Category Archives: history

Past present.

Mummers, Murder, and Merrymaking

From 14th century Europe to 21st century Philadelphia, mummers have long been associated with colorful costumes, fun and frolic, music, and merrymaking. Their history, however, has not always been one of light-hearted holiday entertainment. Violence. Murder. Mayhem. As much as they are celebrated, many a mummer has been feared over the last 700 years.

When exactly the tradition of dressing up in costumes and traveling house to house to bother the neighbors began, no one is quite sure. They can at least be traced back to the end of the thirteenth century when Edward I (aka Edward Longshanks) held a wedding for his daughter at Christmas that included mummers. And a 14th century manuscript clearly shows such revelers in costume.

Mummers in 14th c. Illuminated Manuscript

The name itself finds its origins in the Old French “momeur” — from momer which can be translated as “to act in a mime.”

Performing “mummer’s plays” at Christmas (or Plough Monday, which came a bit later in January), mummers  — or guisers as they were sometimes called (for the disguises they wore) — would usually engage in mock combat, parading about in animal masks. The practice was popular enough of a tradition to spread beyond the British Isles to other English-speaking parts of the globe — including the new world, as far north as Newfoundland, and as far south as St. Kitts and Nevis in the Caribbean. Newfoundland, especially, had a rich tradition of mummery, brought by Norweigians and Swedes across the Atlantic in the early nineteenth century.

Over the years, characters like Father Christmas (who may have come into English tradition because of mummers), dragons, and the Devil began to take center stage in mummer’s plays — all performed in good fun. One mummer’s verse captures well their intentions.

“Here we stand before your door, 
As we stood the year before;
Give us whisky, give us gin,
Open the door and let us in.”

As years pass, mummers as colorful quasi-minstrels and oft-drunken merrymakers became part of British Christmas tradition. But by the middle of  the 19th century, they begin to be thought of as more of a nuisance. And in one particular case, as murderers.

The alleged murder of a fisherman named Isaac Mercer by a group of men disguised as mummers in 1860 is one of the most notorious crimes in Newfoundland history. So heinous was the crime that packs of mummers began to be feared. A legislative ban on mummers was even issued. It remained in place for over a century.

Mummers’ celebrations in America, however — which date back to colonial times — thrived.  And it is here that the tradition of mummery in the city of Philadelphia may find its origins. Philadelphia was the nation’s capital in 1790, and a large Swedish population — previously mentioned as a country rich in mummer tradition — lived in the city. President George Washington was even known to have initiated a tradition of receiving calls from mummers at his home. In the early nineteenth century, celebrations were lavish, but some became so raucous with drunkenness and the discharge of firearms in the streets that the city passed an act which declared that “masquerades, masquerade balls, and masked processions” were prohibited.

It didn’t work, and the law — never strictly enforced — was abolished in the 1850s. Celebrations continued in Philadelphia, pretty much uninterupted.

Still, by the end of the 19th century, mummers outside of the United States began to fall  out of favor. After the first World War, most British mummers’ groups (known as “sides”) disbanded.

But in Philadelphia, the tradition not only survived, it flourished. The city’s first official parade was on New Year’s Day in 1901. It continues to this day, and is now the oldest, continuous folk parade in the United States.

A few members of the Aqua String Band in the 2005 parade presenting their theme “Just Plain Dead” (taken from Wikipedia)

Still,  these mummers in Philadelphia are a far cry from the medieval revelers of old. Made up of various groups — comics, fancies, string bands and fancy brigades — Philadelphia mummers do not go door to door now begging for whiskey. Instead, they perform music and acts of comedy along Broad Street with ever more elaborate themes, costumes and productions as the years go by. It’s a proud tradition of community pride and charity for many, and one of embarrassment to some.

Is there a direct line — and link — between the medieval mummer and his 21st century Philadelphia counter-part? Insofar as the mummer represents joyous abandon and holiday celebration with elaborate costumes and behavior not otherwise so socially acceptable outside of the holidays, then yes. There is something in the human condition that wants to put on makeup or a mask and become someone different — all within the accepted social convention of a holiday and/or party.

