A projection of a blinking skeleton grows larger and larger. To a viewer today it looks like a cheap trick at a haunted house. But for audiences in the 19th century, this image was terrifying. Before cinema, people had never encountered moving images, so a specter on the wall seemed like a real ghost approaching.
Phantasmagoria shows, as they were called, used projectors and basic stage tricks like Pepper’s Ghost, an effect that used a mirror and glass to make an object appear where it wasn’t and is commonly known for its use in Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion ride, to terrify audiences. It was one of the many spectacles that put viewers in touch with their own mortality.
In a recent Zoom class, author and curator Joanna Ebenstein explained the history of phantasmagoria along with other historical displays focused on death. Joanna teaches this lecture as part of her work at Morbid Anatomy, a Brooklyn-based organization that focuses on the intersection between medicine, art, and death.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, countless businesses have shut down and the specter of death has pervaded our lives. But the lurking of the Grim Reaper has led to Morbid Anatomy’s business being “the best it’s ever been,” according to Joanna.
Joanna started Morbid Anatomy in 2007 as part of her examination into medical museums. It began as a personal blog to catalog her research, but to her surprise, she gained a following.
She broadened Morbid Anatomy into a library, located in Gowanus, which in 2014 also became the Morbid Anatomy Museum. Though the Gowanus location shut down in 2016, Joanna has moved Morbid Anatomy’s permanent collection of books, as well as many of their events to the Green-Wood Cemetery.
The Morbid Anatomy shop functioned as a way of giving “friends who were makers or vendors a place to sell their things,” she said during our recent video chat. These vendors create talismans and art prints, or teach lessons on séance, x-rays, or even how to make art out of hair. Almost anything linked to art and death can be found at Morbid Anatomy.
Joanna was born in Philadelphia but raised in Concord, California, 20 minutes east of San Francisco. She studied at UC Santa Cruz, earning her B.A. in Intellectual History, which she describes as “essentially looking at the cultural products of a time in order to understand that time.” She believes that with her work she helps figure out “something for this particular moment.”
While Morbid Anatomy sells physical goods, its success in 2020 comes from teaching classes. The shop holds weekly seminars for $8, or longer-form courses that cost anywhere between $50 and $195.
Since quarantine took effect, Joanna moved all the classes, which historically happened in person, online. This provided accessibility to international teachers and students, not just those in New York. Classes are now recorded so that those in different time zones can experience lectures at a later hour.
British artist Eleanor Crook, who started working with Joanna in 2007, is based in England and has dramatically expanded her work this year. Before the pandemic, Eleanor taught workshops for Morbid Anatomy about twice a year at various museums around Europe. She gave her audience “a wax face unto which we merrily sculpt dermatological lesions, syphilis, the plague, and so on,” she told me during a recent Zoom discussion about her background in anatomy-based art.
With online learning, Eleanor went from teaching two classes a year to two classes a week, while talking to “as many little tiles you can fit on the screen sensibly” (usually about 15 people). She currently teaches a class on the “Archeology of Self,” which looks at art, literature, and mixed media as methods of self-discovery, and she is thinking through ideas for future classes.
Living about 60 miles southwest of London, Eleanor was rarely able to partake in Morbid Anatomy events, which usually occurred in Brooklyn. But now, in addition to teaching, she can take online classes such as a recent one Joanna taught, “Make Your Own Memento Mori: Befriending Death with Art, History, and Imagination.”
The class– in which Joanna helps nine Zoom students create a memento mori, an object that reminds you of the inevitability of your own death– was created as a direct result of the deaths linked to COVID-19. Joanna has been teaching the four-week course twice a month since April, and all 10 renditions have sold out.
Joanna believes our cultural fear of death is unique to the West in recent history. Before the 19th century, death was treated as a regular part of life. She points to a history of corpses being laid out in homes, and the idea of a “good death” as one in which you are surrounded by family, including children.
With 1.6 million people dead from COVID-19 globally, it’s almost impossible to ignore death in our daily lives. Many have turned to classes at Morbid Anatomy to learn to cope. Now they teach more courses, though Joanna is not sure how many more, than before the pandemic started. When stay-at-home orders were put in place, “suddenly people had all that time on their hands,” said Laetitia Barbier, who began working with Joanna in 2011.
Barbier was born and raised in France, but now lives in New York. Her current class focuses on tarot, and the danse macabre, also known as the dance of life and death. She uses The Carnival at the End of the World tarot deck, created by art duo Kahn and Selesnick, which views life as cyclical, instead of the common perception as a linear path. Nature’s timeline is “always dying and rebirthing every season,” Laetitia told me. Her class gives people an understanding of their own mortality, and helps them understand how past tragedies like plague or war haven’t ended the cycles of life.
While accepting death is considered taboo in mainstream culture, it is a salient part of Morbid Anatomy’s business. Classes cover topics linked to death in different cultures and eras, and “how people see their mortality at a different time, and different geographic place.” Laetitia believes her class can lead to catharsis.
In her outside practice as a tarot reader Laetitia says that she has accompanied “a lot of people in their existential crisis.” During her readings in the past few months she helped people as “they realized that their [lives] were finite.”
Morbid Anatomy’s educational goals aren’t always as, well, morbid as they sound. Tiffany Hopkins, a medium based in Lily Dale, New York, who recently finished teaching her first class at Morbid Anatomy, conveyed a less grim look at the future. Though she attributes the traditional reasons people seek mediums to grief and connecting with loved ones who have died, she plans on expanding people’s view of mediumship beyond “seances and talking to dead people.”
She believes that mediumship has a deep connection to the idea of self. Through her work, she hones her “ability to connect with my body and with nature and with animals and with myself.” Accepting death and connecting with yourself are not mutually exclusive topics.
Similarly, Eleanor believes people’s reactions to the mass deaths caused by COVID-19 demonstrate an expression of the “collective memory of happenings from the Renaissance and the Middle Ages.” She says that the communal dread from knowledge of past crises will help shake “us all out of our decades-long slumber.”
With death pervading the news, now may be the time to reconsider how we feel about it. “I personally don’t think I fear death or suffering the same way I used to,” Laetitia told me.
Joanna’s goal with these classes is, in part, to seize on the zeitgeist of the moment. She believes that teaching about death will help tap into Carl Jung’s idea of the collective consciousness and help advance social methods of thinking about death. Joanna says that collectively learning about death is about “coming to terms with and coming to peace with it, and saying ‘Yes, I’m going to die, so I’m going to live the best life I can.’”