The book skips merrily from topic to ghoulish topic, exploring the mechanics of those Coney Island death traps; peering at the lurid attractions of the sideshows of old; weaving a story about Victorian hair art; poking away at humanity’s curious impulse to “play dead;” and delving into the emotional intricacies of collecting other people’s mourning objects.
The untimely demise of Brooklyn’s Morbid Anatomy Museum in late 2016 left a crater-sized hole in the city’s morbid art scene, which had brought together a lively (albeit monochrome) community of oddities collectors, taxidermy artists, cemetery aficionados, and generally macabre souls.
A meditation on decay: One side of this 18th-century vanitas tableau in wax resembles Queen Elizabeth I of England; the other half is a bare skull crawling with insects, snails and reptiles, representing the decay of the body in the grave.
Even as modern science has laid to rest some of our oldest fears, death remains as inscrutable as it ever was—and Ebenstein is here to act as your own personal Charon.
Can you tell me a bit about what drew you to Death-Themed Amusements, and how you went about researching this bizarre blip in entertainment history?
Further, I saw them as objects that—if unconsciously—express the fears and imaginings of death as at a time where scientific professionals were replacing religious leaders as our arbiters between life and death, maintainers of health, and alleviators of suffering.