To badly paraphrase Carl Jung, and force an analogous relationship between the wearing of a physical disguise and the mask that is our persona — “designed on the one hand to make a definite impression upon others, and on the other to conceal the true nature of the individual” (from his Two Essays on Analytical Psychology, 1953) — perhaps the (dis)guise of the mummer is an attempt to show others someone or something we can only be once a year.  Most individuals conform — go to work, consume, go to be bed, wake up, start again. The mummer, however, can be anything he or she wants: comical, colorful, musical, mischievous — jovial, yes, but even a bit menacing, depending on theme.

If for only one day out of the (new) year, the Philadelphia Mummer’s parade — for mummers at least, but for its spectators, too — is a vacation from convention and day-to-day norms.

In many ways, it is a holiday from one’s self. And we could all use that from time to time.

Frightgeist: 100 Years of Horror Films

With 100 years of movies to choose from, is it possible to pick horror films that best represent western culture during each decade of cinema’s history? Is there such a thing as a fright zeitgeist?

From the forgotten art of the silent film to the twenty-first century gimmick of “real” 3D, horror movies of the last 100 years have delivered many a shock and nightmare to audiences around the world. But choosing a representative one from each decade to reflect cultural, political and social tensions of the time is no easy task.

The challenge is not to necessarily provide the genre’s finest, but the best representative horror film from each decade — something that could be said to reflect popular culture at the time of its release — from the shadows of the First World War to the current climate of cameras everywhere. To that end, I give you ten films that may not be the best of the genre, but those that say something about western civilization — the spirit of the age, be it political, social, cultural, even sexual — at the time of their release.

Nosferatu (1922)
Nosferatu (1922)

1920s: Nosferatu (1922)

The most atmospheric of adaptations of Dracula from the great German expressionist F.W. Murnau, Nosferatu is notable not so much for what it takes from Stoker’s vampire, but instead for what it adds to vampire lore. Here for the first time we find sunlight destroying the undead, and while Dracula was able to command rats in the novel, it is Nosferatu that suggests that rats —and by extension, vampires — carry plague.

The titular character (aka Count Orlok), has often been seen by critics as an immigrant — or more specifically, a Jewish immigrant. Released at a time when anti-semitism and anti-immigration was gathering momentum in the corrupt Weimar Republic (especially among Hitler’s supporters), Nosferatu can be seen as reflecting extreme xenophobia. Intentional or not (the film was actually penned by a Jewish screenwriter named Henrik Galeen), the undercurrents of anti-semitism are undeniably there in Nosferatu. As such, fear in the film is not just one of a bloodsucking monster, but of an infiltration of the eastern-european other. It is a theme that would go on to have great political significance when coupled with the economic collapse that came with the Great Depression.

Frankenstein (1931)

When Henry Frankenstein cries out “Now I know what it feels like to be God!” nineteen thirties’ audiences were shocked. Frustrations rising out of the depression, coupled with the rise of totalitarianism and a distrust of intellectualism had many questioning the social order; and science was chief among the culprits seen to be whittling away at religion and morality.

Theronoid (circa 1930)
Theronoid (circa 1930)

After all, this was only six years after the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial, and science posed a threat to traditional values. Sure, there were vaccines and penicillin; but there were also cure-all electromagnetic contraptions like the Theronoid and the Magnetone. Elixirs and tonics that promised good health but delivered poison. Was it any wonder that doctors would be distrusted?

Frankenstein (1931)
Frankenstein (1931)

Where May Shelley’s novel was about the dangers of blind ambition and the nature of being human, Universal’s 1931 adaptation with Boris Karloff was more directly — as one advertising poster made clear — about “a monster science created but could not destroy.”

Frankenstein is effective because it raises questions of ethics in science. The world was changing rapidly in the nineteen thirties; and science, spurred faster onward by a looming Second World War, would usher in the new world of gods and monsters (as Dr. Pretorius would say in the films’s arguably better sequel).

