Monday, May 26, 2014

The Devil Dog, Being a Tale of Manufactured History

Dr. Beachcomber brings as an intriguing look at how a mildly interesting archeological find, a large dog, was turned into a legendary beast.

Shuck (aka shock) was a demonic hound that haunted much of East Anglia in the early modern period: and in the absence of satisfactory ancient and medieval records may have been running around with blazing red saucer sized eyes, since the time when the druids were the new kids on the Neolithic block. However, in the last days there has been a striking announcement made to the effect that shuck has been dug up. Now just savour that news for a moment. Archaeologists saying that they’ve dug up shuck (see picture) is a bit like a sociologist saying he has interviewed the lost boys or a historian saying he’s working in the archives of Never Never land. So what on earth is going on here?
 This has more to do with props than you might think.  The excavation in question was able to take a relatively mundane object, a dog's skeleton, and turn it into something far more by linking it to an existing backstory.  As the article points out their motivation was a desire for more funding, and it's a good bet they've wildly succeeded on that count.    To paraphrase Mayor Vaughn in "Jaws": You say "dog bones" and everyone goes "Huh?"  Yell "body of the infamous Anglian devil dog" and you've got yourself a circus.

How does that relate to our interests?  Consider a mummified hand, a relatively common gaff.  Once you've given it a nice presentation box it's functionally the same as dozens of similar items.  That's when you take it to the next level with some history.  Head on over to the New York Times archive and enter "mummified hand" in the search box, pick a range of years from well before the modern era, and...instant backstory.

Now your hand is a true oddity dating back to March 26, 1913.

This is the baseline document that establishes the history of the gaff.  If we want to take the process farther we can pick out keywords and see if they lead to anything interesting.  Lets try doing a Google search for "mummy" and "dr. durville" and see if anything interesting comes up.

Well, what do you know.  Dr. Durville's bizarre mummification work was featured in "The Mysteries of Hypnosis" by Georges De Dubor in 1922.  And it turns out his name is actually Gaston Durville.  That error in the original article is something we may want to exploit later.  Here's the relevant passage from the book:

My friends, we've hit the jackpot.  We can keep following the Durville/mummification thread, or see where any of the other names mentioned in either the newspaper article of the book excerpt leads us.  For most gaffs these two bits of print material are more than enough to give it a convincing history.  But if you're willing to research a bit more about Dr. Durville you'll discover he was a true mad scientist.  Seances, fringe experiments, nudism, movie producer...he's a dream come true.

What's great about this faux-history approach is how it only takes a few minutes to make a simple prop a real part of history.  You're tying into an already existing body of information that would be impossible to recreate from scratch.  Best of all, that treasure trove of history is just the beginning.

What if there was more to Dr. Durville's experiments than what was published?  Perhaps the unfortunate donor of the original hand just up and vanished from the morgue.  Did the bizarre magnetic treatment applied to his disembodied digits somehow "leak" to the rest of his body?  Is it possible the link between his hand and the rest of his body revitalized his dead tissues?  Does he still walk the earth to this day, searching for that missing body part?  That may explain the lead lining that was added to the hand's box sometime in the past...and the fact that such a valuable historic artifact is once again for sale.


CoastConFan said...

Propnomicon, gaff gold indeed. Yes a bit of background goes a heck of a long way in enhancing a prop, especially if somebody decided to Google around and bit and turns up even more information. Having your gaff being mentioned in antique documents or newspapers relieves your of the burden of making them up. You have put together an excellent tutorial and I look forward to your next installment.

But Dr. Durville’s exploits are not as astonishing as they may seem. I myself, hypnotized an article and it has stayed in utter stasis for decades. I took a common variety trilobite, looked deeply into its eyes, allowing animal magnetism to flow into it at a great rate and then set down on the table. Still looking at it I pointed to exactly where it lay and said sternly and with great force of character, “stay.”

It did and it has, for nigh upon 20 years now -- completely immobile and obedient to my force of will, until I release it! I’ve had visitors come over and try to break the magnetic bond, even to the point of touching the trilobite, but to no avail. It will not move of its own volition no matter how much they beg and prod the creature. They always leave my home shaking their heads in confusion. The power of animal magnetism, I say.

rflect said...

Makes me think of "The hand of Count Petofi" from the horror-soap opera "Dark Shadows".

Phil said...

This is exactly what I like to do with my creations. Many are kinda meh on their own, but I love to create bizarre and sometimes detailed back stories to make them more interesting.