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.

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.