervous exhaustion I suffered,”” (Vieira 58). It took eight hours to wrap him up. Rigid collodion and layers of cotton covered his face, adhered with the unholy smelling spirit gum, a pain I know only too well. I hate rigid collodion. After two hours, he could no longer speak. Clay was adhered to his head and sculpted to match the pictures of Seti II. He was wrapped in linen bandages that had been distressed with acid and scorched in an oven to give them the dried out appearance of having been doused in bitumen resin. He couldn’t move, or talk, and he could not use the bathroom. He was wheeled into the sound stage at 7 pm, and that’s where he stayed until 2 am. It took two hours to remove the collodion and cotton mess, and it was a process he would have to repeat. Karloff was perhaps one of the most abused actors in the business. Even after he appealed to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to intervene regarding his exhausting and abusive treatment on the set of Frankenstein, The Mummy was even more emotionally and physically taxing. Ideally, using Karloff as the mummy instead of a dummy mummy (yeah I did that) made more sense to director Karl Freund, who wanted to get Karloff into the costume and shoot the first scene all in one day. There was no budget for an extra mummy that looked enough like Karloff to pull this off. These days, in addition to the actor in makeup, a silicone life cast of the actor would have been used to simulate the actor in the coffin, and actually would have been less expensive, as the less time an actor spends on set, the better.

Vieire reports, though, that Karloff was rewarded, even vindicated, for his treatment by the rave reviews from both the critics and the public regarding The Mummy. Critic Andre Sennwald wrote, “”for purposes of terror, there are two scenes in The Mummy that weird enough in all conscience. In the first, the mummy comes alive and a young archaeologist, going quite mad, laughs in a way that raises the hair on the scalp. In the second, Imhotep is embalmed alive, and that moment when the tape is drawn across the man’s mouth and nose, leaving only his wild eyes staring out of the coffin, is one of decided horror,”” (Vieire 58).

Sennewald was not wrong. If you’ve seen The Mummy (and it’s only an hour long, so there’s no excuse if you haven’t) then you’ll understand the look on Karloff’s face as the embalmers wrap him alive in linen bandages and place him in his coffin, ostensibly while he is still alive, but perhaps unconscious. It is a look of wild-eyed terror that intensifies as the bandages are wrapped over the nose and mouth. He struggled hard against the bandages, but to no avail. Some mummies were wrapped in over 1,500 feet of linen. To a young child–or even a fully-grown adult–this is the most frightening scene in the whole film.

Conclusion

Boris Karloff did not just have an indelible effect on me as a child, prompting me to begin my cosplay career with my own tribute to his masterwork. Boris Karloff, following the footsteps of his friend and mentor, Lon Chaney, defined the pre-code horror genre, infusing it with the concepts and methods sfx makeup artists and character designers still use today. Nothing can ever replace the vintage horror genre, and in no way will horror ever return to those glory days. Few actors today subscribe to the old ways, but the legacy of Boris Karloff lives on in actors like Doug Jones and directors like Guillermo Del Toro.

There seems to be some mix of fate in coming across the quote from Bob Brier that began this article, for only last night, I had the delightful surprise of watching The Black Cat and The Body Snatcher on TMC. Each film gave Karloff the opportunity to present the fullness of his range, the presence he exudes on screen. One’s eye is immediately drawn to him. Handsome, imposing, and intimidating, Boris Karloff was not only a master of his craft, but a reminder that inside the monstrous horrors presented on screen, there is a human being at the center of it, and though the lids might be hooded with putty, there is no mistaking the jovial good nature in his laughing eyes or the intelligence and wit behind that cheeky grin. There was not an actor like Karloff before, and there will never be another.

My work on my own special effects creations is as much a part of my own art as it is to the allegiance and honor I owe my predecessors. The next part of this series will explore Karloff’s own inspiration, the original Hollywood Monster, Lon Chaney.

Folklore Thursday: The Art of Bronze-Age Sword Casting, Part 1 of the “Oh My Ra” Series

Hello, Constant Followers and welcome to Folklore Thursday, the Dark Corners off-shoot of the weekly event started by the wonderful people at Folklore Thursday. Folklore Thursday was originally started to celebrate folklore and folks stories from around the world. This segment is Dark Corners tribute to the original concept, though I do not claim any credit or affiliation with that site.

