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Death Becomes Her: How a Roomful of Dead Animals Helped Me Find Myself

contributor ::: Kim Belair

Collectors are often said to be chasing or replacing something from their pasts, trying to hold on to some bit of nostalgia, or surround themselves with reminders and effigies of something they adored. There’s a certain kind of power to being able to own a physical manifestation of a fond memory or a beloved passion, and when that’s paired with the rush of finding a new piece for the collection, it’s essentially an addiction.

Right now, I’m addicted to skulls.

For whatever reason, I’ve always been fascinated by anatomy, medicine, history and death. Whether it was dinosaur books and fossils, those cool lift-the-flap books about the bodies of animals, or simply the sheer volume of literature my mother, a university nurse, would bring home from her clinic, I spent my childhood devouring everything I could about the strange structures hidden beneath the flesh. This is half of what got me started on a lifelong love of what most people see as the macabre, but the other half is Mr. Skullhead.

The Death and Other Death of Mr. Skullhead.

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Vervet monkey

Named for the minor “Animaniacs” character of the same name, Mr. Skullhead came into my life as part of a “Box ‘o’ Bones“, a glow-in-the-dark skeleton one was meant to assemble themselves. I suppose I probably put him together at first, but within a few days, the majority of his bones were dispersed throughout my room and toy chest and only the skull (with moving jawbone!) remained. This was fine with me, because it was the part of him I loved. His tiny skull fit perfectly and comfortingly in the palm of my hand, and in the smallest pocket of my backpack. He could go with me anywhere.

And he did. I took Mr. Skullhead to school, where I imagined he could overhear and offer pithy commentary on all the lessons from his backpack lounge. I took him to friends’ houses, where he could come out to play with their toys. Every night, I placed him under my pillow, where I imagined he would tell a few jokes (in my pretend lore, he was a stand-up comedian.) before I drifted off to sleep. In a time when I was surrounded with action figures and stuffed toys, my beloved was a glow-in-the-dark plastic skull.

Framed bat skeleton

Framed bat skeleton

One day, Mr. Skullhead accompanied me to a friend’s sleepover party. As was the custom, we all changed into our pyjamas around 9 o’clock, but rather than retire to bed, we decided to have a “dance party”. For the uninitiated, this means we decided to squeeze inside a pantry where we had set up one of her parents’ strobe lights. Naturally, Mr. Skullhead was going to join us. While my friend got her radio set up, I placed Mr. Skullhead in front of the strobe light, where his grinning silhouette would surely delight all pantry-dancers who looked upon him.

Oh, we had a time! We filled that pantry with great music, and danced until we could barely stand and had to admit it was time for bed, at which point

I reached for Mr. Skullhead.

He wasn’t there.

At least, not all of him.

He had melted. The heat of the strobe light had been too much for his little plastic cranium and the back of his head had melted. Whatever lessons about death I hadn’t already learned from a childhood spent carrying around a skull were taught to me as I stood in a silent larder, clutching a heap of hot, oozing plastic (with fused jawbone!) that had once been my companion. It was over.

Later, my parents would buy me a replacement skull, from a nicer and more expensive “Visible Man” skeleton kit, but as much as I tried to love him, as many times as I called him by my old friend’s name, I knew he wasn’t the same. He faded out of my life, and I outgrew games of pretend, and mostly forgot about my time with Mr. Skullhead.

Fake Skeleton Girl

Chacma baboon

Chacma baboon

In the years that followed, I found myself increasingly interested in bones, and I would read as much horror and true crime fiction as I did historical medical books and diaries. Still, I never felt entirely comfortable speaking up out about it. Perhaps because I grew up reading comics and playing video games, which at the time were largely considered the domain of boys and men,

I had grown accustomed to being scrutinized for my interests, often treated like the  “fake gamer/geek girl”

and subjected to intense questioning or doubts from people I considered my peers. I worried that if I wasn’t going to go “all the way”, and be a doctor, or a goth, or run a funeral home, or listen to death metal, or live in a graveyard maybe, surrounding myself with skulls, or in some way bringing them into my aesthetic was an act of fakery.

And it certainly didn’t help that I had somehow gotten it into my head that dead things were also impossible for me to acquire. I suppose because I had long associated trophy rooms and home museums with old money, colonial era explorers and Dita Von Teese, I assumed that skulls or elegant taxidermy were out of my price range, or otherwise inaccessible to a commoner. This was not only a very weird thing to think, but wildly uninformed and easily dashed with a cursory Google search. Mine was “Buy skulls” and I’m slightly embarrassed to tell you it led me to Buyskulls.com.

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The OGs: my three pigs

So I bought some skulls. At night, in secret, sitting on the sofa with my laptop, I placed an order for three domestic pig skulls (meat industry by-products). I didn’t tell anyone, keeping it private until they arrived a few days later.

When unwrapped them, I was taken by how light they were, and how beautiful, but mostly I was struck by how little I suddenly cared about what anyone thought because these things were the absolute coolest. I ran my fingers along their snouts, peered into the delicate structures of the nasal cavity, and lined them up beside one another to observe the slight differences in their faces, wondered how they might have looked in life. And when I added them to the bookshelf in my dining room, it felt genuinely like an act of self-love.

A Dying Trend

Giant centipede attacking butterfly

Of course, it didn’t end there. The pigs gave way to a horse, then another horse because the first horse was so cool, then a fox, then a hartebeest, rams, a lynx. A gorgeous taxidermy carrion crow shipped over from the U.K.. A complete bat skeleton perched (glued) upside-down on red velour. And like any collector, I soon became excited simply by the hunt, and the challenge of tracking down something I coveted, or something exceptionally rare. Today, whenever I travel, I look up local skull shops (there are more than you think) and do some research on which pieces won’t get me stopped at customs. It’s become a beloved hobby, helped me reconnect with something I might otherwise have lost, and given me the cred I need to wear a lot of shirts with skeletons on them. Not that you need to own skulls to wear skeleton shirts, but it helps.

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Red fox & cartoon crow, feat. horse skull

At this point, my shyness about skull collection has evolved into a worn-on-my-sleeve enthusiasm, and I regularly try to get friends and loved ones to own more bones. But I think what I really love seeing isn’t necessarily more macabre menageries in the world, but the outward expression of passion made real and tangible. When there is something that a person loves, and they’re willing to share that, willing to fill shelves and display cases…

There’s a certain beauty in that self-expression that’s infectious.

It fills in a little bit more of their story, whether it’s their support of an underdog sports team, a flair for dressing up in Renaissance finery or the little plastic buddy they lost to a strobe light. That’s the joy, and that’s the addiction, whatever anyone thinks.

And for the record, I haven’t yet made the leap from animal skulls to human. But when I eventually get one, I know what I’ll call him.

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