So I'm not doing links again until I feel competent. I used all my competence for today in posting my Stage of Fools story.
But I am reading whatever y'all write, and glad of it.
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Humans wouldn't be where we are today if not for our brains. Relative to our bodies, our noggins are exceptionally large. Scientists say we evolved our big heads to manage our complex social structures, an idea called the social brain hypothesis. Researchers have since looked at the social brain hypothesis to explain other large primate brains, along with social bird brains. And now a new study, published in Nature Ecology & Evolution, suggests that whale and dolphin brains evolved in much the same way.
A team of researchers from the United States and the United Kingdom compiled data from studies describing the body and brain sizes, social structures, and cultural behaviors of whales and dolphins. They included behaviors such as group hunting, social play, and complex vocalizations. Controlling for body size, the team found that brain size predicted how socially complex a species is, how rich their diet is, and the size of their social groups. Larger-brained species were also found across a wider range of latitudes, which probably means they're "more ecologically flexible," write the scientists in the report. They also note that a lot of the whale brain is devoted to auditory processing, which shows just how important social behavior and communication has been in their evolution.
Humans have managed to spread to just about every nook and cranny on Earth thanks to our brains, but don't expect whales or dolphins to take over any time soon. "The apparent co-evolution of brains, social structure, and behavioral richness of marine mammals provides a unique and striking parallel to the large brains and hyper-sociality of humans and other primates on land," said study coauthor Susanne Shultz in a statement. "Unfortunately, they won't ever mimic our great metropolises and technologies because they didn't evolve opposable thumbs."
A couple of years ago, Carol Page was taking the elevator up to her apartment in Somerville, Massachusetts when a new, intriguing leaflet caught her eye. A couple of her neighbors, it seemed, had found themselves needing to rehome a cat. Page had recently lost a cat of her own, and this one—a sweet black furball named Molly—was just her type. She went back to her apartment and made a few calls.
Within a day, Molly was prowling happily around Page's apartment. Within a week, Page says, it was as though she'd never lived anywhere else. "Everyone told [the cat's former owners], 'You can't do better than to give a cat to Carol Page,'" Page reminisced recently, smiling, sitting in a deep armchair. Nearby, Molly yowled: a reporter had rudely displaced her from her own dedicated seat.
Page is clearly an ideal cat companion. She's got an almost feline mix of playfulness and calm, and at 68 years old, she's happy to provide a consistent lap. But whether or not Molly knows it, her human's cat credentials actually extend much further. Back in the early 1980s—before anyone had ever made a Lolcat image, binge-watched Maru videos, or hashtagged #catsofinstagram—Page created PURRRRR! The Newsletter for Cat Lovers, an eight-page, cat-themed booklet that she produced six times per year, all from her Boston-area apartment. In its near-decade-long heyday, PURRRRR! could be found in thousands of homes all over the world. Today, though, it's been mostly effaced by the cat-themed media that followed—hough PURRRRR! has left its footprints all over it.
Page is the kind of person who, if asked, can easily divide her life into cat-based eras. When she started PURRRRR!, at age 32, she was living with three of them: Benny the Bargain, O'Brienette, and a white behemoth named Amazing Grace, who she trotted out for press pictures. (At the time, her own name was Carol Frakes—she changed it to Page later on, after she had become something of a media mogul, and grown tired of people mishearing it.) "I appreciate dogs," she says, "but I am a cat person, and that will never change."
By the early 1980s, the rest of the United States was catching up: cats had successfully slunk onto Broadway and the cover of Time, and a cat merchandise craze was in full swing, spurred by the offbeat drawings of cartoonist B. Kliban. The accompanying backlash—one popular book was called 101 Uses for a Dead Cat—just added more fuel to the feline fire. Even compared to the present moment, Page says, "cats were huge."
Page found herself uniquely positioned to take advantage. Grace, Benny and O'Brienette were all great muses, and she had just completed a newsletter-making course at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education. Plus, her freelance writing career was off to a rocky start, which provided her with crucial motivation. "I was getting a lot of rejections," she says. "So I said, 'Screw this! I'm going to be my own editor.'"
She solicited contributions via an ad in Writer's Digest, and brought in an artist friend, Richard Titus, to design the logo: a chubby cat with a cheerful smirk. Titus also spiced up each issue with a number of interstitial drawings and cartoons, and Page attributes some of the publication's charm to him. But everything else was hers, from the color scheme—brown and peach—to the title, with its distinctive tail of extra R's. "I thought, 'Purr—that's a great name,'" she remembers. "But I wanted to achieve some onomatopoeia."
By April of 1982, the debut issue was ready to ship. Like her subject matter, Page has an eye for empty niches, and in a first-page editorial, she claimed PURRRRR!'s. "While many cat lovers enjoy an occasional cat show, pages and pages of cat show listings aren't of interest to them," she wrote. "Neither are breeder advertisements or feature articles on the special breeding problems of the Rex or Himalayan." In other words, while other cat publications might lean, well, fancy, this one was proudly populist: as she wrote, "PURRRRR! is for cat lovers, not just breeders."
That first issue set the tone for the rest of the run. Useful articles, like "Catproofing Your Home," are snuggled alongside feline-human-interest pieces, like a profile of a pet-focused dating service. There's a humor column, a vet advice corner, and a recipe of the month (for "Tuna Treat": dry cat food, minced parsley, and the leftover juice from a tuna can). All fit into a neat eight pages, and are written with a kind of clubhouse knowingness: If you're a cat person, you'll keep reading and nodding. If you're not, feel free to trot along with a tennis ball in your mouth.
PURRRRR! took off quickly enough that it was immediately a full-time job for Page. "I did everything myself," she says, from soliciting contributions to putting stamps on the envelopes. Some of this work came from managing readers: one testy cancellation, typed directly onto a subscription renewal notice, explains that "reading time is precious … and caring about cats makes that reading time even more valuable."
Most of it, though, was straight hustling. The milk crate is full of back-and-forths with more storied publications and personages—NPR; Dear Abby; Playboy—in which she makes the case for PURRRRR! coverage. "I really believe that the appetite of the cat-loving public for cat-related news is insatiable," she once wrote to the Washington Post.
Although some bigwigs didn't take the bait—Cosmopolitan, she says, really gave her the runaround—plenty did, including the NPR radio program All Things Considered and NBC television's The Today Show, which each brought Page on for a segment. She also got coverage from many local publications, which clearly enjoyed the opportunity to write headlines like "Newsletter Kitty-Corners the Market" and "Catering to Cats Catnip for Carol."
Her biggest break, she says, came from the New York Times Book Review, which published an author's query in which she requested interesting cat names for a recurring feature. "I got 440 new subscribers," she says. Even better, she got a bunch of great names: Conway Kitty; Cat-A-Tonic; Wisteria, "because he's just hanging around." Remembering these still makes her grin. "I had a guy in Iceland who named his cat Tenzing Norgay," she says, after Edmund Hillary's guide during the first-ever summit of Everest.
Paging through the archives of PURRRRR! reveals a remarkably consistent sensibility. Features came and went—book reviews; historical roundups; a tongue-in-cheek column called "Ms. Meowser," for which Page impersonated a cat advice columnist—but the focus and tone remained. At its peak in the mid-1980s, the newsletter boasted about 3500 subscribers from all over the world. Still, the operation never budged from her apartment. "Once every other month, I'd go downstairs and dump all the PURRRRR!s in the mailbox," says Page, "I'm sure the mailman was like 'Oh, shit.'"