Folklore can be defined as “a body of popular myth and beliefs relating to a particular place, activity, or group of people.”

From what I learned in my brief study of folklore in college, this usually meant that folk traditions were passed by word of mouth. Folk stories can be spread down through the generations by telling and re-telling. Other folk traditions are carried out in a given setting include attire, methods of construction, myth cycles, language (sometimes complicated by dialect), heroic figures, and cult religions not controlled directly by the primary religious influences.

Last Thursday, my partner in crime, Lidia Plaza, and I attended a very intimate class on Bronze-Age style sword casting from Austin, Texas’ own Greg Wenderski, the Sword Casting Guy! This was a great way to kick off the “Oh My Ra” Warhammer Cosplay series!

Folk Traditions: The Art of Sword Casting in the ATX

Greg Wenderski teaches at the Khabele School in Austin, Texas, but he’s not any average teacher. In addition to his work with his students, Greg also teaches the art of Bronze-Age sword casting using molten aluminium. Everyone from adults to kiddos can attend his classes and learn the simple process, yet complex art, of casting a Bronze-Age weapon, and just like the old weapons smiths of old, the process is taught from master–that’s Greg–to the apprentice–that’s you.

Greg Wenderski stands with two of his students as they present their newly cast weapons for the camera. The student on the left holds a dagger. The student in the middle, and Greg, each hold a Gladius, a Greek weapon commonly cast in bronze, but cast in aluminum for Greg's students.
Greg Wenderski holds up shining examples of his students’ work in sword casting.

Last Thursday, Lidia and I arrived at the Khabele School down on Rio Grand Street in the fading light of downtown Austin. Greg met us exuberantly, and we were surprised to be the only attendees that night. Lidia and I got a first-hand taste of the process of casting. To say that it was hot–sultry even–was the understatement of the century. With weather edging up into 104 degrees Fahrenheit, the heat wave was on. Nevertheless we were prepared to get our hands dirty.

Greg doesn’t just cast in aluminium. Though the process is more involved and complex, Greg can also cast in real bronze. To see that, you can watch Greg’s video interview with Tania Ortega on FOX7.

Lidia and I had our choice of weapons for Thursday’s lesson. Of course, since these weapons are going to be for our cosplay projects, we chose based on what our characters would most likely be wielding on the field of battle. Lidia chose a basic blade that she will be modifying with thermal plastics (Worbla’s Finest Art) to give it more of an antique, yet updated look for her space-faring fawn. Since my character will be a Warhammer Tomb King, it made sense for me to choose the weapon most commonly depicted, if not most commonly used, by the Ancient Egyptians themselves, the Khopesh.

Outside, on a plastic folding table, sits a wooden casting box with it's top to the side. Across the open section is the wooden pattern of an Egyptian Khopesh, which will be used to cast an aluminium version.
The wooden Khopesh pattern atop a wooden casting box.

Ancient Egyptian Weapons and Military

The three major Egyptian Kingdoms–classified as the most stable time-periods of the Ancient Egyptian Civilizations before the Greek, and then Roman, occupations–began and ended during the Bronze Age. Egypt’s major moments of upheaval occurred  during the First, Second, and Third Intermediate Periods. Before the invasion of the Hyksos in the Second Intermediate Period, Egypt was largely a peaceful kingdom. Its place in the Nile River Valley successfully secluded it from rival nations, who would have had to cross vast deserts on all sides to reach her.  Bronze-Age armor and smithing, as well as the ores needed to smelt ingots for casting, were rare in Ancient Egypt, and the weapons were more than likely purchased rather than made in Egypt. The vast majority of warfare took place on the ground, with spear and shield, or at long range from bows and arrows. Egypt had little to fear from large invasions most of the time, and so utilized outposts and bastions to keep warring lesser tribes from causing trouble. Chariotry did not enter the Egyptian military until after its import from Eastern Asia during the invasion of the Hyksos. Major weapons would have been throwing sticks, spears, bow and arrow, and later, the Khopesh. Even armor was uncommon, as foot soldiers would have worn basic linen skirts and carried a shield, often using close ranged weapons like maces and short weapons, like the Khopesh, a version of which is depicted below, though this weapon is not cast in bronze, but rather steel.

