20 Hellish Nightmares That Used To Be Everyday Life
In an age in which you can quickly take three dozen photos of your instant noodles if the mood strikes you, it's easy to forget that photographers once needed to carefully decide if the moment they were about to capture was worth a piece of precious film. And sometimes, for reasons we'll never know, our ancestors decided that what was worth capturing was a moment of existential terror.
What follows is the sixth edition of your annual reminder that the past is a bottomless pit of nightmares. Catch up on parts one, two, three, four, and five, or dive right into the biggest edition yet, because history will never stop being horrifying.
Merry Christmas! It Might Be Your Last!
Depending on your philosophy, a human corpse can be anything from a sacred vessel to a sack of rotting flesh that might as well be disposed of in the nearest Taco Bell dumpster. But I think even the most cynical among us would agree that a random cadaver shouldn't be used as a prop in a wacky Christmas card, given that it would both offend the family of the deceased and make the med student's family worry about his mental health. The past, though? It didn't give a fuck. It didn't even have to be a special occasion for them to play with their corpses.
That's from 1906, and there's nothing being celebrated beyond "Hey, I just realized that I have access to cadavers, and also have a disturbed sense of humor. Maybe later I'll make it look like a couple are just suckin' my dick."
She Later Installed A Stereo
At first glance, this may just look like Tim Burton's daughter dressing up for a walk with her dad, but it's actually an 1878 advertisement for "Dr. Clark's Spinal Apparatus." It claimed to help patients with spine or leg problems walk, while also improving their circulation, digestion, and strength, although modern assessments are doubtful. So 19th-Century victims of spinal issues at best had to cosplay as a carriage just to get a little pain relief, while at worst their snake oil put ours to shame in both outrage and discomfort. But Dr. Clark's invention can serve an important new purpose today, as children with orthodontic headgear can be shown this and told to count their goddamn blessings. And if that doesn't work ...
It Is Not Safe
Don't you hate it when you go to the dentist and he asks you a question, but you can't answer because one of his tools is deep in your mouth, drilling up through the base of your skull and extracting a chunk of your brain because he believes it contains your soul and he wants to eat it?
That's a 1939 dental tool / torture device called a gnathograph, and it's designed to measure how your teeth are set so a dentist can fit a crown, straighten a rogue tooth, ask you where the diamonds are, etc. Thankfully, dentistry has moved on from such primitive tools, unless your insurance really sucks.
"God Bless America, Or Else"
Were this 1930s picture of a smiling subject in full color, it would look just like any other fun, goofy display of patriotism you've seen dozens of times on the fourth of July. Instead, her sepia glare makes her look like a rejected BioShock Infinite boss who's moments away from impaling the photographer with one of her flags while screeching about how his inferior stock is poisoning America. And since it was the Great Depression, that would actually be a decent way to go out. Thanks, jingoism witch!
Give Thanks For Your Nightmares
So apparently, there was a time in American history when no one knew how to celebrate without making the occasion look like a festival of the damned. That photo is from the 1931 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, but while history has saved the image, we've lost the reason why an army of clowns had to escort a deranged cat to celebrate a day when everyone eats turkey.
Oh shit, Lilliputians are torturing Pinocchio! But don't worry, they got their comeuppance when a dragon began devouring them.
And lest you think that old floats merely look weird in black and white, rest assured that literally every aspect of the parade was nightmarish.
That's right, children. Give thanks that you live in the same world as that creature, yet it has chosen not to open its mouth-portal to Nethescurial's void. It merely watches you, unblinking. Give thanks!
Mars Needs Children's Souls
If you live in a city that hosts a comic convention, you've probably seen people roaming around dressed as everything from Iron Man to sexy Nala. Well, costumed characters roamed the streets in 1964 London too -- they just hadn't yet figured out how to make them "fun" or "approachable" or "something that won't make children wonder why God has forsaken them."
Those "Martians" are promoting Man In The Moon, a revue which ran at the London Palladium. I bet that wacky conversation went a little something like this:
"ATTENTION, SMALL HUMAN. DECADES FROM NOW, YOUR OFFSPRING WILL FIND OUR ANTICS AMUSING IN A STORY OF THE TOYS. YOU WILL NOT FIND US AMUSING. YOUR CHILDHOOD ENDS THIS DAY."
"Come Play With Us, Forever And Ever ..."
