Morbid Attractions: Shows From History That Put The Spotlight on The Macabre

We’ve talked before about the horrifying spectacle of the Grand Guignol, as well as the other ghoulish attractions of fin de siècle Paris. However, France wasn’t the only country to offer amusements to the morbidly curious. If you’re a horror fan with access to a time machine, here are four macabre tourist attractions you might want to witness.

Frederik Ruysch: The Artist of Death

Frederik Ruysch was a lecturer and anatomist who presided over Amsterdam’s public theatre from 1666 to 1731. In order to create teaching aids, Ruysch developed a technique for injecting melted wax into organic material to preserve it. With coloured wax to highlight the courses of bodily fluids in the circulatory system, these props were invaluable teaching aids for Ruysch to demonstrate anatomical principles to fledgling surgeons and midwives.


Ruysch’s passion for embalming went beyond the pragmatic, however. The public became obsessed with his work and people flocked to see the exhibitions he set up. It wasn’t long before Ruysch was getting more creative with his displays.

Ruysch would create surreal tableaux’s of corpses, with a particular focus on infants and fetuses. These would be posed in landscapes similarly fashioned from human matter, with trees and bushes composed of arterial tissue and rocks that were once bladder stones.


Ruysch’s dioramas were intended to deliver moral lessons as much as aesthetic wonder and educational improvement. One featured skull of a newborn baby placed in a box, next to a sign with the motto: ‘no head, however strong, escapes cruel death’. Another featured the skeleton of a boy of three, holding the skeleton of a parrot, which had been placed there as an allusion to the saying ‘time flies’.


Ruysch would deliberately blur the boundaries between life and death, giving his child corpses toys and similarly preserved flowers, or painting their sallow skin to give the illusion of vitality. He also had a keen sense of irony, making sure that many of the corpses in his charge gave the appearance of energetic movements. His final exhibition was composed of cabinets, each containing its own tableaux and split over three rooms. For the morbid time traveller, a trip to see Ruysch’s cabinets of curiosity is a must.

‘Night and Morning’ on Coney Island

2587f9dad2b31c5cfa366fdbac0ae208These days, morbid carnival-goers have to make do with rattling ghost trains and flimsy haunted houses. Back in the day, however, visitors to Coney Island’s Dreamland and Luna amusement parks would find their every ghoulish whim catered to in grand style. While the park, at its time the largest in the world, featured all of the usual diversions, their live shows had an obsession with death and disaster to rival Roland Emmerich.

Huge casts of actors, pneumatic machines and pyrotechnics would recreate famous disasters. These included the fiery destruction of Pompeii, the then-recent San Francisco earthquake, with 350 actors, and reconstructions of deadly tenement fires. These staged fires, a frighteningly real possibility for anyone living in a crowded city at the time, would feature up to 2000 actors performing daring acrobatic rescues and blood-curdling screams. Elsewhere, the bloody battles of the Boer war would be recreated by 600 veterans of the conflict and a staged version of the end of the world (full-on revelations-style) would delight the crowd.

The most fascinating attraction was named Night and Morning. Although we have lost details as to how exactly its effects were achieved, a news reporter detailed the experience in an article from 1907.

Visitors entered a room shaped like a coffin. Through the glass lid, they saw dirt being thrown atop the coffin, after which they were lowered into the ground with ‘shivers and shakes’ and ‘a voice above [giving] a warning to be careful’. Then, after the summoning of a spirit guide, they encountered a skeleton who delivered a stern lecture to them about abandoning hope.

The attraction also included a visit to the River Styx to see the torments of those condemned to hell, including ‘monopolists frying in pans and janitors fastened to hot radiators’, and then a chamber in which skeletons would sing, shake one’s hand and ‘smoke cigarettes most unconcernedly all the time just like live men.’ This was followed by a panorama of hell: ‘a vision of all the condemned spirits being washed down by the river of death’, and by a rebirth in a large room ‘with cathedral-like windows through which you can look outside and see the graveyard, which looms up with a weird effect’.