This is a picture of a Khopesh-like weapon that is a steel version of the bronze age weapon. It is longer than a Bronze-Age Khopesh. It has a wooden handle.
A style of Khopesh cast in steel.

The steel weapon seen here is an adequate depiction. Notice the curved blade, like a sickle used for harvesting grain. The Bronze-Age weapon would have been no longer than 24 inches because, Greg Wenderski said, that was how far bronze could travel in a cast before it became too cool to flow. The hooked portion of the Bronze-Age style weapon would have been blunt. This feature of the weapon is thought to have been more for pulling an enemy into closer range for bludgeoning rather than stabbing or cutting. As the Bronze Age faded out towards the end of the New Kingdom, Khopheshes were cast in iron rather than bronze. Some pharaoh were buried with blunt ceremonial versions of gold. Tutankhamen was buried with two.

The Casting Process

Greg started us off with a brief tutorial. The brutal Austin heat kept many spectators and participants at bay, so Lidia and I were the only guests present. We dived right in.

We were each given a long box with the lids removed. We filled these with a gray sort of "sugar sand" much like very fine beach sand, which we leveled off with a board.
Lidia and I filled boxes with “sugar sand” before leveling them off.

First each of us filled one of Greg’s casting boxes with “sugar sand” a very fine sand that dried quickly in the warm evening air. It was like beach sand, only much finer. The gray color is probably from the fact that Greg reuses the sand after a cast as much as from the fact that it’s slightly damp.

Each box is in three parts: the top, the bottom, and lid. The top and bottom of the casting boxes latch together, a feature Greg told us was a result of one trial in which he poured hot aluminium into the boxes only to have steam separate the seams. Each casting box has had hinges ever since. The lid unscrews with  the aid of a suitably traditional electric drill.

It was important not to pack the sand too tightly, but it was also very important to make sure the edges and corners would form a tight seal during casting. If air were allowed to escape the corners or edges, the sword would possibly be ruined.

Greg assisted us by using the side of the casting box lid to press the wooden pattern into the sugar sand to leave a deep enough indentation in the sand for the aluminium to flow into.
Greg presses our wooden pattern of each of our weapons into the sugar sand. Neither of us were tall enough to do it.

We used the lids of the casting boxes to press the wooden molds of our swords as hard into the sand as we could. We were grateful for Greg’s help, as neither of us were tall enough to leverage the strength needed to press the sword and make the impression that would form the bottom of the sword cast. Though we couldn’t pack the sand down tightly, we tried our best to make sure the sand was very closely packed to the edge of the sword molds.

After we filled the bottom, we dusted the sand with separating minerals to ensure the metal would lift easily from the sand cast. Then we dusted the wooden casting mold with minerals. We reattached the top portion of the box–minus the lid–and packed the top very heavily with the sugar sand, pressing hard, sparing not an ounce of strength needed to make sure the top of the sword left a good impression in the top part of the cast. Then we replaced the lids and put the screws back in, sealing the whole box shut. Greg used a small tube to feel out the pommel of the sword, knocking enough sand away to ensure the molten aluminium would have room to travel freely into the cast.

Next, we lifted the tops off the casting boxes and removed the wooden mold, which left behind a clear impression in the damp sand. We stood the boxes on their ends, knocking off additional sand.

The casting box of Lidia's Greek weapon is ready to be closed up. On the left is the bottom of the box with the wooden pattern (which will be removed). On the right is the indentation left in the top of the box, which was also filled with sand.
Lidia’s casting box how has two almost perfect indentations made to cast her weapon.
On the left is the bottom of the casting box containing the Khopesh wooden pattern (which will be removed). The right side of the box is the top, which was also filled with sand, and will be closed up before the cast.
The Khopesh is ready to be cast as well. All that is left is to remove the wood pattern and close up the box.