Even the best job in the world gets tough if you do it for too long. Around 1989, Page says, she burned out. She sold the newsletter at a small profit, and continued working as the editor; eventually, she quit that, too. In February of 1991, Page got a letter from the new owner. "PURRRR! is going to fold," it read. "Sorry to report the demise of your brainchild."
Page had already moved on to other things. Her next few decades were full of ventures and adventures: since the newsletter's demise, she has traveled to dozens of countries, taught journalism at Emerson College in Boston, covering the psychology beat for the National Enquirer, and run a PR firm. ("Everything I used there, I learned from PURRRRR!" she says.) Now that she's retired, she enjoys traveling, collects hats, and hanging out with her boyfriend, "Guatemalan John," with whom even Molly is happy to share a chair. Her remaining cat curation energy goes into a number of Pinterest boards, including "Interesting Markings," "Cats On Glass Tables," and "Bellies I'd Like To Smooch."
The enduring appeal of cats does not surprise her. "People have come to understand that although cats can be assholes, most are not," she says. "They're soft, they're warm, you can leave them for a while if they're fed and cleaned." Media trends may come and go, but cat fans will always find a way to read about cats.
If you would like to peruse PURRRRR! on your own, we have digitized the first issue here.
You might think that when you are cooing and using baby talk that you are just making up uniquely random sounds. But according to a new study, in some ways, just about every mom speaks the same baby talk.
A recent report out of the Princeton University Baby Lab (a real institution) has found that women from a wide range of different languages all use a similar timbre when speaking to infants in a cutesy way. Researchers tested 12 English-speaking mothers, taking samples of them speaking both to children and then to adults, and were able to train a computer to differentiate distinct voices for each with little more than a second of sound data. Then they sampled the voices of 12 more moms who spoke nine different languages, and found that across all the subjects, the change in timbre was about the same.
According to the Baby Lab's Elise Piazza in a press release, the takeaway is that mothers (and probably fathers as well—the researchers just stuck with mothers for now to limit the test results) may have “a universal form of communication that mothers implicitly use to engage their babies,” which may help language learning.
There is still more research to be done, but the next time you find yourself spewing some cutesy nonsense at an infant, take heart in the fact that it’s not silly. It’s natural.
In 1900, with space in the 46-square-mile peninsula of San Francisco quickly becoming a premium, the city's Board of Supervisors voted to reclaim some room from the dead. First, they ceased further burials within city limits. Then, in 1914, on the back of a developer publicly valuing cemetery land at $7 million, the city began the arduous and ramshackle process of evicting the deceased.
Over the next 40 years, nearly 150,000 bodies were exhumed and relocated a few miles south to the city of Colma; currently, dead residents outnumber the living there roughly 1300-to-1. But the relocation process wasn't as fastidious as you’d expect. Records were transferred incorrectly, family plots were split apart, body parts were transposed and mixed with others, often in mass graves.
On May 9, 2016, as construction crews were renovating a home in the city’s posh Richmond district, they struck something with their shovels. Under the garage floor was a tiny coffin made of lead and bronze, its most prominent feature a pair of glass windows that allowed workers to peer inside. They saw the preserved remains of a three-year-old girl. She was dressed in white, with ankle-high shoes, and grasped purple flowers that’d also been woven into her hair. A rosary and eucalyptus seeds had been carefully set atop her chest. There were no markers indicating who she was or when she died.
A city medical examiner cracked the coffin to find more information, but in doing so, broke the airtight seal that had long kept the body from decomposing. Time became an issue. A burial had to take place soon, but who would pay?
The city felt it was the burden of the homeowner, Ericka Karner, who was quoted prices between $7,000 and $22,000 for the burial, which she understandably balked at. “I understand if a tree is on your property, that’s your responsibility. But this is different,” Karner told the San Francisco Chronicle at the time. “The city decided to move all these bodies 100 years ago, and they should stand behind their decision.”
After nearly two weeks, Karner got in touch with Elissa Davey, founder of the nonprofit Garden of Innocence, which works to name unidentified dead children. Along with the Odd Fellows, they fronted the cost of the new cherry wood coffin lined with a violet interior, and for the girl’s second burial.
On June 4, 2016, more than 100 people took the trip down to Greenlawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Colma for a short service to the mystery girl. She was buried under a heart-shaped granite headstone that read:
The child loved around the world
“If no one grieves, no one will remember.”
That name was meant to be temporary, given to the dead girl by Karner's own two young daughters, to be replaced when Miranda’s identity was finally discovered. See, before her second burial, researchers extracted DNA from the corpse, first to make sure that there was no foul play, then for clues.
The samples suggested Miranda had been weaned from breast milk a year before her death, putting her age between two and three-and-a-half years old when she died. They also hinted at a diet change that took place a few months before death, which suggested she died from a longer illness, not trauma. An analysis of her hair concluded she died of marasmus, or severe malnutrition, likely due to an infection.
Researchers also used the physical properties of the coffin and burial location in an effort to determine her identity. They superimposed an old map of the Odd Fellows cemetery atop a contemporary map to pinpoint where Miranda’s plot would have been; they traced the unique, dual-windowed casket to the only undertaker in the city making them at the time. Volunteers searched through 29,982 burial records, and were left with only a pair of possibilities. One had a distant, 82-year-old relative living in nearby Napa, who agreed to have his DNA withdrawn for testing alongside Miranda’s.
After months of waiting, the results of the DNA test were announced in April of 2017. It was an official match.
“WE FOUND MIRANDA!!!” announced the Garden of Innocence website. “Miranda Eve is Edith Howard Cook. Born November 28, 1873 and died October 13, 1876.”
Armed with a name, archivists dug through Edith’s history and discovered a trove of information about the family. Edith was the first daughter, and second child, of Horatio Nelson Cook and Edith Scooffy Cook, a prominent San Francisco family who came west during the Gold Rush. Horatio had a hide-tanning business which lasted until 1980, when it merged with a similar business in nearby San Leandro; he was also the city’s Consul to Greece. Their next daughter, Ethel, was a city socialite talked about in the tabloid rags; a Russian nobleman once called her “the most beautiful woman in America.”
With the mystery of the little girl in the coffin finally solved, on a sunny Saturday in June 2017, another hundred or so people went to Colma for one last ceremony. This time, the headstone included Edith's real name, her birth and death dates, a computer-aided image of what she may have looked like, and a message to those random passersby who happen to find themselves at this odd grave.
“GOOGLE HER!” it reads.
It’s not every day that a cookie takes a solo space flight. Certainly none of Tunnock’s teacakes—which are shortbread cookies under domes of chocolate covered marshmallow, and a favorite tea-time treat in Scotland—have done so. But what generations of Scots have overlooked is that these classic cookies come wrapped in a spacesuit-like silver-red foil. As the Glasgow Science Centre museum was to prove, Tunnock’s teacakes come pre-dressed for a trip to the stratosphere.
On October 13, 2017, GSC scientists attached a Tunnock’s teacake to a weather balloon and sent it hurtling far above the earth. Weather balloons typically gather meteorological data—they are the cheapest and easiest way for non-astronauts to reach the edge of space. But as weather balloon kits can cost less than a thousand dollars, the barrier to non-human space travel is surprisingly low. Past balloon-elevated oddities include a hamburger, a Hello Kitty doll, and an armchair.