The reporter saw, ‘like great mist’, the spirits rising from the graves and ascending to heaven: ‘There is thunder and lightning and the music of an organ. The flashes of lightning form a cross… the whole graveyard floats off into space (emphasis ours) with the single exception of an immense cross, where the form a young girl is seen clinging to the rock of ages. Fountains foam with all their prismatic colour, and the air is filled with troupes of circling angels’.

It certainly puts Avatar to shame.

Dreamland burned down in 1911, surprising absolutely no-one.


Although brutal public executions have been the norm for most of human history, taking people apart for more high-minded reasons is a relatively new invention. In the 1800s, scientific demonstrations of feats like galvanism (the apparent reanimation of dead tissue by electricity that would inspire Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein) drew crowds from far and wide, while medical students flocked to watch live surgeries. 

Such was the demand for bodies for practice that an illicit cottage industry of  ‘Resurrection Men’ would go to great lengths to steal the bodies of the recently deceased. Families of the departed would stand armed vigil by their graves, install iron cages to protect coffins, and even set up tripwire-activated cannons to deter would-be grave robbers.

In the days before anaesthetic, speed was king. The undisputed master of the trade was surgeon Robert Liston (1794 – 1847). His physical strength and size meant that he could dispense with time-consuming tourniquets, clamping his hands over a victim’s limb to staunch the blood flow before removing an entire leg in a record 30 seconds. 

Speed didn’t always go hand in hand with precision, though. In one surgery, Liston not only removed the limb from his patient, but also several fingers from his assistant, as well as slashing the coat of a spectator. The patient later died from a resulting infection, as did the assistant. The audience member died from shock. This earned Liston the dubious distinction of having performed history’s only recorded surgery with a 300% mortality rate.

Few historical figures can lay more of a claim to having created the ‘mad doctor’ trope than John Hunter (1728- 1793). His pioneering anatomical work revolutionised modern medicine and he was rightly viewed as a genius, but he was also as mad as a box of frogs and that’s what we want to talk about.

Hunter would collect the bodies of animals and humans and either preserve them in jars or boil them down to study their skeletons. His particular obsession was for those with unusual skeletons caused by congenital conditions or illness. Charles Byrne, a famous Irish giant, stipulated in his will that he should be buried at sea in a lead-lined coffin to prevent the good doctor from putting him on display. Hunter bribed his family and got his way in the end.

Hunter’s London home was filled with exotic animals. He often arrived at hospital in a carriage drawn by water bison, and when his animals escaped and rampaged through London it caused press sensations. It is for this reason that he is considered the inspiration behind Doctor Doolittle. His appetite for experimentation knew no bounds, and he tried his hand at everything from grafting a cockerel’s testicle onto the body of a hen to shooting guns over garden ponds to see if fish could hear.

Hunter’s legacy left a big impression on the history of horror literature. H.G. Wells name-drops him in The Island of Doctor Moreau, there’s obviously some Hunter in Shelley’s Frankenstein, and his Leicester Square house is said to have been the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson‘s Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Perhaps his most peculiar influence was on Herman Melville, who may well have read about Hunter’s live dissection of a sperm whale while writing Moby Dick. Hunter’s personal museum of skeletons and pickled body parts remains one of London’s greatest attractions.

Lucy and Johnny Lectures


The 1940s saw the publication of Four White Horses and a Brass Band, the revelatory memoir of Violet McNeal or, as she was sometimes known, Princess Lotus Blossom. McNeal gave up the goods on the entire patent medicine trade and its colourful parade of charlatans, grifters and film-flam men. For the first time, America learned the tricks of the travelling medicine show trade, from simple feats of memory and stage hypnosis to elaborate cons like the ‘invigorating’ electric belts sold to armies of willing ‘rubes’.

These belts would create an electrical tingle for the wearer, sure to trick even the most cynical. The effect was actually caused by mixing vinegar with strips of zinc. The fraudster would leave town immediately after the sale, in order to avoid coming face to face with a punter wanting to know why he was now covered in angry boils.