We closed up the new casts and stood them up in a metal stand so that they would not fall over in the event of a random and unforeseen toppling, a lesson Greg learned early in his career. We then moved over to the furnace, where Greg was ready to smelt the aluminium ingots he would melt down to cast the swords.

Each of us placed our casting box in a stand on the ground, upright so that Greg could pour the molten aluminium into each box through a hole in the upward end.
Our casting boxes stand upright in order to receive the molten aluminum.

Smelting and Casting

I am holding an aluminium ingot that Greg poured himself. It is a little heavy, but not as heavy as bronze.
Greg’s hand-poured aluminium ingot.

Greg smelts his own aluminium ingots. As he makes his way around town on a daily basis, he picks up aluminium items he finds, things like bike frames, though he cannot use beer or soda cans, as they are lined with plastic. He melts the pieces down into ingots. He also recasts ingots from the unused aluminium from projects. Nothing goes to waste.

Greg has placed a modified propane tank on the brick floor of the outdoor patio. He has modified the propane tank to act as a small furnace.
Greg places two aluminium ingots in the furnace and prepares to melt them down.

The ingots go into the furnace. This particular furnace is a propane tank with the top sawed off, with a concrete lid that swings out. Greg learned on one occasion that setting the lid down in dry Texas grass might start a fire, and so devised a method that never involves setting the lid on the ground.  Aluminium melts at 1, 221 degrees Fahrenheit. Bronze melts at a much higher temperature depending on the amount of copper ore present in the alloy. It would require a furnace lined with ceramic, and a blower, which was not necessary for this particular arts and crafts project.

We stood well back as Greg poured the aluminium. It took surprisingly little metal to finish each cast. Greg poured three molds and had enough aluminium left over to pour into another whole ingot.

In the boxes, Greg has poured a small amount of aluminium into each cast. The aluminium is visible on the top of the box.
The aluminium boxes have been filled with molten aluminium.

We watched the steam billow from our boxes, marveling that Greg’s did not do that, and wondering which one of our weapons we had ruined. Fortunately that was not the case. The visible aluminium would form a small nugget at the end of the pommel that would be knocked off and it’s sharp edge ground down.

I place my left hand on one of the boxes after the metal has set. The box is still incredibly warm, though I can touch it.
My own personal “hand test” to see how hot the box actually got.

The company I work for makes heat insulation products for turbocharged engines. We pride ourselves on being able to touch our product while it’s under heavy heat, though no one can do that for very long as the turbo under the blanket becomes red hot. Here you can see I performed my own hand test on the hot casting box containing Lidia’s weapon.

Greg has taken the box off of Lidia's weapon. The aluminium is solid, if a bit dirty. It lays in it's box, as it's still to hot to touch.
Lidia’s fully cast weapon.
Greg has taken the lid off of the box containing the aluminium Khopesh.
The Khopesh is revealed, fully cast in aluminium.

Both weapons cooled in the almost blistering summer heat in the ATX. Greg dusted them off briefly before whisking them off to the bucket to be quenched.

Greg quenches the cast weapons in a bucket of water on the ground. Quenching hardens the metal, but makes it brittle. Unfortunately, the weapons cannot be tempered, as they are not steel, so no actually hitting anything with them.
Greg quenches the cast weapons in water to cool them.

In most weapons casting, the metal swords would be quenched and tempered to help them retain an edge. However, quenching causes the metal to become very brittle. I’m afraid we won’t be riding into battle with these aluminium weapons in the near or distant future, as one good strike, even to a soft and squishy enemy, would likely snap the weapon off at the hilt. Since these weapons are cast, not forged, we were not going to be tempering the metal. Tempering is the process by which swords are made more flexible to keep them from breaking,. Lidia and I each own Fencing weapons of tempered steel, which makes them bendable and “flicky”. They are not impossible to break, but the bendable blades are easier on the body and less likely to break under the 22k Newtons of force a Fencer is capable of inflicting on their opponent. To give you an idea of the strength of tempered steel, I used to be able to put dents in the hard body of my ’94 Mercury Tracer with just my practice weapon and  with normal lunge attacks.

