5 Truly Creepshow Moments in History
We tend to remember the Hollywood version of historical events where no one ever has unattractive body hair or acute diarrhea, but things in real life usually aren't so pretty. In fact, there was some downright creepy shit going on just offscreen during some of the most dramatic moments in history ...
Medieval People Thought Plague Zombies Were a Thing
As it happened so often, the religious people of medieval Europe had specific ways they liked to die. Ideally, it was done with the serenity of Jesus, in the right place, and in such a way as to honor their god. To the latter end, some opted to be buried face-down as a show of humility just before meeting their maker. Usually, they were people who lived pretty un-humble lives, which we know because they were buried in the most coveted cemetery locations with their finest material possessions. Hey, humility before the Lord doesn't have to preclude showing him your wicked threads.
At the beginning of the 1300s, though, that began to change. A whole lot of people were suddenly being buried face-down, even the poors. Had they suddenly decided abject poverty was no longer sufficient penance? Probably not. In fact, they probably didn't do a lot of the deciding.
The rise in face-down burials coincided with two other phenomena sweeping western Europe: plagues and Eastern European zombie folklore. Westerners found out about nachzehrer and wiedergänger, undead monsters who ate everything in sight, including themselves, and/or terrorized those they'd left behind after unexpected and unusually tragic deaths, right around the time a lot of folks were dying unexpectedly and unusually tragically. In fact, it was specifically believed that the first plague victim of a community always became a nachzehrer, cursing their surviving loved ones with the same fate, which explained why those close to the victim tended to drop dead as well. It also explained why the teeming masses of corpses left behind in the wake of a plague seemed to shift and moan so hungrily.
As a result, archaeologists' leading theory for the sudden trend of face-down burials was the belief that zombies are dumb and can't figure out how to turn around inside a coffin. By burying your loved one face-down, you could ensure that they didn't come back to haunt you. It was actually just one of many anti-reanimation measures: People also shoved bricks in their loved ones' mouths or piled heavy stones on top of their coffins to prevent them from returning as vampires or zombies. Honestly, it's for their own good.
Graphic Effigies Were All the Rage
Of course, for the fanciest of dead people, a simple grave wouldn't do. They also needed, and continue to need, glorious monuments carved of their likeness to remind visitors that a very fancy skeleton resides beneath them. You'd think you'd want to be remembered at your sweetest, atop a mighty steed or doing a perfect kick-flip or something, but before about the 1500s, these monuments typically depicted the deceased in a state of eternal rest. It was probably that humility thing again.
Then they went waaaay too far with it. Around that time, the new trend became a "double-decker affair" consisting of a frame on top of which a normal, peaceful effigy reclined, but below that generic sculpture was the artist's rendering of the deceased in an advanced state of decay.
In theory, these "cadaver tombs" reminded the living that no matter how many fatted gooses you dined on, we all end up looking like the Crypt Keeper, but in practice, it couldn't have been fun to visit Dad only to be confronted by the visual knowledge of Dad being eaten by worms. For real, that one up there is called "Man eaten by worms." Medieval people were a lot of things, but they weren't subtle. It almost seems like it was a competition among the richies to see just who could be the grossest. One of the most famous cadaver tombs, that of Dutch prince René de Chalon, originally included the royal's actual heart, placed in the sculpture's hand.
The Bones of Soldiers at the Battle of Waterloo Were Turned Into Fertilizer
History is full of tales about unwitting cannibalism -- Soylent Green, Sweeney Todd, Scott Tenorman -- but those are just stories, right? Okay, Sweeney Todd might have been sort of real, but we know for a fact that people in England in the early 1800s ate vegetables fertilized with the bones of soldiers. They probably overcooked them, too.
Back then, it wasn't uncommon to make fertilizer out of bone meal. It's not even uncommon today, it's just usually made from the bones of animals that have been slaughtered for food, so it's hard to take a moral stand on it unless you're Moby or something, and then you can't take a moral stand on anything anyway.
After the Battle of Waterloo left tens of thousands of soldiers and countless horses dead; however, fertilizer companies went all Mrs. Lovett on the battlefield. Those who were left standing couldn't exactly load up all those bodies on a truck, so they kind of just had to leave them there, piled into a mass grave. Following what must have been an awkward debate about how long they should wait in terms of both respect and practicality, fertilizer companies swooped in and scavenged as much as they could to supplement their stock, which was all of it.
