Imagine you’ve discovered an alien civilization, and been sent in to study it objectively, Star-Trek-first-contact style. You note some ritualistic behavior that seems especially strange. The aliens have a habit — not a pervasive one, but common enough to note — of creating lifelike statues of people from their culture and displaying them in special buildings in certain places around the planet. These statues portray special people from the civilization’s history, as well as fictional characters that appear in literature and entertainment. Sometimes, there are images of characters as they have been personified by real people dressing up as them in costumes.
Sometimes, the statues are behind glass, meant to be gazed upon by the interested public. Other times, they are arranged in tableaus complete with furniture or landscape, posed with other figures to re-create a moment from history or literature. More often than not, the figures are accessible to the visiting public, who are free to touch or pose with them, to the delight of their friends, creating the illusion that the visitor is in the presence of the famous person or character.
Some of the statues are extremely lifelike, and it takes close observation to ascertain if they are real or not. Most others, however, are “off” enough to where they are obviously statues, or bear only a relative likeness to the creature they are meant to represent. In some cases, the statues are grotesque, showing their age, or are such a botched piece of art that you’d think they weren’t acceptable for public viewing.
Yet, the aliens still flock to look at them. These gathering places to view the statues aren’t as popular as, say, the gladiatorial arena events that the culture is rabid for, but the buildings have a powerful draw, and charging admission makes them quite the lucrative business.
A “Strange” Cultural Practice
Ha! You just got Nacerima’d. In the 1950s, anthropologist Horace Miner wrote a satirical article where he observed American behavior through the lens of the “objective observer” that pervaded anthropological articles at the time. It lampooned how white Western anthropologists wrote about nonwhite “strange” cultures and their “weird ritual practices” that, through another lens, would seem entirely normal. The point is, your own culture seems everyday and rational because it’s your culture; others with differing beliefs and lifestyles are automatically seen as othered and strange, when they’re probably thinking the same thing about your culture.
When we flip the script on our own culture from time to time, like Miner did, it’s easy to see how some things about our lives are pretty damn bizarre.
Take, for example, wax museums.
Wax Figures as Funerary Art
In the Middle Ages, was customary for the bodies of royalty to be carried atop the coffin for all to see before they were entombed. Unfortunately, on hot days, things got… smelly. So, the practice of creating a wax effigy dressed in the dead person’s clothes as a replacement became popular. Sometimes, these effigies were placed over the grave for some time, and became the first waxwork tourist attractions. Many of the famous effigies from history still reside in Westminster Abbey.
The most famous waxwork artist of all time is Madame Tussaud. She got her start doing death masks during the French Revolution, and is credited with starting one of the most popular wax tourist attractions of all time (though not the first). Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museums are all over the world, including right here in America. Wax museums have been operating and making some serious cash since the early 1700s, and they continue to be visited by hoards of tourists.
What’s the Attraction?
Western culture has been obsessed with wax figures since the 1300s at least. So, what’s the deal? When you break it down, give it the Nacerima treatment, it is pretty strange. Still, it undeniably fills some important role in our society, some hole inside of us.
Of course it’s fun to pose with famous people and pretend like you’re meeting them. They’re statues, and they can’t say anything back. You can put your arm around Jack Black and pretend for a second that you’re actually meeting the legendary funny man, and how cool that would be. You can sit next to Kim Kardashian and tell her she’s a phony blight on modern society, and she can’t say anything back. There has to be something deeply satisfying and almost therapeutic about interacting with our household gods.
Especially if they’re dead. The dead is where all of this started, and processing death and satisfying our morbid curiosity is the root, I think, of our obsession with wax museums.
The original wax figures were effigies to the dead, a way for the public, who never had access to the royal family before, to see with their own eyes what the person looked like, to be able to confront them in a liminal space between death and life. Effigies of celebrities, our new royalty, function in the same manner. You can stand in the same space as “Michael Jackson” and process your complicated feelings about him. “You had so much talent,” you can say to him, “but your life was so troubled, and I think you may have done some bad things. At least your suffering is over. Rest in peace…”
Celebrities and historical figures do play a significant role in our lives, despite how shallow and cheesy that sounds. We assign significance to them, because their music or art may remind us of certain times and events in our lives. Their words may have inspired us during difficult times. Visiting a dead celebrity’s effigy is one way of paying homage to them, or feeling as though you’re actually connecting to them in some way.
Embrace the Creepy
On the other hand, some of us are fascinated by waxworks because they are inherently creepy. There have been quite a few movies featuring wax museums, the most famous of which is probably House of Wax and its remake.
Some wax museums play this up by featuring a classic “Chamber of Horrors” where visitors can view figures of monsters or serial killers, and even walk by scenes of murder and mayhem from stories or real life. Again, here, we are confronting death, processing it, and flirting with it a little bit.
But some waxworks are creepy without trying to be. That’s because they fail to fool us, to convince the viewer that they are anything close to a real person. The spectrum of this failure produces different levels of creepiness.
Some figurines seem to resemble real people, but there is just something off about them. This troubles the part of our brain that is menaced by the Uncanny Valley. Other waxworks are so unbelievably grotesque, created by a terrible artist or ravaged by time, that we are drawn to them to gaze on their unsettling strangeness. My personal favorite example is the small wax museum in Hannibal, Missouri, where the figurines are unintentionally terrifying, especially one of the Twain relatives, who looks like he’s melting, his glass eyes pointing in different directions.
Perhaps we see the breakdown of a waxwork as we would see the rotting of a corpse, and therein lies the fascination, the flirting with death.
If You’ve Never Been…
If you’ve never been to a wax museum, give it a try. They’re all over the country, and you’ll be sure to get something out of it, whether its your picture with a celebrity, a chance to speak to a dead icon, or submersing yourself in a genuine creep-fest.
I hope we never replace wax museums with, say, hologram museums. I want to see the waxworks decay over time and become uncanny and unsettling.
I’ve been to the Hollywood Wax Museum in Branson, the Musee Conti in New Orleans (which is now closed, but perhaps relocating), the one in Hannibal, and another in Paris. Below are some photos of my visits.