I hold the Khopesh up to my phone's camera. It is a very unbalanced, but fine weapon for costumes, and it was cast using a historically accurate process.
My finished Khopesh, ready for my costume.

Greg later ground down the edges and flats of both of our weapons, both for safety and for aesthetic. He then wrapped the hilts of each of our weapons in leather.

And there we have it! Two freshly cast Bronze-Age style weapons for our life-encompassing projects. We lost the light not too long after we finished our weapons, but we left knowing we had something very special in hand. Not too many people at the Zombie Ball in October, or the Texas Renaissance Fair will carry weapons they themselves helped cast. Not only is the finished product well worth the price of admission, but the plain weapon can be modified in almost any way you desire. With the availability of thermal plastics like Worbla’s Finest Art, a little wire and clay or clay foam, the sky is the limit with modifications and additions that are sure to enhance the already impressive weapon you will hold in your hand, and allow you to enjoy this piece for years to come.

Conclusion

Greg still has space available for the last Sunday of August (August 28) and September 18 for the all ages class. These are the all-ages classes, so if you’re looking for something to do with the kids that’s education in a good way, then you can get tickets to Greg’s class at the Khabele School here. You can find the Sword Casting Guy on his website, or on his Facebook page.

It was great to work with Greg last week to cast a weapon that is sure to put the finishing touches on my Tomb King Cosplay, and in a true folk tradition. No guide books, no YouTube videos, just the master and his students on a hot evening in Austin, learning techniques that Bronze-Age weapons casters would have used 3,000 years ago. As I become better acquainted with the civilization that Warhammer borrowed so heavily from, I feel closer to the people, as if I were able to bridge the gap between the here and now and the distant past. Maybe one day I’ll have the pleasure of casting a weapon in bronze. If I ever do, I know who to call.

Keep your eyes peeled for more posts as the “Oh My Ra” Series continues. Next week, Linen Bandages and the art of mummifying the Ancient Egyptians!

Folklore Thursday: Vlad von Carstein and Eastern European Folklore

“Common sense has never been more frightening,”

–Mannfred von Carstein, Warhammer

Mannfred von Carnstein towers above his undead minions in battle in this black-and-white "woodcut" image.
Mannfred von Carstein, one of the “sons” of Vlad, the progenitor of the von Carstein Bloodline

Hello, Constant Followers and welcome to Folklore Thursday, the Dark Corners off-shoot of the weekly event started by the wonderful people at Folklore Thursday. Folklore Thursday was originally started to celebrate folklore and folks stories from around the world.

Folklore can be defined as “a body of popular myth and beliefs relating to a particular place, activity, or group of people.”

From what I learned in my brief study of folklore in college, this usually meant that folk traditions were passed by word of mouth. Folk stories can be spread down through the generations by telling and re-telling. Other folk traditions are carried out in a given setting include attire, methods of construction, myth cycles, language (sometimes complicated by dialect), heroic figures, and cult religions not controlled directly by the primary religious influences.

The Vampire Folk Traditions of Eastern Europe

I’m being very oversimplified here, and drawing very heavily on a series of references to Rand McNally and Radu Florescu’s work, Draclua: Prince of Many Faces, as a basis for my the beginning of this post, as McNally and Florescu did an excellent job of laying out the history of the Wallachian prince, Vlad III (sometimes called, Tepes, Drakula, or Drakoolya and who would later be called Dracula) in a geopolitical landscape that gave a lot of insight into the on-going warfare of the two opposing empires, the Eastern Roman Empire and the Ottoman Empire.

