article-imageMummies in Museo de El Carmen (all photographs by the author)

Being in Mexico City for Holy Week has its advantages. If you’re interested in Catholic rites and rituals you’ll find plenty to do during the solemn holy days leading up to Easter. Some parishes sponsor reenactments of the crucifixion performed with varying degrees of historical accuracy and gore. Others hold funeral processions featuring life-sized effigies of Jesus in glass caskets. In a handful of places you can still find people who burn Judas in the form of papier-mâché devils.

But if you’re interested in traditional tourism or just looking for something to do in between services, you’ll find you’re mostly out of luck. The historic churches are in full mourning. Their best artwork and altarpieces are obscured by purple drapes to emphasize the sadness of these holidays. Many of the city’s excellent museums are closed. The locals are going to church, getting out of town or just enjoying some time off. I was the odd tourist out — wandering around the city on a day when everyone else had somewhere to be.

That’s how I wound up alone with twelve mummies. Looking for something to do in between Holy Week solemnities, I went to one of the only museums open during the later, more sacred days of Holy Week — the Museo de El Carmen. The museum, which primarily features Colonial era religious art, is housed in the old monastery school of San Ángel. Although it seems strange that a religious museum would be open on the holiest days of the year, the reasons for that are as much a testament to its colonial past as its Spanish-style architecture and cobblestone streets.


The monastery school and attached chapel were founded back when San Ángel was a rural town, separate from the massive sprawl of Mexico City. It was designed by Spanish Carmelite friar, Fray Andrés de San Miguel, and built between 1615 and 1628. Like many religious orders, the Carmelites raised money by selling space in their crypt under the school with the understanding that after a few years, the bones would be collected and stored in an ossuary so the space could be resold.

In 1857, the monastery school secularized under the Reform Laws designed to chip away at the Catholic Church’s hegemony in Mexico. This ultimately led to the school being abandoned by 1861. At that time, the crypt was simply sealed up with its current set of dead parishioners inside.


The crypt was forgotten about until 1917. That year, members of the Liberation Army of the South, a Revolutionary force dedicated to land redistribution for peasants and indigenous people, raided the monastery school. When they lifted the heavy cover off the crypt, they were surprised to find a cache of naturally mummified bodies instead of monastic wealth. The land in San Ángel was known for being ensconced in volcanic rock and the unique profile of this soil allowed many of the bodies to dehydrate quickly and discouraged the bacterial and fungal growth that would normally aid decomposition.

The soldiers left the mummies intact, but left the crypt uncovered. Within the next few years, the bodies were discovered yet again, this time by citizens of San Ángel secretly exploring the decrepit school. Word gradually got out and the mummies became well known around town. According to church lore, a Carmelite friar tried to convince the people of San Ángel to rebury the mummies but the town refused on the grounds that they had already adopted them as citizens. In 1929, the mummies were placed in their velvet-lined wood and glass caskets that are still in use today.

Read More

On March 22, Obscura Society LA visited Allis Markham at her new taxidermy studio in the Spring Arts Tower, a vibrant community in the historic core of downtown Los Angeles. Climbing up to the fourth floor, we gathered for an evening of hands-on taxidermy and behind-the-scenes stories about death at the zoo, flesh eating beetles, and a secret diorama hall at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (NHM).


Allis is a taxidermist at NHM and the owner of Prey: Ethical Taxidermy Designs and Classes. Scalpel in one hand, arctic fox in the other, Allis started with a skinning demonstration — the process of removing the pelt from the body. Delicately peeling the skin away, the muscular and digestive system were revealed in a surprisingly clinical fashion — not a drop of blood spilled! Allis explained that when an animal is dying, blood rushes into the organs in a final act of preservation.

