Cannibals and Bloody Axes

October 31, 2009

I love gross stuff. It’s probably a good thing that I’m the mother of sons because I definitely prefer snips and snails and puppy dog tails to sugar and spice and everything nice. I don’t like pink, frilly, ruffly things. Black is my favorite color. While I am not fond of real spiders, I am a sucker for any bug- or spider-shaped pin or earrings I see. Embed a scorpion in clear acrylic and I’ll be delighted to hang it around my neck. Halloween is my favorite holiday, and I am a better big sister and mom and teacher because of it. I am always ready to create celebrations and costumes no matter what time of year it is.

Some passions are persistent. Many years ago, I had to redo an elementary school project about a famous American after I chose Lizzie Borden as my subject. I decorated the cover of my carefully-researched report with a construction paper and aluminum foil ax dripping bright red crayoned blood onto the well-known jump rope rhyme about this alleged murderer:

Lizzie Borden took an ax,
Gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.

My teacher was horrified and told me to choose from her list of other more appropriate people to research (mostly men and that was part of the problem). Miss Borden was only one of many childhood reading obsessions that ranged from mummifying corpses to the Aztec civilization to the alleged cannibalism of the Donner Party to piranhas and how long it took them to strip the flesh from a cow.

My next memorable encounter with educational disapproval was in college. I was a home economics major and for my nutrition course project, which included a research paper and a class presentation, I choose to explore cannibalism. I was allowed into the vaults of the public library (I was an excellent customer!) and was able to take notes from original documents that included sea captain’s logs that recounted encounters with cannibals and provided recipes for cooking people. My research was thorough and meticulous.

I found recipes and copied them onto 3×5 cards for my classmates. I researched possible calorie counts and nutritional value of human flesh. I discovered that the palms of the hands and the buttocks are said to be the tastiest tidbits, and I shared all of this while my instructor sat in the back of the room and grew visibly angrier as my presentation went on. He didn’t say anything. The class loved it, but three days later, the chair of the department called me in and said that I should choose a different major—clearly I was not serious about home economics.

I got married instead of choosing another major, had a media career, and two sons. My sons are grown now, but I still recognize Freddy Krueger and Jason and Satan Claws and all the rest because I’ve seen their movies (I won’t see any more Saw, though). From Robert Louis Stevenson and Edgar Allen Poe to R.L. Stine and beyond, I’ve read lots of scary books too.

I’m currently a university professor who teaches language and literacy courses for K-12 pre- and in-service teachers, and I know that it isn’t just boys who are fascinated by the gross and the gory. Many girls are less finicky than cultural sugar and spice stereotypes might suggest, and also enjoy a safe scare or repellent reading. The popularity of the Harry Potter series and the current cultural obsession with vampires demonstrate that both genders enjoy beasts and goblins and other fearfully fanciful imaginings. In an interview about the bloody elements of his movie, Apocalypto, director Mel Gibson pointed out that given the choice of a story about fairies and a story about trolls who eat children, most children will pick the troll story every time.

I am not sure why I am not easily scared and why I am attracted to everything vile, gross, disgusting, and yucky. Is it because my grandpa used to let me listen to The Shadow and Inner Sanctum with him over my grandmother’s protests? Is it because I was born in Springfield, Illinois, where the Donner Party began their ill-fated cross-country trip? I still have a scrapbook with some of the articles I collected from the yearly newspaper insert that explored their alleged cannibalism. Is it because I had little brothers and sisters who needed to see that their big sister wasn’t scared? I don’t know. But I do know that my fascination continues today.

My demonstration unit for language and literacy class is called Yuckology 101: Vile and Disgusting Literacy Activities for Children of All Ages, and since it’s Halloween, I’ll leave you with a few repellent bits of information from that collection:

Hufu is tofu textured and flavored like human flesh. . .a lot of the pleasure is imagining you’re eating human flesh. . .If you really want to come as close as possible to eating human flesh, this textured soy product will do it. Originally, the idea was to market this product to anthropology students.
• Inventor of Hufu, 2006

I can’t go out the door without buying books. I collect art. I collect spherical objects. I collect postcard photographs of dead babies.
• Edward Gorey on what he collects

Slugs are things from the edges of insanity, and I am afraid of slugs and all their attributes.
• MFK Fisher (1937), Serve It Forth

In the 1860s, Thomas Edison developed a device to electrocute cockroaches.

In ancient Japan, farting contests were held with prizes awarded for loudness and duration.

I hate feet, they’re disgusting. . .what are they even for?
• Peter Andre

When locomotives were first used in Egypt in the nineteenth century, fuels like wood and coal were scarce, so the Egyptians used something they had millions of—human mummies.

The members of the Dixie Chicks occupy their time [on the road] with a game
of “Would You Rather. . .” It’s basically a round of dares: would you rather do this gross, disgusting thing, or that gross, disgusting thing?
• Rhonda Wheeler (June 24, 2005), “Getting Ready for Summer Vacation on the Road,” Medford Mail Tribune, p 1E,

I never drink water because of the disgusting things fish do in it.
• W.C. Fields

Swallow a toad in the morning and you will encounter nothing more disgusting the rest of the day.
• Nicholas de Chamfort

What were you interested in as a child that still fascinates you now?

I believe implicitly that every young man [or woman] in the world is fascinated with either sharks or dinosaurs.
• Peter Benchley, author of
Jaws and other disgusting things


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