Prior to occupation by the Ottoman Turks in the Fifteenth Century, the area of Europe that we now call Eastern Europe (the Balkan states) was once the Northern most section of the Byzantine Empire, seated in Constantinople, or modern-day Istanbul. In 1453, the Ottomans, lead by Mehmed the II overturned rulership and set up shop there (Harris, William H & Levey, Judith S. The New Columbia Encyclopedia. New York; Columbia University Press, 1975). The Slavs of this region had been attempting to protect themselves from Ottoman invasion since the reign of Murad (Setton, Kenneth M, The Papacy and the Levant 1204-1571: The Fifteenth Century. American Philosophical Society, 1978). Among those who raised the most hell for the Ottomans were the Hunyadis and the line of princes set upon the throne by Murad–the line that would culminate with Vlad II, member of the Order of the Dragon, and his sons, Mircea, Vlad, and Radu. Vlad the III would go on to wage one of the most bloody counter-offensives against Ottoman occupation since the beginning of the Crusades, who would acquire the epithet, “Tepes” or “Impaler”, who would make example of hundreds of his own voivode, who enacted a heinous scratch and burn policy, and who would find himself under house arrest of Matthias Corvinus (tentative Holy Roman Emperor) for twelve years, and who is most closely associated with vampire lore today, as his body was reportedly never found. Rumors that the attrocities perpetrated by Vlad were attributed to some sort of demonic possession or vampirism abounded among his detractors, and even his people had a hard time justifying his actions as a sane man. Some Romanians that care, to this day, claim that Vlad may one day return and save his people, and it was to Vlad III that Cescescu prayed to save him as he fled for his helicopter during the fall of his Communist regime in 1989.

This painting is most commonly associated with the Wallachian Prince Vlad "Dracula", born in 1436 and died in 1476. He has a sharp nose, high cheeks, brown hair, ruddy lips, and a red cap jeweled in pearl.
A commonly copied painting of Vlad “Dracula” the third, prince of Wallachia.

Western European ignorance of vampire mythology prior to 1730 owes much to a sort of neighborhood bastardization of what we consider the Balkans (Hungary, Poland, Romania, Moldavia, Bukovina, Serbia, etc), which was ceded from the Ottoman Empire to the Hapsburg Monarchy in 1718 (Johnson, Eric Michael, “A Natural History of Vampires” Scientific America Blog Network October 31, 2011). Cut off from Europe by his Holiness the Pope (you’ll recall that the Byzantines were Orthodox Christians and not part of the Papacy), then again in 1453 by the Ottomans, the Balkan states did not mix with Europeans until 1718.

Dr. Johannes Flückinger’s account of his encounter with the vampire-hunting Gypsies of Serbia in 1732 was perhaps one of the most widely circulated accounts of Serbian vampiric folkways at the time (Johnson 2011). In his account, Flückinger is deployed to a Serbian village in the shadow of the Carpathian mountains, the name of which still strikes a bit of unease into this humble blogger to this day. He performs a sort of “autopsy” on a young mother and her baby, who had died in childbirth. According to his report, the woman, Stana, had seemed undecayed, with vivid and fresh organs despite being dead for two months, and blood was found in her chest and stomach. She seemed to exhibit all the signs of being alive after death, and she was treated as such by one of the many traditional methods. She was burned, along with the other fresh corpses deemed to be vampires, and her ashes were scattered over the river Morava. According to Johnson, the ceding of the Balkans to Europe, “came [with] a rich folkloric tradition which quickly merged with European ideas of witchcraft that had gripped the continent for the past three centuries. These stories would be widely reproduced in French, German and, later, in English, to eventually find their way into the hands of an obscure Irish writer and theater manager by the name of Bram Stoker” (Jonson, 2011).

Over the centuries, Slavic and European folklore would coalesce, eventually leading to a set of folktales in cycles that would give Bram Stoker the idea for his iconic (if not fantastically written) novel, Dracula (1897), in which a mysterious Romanian count tricks several British citizens into bringing him safely to a new home in London, where he reeks havoc, stopped only by decapitation at the hands of vampire hunters under the direction of one Abraham Van Helsing.

Gary Oldman's Prince Dracula prepares to do battle against the Turkish Hordes. In this scene, he takes one last look at his bride, Elizabeta (Winona Ryder) before he takes to the battlefield. He wears red plate armor that looks like the sinewy muscle. His hair is long, and he has a handsome beard. This film is Bram Stoker's Dracula, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, in 1992.
Gary Oldman plays the younger Prince Dracula as well as the vampire version in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 Bram Stoker’s Dracula (opposite Winona Ryder).