No one wants to know how the products we use daily are produced. We don't want to picture the cow that gave us our hamburger, we don't want to picture the child labor that went into our phones, and we don't want to picture the 1950s doll factory which gave generations of children beloved toys even while giving night watchmen a lifetime of therapy sessions. Hey, did you know that dolls in the process of being made look like people in the process of being unmade?
I'm not saying that a serial killer became obsessed with dismembering children after working at a doll factory, but that's only because they might have just molested their victims before letting them go.
Nope, never mind, they definitely killed them. Somewhere in a house in America is a room that looks just like that, except the heads are real and mounted on milk cartons that display pictures of their missing owners.
The expression on that girl's face is one of a child listening to the whispers coming from a doll's mouth and being unsure of what to think. When it is done speaking, she will consider the possibility. but then, unwilling or unable to believe, will look at the boy and chide him for trying to fool her with such an outlandish prank. Then, as they leave, all the heads will rotate as one and speak, "We tried to warn you."
Remember To Bake The Head For 30 Minutes, Or Until Golden Brown
Do you suffer from sinus problems or other "sicknesses of the head"? Would you like to resemble a rejected Star Wars drone, BR3D-MK3R? Then this 1933 "Solar Bath Apparatus" is perfect for you! Just strap yourself in, let the UV rays heal what ails you, and try not to worry about the fact that all sorts of horrible things could be happening to your skull and no observers would have a clue. I mean, it's probably not secretly a prototype of a mind-reading device that accidentally causes brain tumors. And it will probably stay secure on its wall mount and not come crashing to the floor, snapping your neck in the process. So sit back, enjoy your solar bath, and hope that your nose doesn't get itchy.
Possibly The Weirdest Thing To Ever Happen In Germany
Have you ever asked your grandparents if they were furries? They might have some interesting stories to tell you, especially if they're German. Because from the 1920s to the 1950s, it was fashionable to have your photo taken with a man in the world's least convincing polar bear costume, in honor of a polar bear that had been introduced to the Berlin Zoo. It's kind of like if planking somehow survived four decades which included a World War and two regime changes.
Look at how thrilled that young man is! Look at how the man in the bear costume definitely isn't plotting his horrid demise!
Even the Wehrmacht got in on it, because nothing says a day of fun before being shipped to the Eastern Front to freeze to death like posing with a polar bear. Have you ever wondered what it would sound like if a polar bear screamed anti-Semitic slurs? You will now. But perhaps what's most interesting is the fact that, regardless of the era the photo was taken in, the bear always looks like it just finished blowing someone at the Overlook.
Go on, German kids, join the Eisbar Club! It's just like America's Mickey Mouse Club, except your beloved mascot clearly wants to do unspeakable things to you!
It: The Early Years
Centuries ago, medieval children were being frightened by performers in makeup who ostensibly intended to entertain them, just like some kid is running screaming out of a birthday party as you read this. It's a tradition that will last as long as humanity, either because there's a fine line between the comic and the grotesque or because we are secretly all minor amusements for the Clown God.
Fun fact: This 12-year-old clown performing in 1955 is none other than Christopher Walken. Additional fun fact: Walken continues to puts on the clown makeup to this day to entertain friends and family. Then, when they've all gone to sleep, he sneaks into the home of a stranger and sucks out their soul as revenge for their incessant quoting of "More Cowbell."
This one is called "The Last Feast of Christopher Walken."
The Day Dumbo Snapped
So what if you lived in the 1930s and wanted to go to the circus to be terrified, but weren't afraid of clowns? Don't worry -- those people had plenty of options, because old circus acts weren't about dazzling feats of strength, acrobatics, and wonder. Instead, they tried to answer the question of how close they could come to killing someone for the amusement of the rubes.
"But I'm sure they carefully calculated their stunts to minimize the risk of harm!" you might think. Don't kid yourself. This was the '30s. They'd drown an immigrant in front of his children if they thought people would pay to watch.
The man holding the rock slab died after that photo was taken. Maybe decades later from old age, but maybe mere moments later, when his spine snapped and children cheered his twitching.
"Let Us Put A Smile On Your Face"
Do you want to cosplay as the Joker, but have no budget, talent or motivation? Then just copy the look of a member of Budapest's Smile Club, which was founded in 1937 to spread joy and combat a rash of suicides in the city.
The photographer killed himself shortly after documenting their work.
It Took Decades For Cats To Be Considered Cute Again
Possibly taken near Ulthar.