Appropriately, the launch site was the village of Houston, 16 miles from Glasgow. Two cameras documented the journey of “Terry” the teacake, who spun at a vertigo-inducing rate as he ascended.
After an hour and 29 minutes of upward ascent, Terry reached an altitude of 21 miles. Terry had reached the stratosphere, but not space, which according to NASA begins at 62 miles above the earth. The cameras fixed on Terry showed spectacular vistas of the curving horizon below and the darkness of space beyond. Not a bad view for anyone, much less a marshmallow cookie.
Eventually Terry's balloon popped, and Terry began a 40-minute descent from the stratosphere, slowed by the balloon rig’s parachute. Though the weather balloon rig crash-landed into a tree in Galloway Forest Park, Terry survived intact.
While sending a cookie to space might seem frivolous, GSC's chief executive explained that Terry’s journey was meant to be inspirational. "We engage people with space science every day,” said Dr. Stephen Breslin to the BBC, “and we thought what better way to spark people's imaginations and interest in STEM than for us to launch something into space ourselves.”
While Terry’s space adventures came to an end, Breslin has promised that more Scottish treats will get “the science treatment.” But it’s hard to imagine what could beat sending a teacake into the stratosphere.
Just down the road from North Carolina’s cosmopolitan state capital, there is a field. In that field, there is an enormous mound of dung. And buried under that dung, more than a hundred miles from the nearest beach, are the colossal bones of a whale.
For years, Raleigh has served as a burial ground for these massive mammals. From the behemoth 54-foot sperm whale inhumed in sand on the State Fairgrounds back in the 1920s to the right whale buried in manure five miles from downtown this summer, Raleigh has become the unlikely—if only temporary—resting place of dozens of marine mammals over the last century, although the exact number is unknown.
But apart from thoroughly confusing future archaeologists, what possible reason could there be for burying these whales? Ben Hess of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences explains that it mostly has to do with grease.
Hess is the museum’s Mammalogy Collections Manager. As such, he is charged with processing the mammals that get sent to the museum so they can be used for biological research. In come dead rats and rabbits, out go clean skins or bones that get added to the museum collection, where researchers from all over the world can study them. Hess has prepared all kinds of mammals—wolves, bats, bears. You name a furry, warm-blooded creature of the southeastern United States and Hess has probably held its heart in his hands or cleaned its body in his box of corpse-munching dermestid beetles, also known as “skin beetles.” It’s all part of the job.
But every now and then, Hess is tasked with preparing a specimen that won’t fit in his box of beetles, or even the double-wide doors of the museum. On those occasions, when a whale washes up on the North Carolina shore that the museum wants for the collection, it’s Hess and the rest of the Mammalogy team that must turn it from a fetid leviathan of fat and bone into a clean specimen. To do so, they just need a mountain of horse dung and a spot of land near the museum’s downtown Raleigh location.
Walking past the mound of manure, you’d never know what was hiding beneath it. The pile sits in a small field surrounded by a chain-link fence, which Hess says keeps the coyotes away. A few flies busy themselves in the excrement and you can hear cars whizzing by on the highway. Poking out here and there is a bit of white, betraying the location of a piece of skull the size of a pickup truck bed.
“[The skeleton] just had a little connective tissue, and unfortunately because of how porous the bone is, if you tried to pry it off you’re really going to break the bone apart,” Hess tells me, sitting in his laboratory, stuffing a black rat with cotton. Instead, the team uses the organisms naturally living in horse manure to scrub the bones clean of the remaining tissue and grease.
“People often say ‘oh, it’s the worms and stuff’ but nope, that’s not what happens,” explains the museum’s Mammalogy Research Curator Lisa Gatens. “It’s composted. It’s anaerobic decomposition, so it’s the bacteria in the manure that cleans it.” That bacteria eats off the skin, muscle, and, of particular importance, the grease percolated deep inside the porous bone.
“[Horse manure] does a fantastic job of de-greasing bones,” says Hess. “There’s really very little that can compare to how good that does.” That manure is sourced for free from a North Carolina State University horse farm just down the road. “They have an ample supply of poop and we have an ample supply of need,” quips Hess. After being buried in the feces, the bones emerge, sometimes years later, thoroughly clean. Then, all it takes is a quick soap scrub and the bones can be deposited in the collection or articulated into a giant skeleton to go on display in the museum.
This history of burying whales in Raleigh goes back to at least 1928 when then-Museum Director H. H. Brimley sent a team down to the coastal town of Topsail, North Carolina, to carve up a beached sperm whale. The monumental task, somehow accomplished in waist-deep water using only axes and spades, raised more than a few eyebrows among residents, as described in an article from the museum’s archive.
“An unsigned letter given to the press expressed strong resentment of ‘the parking of a uzed [sic] whale’. Residents, the letter further explained, ‘would suffer if the intent of beaching the Jonah at Topsail is carried out. It's poor policy to throw your trash in your neighbor’s backyard.’”
Eventually, the whale bones were hauled up to Raleigh’s State Fairgrounds, where “Trouble,” who was named for the hassle his decaying body caused, underwent a 10-month cleansing soak in wet sand before being brought to the museum. But the fairgrounds quickly proved to be a poor site for cleaning whale skeletons due to the annual gathering of thousands of people every fall. So after Trouble the operation moved to a different spot just outside the city beltline.
Right whales, pilot whales, and even a few rare True’s beaked whales were all processed at this second spot. Like Trouble, each whale was carved up on the beach (a task undertaken in recent times by North Carolina’s Marine Mammal Stranding Network) to separate as much flesh from the skeleton as possible. Then the whale bones were trucked up to the new location to be buried in purifying baths of sand, and later, horse manure.
Today that land is the site of the Wake Med Soccer Park, where the North Carolina FC professional soccer team plays its games. A spokesman for the soccer club was “surprised” to learn of the land’s prior use. And you can’t blame him. Sitting in the stadium above the perfectly manicured grass, it’s hard to imagine the land was once used to process the bones of beached marine mammals.
Around the year 2000, the operation moved a final time to the latest site. One of the first whales buried here was a critically endangered 50-foot northern right whale named Stumpy. She and her unborn calf were covered in manure for a year and a half after they washed up dead on the North Carolina shore. Her bones, broken from ship strikes, were later used to inform new policy on boat speeds in right whale habitat, clearly demonstrating the value of preparing these specimens for the collection.
Mary Kay Clark was the museum’s Curator of Mammals before Gatens. In an email she writes, “[I]t would never occur to Raleigh residents that the remains of some of our most interesting NC coastal residents are nearby.”
But that’s the thing about a place’s past. The earth has a long and dynamic history and even the most unassuming of locations can be hiding incredible secrets. Indeed, when ocean levels were higher at various times in North Carolina’s geologic history, the skeletons of marine animals likely washed up near Raleigh. So in a sense, these whales aren’t anything new—they’re the continuation of the long legacy of a landscape whose history is waiting just under the surface to be explored.
Last year, some 124,000 people voted to name a new British research vessel Boaty McBoatface, but the decision was overturned. The ship was named instead for the popular British broadcaster Sir David Attenborough. Trainy McTrainface, however, will today officially receive its name in a naming ceremony in Gothenburg, Sweden, reports The Local.