This story, and it’s many incarnations, have been passed down through our pop culture media, making its most recent appearance in the Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan television phenomena, The Strain. Dracula‘s basis in some historical fact has also given rise to a set of hybrid stories by Fred Saberhagen and others in which Dracula is both the historical Vlad Tepes (1431-1476) and the vampire Count Dracula, which inspired the film adaptations of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Dracula Untold.

Luke Evans plays Dracula as he strides in boiled leather armor (more historically accurate than Oldman's strange plate armor) across a war camp, his black hair wet with mist and sweat.
I kind of wish the real Dracula had looked like Luke Evans in the 2014 film, Dracula Untold.
The Master is played by Robert Maillet. He stands a full head and shoulders above Corey Stol's Ephraim Goodweather in The Strain. He is bald, with large, flat ears, and a mouth that opens extra wide to emit his "stinger".
Ephraim Goodweather confronts the Master, played by Robert Maillet, in the FX television series The Strain.

We never get tired of vampire stories. Even a dumbed down version of a vampire made it into Garth Ennis’s comic, Preacher. They are the go-to villain, the unattainable saint, the symbol of all that we fear as human beings, and also symbols of everything we had ever dreamed of. The vampire is at once abhorrent and beautiful. So many authors have explored this dichotomy, from the “bad vampires” of Brian Lumley to the “beautiful” vampires of Anne Rice. Each author finds their own way to explore this creature that we are so tempted and haunted by. The vampire is the ultimate masculine symbol of power despite the femininity of contemporary vampiric figures (Lestat, Vampire Hunter D, Edward Cullen). The vampire is reputedly a representation of fear of the spread of venereal diseases, such as Syphilis, which plagued England and Europe at the time Stoker’s writing. The Western vampire is arguably a symbol of Hollywood ideals of beauty made manifest, a being that is always young and beautiful, and can never die.

The Eastern European vampire, however, will always hold a place in pop culture’s heart, and it is from the history books and folktales of the Fifteenth-Century Slavs that we are given the basis for the undead horde of the von Carsteins of Warhammer.

Time of Legends: Rise of the Vampire Lords

As depicted in Time of Legends: The Rise of Nagash, the original vampire lords arose from a subgroup of rulers in Lahmia on the Northeastern border of Nehekhara. The Lahmians, led by their Priest-King Lahmizzar, believed themselves to possess the spells that gave the Immortals under the command of undying Nagash their longevity and necromantic power. In helping the Lahmians betray Nagash, the vizier Arkhan the Black thought he would be able to secure his freedom by slipping Lahmashizzar (son of Lahmizzar) and his sister-wife, Neferata, just enough of Nagash’s knowledge to keep them from killing him while he figured out a different plan. Regretting the betrayal of his master and his present predicament, Arkhan had helped Lahmashizzar and Neferata acquire only a few of the Books of Nagash from the temple in Khemri. Even Arkhan was not prepared for the outcome. In giving up only a fraction of his knowledge of Nagash’s power, Arkhan allowed Neferata and her cronies to begin a slow transition towards what we now refer to as vampires. Eventually, Neferata and her kind had to repeatedly fake their own deaths to ensure that no one discovered their secret. Later, with Nagash fighting his own battle against the Skaven at Nagashizaar, Neferata breeds a new prince for the throne of the court of Settra in Khemri and places the young Alcaldizaar there. W’soran, now head of the Mortuary Cult in Lahmia, flees to Nagashizaar to beseach the help of the Undying King. Alcaldizaar would later face Nagash and defeat him, but not before Nagash got off one last spell, bringing the Tomb Kings into existence, right before Alcaldizaar went mad. Neferata and her kind fled Lahmia during an uprising and headed to the North, what was called “The Old World”.

