Bizarre Book Club: Caitlin Doughty From Ask A Mortician

I read this book in a single day, which should tell you something. No, the book wasn’t two pages long.

I chanced upon a YouTube channel called Ask A Mortician and found her not only informative on all things death related, but also funny and charming. Caitlin Doughty seemed like someone I’d want to hang around with.

This in turn led me to her book Smoke Gets In Your Eyes (And Other Lessons From The Crematory). I expected and enjoyed the anecdotes of working with corpses and the awkwardness of experiencing another culture’s grieving rituals for the first time (the segment on the Chinese family is fascinating).

The horror from outsiders, too, wasn’t a surprise, such as a hospital security guard’s distaste at her picking up ex-babies, that “it didn’t matter how many times I smiled at her, expressed my new-on-the-job status with bumbling Hugh Grant– esque apologies. This woman had decided that I was dirty and deviant. Handmaiden to the underworld.”

I also anticipated moments that made me laugh out loud, such as when “the family had placed a Häagen-Dazs coffee-and-almond ice-cream bar between her hands like a Viking warrior’s weapon. Those are my favourite. So I yelled, involuntarily, “Those are my favourite!””

What I didn’t expect were the many literary quotes and philosophical thoughts. Not that I didn’t think mortuary workers were capable of them, but I didn’t expect to be thinking about them so much afterwards. Caitlin believes the West’s relationship with death has gone astray, that “death might appear to destroy the meaning in our lives, but in fact it is the very source of our creativity. As Kafka said , “The meaning of life is that it ends.” Death is the engine that keeps us running, giving us the motivation to achieve, learn, love, and create.”

She feels that hiding death away and pretending it doesn’t happen is creating greater fear of the  inevitable end. She advocates for a more natural, eco-friendly approach, and for not allowing funeral homes to dictate to the family how the final proceedings should go. I’ll let her explain it in this Ted Talk:

She also believes (more in America, not so much here) that embalming is often sold to people as the only way and is expensive and often unnecessary:

At first I thought, well, is it really so important to be more involved with a body before a funeral? How much can that really change things? Then I thought hard on her point that we also hide old age, stashing the elderly and infirm in sometimes substandard homes, while other cultures move ageing relatives in with them to deal with the consequences of the years together. I wonder if maybe she’s right. What do all of you think?

Caitlin also began The Order of the Good Death, where “funeral industry professionals, academics, and artists explor(e) ways to prepare a death phobic culture for their inevitable mortality.” I’d like to go to one of their talks one day. I’ve also pre-ordered her book From Here To Eternity, in which she travelled far and wide gathering information on the death practices of various civilisations.

As an added bonus, here are a few fun videos from her Ask A Mortician series:

Crematory Scandal That Changed The Death Industry

Victorian STANDING Corpse Photography?

The Punished Suicide

The Self Mummified Monks

Medieval Zombies?!

La Pascualita: Mannequin or Corpse Bride?

Lead Based Make Up Tutorial For Spring

Witch Trials, Hysterical Nuns And Not Haunted Houses: Horror Nonfiction Bizarre Book Club

Good morning my little cups of fiery chai, I’ve been reading some very interesting books lately.

I’m drawn to the myths of ghosts, black magic, the Devil and other spooky things, but what I really love is clearing the fog of legend and finding what’s really underneath. To me the truth behind a haunting is infinitely more interesting than the initial stories, though I respect believers of the paranormal and would never make fun of them. Each to their own.

All three of these books take incidents or places that have been imbued with supernatural meaning and show us the ‘truth.’

1. Witchfinders by Malcolm Gaskill

The story of Matthew Hopkins, the self-titled ‘Witchfinder General,’ is quite close to my heart as I live in Essex and his numerous victims were held in a castle not far from me. Witchfinders painstakingly recounts the journey he took through Essex and Suffolk, whipping the people into a frenzy of blame and fear, and on through the trials and executions themselves.

The concept of witch-hunting in the magical sense seems alien to us now but Malcolm Gaskill does a great job of explaining the world of magic people lived in and how the uncertainty of the Civil War affected them. The thorough research helped me to better understand what might have been going through the minds of each player, even Matthew Hopkins himself.

2. Ghostland by Colin Dickey

This is a fascinating tour through the most mythologised houses, hotels, hospitals and even cities of America. Drawn to the ghosts, he strips back the stories and locates the factual accounts. If it sounds like he’s made them boring, trust me, he hasn’t.

One example is the famous Winchester Mystery House, long believed to have been created by a widow half mad with loss and guilt over the deaths of her husband and the victims of the gun he created, building endlessly to confuse any spirits seeking revenge. But, fantastically, the tale everyone including myself assumed to be fact isn’t, and this is only one of the little surprises in its pages.