Earlier this year, the Swedish transport company MTR Express held a public vote to name their new Stockholm-Gothenburg express trains. Trainy McTrainface was the runaway winner. At the time, amid fears that Trainy might meet a similar fate to Boaty, marketing chief Per Nasfi promised this would not be the case. "I can guarantee with my life that the train will be called Trainy McTrainface," Nasfi told The Local.
Ceremonies will be held in Gothenburg and Stockholm to name the new fleet of trains, all of which have crowdsourced names: Ingvar, after a local television host; Estelle, after Princess Estelle of Sweden; and Glenn, a reference to a popular joke that everyone in Gothenburg is called Glenn (in the 1980s, four of the players in local football team IFK Göteborg shared the name). Trainy McTrainface's ceremony will take place at Gothenburg's local station, after which the name will be emblazoned on its red exterior.
Nasfi speculated that some of Trainy McTrainface's popularity was revenge for the scuppering of Boaty McBoatface. In a statement, the train company MTR Express said they thought this new train, with its highly democratic new name, would "be received with joy by many, not only in Sweden."
In an area southwest of Cairo, not far from Giza, a team of archaeologists from Egypt and the Czech Republic have uncovered a temple that they believe belonged to Ramses II.
The temple dates back 3,200 years. Evidence of its existence was first uncovered in 2012. Now, the archaeologists have unearthed its mud-brick foundations as well as relief fragments that depict Ramses II.
The structure was about 105 feet by 167 feet, and the evidence uncovered indicates that columns lined the main court. In the back, a staircase or ramp led to a sanctuary and three smaller rooms. Some of the bricks were painted blue.
It was dedicated to the worship of a sun god, a tradition that goes back more than 1,000 years before the construction of the temple. It also shows the extent of Ramses’ influence, the Associated Press reports.
Michael Fry is an art teacher living in Mamaroneck, New York. He is also a trenchant observer of pop culture and, unequivocally, a dad.
Evidence of all these things can currently be found in his front yard, which he has filled with a "dead trend cemetery"—mock gravestones representing fads that have perished over the past year.
Fry started this Halloween tradition in 2015, inspired by a spin through Disney World's Haunted Mansion ride, which also features droll headstones. "I wanted mine to be funny, but current and relevant," he says. "I also wanted to change them every year so it would always be fresh."
His students help put together his topical hit list, as do his two daughters. A youthful influence shines through in this year's crop, which includes "dabbing," "homemade slime," and "the old Taylor Swift." These sit easily alongside the more crotchety picks, such as "Payless Shoes" and "accountability" (subtitle: "looking at you Millennials"). Death is the great equalizer, after all.
Over the past few days, Fry's graveyard has drawn national attention, appearing everywhere from Mashable to Good Morning America. It's also a local hit: "My neighbors look forward to it," Fry says. "Every October they start asking what died this year."
Although the paint is barely dry on these graves, Fry is already looking ahead. When asked what he hopes to be able to mourn in 2018, he has an immediate answer. "Fidget spinners," he says. "Of course, global warming would be nice too." Stay tuned.
Every day, we track down a fleeting wonder—something amazing that’s only happening right now. Have a tip for us? Tell us about it! Send your temporary miracles to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Today's pop-culture landscape is rotten with stories about melodramatic, brooding vampires and their supernatural love affairs. But back in the 1960s and '70s, those narratives belonged almost exclusively to the soap opera Dark Shadows. Near the end of its run, the series had become such an institution that it spawned a pair of Dark Shadows feature films (not to be confused with the 2012 Johnny Depp reboot), and to promote them, the producers staged what might have been the first ever nationwide spooky beauty pageants.
“The common perception is that it’s a campy soap opera from the '60s with a vampire, but if you stick with it long enough, the show is an everything bagel,” says Wallace McBride, editor of the Collinsport Historical Society, an in-depth fan blog devoted to all things Dark Shadows. “It’s got science fiction, it’s got horror, it’s got romance, time travel, parallel universes, werewolves, zombies, witches. Anything genre, you can find in 1,200 episodes of Dark Shadows.”
The first feature film spin-off, House of Dark Shadows, was released in September 1970, the year before the show finally went off the air after 1,225 episodes. The film focused on the series lead, vampire Barnabas Collins, and his search for a cure to his vampirism—so that he could marry a mortal, naturally. Though the property appeared to be expanding to the big screen, the TV show was actually on its last legs. “The show was just getting over the hill in terms of ratings,” says McBride.
To promote the film, the production company decided to try something a bit different. MGM and the film’s director and overall Dark Shadows mastermind, Dan Curtis, thought they would get the fans involved by putting on a nationwide beauty contest. They called it the Miss American Vampire Contest, and the winner would win a week’s guest spot on the Dark Shadows TV series, and a trip to New York, where the show was filmed.
Ads were placed in newspapers across the country, targeting girls, 18 to 25, who thought they had the right “vampire looks.” One newspaper story about the promotion, dredged up by the blog Dark Shadows in the Press, said that contestants would be judged by their interpretation of the vampire aesthetic, as well as “charm, poise, stage presence, and videogenic qualities for television.” One TV ad for the competition read, “It’s a contest you can sink your teeth into.”
Leading up to the release of House of Dark Shadows, regional beauty contests were held in a number of cities, from Dallas to Philadelphia to Miami. These prelims produced a handful of finalists, who traveled to Los Angeles to compete for the title on September 10, 1970. One of the judges for the New Jersey regional competition recalls her experience in the book The Dark Shadows Companion: 25th Anniversary Collection, saying, “It was fun for the first five minutes. After that it got terribly depressing. Some of the girls came in bikinis. Some of them came dressed as witches or vampires or dead bodies. One girl stood in front of me and just stared.”
The final competition winner was actress and activist Sacheen Littlefeather, who gained greater fame a few years later when she represented Marlon Brando at the 1973 Academy Awards to decline his Oscar for The Godfather in an act of protest over the treatment and portrayal of Native Americans. Similarly, Littlefeather did not reap the benefits of her award. According to McBride, it’s unclear whether she declined the trip to New York to appear on the show, or whether the producers decided not to hold up their end of the deal. Either way, Littlefeather remained in Los Angeles. The prize passed to Christine Domaniecki, the winner of the New Jersey regional, where she had been crowned by none other than Barnabas Collins himself, actor Jonathan Frid.
Despite the confusion over the winner, the Miss American Vampire Contest, while bizarre for its time, must have been seen as a success, because it wasn’t the last supernatural beauty contest that the Dark Shadows franchise got up to. Following the release of House of Dark Shadows and the final episode of the show's original run, in April 1971, there would be one last hurrah for the residents of the show's fictional Collinsport. A second film, Night of Dark Shadows, came out in August that year, and focused on another member of the Collins clan, the franchise antagonist Angelique, a vengeful witch. This time, the producers wanted to crown Miss Ghost America.
The rules were much the same as before, with "ghost" in place of "vampire," through regional competitions leading to a final pageant event. However, since Dark Shadows was off the air, the prize was an opportunity to appear on The Dating Game (more on that later). Enthusiasm for the pageant declined accordingly. “The wind had kind of gone out of the sails at that point,” says McBride.