And we do mean all of it. Exactly one full skeleton has been recovered from the battlefield, which is now a parking lot because life is a morbid Joni Mitchell song. So many bones were stolen that it took them 200 years to put together even one full skeleton, all of which were carted back to England to nourish their potatoes, peas, and that's about all the plants Brits eat for the next 40 years. They didn't stop until an 1860 op-ed called out the practice, which truly illustrates how far we've come as a culture. These days, corporations are routinely held accountable for shady business dealings, but back then, someone had to say, "Hey, guys, maybe we should stop eating soldier bones."
Pope Pius XII's Funeral Was a Horrifying Disaster
It might be surprising for the secular to learn that various religions have not only specific but strong positions on practices like embalming, but they're pretty particular about what happens to the body after death. Catholicism is generally accepting of postmortem preservation (though don't you dare keep your loved one's ashes), but it's a matter of personal preference, and not all of its CEOs have been onboard with it. That can be a problem because the death of a Pope is a big deal. If you thought it took a while to get into the Sistine Chapel, try standing in line to say goodbye to the Pope. It can take days to let everyone through, and time + corpse = bad news.
So when Pope Pius XII insisted before his death in 1958 that his body remain "in the state in which God created it," his personal physician, Riccardo Galeazzi-Lisi, figured that left some wiggle room. He couldn't have a full embalming on his conscience (although he didn't have much of one, having arranged with the media to provide photos of and exclusive scoops on His Holiness's final hours), but he had an idea that complied with the letter of the Pius's wishes, if not the spirit. Using "various oils and resins to deoxidize the body" and "a cellophane sheet" that was "wrapped around the cadaver for almost 24 hours," he basically gave the Holy Father a spa day. Those things can't even preserve a middle-aged trophy wife, and it became immediately clear that they couldn't preserve a dead Pope.
They never even made it to the viewing before things went horrifically wrong. As a funeral procession carried Pius's body through the streets toward St. Peter's Basilica, a "loud pop" was heard from within the casket. It was his body exploding from the pressure of the gases emanating from his decomposing organs. The scheduled viewing had to be abruptly postponed while his body was treated again, and when it was finally laid out, the faithful were forced to maintain their composure in the presence of an "emerald green" Pope. His body had to be treated once more during the event, and the guards keeping watch over it fainted from the stench, but the good Catholics just kept coming. Those are some devoted people, y'all.
Gas Lamp Fumes Made Victorians Believe in Ghosts
From spooky stories to full-on seances, those Victorians loved them some ghosts, but they should have been a lot more worried about gaslighting. No, not attempts to undermine their perception of reality, the actual gas lights that were a miracle of modern technology at the time. They provided everyday people with their first experience of seeing in the dark without fumbling for matches, but they also came with a lot of dangers that wouldn't be tolerated by even the slummiest of lords today. As with any emerging technology, there was a lot of competition between suppliers, and there wasn't any Ralph Naders or regulatory agencies making sure they didn't kill people.
That meant they cut corners, claimed that a room full of gas is "more congenial to the lungs than vital air" and "will never inflame because it's intermixed" with it, and straight-up sabotaged each other, tampering with the pipes that fed noxious fumes into people's homes. Sometimes, the gas itself was a problem. Certain types were a lot more flammable and posed a higher threat of carbon monoxide poisoning in unventilated structures, which was every structure in Victorian times, in addition to "nasty smell, blackened walls and ceilings, and tarnished metal due to the sulphuric acid given off." That would get it banned immediately today, but any given person at the time was probably going to get tuberculosis the next day, so they rolled the dice on some late-night reading.
The result was, rather predictably, an epidemic of house fires, explosions, and suffocations. It also might have been responsible for the era's obsession with ghosts. People suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning tend to hallucinate before they faint prettily onto a sumptuously upholstered chaise, and it's entirely possible that everyone was seeing shadowy figures because they were constantly choking on toxic gas. One little failure of utility regulation, and now we all have to read Charles Dickens in high school. Thanks, Victorians.
Top Image: Jean-Pol GRANDMONT/Wikimedia Commons