We asked Luke to be our first guest blogger after he shared his insights with us about the film; we knew that this is precisely the new direction we want to go with our blog - a continuation of the themes we merely touch on in the film. If you are interested in guest blogging for us, be in touch!
A big thanks to Luke Zimmerman for his entry and we hope you enjoy!
In the last five years or so, I have started running. It was not my plan growing up to be a runner but there it is. I’m not going to apologize for it. But there is a typical joke, one that I used to use, when someone says they went running the other person says, “What from?” and you are supposed to make up something witty or whatever and say crushing debt or the police or rabid bears or the like. When really the answer is most likely death. I am trying to run from death. But there I go being dramatic.
Being out in the country like I am and running on the shoulders of country roads like I do, you are liable to smell the roadkill before you see it. There is a rank smell that everybody knows and this is the smell of death. You know the smell. It is similar to the gagging stench when you don’t notice that the mousetrap in your utility room has caught a mouse and you go into the room and see a flattened rodent and reach for the gloves. Why do you reach for the gloves? Because you can’t stomach the idea of touching a dead mouse. But I shouldn’t bring you into this. It is all about me anyway.
But this mouse was flattened and caught by the head in the trap. I had nothing against the mouse. It was most likely disease-free. No buboes. No small pox. I don’t even think it had scurvy though I’m not sure that mice carry that. I don’t think mice carry diseases that can be cured by limes. A person smarter than me might mention Lyme’s Disease in a funny way here but I’m not a person smarter than me. I think urinary tract infections are cured by cranberries and they’re no joke at all.
I saw the mouse when I was going into the utility room to look for carpet cleaner so I could clean up the vomit. Vomit has a particular stench, too, that lingers like death. It is a smell that only parents and fraternity brothers get to ignore. Probably hospital workers, too. I might mention why there was vomit but I think the mystery of it makes for a better connection with the movie, “Of Dolls and Murder,” for which I am doing this blog. I suppose I should be making a bigger connection to the movie. That would be the generous thing to do. But I don’t remember seeing vomit in any of those dioramas, the “nutshell” dollhouses but there’s probably a lot to go round. I’m not sure, though. I’ve never seen CSI.
This is getting a little too much into vomit. But bear with me. It’s not gross out humor. I think it’s going somewhere.
Armed with my gloves, I gingerly lifted the mouse. I was however greeted with the sickest of all sensations, stickiness. The mouse had stuck to the floor. I peeled it off, trying to ignore the death smell billowing in the room, only to see an amorphous grey sludge dripping from the middle and the obvious wriggling white maggots feasting on the mouse’s insides. A ball gathered in my throat as I released the mouse into a plastic bag. To throw up myself would only add to the olfactory disaster and so I fought it as I went outside and released the mouse into the woods. The maggots could finish their business in peace.
This will happen to us all someday.
Now, there are people for whom these sorts of horrors are not an issue. They in fact are not horrors at all but deep fascinations, puzzles to be solved. They are the people that instead of recoiling at the sight and smell of a maggot ridden carcass, will squeal, “Ooh! Look at that!” I am not one of those people. But I hold no grudges. I choose to believe that they are not morbid fetishists or sadistic sociopaths. They most likely have great empathy for the cycles of nature. I do not have great empathy for the cycles of nature and think it’s a damn shame that I have to be maggot ridden someday. I feel it’s a bit of a rip off.
I had a survivalist friend who was driving in northern Minnesota in the wintertime. He had an errand to run and was returning to his campsite when he noticed that there was a roadkill raccoon that was not there when he passed only an hour or so previously. He stopped his truck and got out. He threw the raccoon in the bed and returned to the camp. He skinned it and roasted the raccoon over an open fire. When it was cooked, he ate it. I’m not sure how much he ate, because at this point in the story I was too bowled over that he was eating roadkill. That his reaction to seeing the raccoon was, “Good eating!” when my reaction would have been, “Veer left!”
“What’s the big deal?” he said. “It’s all meat.” Don’t I know it.
These are the sorts of people that inhabit the movie, “Of Dolls and Murder.” They are curious and dedicated. Even more so, they are able to separate the idea of the body as a human with the idea of the body as a physical object. This is most evident with the workers at the Body Farm in Knoxville, Tennessee. I should say that “Body Farm” is a bit of a cheeky name for the Anthropological Research Facility (incidentally, it was originally the Bass Anthropological Research Facility, but the title was abandoned because the acronym was BARF. So I am not the only one with vomit on the brain.). The facility was started by Dr. Bass to study forensics, and in particular decomposition in a variety of settings. There are over 100 bodies donated to the facility each year. And there they are, out in the open, slowly rotting, some recreating the various ways a body can be stored—garbage bags, piles of leaves, water, trunks of cars, that sort of thing. The skin turns colors as the blood pools, the resilient maggots crawl, the forces of nature return the body to the earth. The researchers tend to the bodies and record the progress in order to chart what happens to the physical body when the life goes out of it. This is the point when I have a metaphysical breakdown, and the scientists begin observing.
I have to admit that I felt flushed during this scene. Perhaps even a bit faint. Sick. It is one thing to think about death in a little box. It is another to think about it in the open. Plush lined caskets with silver pall bearing rails put a regal spin on the most degrading element of human existence. We take so much pride and care in how we look trying to forget that the eventual decay will catch up to us. And here it is, all spelled out for us. One day after you die, you will look like this. After a week, like this. A year later, this is what is left of you. Your perfectly cut hair, your finely trimmed toenails. Those extra five pounds that you wanted to lose.
But these people in “Of Dolls and Murder” are able to block that out. They are made of stuff that can withstand existential crises. There are problems to be solved. There are crimes to be solved. I don’t think these people, the detectives, the morticians, the scientists, are oblivious to the terror of death, but I think they are trying to understand physical death. They are seeing what it looks like firsthand. They are gathering secret reconnaissance about the world’s only common enemy. And by trying to understand physical death, to understand the enemy, we maybe can conquer a small part of the mystery. At least we know what we are facing. And more to the point, the “nutshell” dollhouses along with the Body Farm help to solve crimes. While a solved crime can never bring back that person, it can bring relief or closure to the loved ones left behind. To solve the mystery of a death can make life just a hair better.
I’ve been thinking about these things a lot lately. I know this is not the proper place to put this. I know it might seem exploitative. But it is on my mind. Last week they found a man I went to high school with dead with no explanation from anyone. He had massive head injuries. The newspaper said that he was found in his driveway still alive with blunt force trauma. He died the next day. The police say that it is a “suspicious incident”. I saw pictures of the evidence tags and the “Do not cross” ribbon in the newspaper. The police have not released any information on suspects, have not said anything about what could have happened. I don’t know if they know. This was a brilliant person. I knew him when we were both very young and I still picture him just like that and try not to imagine anything else. I sometimes think I am still young too. I don’t know what to do with any of it.
So I run and I try to escape death. It’s not working, I know. Every once in a while I see a raccoon carcass at the edge of the road. Sometimes I even have to step over it and smell it. I try to stay upwind. I see the flies buzzing around its exposed mandible. The teeth are crushed and the pelt looks like a crappy carpet in an abandoned icehouse. It has become a thing to be avoided and no longer a life. Turtles are bad, too, with their smashed shells. It is shocking and sad and reminds me how ugly and unfair death is. Whenever I see a youngish person in the obituaries, I look to see if someone mentions what caused the death, as if this might help. In the end, we end up feeding the worms possibly at a crime scene or possibly slowly decomposing in a field behind a university building in Tennessee. It does bring me small comfort to know how it was the raccoon met his end. Hopefully he never saw it coming.