Oddities and Curiosities
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Every year in mid July, many of the world’s most powerful men convene at a private, 2,700-acre campground in Northern California for two weeks of ribald revelry and pagan ritual. This is not a conspiracy theory, or the plot of a Hollywood movie. You haven’t heard about it (or if you have, you know next to nothing about it) because the degree of secrecy surrounding this annual event rivals the budget of the NSA. Known attendees include former U.S. presidents and many other heads of state and titans of the business world. Although “outside cares” are officially unwelcome, many plots have been hatched there, such as the Manhattan Project, which ultimately led to the invention of the atomic bomb. Although security is infamously tight, a few intrepid outsiders have managed to infiltrate the event and bring back photos, reports, and even footage of the orgiastic partying and strange rites conducted there. This extremely rare archival photo is just one example. Exactly what it depicts is anyone’s guess, but more photos can be found here.
For hundreds of years, a mystery surrounded the cathedral of Venzone, a small city in the province of Udine, Italy. Instead of decomposing normally, bodies buried in the tombs beneath the cathedral were perfectly preserved and still recognizable decades later, a fact which led the townspeople to periodically retrieve and commune with their dead loved ones. In modern times, scientists finally traced the source of this wonder to Hypha tombicina, a microscopic, parasitic fungus that rapidly dehydrates the bodies before decomposition can even begin. More photos available here.
Recent years have witnessed the growing popularity of “green burials” that incorporate a biodegradable casket (or none at all), erect no headstone or tomb, and leave no negative impact on the environment. The Zoroastrian tradition (predominant in parts of Iran and India) takes this idea one step further with the use of Dakhmas (loosely translated to “Towers of Silence”) where the dead are ritually exposed to the elements and offered up to vultures and other scavengers. Tibetan Buddhists have a similar practice known as jhator or “Sky Burials.” Whereas Zoroastrians believe a corpse to be unclean and use Dakhmas to hasten decomposition and avoid the pollution of the body by evil spirits, Buddhists simply view the body as a vessel, emptied at death, which might as well be put to good use, in a final act of charity, by “giving alms to the birds.” Photo by Szabolcs Szilagyi.
A short ways away from the bustling capital of Mexico City, within the winding canals of Xochimilco, seekers of the creepy just might find their holy grail: a small island populated entirely by decaying doll parts. “The Island of the Dolls” is the maggot-brain child of a man named Don Julian Santana Barrera who left his wife and family one day in the 1950s to settle a small piece of land on Teshuilo Lake. He was an alcoholic outcast, and sought only peace and quiet and a place to grow vegetables. Instead, he lay awake at night listening to the voice of a little girl who had drowned there in the ’20s. She begged him for dolls to keep her company, and to ward off the ancient evil spirits that wandered this lonely place. So Don Julian brought her dolls. Thousands of dolls. Some he pulled from the trash on his sojourns back to the real world, others he acquired from visitors who traded for his vegetables. One night in 2001, Don Juan finally gave in to her whispered entreaties for company and joined her by drowning himself in the same spot. By then his island had become infamous and remains a site of pilgrimage for lost souls and connoisseurs of the macabre.
In 1902, workers on the island of Malta were digging a cistern for a new housing development when they accidentally cut through the ceiling of this unique structure. Reputed to be the only prehistoric subterranean temple in the world, the Hypogeum (a Latin spelling of a Greek term for “under the ground”) extends downward for three distinct levels, and most of the rooms are covered with an eerie red ochre. Discovered at the deepest level were the scattered bones of nearly 7,000 people, which has led some to posit a long history of human sacrifice. To whom or what they were sacrificed is unknown, but a National Geographic article published in August, 1940 only deepened the mystery, as it reported of a tunnel leading off from the lowest chamber that connected with an underground labyrinth spanning the entire island. Even then, the tunnels had been sealed off after a teacher led some of her students into the labyrinth on a field trip and never returned.