Obscura LA observes a skinning demonstration on an arctic fox.

photo by David Iserson

The next step is tanning, a chemical process that transforms skin into leather by converting components that can rot, such as proteins, into a stable state. Allis uses a tried and true formula that’s been used at NHM for decades:

1) formic acid pickle down to two on the pH scale; 2) lutan F for a final tan; and 3) Knobloch's tanning oil. The tanning process takes about two to three weeks. Below, Allis pulls a baby warthog hide from its tanning bath.

Read More

article-imageCentral Synagogue on Lexington Avenue (all photos courtesy Frances Lincoln Publishers)

Subways rumbling beneath the pavement and blaring their horns, taxis zooming down the avenues, pounding construction constantly morphing the skyline taller every year, the sounds of over eight million people moving through the streets and sidewalks — New York City is not a quiet place. People live close in clustered apartments and crowd into transportation for the daily commute. Sometimes you need an escape. 

Quiet New York by Siobhan Wall, released this month by Frances Lincoln Publishers, is a guide to finding some peace in the frenetic cityscape. With 150 places across the five boroughs, ranging from restaurants, to museums, to houses of worship, to hidden parks, the book aims to show what other guidebooks do not in providing an escape from one of the busiest cities in the world. Wall has previously published quiet guides to London, Amsterdam, and Paris, but New York may be the greatest challenge yet with its density of population and sleepless nature. 

article-imageNew York Insight Meditation Center

New York Marble Cemetery

The recommendations in the compact, square-shaped book include the overlooked Hispanic Society of America up at Audubon Terrace with its gorgeous Spanish art collection, Buddhist shrines, the Nicholas Roerich Museum near Columbia University that houses the art of the Russian painter who inspired H. P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness, and the George Way Collection on Staten Island cluttered with 17th century objects. Then there are ponderous spaces like the Poets House in Lower Manhattan dedicated to the art of verse, and zen zones such as the New York Insight Meditation Center in an industrial building on 10th Street that offers daylong retreats into internal awareness.

Read More

article-imageTombées du Camion (photograph by Matthias Biberon)

Tucked away in a forgotten passageway, between the upmarket fashion boutiques of Rue des Abbesses and the fall from grace to the seedy strip of Pigalle, you’ll stumble upon one of the most unusual and captivating spaces in Paris. The white whale of the Sacre Coeur is just a cobblestoned stroll away; the café where Audrey Tautou’s Amélie waitressed in the offbeat film is just around the corner on Rue Lepic. And it's easy to imagine Amélie being a frequent customer of the quirky boutique Tombées du Camion. (The name of the store, meaning items fallen from the back of a truck, cheekily hints at stolen goods.)

I myself stumbled upon this spot on my first trip to Paris. It never left my memory, and when I eventually moved to the city it was the only place I left my CV. I now pass hour after happy hour working there, steeped in anachronistically organized chaos, never knowing quite how to sum up what we sell. To step inside this bizarre bazaar is to step out of sync with the rest of the modern world. So don’t be surprised if it takes a moment to recalibrate as you contemplate a hoarder's paradise of vintage ephemera, illuminated by industrial lamps and lined with old wooden boxes and crates — everything is in its right place. And it's a lot of things, with each item in excess.

article-imageThe author in the store (photograph by Louise Carrasco)

The stock is salvaged from the cobwebbiest corners of factories and vide-greniers ("attic sales") in secret locations around France. There are French porno banners from the 1970s, rusted mortuary plaques (Je ne t’oublierai jamais, "I will never forget you," in gold lettering), unused flasks of Élixir Parégorique (that’s an opium cure for diarrhea, by the way). Most of these items are fabrication française (made in France) like the Gauloises issued to French troops in World War II; a cloud of nostalgia now that everyone in the smoking capital of the world puffs on electronic cigarettes. Every object has a story. And I’ve amassed a pretty interesting French vocab list to tell each story.