The pageant finals went ahead, and were shown on a local Los Angeles horror program called Fright Night, on September 25. The winner was 18-year-old Kate Sarchet, who, in addition to appearing on The Dating Game, also received a $250 savings bond. McBride was eventually able to unearth an account of Sarchet’s appearance on the game show, posted to Facebook by the winning date, comedian Will Durst. In his dispiriting post, he wrote, “Miss Ghost America totally ignored me on the date and hooked up with the golf pro at the hotel we got a free round of golf at. Which left the chaperone and me to drink in the hotel bar. Drank so much. Missed the ride back to LA the following morning. And had to get back on my own.” In modern parlance, she ghosted on him.
Today, Dark Shadows is still beloved by a healthy fanbase of devoted Collins family aficionados, and while the odd beauty pageants have not enjoyed the same level of immortality, they may have contributed to the show's enduring appeal. According to McBride, they may have helped the show, which was more beloved in its native New York than anywhere else, achieve such a widespread following. “What the pageants did is, they offered the cast a chance to sort of branch out and make it a national phenomenon.”
When most people think of a recorder, it conjures up an image of those cheap plastic flutes that many people were forced to try to play in elementary school, as an introduction to the world of music. However, recorders were once something more—cherished instruments that helped define the sound of the Renaissance. Similarly, when people think of King Henry VIII, they (quite rightfully) tend to focus on his long and violent series of marriages. But he was also a musician and composer, and one of his favorite instruments was the recorder.
The recorder as an instrument dates back to the Middle Ages, when it evolved from earlier flute-like instruments, and it was distinguished mainly by the inclusion of a thumb hole. Traditional recorders were often carved from a single piece of wood or ivory, and were much more refined musical instruments than the more commonly known plastic cheapies we have today. They were widely popular in the Western musical tradition throughout the Renaissance and Baroque periods, when a number of courtly symphonies were produced. Of course Henry VIII, who considered himself, well, a Renaissance man, composed a number of pieces involving the wind instrument.
Henry VIII indulged in a number of pursuits, including sports and gambling, as well as intellectual activities such as writing and supporting the theater. But as an artist, perhaps the Tudor monarch’s most fascinating output was as a musician. He is known not only to have played the lute, lyre, and harp, among other instruments, but also to sing. While his undoubtedly lovely voice (would you want to be the one to tell him otherwise?) is not recorded for posterity, he could read and write musical notation, and a number of his compositions have survived.
The British Library holds a manuscript dating back to 1518 known as Henry VIII’s Songbook, which contains more than a hundred musical compositions from the era, 33 of which are credited to the king himself. Many of them are multi-instrumental arrangements with lyrics, including what is arguably his most famous song, “Pastime With Good Company.” His musical career is so storied that there is a persistent myth that he was the original author of the famous English folk song “Greensleeves,” although this is almost certainly not true.
Among the surviving musical works of Henry VIII are at least two songs written specifically to be played on the recorder. “If Love Now Reigned” and the other, untitled work are typical of the instrumental recorder music of the age. They sound as though they would fit in perfectly at a Renaissance fair, or the nearest fantasy novel tavern.
To support his musical obsession, the king amassed an impressive collection of instruments, which were held at Westminster Abbey and kept by fellow composer Philip van Wilder, who had been named Keeper of the Instruments. In the massive 1547 inventory of Henry VIII’s possessions after his death, among the lavish palaces, ships, and riches, is a long list of musical instruments, including bagpipes, flutes, lutes, organs, and more. Notably, the collection lists some 49 recorders made of different types of ivory and a variety of woods, including boxwood, and walnut. Many of the recorders are grouped together by material, and probably produced a wide ranges of sounds and tones. There are also singular instruments listed, such as a great bass recorder, which was likely larger than the rest. He may have had even more than the ones listed in the inventory. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website claims that the musical monarch owned 76 recorders by the time he died.
We might not think much of the humble recorder in the modern age, but once, it was truly the instrument of kings. Listening to Henry VIII’s recorder compositions today, the instrument’s sweet, chirpy tones provide a glimpse at the famously harsh figure's often overlooked softer side.
Ever since archaeologists started digging under Jerusalem more than 150 years ago, they searched for certain lost buildings mentioned in historical sources. Prominent among those have been some theater-like structures described in documents from the Second Temple period (530 B.C.–A.D. 70) and the time just after that, when the city was the capital of the Roman colony of Aelia Capitolina. Theories about their locations abound, but no archeological evidence had been found.
So it was with surprise that a team of archeologists looking to date Wilson's Arch—the only visible remnants of the Second Temple period in the Temple Mount complex—stumbled onto what looks like the long-lost Roman theater. “The discovery was a real surprise," according to Joe Uziel, Tehillah Lieberman, and Avi Solomon, the archaeologists in charge of the excavations, in a press release. "We did not imagine that a window would open for us onto the mystery of Jerusalem’s lost theater."
Beneath portions of the Western Wall emerged remnants of a round structure containing approximately 200 seats. “This is a relatively small structure compared to known Roman theaters," such as those at Caesarea, Bet She’an, and Bet Guvrin, the archeologists said. They believe it could have been an odeon, a theater used for music or oratory, or a bouleuterion, a semicircular structure for council meetings—in this case the leadership of Aelia Capitolina.
"It's probably the most important archaeological site in the country, the first public structure from the Roman period of Jerusalem," Yuval Baruch, chief Jerusalem architect at the Israel Antiquites Authority, told AFP.
But another mystery about the theater lingers. There is evidence, such as an incomplete staircase, that it was never actually used. This is not be the first potentially unfinished building from the Roman era to be unearthed in the area, leading researchers to speculate that some event—perhaps anti-Roman revolts—interfered with public construction.
Every Thursday and Friday morning, Rabbi Moshe Tauber leaves his home in Rockland County, New York, at about 3:30 a.m. He arrives in Manhattan an hour later and drives the 20-mile length of a nearly invisible series of wires that surrounds most of the borough. He starts at 126th Street in Harlem and drives down, hugging the Hudson River most of the way, to Battery Park and back up along the East River, marking in a small notebook where he notices breaks in the line. Known as an eruv, the wire is a symbolic boundary that allows observant Jews to carry out a range of ordinary activities otherwise forbidden on the Shabbat.
Any necessary repairs must be finished before sundown on Friday, when Shabbat begins. The day of rest then lasts until the following day when there’s no more red in the western sky. Throughout that time, observant Jews are prohibited from performing many basic activities, and the observance of this law has been updated over time to reflect current technologies, such as cars, electricity, and keys. "Carrying from one domain to another," or moving objects between public and private areas, for example, is forbidden. Eruvin (the plural of eruv) transcend this restrictive rule by serving as a symbolic border that links together many private spaces in the community, which in turn permits people to ferry around keys, children, and canes, or push wheelchairs and strollers.
But a single break in any part of the line voids that symbolic space. According to the 100 pages devoted to eruvin in the ancient Talmud, the boundary is only effective when the entire line is intact. And there are plenty of ways these breaks can happen. Sometimes it’s the elements, but more often construction is responsible. The wires, attached to telephone and light poles, can be severed or simply pushed down (the eruv must remain at the top of the pole) to make room for maintenance on other lines. And this is where Tauber comes in. “If they’re lousy they’ll just cut the lines and let it go,” he says. He’s been doing this carefully orchestrated monitoring since 2000. The repairs are “a secret operation,” chairman of the Manhattan Eruv Committee Rabbi Adam Mintz told the New York Post in 2015. That's by design.