There's always a gap between when an idea is introduced and when it becomes a practical form of entertainment. Movies had to come up with plots once people got bored of screaming at trains. It probably took a day or two before the people who invented writing realized that they could use it to talk about fucking. And while people in the 1880s realized that they could take pictures of cats doing human activities, only future generations concluded that the cats should be cute instead of unsettling. I don't know what powers that cat gained from reading the Necronomicon, but it could be lurking in a shelter near you, biding its time, waiting to be adopted so it can create another mask of flesh and live a life well beyond its ninth.
The Puppy Went On To Get Cancer, Probably
This would be a downright adorable photo of Japanese pilots taking respite from the horrors of war were it not for the fact that the puppy outlived them all -- these are kamikaze pilots on the day before their suicide missions, because history can even ruin puppies. None of them are older than 20, and the boy holding the puppy, at 17, was one of the youngest kamikaze pilots. I don't know what it even says about history that, 71 years later, 17-year-olds can now play video games wherein they shoot down realistic representations of these pilots, but I do know that it unsettles your brain in a way that you can't really articulate.
All's Hilarious On The Western Front
Just in case you still aren't convinced that war, to take a controversial stance, kind of sucks, here's a shell-shocked soldier in 1916, looking like he just heard a joke but laughed far longer and louder than was appropriate. And now, a century later, you can look forward to the secret campaign hidden in Battlefield 1 where your character slowly overcomes his trauma and fear of artillery by writing poetry, and survives years of brutal trench warfare long enough to be unceremoniously gassed to death at Passchendaele.
The KKK Kraft Festival
That's a member of the KKK circa 1870, and given that he looks like someone who forgot to make a Halloween costume and desperately slapped a bunch of crap that was lying around the house onto a dunce cap, your first instinct is probably to laugh. But imagine five or six of them standing on your lawn in the middle of the night, burning a cross and brandishing guns. A critique of their artistic skills probably wouldn't be the first thing that came to mind.
That one's from 1869, and he's apparently on break from filming a surreal music video to get a little racism in. Much like how the Star Wars movies that were made on small budgets look better than the prequels that spent hundreds of millions of dollars, a costume thrown together from a few sheets can look far more ominous than anything someone with unlimited access to a Hobby Lobby could come up with. It's like Death Eaters teamed up with their muggle brethren.
He Wouldn't Stop Joking That His Collection Was Making Headway
The Maori have a long history of carefully preserving the heads of important members of their society, and white people have a long history of looking at foreign customs and saying, "Hey, that looks neat, let me get in on that." And that's how an officer in the British Army came into possession of enough Maori heads to start the world's most macabre juggling competition.
This photo was taken in 1895, well before people could collect video games, vinyl records, or anything else that wouldn't make their dinner guests wonder if they were going to be fed their own brains. Now, of course, we live in a more civilized age, so visitors to New Zealand just leave the country with a "tribal" tattoo which they insist is a meaningful tribute to the indigenous peoples, regardless of how drunk they were when they picked it out.
You Don't Want To Ask Them About Their Bed
This 1908 photo shows four children acting out Goldilocks and the Three Sentient Trash Bags That Devour Flesh, a story that has since evolved to be a quaint tale about bears. I don't care how limited the crafting materials available in 1908 were -- you have to try to get something that looks that unlike a bear. This version of the fairy tale presumably ends with Goldilocks being sacrificed in an arcane ritual to ensure a bountiful porridge harvest, despite the land being ravaged by radiation.
In The Navy, You Can Sail To Frigid Y'ha-nthlei
Today, a frogman is a soldier trained to operate underwater. In 1942, a frogman was a soldier trained to enter the darkest depths of the ocean to commune with the Deep Ones and form a desperate, unholy pact against the Nazis. I'm sure there's a rational explanation for why this American navy man is stripped to his waist and covered in black fluid, and I'm sure that rational explanation is merely a cover-up for the fact that he just finished mating with a fish-person to spawn a race of hybrids that broke into U-boats and feasted on their terrified crews. Did a mere few years of war fulfill the flesh pact? I doubt it.
Playgrounds Weren't Invented Yet
This circa-1890 photo from the Philippines is called "Three children with bones," because photographers weren't very creative with their titles back then. But don't worry about that. Just remember that everything you are now -- all that flesh and bone that holds together your hopes and dreams and fears and memories and that one joke you really like to tell -- will one day be nothing more than a brief curiosity for some children before they get bored, wander off, and forget all about what little they knew of you. Happy Halloween!
Mark is on Twitter and has a spooky book.
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