If you feel hundreds of eyes on you, don’t be alarmed. The eyes are an idée fixe: beady blue taxidermy eyes, disembodied dolls’ eyes that wink inscrutably from under thick lashes, round ones in delicate blown glass, perennially surprised. Once you’ve had you’re fill of eyes, you can move on to all manner of mismatched body parts: arms, legs, dolls with human hair, heads from the Bébé de Paris factory that closed circa 1917.

Read More

A big part of any film’s budget concerns the set — finding and renting a location, altering its look, and sometimes building the whole thing from scratch. Usually the crew strikes everything after filming wraps, but sometimes they leave things in place for future films, or at the property owner’s request, or because they ran out of money for the demolition. Here’s what happened to 16 sets after filming folded. 

Matamata, New Zealand 

article-imageHobbiton, New Zealand (photograph by Anup Shah)

New Zealand sheep farmer Dean Alexander had never heard of Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings trilogy before 1998, when director Peter Jackson approached him about filming on part of his property. With Alexander’s blessing, Jackson turned 12 acres of the family ranch into Hobbiton, the idyllic village from which Frodo Baggins sets off on his quest.  

article-imageInside Hobbiton (photograph by Rob Chandler)

The Lord of The Rings set was temporary, but tourist attention from fans brought Alexander to restore some of the “hobbit holes” for visitors, and when Jackson returned to reconstruct the set for The Hobbit trilogy, he built it to stay. Today the Alexanders offer tours of “the real Middle Earth” — the hobbit-holes and gardens of Hobbiton, topped off with lunch at the film’s Green Dragon Inn — in addition to maintaining their sheep farm. 

article-imageA "Hobbit Hole" (photograph by Anup Shah)

North of Montgomery, Alabama 

article-imageSpectre in 2006 (photograph by sunsurfr/Flickr user)

In director Tim Burton’s grown-up fairy tale Big Fish, Ewan McGregor is a young traveler who discovers the town of Spectre hidden in the Alabama woods. It’s a tempting spot to settle — everyone is friendly, there are no roads, and the town sits on grass so lush that everyone goes barefoot — but McGregor’s character still decides to move on. 

Burton also moved on after filming wrapped in 2003, leaving the houses, stores, and chapel of Spectre in place for other wanderers to find (with permission from the property owner). Sadly, recent adventurers report that all but the chapel and a house or two have collapsed. 


article-imagePopeye Village (photograph by Edwinb/Wikimedia)

Robert Altman’s 1980 film adaptation of the comic Popeye suffered at the box office, but the nation of Malta has done very well with the film’s set, turning it into the Popeye Village theme park. 

The park preserves the original 20 buildings constructed for Popeye’s “Sweethaven” setting, and adds a museum devoted to the movie’s history. It also stages shows featuring Popeye and Olive Oyl, and scenic boat tours of the village and its bay. 

Read More

article-image1694 memento mori painting in the Augustiner Museum in Germany (photo by Wolfgang Sauber)

For some cultures, death is the beginning of a purification process that starts with decomposition and ends with skeletonization. These people believe that when a loved one takes his or her final breath, it is the beginning of a journey to the land of the ancestors, and the corpse must completely decay before a soul is considered purified and can ascend to the afterlife.

There are typically two burial phases in some of these societies: initial and secondary burial. During the first, or initial, burial, the body may be buried or exposed while it decays, and the funeral ceremony during this phase marks the beginning of the soul’s journey. Once the remains are completely skeletonized, the bones are collected, cleaned, and placed in a secondary burial, like an ossuary. At this point the deceased is considered truly dead and the soul is resurrected to join the rest of their ancestors in the Land of the Dead.

Secondary burials have been practiced by many cultures throughout history into the modern era. Below is a discussion of burials customs of Jews of the early Roman Empire; burial customs of Southern Italy that were practiced until the early 20th century; and the Malagasy famadihana, or turning of the bones, which is practiced today.