Tauber checks the lines so early in the morning in the interests of efficiency—driving around the island at any other time would be virtually impossible due to traffic. It was Mintz who suggested I go out with Tauber at “the ungodly hour,” but I opted to meet with him at about 8:30 on a Friday morning instead, at 110th Street and Lexington Avenue, where someone had removed the cap from the top of a light pole, leaving the eruv a few inches from the top. I watched as two cable workers made the repairs by snipping the wire and passing it through a hole at the top of the pole.
In Manhattan, the required repairs are almost always a thoroughly low-tech endeavor. Aside from the cherry picker used to get to the top of the poles, the only other necessary tools are a spool of wire and wirecutters. After 110th, I rode with Tauber down the Henry Hudson Parkway. He parked on a service road and ran off to tie a broken length of the wire back together. We then met back up with cable workers, on 58th Street and 11th Avenue, where the eruv wire was down for two whole blocks. One worker spooled out the line from the raised cherry-picker basket, while the other drove slowly down to 56th Street.
The eruv has only been down for the Shabbat once during Tauber’s tenure, when a 2010 snowstorm shut down most of the city on a Friday. Maintenance crews were unable to get to areas that needed to be fixed in time. For a while, the status of the eruv was reported by a Twitter account (it's been inactive since last October) that essentially repeated itself on a weekly basis: "The Eruv is Up this Shabbat, October 13–14." The account also notes November 1, 2012, when Hurricane Sandy caused damage to the eruv in 22 places. But everything was repaired in time for the holy day.
Eruvin have been around for 2,000 years, though Manhattan’s line has been in place, in some form or another, for just over a century. The term "eruv" is derived from the Hebrew word for "mixture," and in Manhattan it’s a fitting title: The line encircling much of the island is a patchwork formed by 20 years of breaks and repairs. It's only since the late '90s that there has been a structured system for its maintenance. An early version surrounded the whole island, but no one seemed to know its precise boundaries, and everyone just sort of assumed someone else was in charge of maintaining it. When a group of rabbis in the '80s took a boat around Manhattan to create a map, they realized that most of the wire was gone. Now it’s more tightly regulated, and subsidized by the community it helps to create.
Zachary Levine, Director of Exhibitions and Collections at the National Building Museum, says an eruv “creates a visual language that defines space.” The series of practically invisible wires becomes a necessity that “benefits the most vulnerable people of the community.” He sees it not only as a way for communities to come together, but also as a way for the more affluent to give back. The eruv is funded entirely by the Jewish community, with a considerable portion of that support coming from wealthy philanthropists.
For six days of the week, or to passersby outside the community, the eruv is just a simple, more or less invisible, set of strands across physical space. But during Shabbat, the holy day, it takes on an important meaning for those who rely on the symbolic border to expand the domain of their homes while staying true to their belief system. As Levine puts it, the eruv “doesn’t matter, unless it matters to you.”
Octopuses and cuttlefish can make themselves look like a lump of sand or swaying seaweed, and switch back and forth in the blink of eye, with their unique ability to alter both the color and texture of their skin. They're among nature’s very best hiders. And soon enough we might be able to make soft robots that can do the same thing thanks to a breakthrough in synthetic octopus skin.
According to Live Science, researchers are currently working on a robotic skin that would be able to mimic the octopus’ incredible 3-D camouflage ability. Researchers from Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania, funded by the U.S. Army Research Laboratory's Army Research Office, are working on a design that would allow their high-tech material to change its texture in a flash. Kind of like this:
Changing colors is impressive enough, but what really sets these cephalopods apart as masters of disguise is their control over the bumpy papillae in their skin—from bumpy to smooth and back in a flash. To mimic these mimics, the scientists have created a silicone and fiber mesh skin that will have a series of air pockets that can be inflated to produce various shapes. Even better, they are designing it to be created with relatively simple parts so that it can be used in academia, in industrial applications, and even for personal use.
While they still have a ways to go before the technology is perfected, the hope is that one day it could be fine tuned enough to be programmed to automatically take the shape of any environment or texture it scans. The future may belong to invisible octopus people.
As far back as 1948, Halloween held a special magic for San Francisco’s LGBT community. That one night was like “a chapter from a Cinderella story,” writes Randy Shilts, in his biography of the activist and politician Harvey Milk.
From the late 1940s until at least the decriminalization of California's sodomy laws in 1976, friction between the mostly Irish-Catholic police department and the city’s queer citizens intensified. Police were often openly homophobic while, in the meantime, more and more young LGBT people were moving to the city, seeking the opportunity to be themselves. Clashes ensued. But, on Halloween, the residents of Polk Street had a free pass. It “had been staked out years before as the homosexual high holiday,” Shilts explains: “gays did, after all, live most of their lives behind masks.”
The night began with a traditional send-off from the chief of police: ‘“This is your night—you run it.”’ And for the rest of the evening, at a time when it was illegal even for gay people to “peaceably assemble,” these San Franciscans were free to celebrate and carouse in a tremendous street party—until the clock struck midnight. “When the hours shifted from October 31 to November 1, the iron fist of Lilly Law,” the then-current gay slang for a policeman, “would fall again.”
For the next six decades, that night would be a highlight of San Francisco’s gay calendars—until, in 2007, when the Halloween party was cancelled by city officials, due to overcrowding and repeated incidents of violence.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Polk Street had played host to queer Halloween festivities. But homophobes began causing trouble, setting fire to gay-owned businesses or lurking at the edge of the crowd, waiting to attack people they believed to be gay or lesbian. In 1976, tear-gas canisters were let off.
Sometime that decade, the party relocated further south to the Castro. A new era of sexual openness had brought a wave of gay migration crashing down on San Francisco’s shores, ready to take to its streets. By 1980, the tiny Castro neighborhood would have 30,000 people celebrating Halloween. The children’s party that had been held there for decades was swiftly cancelled as drag acts, trashy nuns, and assless chaps stormed the strip.
But in the Castro, too, the Halloween joy had a limited shelf life. Within 15 years, people began to fear that Halloween’s days in the Castro might be numbered. “This annual Halloween party is a victim of success,” reported the San José Mercury News in 1995. “It simply got too big for its britches—although not all partygoers have bothered to wear them. Part of the event's appeal has been its disdain for good taste and conventional modesty: The only dress code has been that imposed by the chilly night air.” That initial 30,000 was now closer to half a million.
Revelry bred raucousness; raucousness bred rioting. Stabbings and misdemeanors in the Castro on that one, magical night had led to a need for increased police presence. Streets were closed on an “emergency” basis, with no one individual or group prepared to take responsibility. Something had to be done: In 2007, the city of San Francisco spent $40,000 on television ads and fliers encouraging people to stay away from the area, in an official campaign called “home for Halloween.” The magic was over.
For a long time, Halloween held a special importance for the community, perhaps dating to that early police reprieve. “Queens worked for weeks on their costumes, and made every effort to be the ‘Best of Show’,” remembered photographer Donald “Uncle Donald” Eckert, who died last year, on his blog. “There was still a lot of police harassment in the 1970s and wearing ‘drag’ in public was sometimes used as grounds for arrest. So, Halloween was the only day of the year that it was ‘safe’ for a man to go out in public wearing a dress, or at least this was the accepted ‘wisdom.’” Police had, from the 1940s, violently enforced an archaic ordinance that forbade posing as a member of the opposite sex: drag queens responded by pinning paper notes to their dresses that read: “I am a boy.”