Cat People (1942)

Cat People (1942)
Cat People (1942)

Arguably the first horror film to make explicit the power of female sexuality, producer Val Lewton’s Cat People (directed by Jacques Tourneur) is the story of Irena, a Serbian girl who believes herself to be a descendant of a race of people who turn into cats when sexually aroused.

Notable for its cinematography, Cat People is most compelling because of its suggestion that a woman’s sexual urges have an element of danger to them — a power that men cannot contain or control. Played with equal parts innocence and seduction by the sensual Simone Simon, Irena is a threat to men only when she becomes the object of desire or an agent of jealousy. In many ways, she is both feminist hero and failure, as it is through her control of the animal within that there is ultimately a happy ending (of course, not for Irena, who is presumably torn to shreds, off camera, by a panther in a cage).

Yes, there were femme fatales before and after Irena, but with Cat People, Lewton gives us a character that not only threatens male dominance, but renders men unable to contain or even confront the threat; its themes would resonate later in a century that saw the women’s liberation movement and rise of feminism.

The Thing (1951)

The Thing from Another World (1951)
The Thing from Another World (1951)

Howard Hawks was a peculiar director who managed to make films of almost every genre: from the slapstick comedy of Bringing Up Baby to the western noir of The Outlaw to the war-hero world of Sergeant York. Each classics in their own right, these films are joined by Hawk’s foray into the world of horror with The Thing From Another World.

“Tell this to everybody, wherever they are,” is the radio report sent back from the isolated arctic outpost at picture’s end. “Keep watching the skies.” And were it not for the combined efforts of a band of soldiers and scientists putting aside their differences and working together to fend off and kill an alien that they themselves unearthed from a frozen crash site, the entire expedition would have been wiped out: food for alien seed pods.

Filmed during the Korean War at the height of tensions with communist China and Soviet Russia, The Thing is, in many ways, a comment on the Cold War — even more so, fighting a war with an enemy we do not understand. With scientists and soldiers working together to stave off a mindless (anti-individual) menace that will reproduce without their combined intervention, the film none too subtly implies that Americans, too, must pull together to combat a similar threat that may come from the skies.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

George Romero’s seminal zombie classic may very well be the most political picture on this list. “We may not enjoy living together, but dying together isn’t going to solve anything” says Helen, the woman whose townhouse becomes the refuge for her nuclear family of headstrong husband Harry, their daughter and another couple PLUS the black man, Ben Huss, who arrives uninvited with the white girl, Barbara, that he saved from a zombie hoard.

Had it just had moments of racial tension alone, Night of the Living Dead could have made this list of essential horror films, but it is its shock ending that says much about the fear of a black man in nineteen-sixties rural America. If you haven’t seen it, I won’t ruin the ending for you. But go watch it. Now.

Halloween (1978)

Halloween (1978)
Halloween (1978)

White flight of the nineteen seventies helped usher in a golden age of suburbia. Factor in the fear that came in the wake of the discharge of many mentally ill patients in the late sixties and early seventies (due to court decisions in some states limiting commitment powers of the state) and you had the ingredients for one hell of nightmare steeped in urban legend: what if a mental patient escaped from the hospital and threatened the safety of our suburban homes?

Originally entitled “The Babysitter Murders,” Halloween made it clear that suburbia was not as safe and secure as middle america has been led to believe. That underlying message, that poster! (one of the most effective movie posters of all time) and the blank stare of Michael Myers, scared the hell out of a teen audience whose parents had always kept them safe from harm.

Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Wes Craven’s first and best Freddy Krueger outing, Nightmare on Elm Street, took the “suburbs are not safe” theme to a whole new level. In the wake of Halloween, many a slasher movie was made, but none had the balls to suggest that you could be killed in your dreams.