This quote sums it up very well: “More than just simple urban legends and campfire tales, ghost stories reveal the contours of our anxieties, the nature of our collective fears and desires, the things we can’t talk about in any other way. The past we’re most afraid to speak aloud of in the bright light of day is the same past that tends to linger in the ghost stories we whisper in the dark.”

3. The Devils Of Loudun by Aldous Huxley

You might recognise the story of Grandier, the French priest whom women loved, men hated and burned as a witch after nuns became hysterical, from the Ken Russell film The Devils (1971). You may also recognise it’s author as the infamous psychonaut and writer of The Doors of Perception.

Where the two previous books are distantly fascinated and relatively dispassionate, Aldous Huxley’s philosophy and personality runs strongly throughout. Normally I wouldn’t like this, but he’s so well read and intelligent that it doesn’t matter.

It gives the story an air of being told by someone who knew the people personally, who smelled the horrible smells of seventeenth century France and had befriended Grandier, in spite and because of his complexities and contradictions.
Mass hysteria is a fascination of mine and anything that can go some way towards explaining it or recreating it in my mind is a definite winner.

Weird true stories of the Witchfinder General

A mini documentary by me on a piece of local history. Yup, the Witchfinder General happened in my town and the surrounding areas. Amongst the usual stories of accusations and hangings are scary and strange tales told by frightened people of the time, including Betty Potter whose body ‘disappeared.’

5 Reasons a spooky creative brain prefers winter

It’s that time again (almost). When a headless coachman appears out of the mist to take you to the cursed castle, and charges you double time on Saturdays (“But you went the long way round those crumbling gravestones”).

Nothing like a cup of haunted tea to warm the cockles

The good thing about being a creative type is that you can do anything and claim it as research: “What do you mean you spent the day watching the Twilight Zone?” “Shut up it’s research.”

So here are a few small reasons winter is best for anyone who likes to dally in the darkened spaces of art or literature or…something else.

1. Halloween. Yes, yes, it’s all commercialised and it’s for children etc, but who cares? Just for one year try not to be a Halloween McScrooge and celebrate the Day of the Dead with everyone else. Dress up, even if its as ‘your best friend who wears the exact same clothes as you.’ I began my first proper short story at school on the day of Halloween and ever since then its had a special place in my disturbed heart. I guarantee you’ll find some kind of inspiration, even if its a story about murdering trick or treaters.

2. Staying indoors. Let’s face it, writing or doing anything work related during summer is difficult and unpleasant. Maybe I’m alone here but I like knowing that the world outside is furiously cold while I sit indoors drinking tea and working/watching The Twilight Zone. Which brings me onto my next point.

3. Spooky films get spookier. It’s a cliche certainly, but there’s really nothing like watching a spine-chiller while the wind and rain howls against your window. Sometimes for extra cosiness I like to pretend there are zombies stumbling around my driveway too. That way I can feel smug that they can’t get me. Or can they?

4. Your surroundings are inspiration. Whilst its obvious you need to be wary of writing/painting/whatever in cliches, its hard not to think of great ideas when wandering through a mist clouded field. Just remember, focusing on the idea rather than lengthy descriptions of nature might be best. Unless your main character is a lecturer of some kind. Even then, maybe not a good idea…

5. More time to think. Summer is filled with Gestapo-like orders to have fun, but time seems to slow down in winter. People tend to vegetate and grow moss which is perfect for ruminating on thoughts, or simply trying to occupy yourself. You can either spend your winter obsessing on why Cathy brought all the men cups of tea and not you or Sally, or you can send your brain to another place and make up somewhere better. Or much worse, depending on what you like to do to your main characters.

So this was my little thought bubble on winter. I wanted to include the wearing of fluffy socks and colourful coats but it didn’t seem relevant, so I’ll just mention them here. Happy winter!

Fog and graphic sexual horror

I love this fog. I’m expecting a headless coachman to pull up and say, “Where to? No, it’s a bit far love.” I imagine he’ll be able to speak by paranormal forces or something.

I watched a documentary recently called Graphic Sexual Horror. It was fascinating and more than a little unnerving, and some of the images will stay with me. I liked it, it was good. It was about a website called insex that begin in the 90s which featured pictures and live feeds of consenting girls being tortured for the pleasure of the viewers. In the same way that I love Straw Dogs (though I think I’m the only one) for highlighting the complexity of human relationships and interaction, I found the grey area of consent and real fear intriguing. They may have agreed to appear in the films but at certain points they were definately not acting. As one woman said, “I felt raped, but I could have used my safe word at any point.”

Equally fascinating is the way the website ran into trouble. The credit card companies disapproved of the content so made it impossible for viewers to pay by card, thus deterring potential customers.

It’s worth watching, if you can handle that sort of thing.