The other outcome of the law, writes David J. Skal in Halloween: The History of America’s Darkest Holiday, was “a distinctly over-the-top drag aesthetic … Since travesty drag didn’t fool anybody, it couldn’t be considered a legitimate attempt at identity fraud.” Eckert recalled high-octane drag queens and their tuxedo-ed escorts making dramatic entrances in the neighborhood’s watering holes: “They would rent limousines and drive from bar to bar showing off their elaborate creations. The custom grew in popularity and people would gather outside bars and watch the exotic parade of furs and rhinestones and feathers and glamour.”
Today, the so-called “exotic parade” has been retired once and for all. On October 31, traffic flows normally down the street; bars and nightclubs are open as usual; party-goers seek alternative events for HallowQueen parties elsewhere in the city. The final death knell was in Halloween, 2007. For the first time, bars closed early, parties moved out of the area, and 500 members of the police force patrolled the streets to keep the peace. With the Castro’s Halloween’s festivities gone, it was, instead, a ghost town.
These images from the San Francisco library archives recall the high spirits of queer Halloween on Polk Street and in the Castro throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
Alligators can be tricky animals to study. If you want to know what they eat, for instance, you either have to catch them in action, open up a dead one, or pump their stomachs. Considering they spend a lot of their time in the murky waters of marshes and rivers, where they are hard to observe, getting a look at their stomach contents is the more accurate way to track their dining habits. A pair of intrepid biologists did just this, and pumped the stomachs of more than 500 alligators on the Gulf and Atlantic Coasts of Florida and Georgia and found, surprisingly, that some alligators have expanded their menus to include sharks and rays.
Alligators usually feed on crustaceans, such as crabs and shrimp, in addition to wading birds and fish. There are some stories of gators eating sea turtles and small sharks, but there hasn't been a lot of hard evidence. Because alligators lack salt-secreting glands that would allow them to spend much time in salt water, they tend to stick to freshwater habitat, and that's probably why biologists haven't spent much time investigating interactions between alligators and sharks. But James Nifong, a biologist at Kansas State University, and Russell Lowers, a biologist at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, argue that these interactions—a pleasant way to say gators eating sharks—probably happen more often than previously believed.
Their survey of gator stomach samples turned up evidence of meals that included a nurse shark, a lemon shark, a bullhead shark, and an Atlantic ray. The high acidity of alligator stomachs breaks down shark tissue in one to three days, so Nifong and Lowers were lucky to find what they did. GPS tracking units on the alligators also show that coastal gators can hunt in saltier water. "When it rains really hard, they can actually sip fresh water off the surface of the salt water. That can prolong the time they can stay in a saltwater environment," said Nifong in a statement. They have these encounters further inland, too. Juvenile bull sharks live in Everglades estuaries where alligators also hang out. "While no evidence exists," write Nifong and Lowers in their report, "given the overlap in habitats used, large American alligators foraging in these estuaries potentially consume immature bull sharks to some extent."
One October morning in 1996, Pat Baker was driving her three youngest kids to school. On the car radio, the zany and irreverent DJ Jimmy Chunga was jabbering about the haunted castle in Provo.
Like everyone in north-central Utah, Baker knew about the castle, which sprung up every October: A spook alley infamous not because it was particularly well-done (though by all accounts it was), or particularly scary (though it was better than average), but because it stood on the grounds of Utah State mental hospital—and because some of the actors who worked there, playing witches and zombies and chainsaw murderers, were patients at the institution.
Baker had been a special kind of shocked to learn about the haunted castle. She directed Allies for Families, a nonprofit that educated parents and teachers about mental health, and provided support for families of the mentally ill. Every day in her work, she had to battle the perception of mentally ill people as unpredictable at best, dangerous at worst. She knew this stigma was precisely why those with a history of mental illness often kept it a secret, lest they make it harder for themselves to find jobs, friends, or housing.
To Baker, the haunted castle only reinforced this negative stigma. But the situation was complicated. Allies for Families contracted with Utah State Hospital, and Baker had a happy working relationship with the hospital administrators. She also knew that the hospital depended on revenue from the castle for its yearly recreation budget. That money wasn’t just an abstract good to Baker—her oldest daughter, Amy, had been an inpatient at the hospital two years earlier.
So Pat Baker had reached an uneasy peace with the haunted castle. That peace wouldn’t last the car ride, however.
From the speakers of her Subaru, Chunga was up to his usual shtick, trying to get groggy listeners to call into his show. This particular morning, the station was giving away tickets to the haunted castle—or, as Baker and her children heard him describe it, a chance to be frightened by “real-life psychos" at the hospital.
As they pulled up in front of the school, Baker’s youngest son turned to her: “Mom, is Amy a real-life psycho?”
That was when Pat Baker decided the haunted castle had to go.
Originally known as the Territorial Insane Asylum, Utah State Hospital was founded in 1885, on an isolated plot separated from Provo proper by swamps and a garbage dump. As the hospital’s website puts it: "The message this reveals about the prevailing attitudes regarding mental illness is unmistakable.”
In 1971, the hospital organized a spook alley for staff and patients, which then became an annual tradition. “Pretty soon the employees here started asking if they could bring their families,” recalls Janina Chilton, a long-time hospital administrator who now runs a museum at the hospital. “It just kept getting bigger.”
After a few years, the hospital decided to turn the event into a haunted house fundraiser. There was already an ominous building on the grounds that lent itself to the cause: the giant, turreted stone Castle Amphitheater, built as a public works project in the 1930s. Every September, patients and staff would spend weeks working to build and spookify several rooms on the amphitheater structure, each with a unique haunted theme. The castle would open up to the public in late October.
“It was a lot of work,” says Leland Slaughter, director of recreational services at the hospital from 1981 until 2009. “We spent a lot of late nights and extra time doing that.”
Former staff members recall how the patients clamored to help build and act in the castle. Slaughter says that the event was not only therapeutic—a chance for patients to exercise creativity and challenge themselves—but a rare bonding opportunity. “You’d have patients and staff right beside each other that were manning the room. So the patients would get to see the staff in a different light.”
They took the scary factor seriously. Over the years, the castle would include brutal torture scenes and savage gorillas; chainsaw murderers and mad scientists’ laboratories; a swamp monster that popped up to scare people as they walked over its giant water tank. To keep the haunts up to date, a fraction of each year’s revenue would be set aside for new lighting, sound equipment, costumes, and props the following season.
Hospital staff assessed which patients were fit to participate. Those with emotional issues, or whose psychosis might be triggered by the overwhelming lights and sounds, wouldn’t be allowed to interact with visitors. “We didn’t want to interrupt or hurt their treatment at the hospital,” says Slaughter.
Over the years, as the patient population at the hospital became less stable, they relied more on volunteers to don the makeup and costumes. By the 1990s, only 10 to 15 patients were helping at the castle, alongside some 90 citizens from local community and church groups. That didn’t diminish the draw. Attendance at the castle grew steadily through the 1980s, and hit 27,000 visitors a year by 1995. The line extended across the hospital grounds. At $5 a ticket, that translated to $100,000 to $125,000 in revenue.
“State money has lots of strings attached, what you can use it for,” says Chilton—but the castle money was different. “This was all in a separate fund, and didn’t have those same parameters,” she says.
“Over time we became more and more dependent on it, and we actually built the recreation program around the funding,” says Dallas Earnshaw, a longtime staff member and current hospital superintendent.