Warhammer: The Vampire Counts of the von Carstein Line

The Vampire Counts descending from the von Carstein blood are the most hated and feared faction of the Warhammer universe from the perspective of the Empire of Man. In the country of Sylvania, ruled by the von Drak line, there was a mad Count Otto von Drak, who vowed never to allow his daughter to marry any man. He would rather see her married to a demon before he allowed her marriage to a lesser man. That night, a strange, dark rider came to the castle by the name of Vlad von Carstein. Otto allowed the marriage of Vlad to his daughter Isabella on his death bed, and soon the greatest and worst love story ever told took off. Vlad and Isabella ruled side-by-side for several centuries before a particularly dim-witted populace began to notice. By then, it was too late. Vlad’s first Vampire War began with the subjugation of the people of Sylvania. The next step began with something straight out of the history books.

Vlad von Carstein sits on his throne in Castle Drakenhof after the doomed Totentanz Night dance that resulted in the death of the living in Sylvania.
Vlad von Carstein sits on his gruesome throne in resplendent armor.

In our own history, Vlad III had a very large problem with some of his boyars. Many of them had been directly responsible for selling his father, Vlad II, and his older brother, Mircea, to the Turks, resulting in their gruesome deaths after Vlad’s imprisonment along with his baby brother, Radu. Not long after being placed on the Wallachian throne at the age of nineteen, Vlad held a large feast for his boyars so that they could pledge their loyalty to him. He could hear lies dripping from every tongue that spoke, and it stoked his already raging ire. Somewhere near the end of the feast, Vlad slipped from the hall and had the doors locked from the outside. He burned the boyars alive in the hall, eliminating a vast majority of the threat that remained to his rule, decimating the Turkish sympathizers under his command, and exacting a terrible vengeance for the deaths of his brother and father.

In Warhammer, Vlad von Carstein “called forth all the nobles of the province to pledge loyalty to him during a festivity called the Totentanz, or the “Dance of the Dead”. The dance was to be held at Drakenhof Castle, on the eve of Geheimnisnacht,” (Warhammer Wiki). “The Totentanz was actually a huge coy, invented by Vlad to assemble the remaining living aristocracy into one place. At the height of the ball, he gave an order to his minions to close off the entrance and kill every living thing inside.”

After this, he climbed the parapet and spoke from one of the nine Books of Nagash. Every last remaining vestige of humanity was converted to the von Carstein bloodline.

Vlad, in his campaign of total war (see what I did there?), was beheaded, the way historical Vlad was said to have died, by one of the reanimated Imperial Commanders. Later, Herman Prosner and his retinue could not find Vlad’s body, in much the same way as the body of Vlad III was never found. Unlike Vlad III, however, Vlad von Carstein and Isabella went on to win the Battle of Essenford, and he marched his vampire horde all the way to Altdorf, where he was betrayed by Mannfred von Carstein, his oldest “son”.

“Following Vlad’s death, only five vampires claimed to be the heir to his legacy. These vampires were Fritz, Hans, Pieter, Konrad and Mannfred von Carstein. For more than forty years afterward, the Vampires of the von Carstein line have fought a vicious power struggle against each other, giving the Empire vital time to recover from the desolation brought about by Vlad’s invasion.”

In Total War: Warhammer, you play the vampire faction under a unified von Carstein bloodline. Like the other horde factions, the vampires carry their civilization with them as they rampage their way across the map. It is up to the defenders to protect their borders and their way of life from the necromantic, undead horde who can raise one’s own soldiers against them, an enemy who, with each death, only grows stronger.

Mannfred von Carstein waves a axe like weapon for a cutscene image in Total War: Warhammer. Notice he carries a book on his hip--it is one of the nine Books of Nagash.
Mannfred Von Carstein from the video game Total War: Warhammer

Conclusion

Warhammer owes much, if not all, of its lore to the legacies of the ancient human civilizations of our history. Steeped in the rich folk traditions of Eastern Europe, the vampire faction of Warhammer features those aspects of the vampire we all love to hate. The faction is of feudal design, with serfs serving the lord of each city-state. The folk traditions of the vampire combined with the feudal system of government in Medieval Eastern Europe lends itself well to Warhammer game mechanics, and is one of the most feared and most fun factions to play.

Because of their resemblance to humans and their cunning brutality, they are perhaps the most feared monster of humankind, and it seems that as long as we are insecure about our place in the universe and fearful of our own mortality, they will plague and inspire us, perhaps for as long as we exist.