Those with the strongest stomachs might want to find a ‘pitchman’ testing his or her mettle by giving the ‘Lucy and Johnny’ lecture. Performed when an arrogant grifter was challenged by a peer, this lecture was considered the true test of a great pitchman. Failing the test meant leaving town.

With a crowd in their thrall, the pitchman would launch into the tale of a good, hardworking christian who fell into the heinous vice of self-abuse. The physical and mental toll that it took on their bodies and minds would be described in disgusting detail. The lecture often ended with Lucy or Johnny wanking themselves to death as malformed troggs, hiding their pustulent faces from society in a cave or hovel. Only when a member of the audience fainted with shock would the lecture be considered a success and the pitchman’s credentials assured.

The Lunatic Who Built His Own Asylum

There is an urban legend that surrounds the notorious Bedlam Asylum in London. The legend states that the man tasked with designing the structure was himself driven mad by the scale of the project and ended his days in a prison of his own making. While the story itself is untrue, there is a nugget of truth buried within it. The real story of the architect in the institution is perhaps even stranger.

James Tilly Matthews
was a London tea broker committed to Bedlam in 1797. A political radical, Matthews was haunted by the spectre of war with France. He voyaged over the channel to begin secret entreaties to the French government to try and broker peace. When the Girondists were displaced by the more militant Jacobins, he fell under suspicion and was placed in prison for three years. This was at the height of the Terror, and with violent death seeming the certain end to his adventures, Matthews became increasingly frantic and depressed. Convinced of a grand conspiracy that had betrayed him to the revolutionaries, he was eventually released, having been judged to be a harmless lunatic.

Believing that his imprisonment was a result of a betrayal by Prime Minister Lord Liverpool, Matthews shouted “Traitor!” from the public gallery in parliament. This was a criminal offence, and Matthews was arrested and subsequently committed to Bethlem Asylum (more commonly known as Bedlam).

After a series of interviews, the peculiar nature of Matthews’ delusions was discovered, and they seem to have been strikingly modern. Matthews believed that a gang of criminals had created a pneumatic machine called an ‘Air Loom’, and were using it to control the minds of members of parliament. They could also control blood flow and affect the build-up of fluid in their victims’ skulls. Matthews called these techniques names like ‘bomb-bursting’, ‘lobster-cracking’ and ‘stomach-skinning’. He even named the individual gang members. Their colourful line-up included ‘the Middleman’, ‘the Glove Woman’, ‘Sir Archy’ and ‘Bill the King’.

In 1810, a full account of his delusions was published by his doctor, titled snappily: ‘Illustrations of Madness: Exhibiting a Singular Case of Insanity, And a No Less Remarkable Difference in Medical Opinions: Developing the Nature of An Assailment, And the Manner of Working Events; with a Description of Tortures Experienced by Bomb-Bursting, Lobster-Cracking and Lengthening the Brain. Embellished with a Curious Plate’. The book was the first full study of a single psychiatric patient in medical history, and is now considered the first official description of paranoid schizophrenia.

It is well known that the public would pay money to gawp at the unfortunate souls committed to the asylum. Only the poor ended up there, while the wealthy could isolate themselves in privacy and dignity. The ‘treatments’ on offer where more like tortures, with inmates clapped in iron restraints, starved, purged and beaten. The riotous public viewings were curtailed in 1770, but in Matthews’ day, wealthy patrons could still pay to visit with written permission from the governor. We wouldn’t want to imply that any of our readers would want to take part in or support such a horrific form of entertainment, but receiving visitors in his cell was one of Matthews’ greatest joys.

A visit with Matthews was considered a staple of the tour. Visitors were astonished by his erudition, eloquence and obvious intelligence. Matthews was a man of many talents, and turned to writing and art in his incarceration. He entered a competition to design the new Bethlem hospital and won £50 (around £3500 in today’s money). Despite his reduced circumstances, his architectural drawings are professional and precise. Many of his ideas were instituted in the final construction, giving rise to the popular urban myth.

He also kept careful notes of the cruelties of the doctors and staff, which were eventually used as part of the evidence considered by the House of Commons when they reviewed the state of mental institutions. His doctor was fired as a result.


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