Indeed, Slaughter says, the haunted castle revenue roughly matched the sum that his department received from the state. They used the money to take patients out to bowling alleys, performances, and restaurants. They bought art supplies, as well as gear for camping, skiing, and river rafting.
“A lot of times, if you got the patients in an outdoor environment, or maybe on a raft, ... the patients would open up and talk a little more freely,” Slaughter says. “We were able to do a lot of good for the patients—to show them a sense of normalcy.”
For centuries, there had been a sense of hopelessness surrounding the mentally ill. “The outlook was, ‘They’re gonna be homeless or institutionalized,’” says Baker. Starting in the 1980s, however, she saw that beginning to change—as understanding of mental health expanded, families were no longer willing to simply accept that their mentally ill relatives would be ostracized from society.
“It was a different view of mental illness,” Baker says.
After she heard Jimmy Chunga’s “real-life psychos” comment, Baker got to work convincing others that the haunted castle perpetuated a negative, outdated idea of mental illness. Over the next year, she brought it up at meetings with public officials and fellow advocates. She called reporters on the mental health beat to voice her concerns.
Baker knew that change happened slowly—but she still wasn’t happy when the haunted castle opened up again in 1997. “I do remember being frustrated and annoyed,” she says.
That same year, word of the anti-castle effort made its way to Kat Snow, a reporter for Salt Lake City public radio station KUER. Snow says she immediately understood Baker’s concerns. “I was really stunned that nobody seemed to think that it was perhaps a damaging idea,” she recalls.
Snow decided to produce a radio story to take a closer look at the castle—and to find out if the hospital had good reason to subject its patients to such a spectacle. When she interviewed kids waiting in line for the castle, her microphone didn’t keep them from speaking their minds.
“Knowing that mental people are here is scary,” a young girl told her, giggling.
“It’s real crazy people, not fake!” tittered one boy. “Psycho people! Chainsaws!”
Another girl: “There’s no control over them! They could just grab you and it’d be scary.”
Inside the castle, Snow found a cackling mad scientist, and a man chained to a wall who lurched at visitors as they passed by. To her, these scenes evoked those days when the mentally ill were considered dangerous pariahs. “People were chained to the walls in asylums,” she says. “And here it was being kind of used as a scare tactic.”
(Superintendent Earnshaw insists that the castle planners worked to avoid any scenes that evoked mental illness. “I think it was probably her over-interpreting what she was seeing," he says of Snow’s reporting. But Snow doesn’t buy it: “I would have a hard time believing that you could do that scene and not know what you’re doing.”)
Snow interviewed a patient named Robin Judd, who was working as a “vampire-witch-creature” in the castle. Judd described how an adult visitor had snarkily asked her if she’d taken too much Thorazine, a drug used to treat symptoms of mental illness.
“It's not right what the public thinks,” said Judd. “So, the heck with them. If they think they're going to come see a bunch of freaks—well, they're not.”
But over the course of the reporting process, Snow’s opinion of the castle began to soften. When she interviewed recreation director Leland Slaughter, she was struck by the sheer amount of money on the table, and how far that cash went towards helping patients feel like part of society.
Snow, who also covered state politics, recognized that the money would not be easy to replace if the castle was closed. “This was a population of people that have been suffering from budget cuts for a long, long time,” she says. “It’s not like the Utah legislature was quick to jump on funding those kinds of things.”
But the question lingered: Did that sad reality justify keeping the castle open?
“By the end, I was really glad I wasn’t the one making the decision,” Snow says. “Because it was a lot more difficult of a decision than it seemed to me at first.”
Not all mental health advocates initially saw the castle the way Pat Baker did. As of October 1997, both the American Psychiatric Association and the local National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) chapter declined to take a strong position on whether the hospital should shut it down. While they grasped the stigma problem, they also recognized how much money was on the line.
But perspectives were shifting. In April of 1998, a national NAMI representative sent a letter to Utah’s governor, begging him to shut down the “barbaric” castle. The letter read: "I do not know which is more offensive—the fact that this horror show is allowed to continue or that the hospital administrators admitted to knowing that part of the draw each Halloween is the public's fear of mental illness.”
Later that month, Baker walked into a meeting of the state Board of Mental Health, which oversaw Utah State Hospital. The Board had agreed to make a decision on the haunted castle. As the meeting began, Baker was optimistic—and afraid.
“This is it,” she remembers thinking. “And if this doesn’t work, then it’s probably not going to work.”
When it was her turn to speak, Baker played a recording of Kat Snow’s radio story. She wanted the Board to hear how the children in line talked about the castle. "I knew if there was gonna be a tipping point, that was it," she says.
Baker herself was interviewed in the story. The Board listened to the recording of her holding back tears as she talked about her daughter: “When you have a family member who has a serious mental illness, and you love that person, and you watch them struggle, and you watch them succeed, it is hurtful to have that person stereotyped as some kind of a maniac.”
Representatives from the hospital also had a chance to weigh in before the Board voted. Administrators explained that they were actively working to combat the stigma issue. “We took advantage of the notoriety of the castle to educate the public about stigma,” says Earnshaw, who was present at the meeting. Every October, hospital staff and patients would visit local schools to explain to students that the mentally ill were just like them. “It was an opportunity for us to educate the community,” says Earnshaw.
The hospital staff said as much to the Board. And, of course, they reiterated the revenue issue—nobody in the room was confident that state lawmakers would allocate more money to fund the recreation program.
The Board took a vote. It wasn’t unanimous, but they reached a majority decision: It was time for the haunted castle to close.
As far as controversies go, the haunted castle controversy had been intensely civil. Baker continued her relationship with the hospital for many years after the final haunted castle in 1997. "We didn’t have any ill feelings towards her,” says Earnshaw.
Historian Janina Chilton suspects the castle’s days were numbered regardless of the Board’s decision, simply because the event was becoming a larger legal liability. Chilton, Earnshaw, and Slaughter all say that they sympathized with Baker and her concerns about stigma.
For her part, Baker would ally with the hospital to lobby for state funding to replace the castle revenue. In 2000, the legislature moved around money to appropriate an additional $76,000 to the recreation program, and the hospital was able to continue its robust recreation program.
In many ways, it was a happy ending. The stigmatizing castle had been vanquished, and the patients were no worse off.
Yet the end of the castle signified a broader change—something that went beyond one hospital or one haunted house.
Your average Utahan might say it was an explosion of political correctness. In 2006, the Utah Valley Daily Herald published an editorial blaming “politically correct zealots” for the castle’s closure, and imploring Utah State Hospital to bring it back. To this day, Earnshaw gets calls every year asking him to revive the event. (It's a non-starter—stigma aside, all of those elaborate lights and costumes are long gone.)
Hospital staff say it was a loss of trust in the people of Provo. Earnshaw thinks that a handful of insensitive radio DJs didn’t accurately represent the community’s view of the mentally ill, and that advocates like Baker had fixated on that minority. “Most of the public were actually quite offended that people would assume that they would stigmatize the State Hospital because of the castle,” he says.
Pat Baker, on the other hand, believes that it represented a newfound demand for dignity, particularly among people like her, who saw their loved ones being publicly stereotyped. “I had been in Utah for a while and knew about this haunted castle, but it wasn’t until it hit me personally that I was willing to take it on,” she says. “I knew it was the right thing to do."