If you’ve spent enough time on social media, you might have eventually discovered the weirder, goth-er, more macabre corners of each app, and the communities that mushroom there in the half-dark.
For Tumblr in its heyday, the go-to hashtag used to be #vultureculture, a tag that refers to the collection and preservation of animal remains in the form of taxidermy, bone jewelry, and wall art.
On Instagram, the feed of “oddities and curiosities” is like a digital capsule mimicking the feeling of walking through an old cabinet of curiosities, full of bizarre findings such as strange gemstones, wet specimens, and allegedly cursed artifacts.
Pinterest is full of aesthetic mood boards of bones and decay, while on Etsy, you can browse through a virtual marketplace displaying a variety of jewelry, statues, and collectibles made from things that were, at some point in the near or distant past, alive.
All of the above is proof that people love admiring and collecting the morbid and the macabre. But this isn’t a modern phenomenon.
Let’s walk back to the cabinet of curiosities mentioned earlier. Curiosity cabinets (Wunderkammer in German, which literally translates to “wonder rooms”) were a popular phenomenon in the 16th and 17th centuries among academics and aristocrats (and other gatekeepers/members of the elite). Those cabinets—which could be either a room or a large piece of furniture—looked like miniature natural history museums, featuring organic and inorganic oddities: rare or deformed plant and animal fossils, minerals and bezoar stones, human remains, and arcane or esoteric texts and antiques of the occult. Some of those artifacts were formerly exhibits of anatomical museums that had to close to the public and redistribute their contents to private collectors. Other artifacts came from the Global South during trips or “expeditions.” In both of those cases, there was a strong element of ableist objectification (when collecting and reselling, for example, conjoined twin skeletons) or exoticization, in the case of amulets or holy relics brought from overseas to shock and entertain the rich.
Later, Victorian British society was fascinated with death’s shadow and the dead’s remains. Some mourning jewelry contained pieces of the departed’s body. Lockets held a curl of a child or spouse’s hair, rings were set with baby teeth (in correlation with the high infant mortality rates of the time), and sometimes even a mix of animal fur and claws could be found together with the human loved one’s. The deceased being kept close to the mourner’s body—in the case of the locket, literally nestled over the heart—makes sense if we consider how prevalent the concept of memento mori was, a phrase that means “remember that you must die.” Besides mourning jewelry, the Victorians were also enamored with a more titillating approach to death: conducting parlor seances where ectoplasmic ghosts were being summoned, collecting objects with strong iconographies of skulls and hourglasses in which time is running out, and studying anatomy and art through human cadavers and anatomical Venuses.
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The end of the previous millennium brought the rise of carnival and sideshow attractions featuring a voyeuristic view of bodies deemed bizarre and divergent. Such bodies were put on display, the sideshows taking on the role of a living, interactive cabinet of curiosities—this time, with a cheap admission ticket, making the sensationalism easily available to the public. The people put on display typically had visible disabilities and congenital differences, which the show spun wild, exaggerated backstories to explain. When in previous years audiences needed to visit a museum or private collection to inspect “rare human specimens,” the popularity of the so-called freakshow meant regular people could sate their morbid curiosity in the flesh—literally and figuratively. Those carnival attractions were a reminder to audiences that life and death, ability and disability were fluid concepts, with viewers leaving the shows content in their privilege and their place in the “normal” world.
Even in modern times, there is an undercurrent of exploitation to be reckoned with when engaging in the appreciation of “oddities and curiosities.” Although there are a lot of small creators who make sustainable, ethically sourced accessories by foraging for organic material in forests and roadsides instead of harming live animals for their bones, horns, and teeth, the human remains industry has a much less conscious, ethical footprint. Some collectors might claim they responsibly sourced human skeletons from medical and anthropological departments or secondhand antique shops, but the truth remains that a lot of those relics belonged to poor or marginalized people, whose bones made their way into the hands of scholars and collectors through unethical means. The good news is that more and more enjoyers of the macabre are interested in ethical, death-positive practices, so the demand for human remains is being phased out of social media accounts and modern physical collections alike.
But why do bones, teeth, and other strange and wondrous remains have such lasting popularity among personal collectors, artists, and digital enthusiasts? The memento mori principle still applies all those years later. People like to stare the inevitability of decomposition in the eye, to hold death close, find comfort and awe in the beautifully bizarre will of nature. The fact that bones are impressive conversation pieces and a source of artistic and aesthetic inspiration also helps!