Saturday, November 06, 2010

Books: "And right away, I was scared. We were all scared."

In his new book, The Lampshade, journalist Mark Jacobson investigates the origins of lampshade made out of human skin: a lampshade that was purchased for $35 at a yard sale in New Orleans and may be one of the infamous lampshades that Ilsa Koch (inspiration for Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS) allegedly constructed for her husband out of the skin of Jews slain in Buchenwald. The majority of Jacobson's investigation focuses on the possibility that this grisly artifact was a product of the Holocaust, but he also investigates the possibility that it might be a native product of New Orleans voodoo culture. From gallery owner and "biological and transgressive" artist - meaning he makes art out of biological matter, including parts of humans left over from medical dissections and autopsies - Andy Antippas, Jacobson learns about the Ekoi, "a warlike culture from Nigeria known for painting large, flowery murals and making giant masks, often from human skin."

Armed with slender lead, Jacobson searches database of the Afro-Louisiana History and Genealogy Project, which contains digital records of the French slavers that trafficked Africans through the bustling slave auctions of Louisiana from 1719 to 1820. He finds a record of just two Ekoi slaves sold at auction in New Orleans. One, a woman named Felix, was sold for $430 in 1792. The extensive records the French slavers kept contained the following comment on the sale: "Woman is pregnant."

Oddly, the name links with a story Jacobson heard from New Orleans music legend Dr. John. According to the good doctor, a Creole regular at the Saturn bar was a voodoo practitioner of sorts and he was well-known for making masks out of human skin. "Slip them right over your head, " Dr. John tells Jacobson. "Give yourself a whole new face." This strange character's name is, curiously enough, Cheeky Felix.

Could Cheeky Felix be the great-times-ten grandson of the slave woman Felix? Was there some bizarre family tradition of Ekoi flesh-mask making that was passed down from generation to generation for nearly three centuries? Jacobson's curious, if not totally sold, and he attempts to find Cheeky Felix. Dr. John tells him that the Neville brothers - yeah, believe it or not, the Neville "the Meters" brothers - might know where Cheeky Felix is.

This turns out to be a dead end for Jacboson. The Neville brothers are apparently not big flesh-mask types. But Jacobson's interview, in which the brothers Neville discuss New Orleans urban legends and the strange role horror cinema played in segregated New Orleans, leads to a surreal appearance by ANTSS's favorite monster: the Gill-man from the Black Lagoon. Here's Jacobson:

I gave Cyril the short version of the lampshade story and he was interested but again insisted that he had little to add. "Well," he finally allowed, "there was the Gown Man. If our mother wanted to keep us home, she'd tell us about the Gown Man. He was this big white guy in a hospital gown, and he'd snatch you off the street, put you under his arm, and take you over to the dissection room at Tulane University medical school. They'd pull of your skin and you'd get chopped up by medical students, practicing their autopsies."

"They had the Needle Man, too. Supposed to shove a six-inch needle in your eye, suck your brain right out from the socket," Aaron Neville chimed in.

Showtime was approaching and Cyril looked about ready to say good-bye when he said, "There is this one thing. Don't know if it helps you or not, but when we were kids our parents used to send us to this Boy Scout camp y the Lake. We'd play ball and that, but on Wednesdays we went to the movies because that's the day they set aside for black people to go to the movies.

"They always showed these horror movies, like Attack of the Crab People. Creature from the Black Lagoon. The usual shit, trying to scare us, but the movies were so corny, we'd just laugh. Then there was this one time the movie came on and you could tell from the first second this wasn't going to be the same old thing. The film was all messed-up-looking, with these scratches in it. At first you didn't see anything. It looked overexposed. Then you saw these people coming out of what looked like a giant hole. These skinny, skinny people, their eyes sunk deep inside their head. They were wearing what looked like striped pajamas. They showed these dead bodies, stacked up. And right away, I was scared. We were all scared. Because we knew this wasn't something fake. It was real. Remember that Aaron?"

He nodded.

"Then they had these other people, marching by. And I think I saw that thing you're talking about - a lampshade they said was made of human skin. That was really scary."

"You're talking about footage from Buchenwald. The Buchenwald concentration camp," I said.

"Some concentration camp, that was for sure," Cyril answered. "Long as I live I'll never forget those pictures. Give me the chills thinking about it even now. Because there are two things about seeing that movie that have always stayed with me.

"First of all, I couldn't believe white people would do that to other white people. But even more than that was the question about why they picked that particular Wednesday to show that particular movie to us - the kind of message they were trying to send."

1 comment:

Spooky Sean said...

I'm certainly going to have to read this.