The Jews of the early Roman Empire practiced a burial custom called ossilegium between 30 BCE and 70 CE. Ossilegium, a Latin word that means the collection of the bones, was a two-part process. During the initial burial, the corpse was placed in a niche or on a bench in a tomb. Secondary burial occurred one year later, after the soft tissue had decayed. Family members collected the bones and placed them in an ossuary, a container that holds human bones, which was then placed in a niche in the family tomb. A single ossuary could be used for the bones of more than one individual.

article-imageA first century Jewish ossuary (via Walters Art Museum)

Jews of this era believed the deceased’s soul was purified during decomposition, which was essential for resurrection. Catholics in southern Italy had similar funerary customs based on the belief that death was as a slow process that started with decomposition and ended with the collection of the skeletal remains.

Read More

Pits of fire that never go out, monumental skulls, an angel of death that cries black tears — these are some of the most "metal" places in the world. So if you're looking to shoot your next intense album cover for some heavy guitar driven aggression, or just want to experience a brush with darkness, get out to these 13 intense locales. 

Karakum Desert, Turkmenistan 

article-imageThe Turkmenistan Gates to Hell (photograph by Tormod Sandtorv)

In 1971, a Soviet drilling project went horribly wrong when it hit a natural gas cavern and collapsed. To keep from spawning an environmental catastrophe, the pit was set in flames. To this day the 328-foot-wide fiery chasm burns, earning it the nickname, "The Gates of Hell."


article-imagevia United States Antarctic Program Photo Library

One of the world's most gruesome natural wonders is the five-story "Blood Falls." The slow ooze of crimson from Antarctica's Taylor Glacier is actually sourced from a trapped lake of ancient microbes, but it looks like the ice has a festering wound. 

Kudowa-Zdrój, Poland

article-imageThe Chapel of Skulls (photograph by Merlin/Wikimedia)

The macabre Chapel of the Skulls has a ceiling of bones formed Jolly Rogers-style in a lattice of death,while alongside skulls gaze with vacant sockets at any visitors. And if that wasn't unsettling enough, open a trapdoor in this Polish church to reveal the packed skeletal remains of 21,000 people in the crypt. 

Cleveland, Ohio

article-imageThe Angel of Death Victorious (photograph by Ian MacQueen)

In Cleveland's Lakeview Cemetery, the angel of death weeps black tears. The monument for Francis Haserot — known as "The Haserot Angel" or "The Angel of Death Victorious" — is in reality a victim of the eroding elements, but the weathered cheeks stained with a silent cry are a harrowing memento mori. 

Read More

article-imageDefying gravity on the beach of Sydney in 1937 (via State Library of New South Wales)

Gravity got you down? Fight back! Gravity varies around the world, and you can actually weigh less in some places. Some locales feature high-tech equipment to let us fly or float. Some fool us into mistaking which way is up. Here is a this list of places where you can beat gravity using technology, trickery, and terrain.



Indoor Skydiving
Las Vegas, Nevada, United States and other tourist spots

Indoor skydiving in Los Angeles (photograph by Boris Dzhingarov)

If you really want to tell gravity to shove off, the best way is to float on air. You can do just that in Sin City. Right on the Strip, you’ll find a room where you can don protective gear and float in mid-air — with the help of an engine from a DC-3. The propellor blows air up and you ride on the currents, protected from the blades by a cage. Similar indoor skydiving facilities exist in dozens of touristy places around the globe.

The Vomit Comet
The Atmosphere

Astronauts in the "Vomit Comet" (1959) (via NASA

There are practical reasons for defying gravity, and one of those is to train astronauts. The idea is pretty simple: fly faster than gravity. A 727 flies parabolas in the air at speeds greater than terminal velocity, giving you the exact effect of zero gravity for a few minutes at a time. The movie Apollo 13 was filmed in the aptly-nicknamed "Vomit Comet." The official name of the aircraft is "Reduced gravity aircraft."

Jet Ski Jet Packs

Jetlev in action (photograph by Robert Neff)

Read More