What’s worse was the reason you were being killed. For a disillusioned Generation X —the children of the eighties who would be the first, in the history of the nation, to not do as well economically as their parents — the message was clear: your parents have secrets, and you’re gonna be the generation to pay for it. Freddy Kreuger isn’t killing teens because of their promiscuity as they were in endless Friday the 13th sequels; no, his nocturnal visitations were motivated by revenge. And what it told audiences in a time of nineteen-eighties excess is that Mom and Dad couldn’t be trusted.

Blair Witch Project (1999)

Blair Witch Project (1999)
Blair Witch Project (1999)

While arguably the most over-hyped and therefore disappointing films on this list, Blair Witch Project holds the distinction of being the first “found footage” film that also took advantage of early internet viral marketing. The result was a stark (albeit grainy) realism that transcended the screen and affected the audience on a visceral level of questioning — even for a moment — if what they were seeing was real.

Late '90s video camera
Late ’90s video camera

Technology in the nineteen nineties was in a state of flux unlike any decade previous. The demise of VHS, the rise of DVD, the ubiquity of the handheld camcorder and the explosion of early “reality” programming like MTV’s Real World and America’s Funniest Home Videos meant that by the time the decade was nearing its end, Generation X was already aging, giving way to (what was once called) Generation Y (now part of the Millennials); these new kids on the block measured an events’ importance by its ability to be captured on camera. Certainly, YouTube and Facebook, which would radically change the landscape of “social media”, were still four to five years away, but the end of the nineteen-nineties was a critical turning point; it was the dawn of democratization of who now created content for mass consumption — and how it was created. The tool of the masses was the video camera. Weddings, births, birthday parties: all had to be captured. The Blair Witch Project may have signaled the coming of a cultural shift now manifest in high speed internet and smartphones. No longer were we concerned if a tree falling alone in the forest made a sound; now  could we truly know if an event happened if it weren’t captured on video?

More than cinema vérité, Blair Witch Project established found-footage as an effective device for storytelling, cleverly turning the reality of artifice on its side.

28 Days Later (2003)

28 Days Later (2003)
28 Days Later (2003)

The events of 9/11 changed everything, including our understanding of true horror. In a post 9/11 world, it is arguable that nothing can be as scary as the ever-present threat of terrorism. From anthrax-tainted mail to shoe-bombs, the dangers of the early “naughts” were made 24/7 news. The escalation of fear was inescapable. Could we all be wiped out by a biological weapon? Were there hidden weapons of mass destruction that could be used on us? Could our own government be trusted — not only to protect us, but to tell us the truth?

28 Days Later — on the surface a zombie film — tapped into a post-9/11 paranoia of constant threat from a faceless enemy. Its poster said it all: Day 1: Exposure. Day 3: Infection. Day 8: Epidemic. Day 15: Evacuation. Day 20: Devastation. Its message: fear your neighbors as they can bring infection and death; fear the military as they may not be operating in your best interest; fear walking the streets during the day as you don’t know who or what is out there.

Each of these fears play out in the course of 28 Days Later, and while it may be the animalistic undead that rush the screen and provide the majority of the jolts, it’s the dread that comes from living in a world gone mad that is the true horror.

Cabin in the Woods (2012)

If Blair Witch questioned the existence of an event if it weren’t captured on camera, then a little over a decade later, Cabin in the Woods made it clear that in this age of smartphones, high speed internet, the NSA, and security cameras, we are always being watched. 

In Cabin in the Woods, the traditional genre tropes are all there, almost comically: from the titular cabin, to the attractive teens, to the use of practically every known monster in horror history! But these are merely a means to an end. Here, technology serves the beast. An apt metaphor? Perhaps.

Is that, then, the spirit of this age? Only time will tell. What’s remarkable about horror movies is that many wear their age well, and the themes are timeless.

Don’t believe me? Go back and read only the bits in orange and tell me how many of these issues still resonate all these many years later. You’ll be surprised as to how far we’ve come but how we’re still only beginning to understand the issues horror movies have had us confront in the times in which we have lived.

The scares may be short-lived, but the real impact of these films is how much their themes become part of the cultural Frightgeist.