With Halloween fast approaching, our natural human curiosities are turning sharply toward the more morbid elements of life and we’re more frequently indulging our collective love affair with having the living crap scared out of us.
It’s a season for skeletons, zombies and the ever-frustrating oxymoron known as “fun size” candy bars. We got our rocks off with grainy ’70s horror films and dollar-store costumes, but no matter how we choose to play with our love/fear relationship of Halloween, it’s always fake, always an illusion.
This year, the Franklin Institute (20th and Race streets) is offering something of an alternative to pancake makeup and fondling spaghetti “guts” in the dark at your aunt’s corny costume party. It’s the much-ballyhooed Body Worlds exhibit, and from personal experience, it more than lives up to expectations.
For those unfamiliar with the Body Worlds exhibit, it’s a world-renowned collection of real medical cadavers (the smart word for “dead people”) stripped down to various layers of their innards, from skeletal to muscular, to completely preserved nervous systems, providing an awe-inspiring look at what we’re all really made of.
All of the bodies are preserved through a revolutionary process called “plastination” that makes taxidermy and embalming look like entries into a fourth grade science fair. In plastination, the waters and fats that lie inside the body and foster bacterial decay are drained and replaced with polymers and silicone rubbers. This process essentially laminates the tissue and organs, both inside and out, preserving them for decades in the same condition they were on the day they were processed.
The Body Worlds exhibit that is currently on a six-and-a-half month run at the Institute, which, according to Steve Snyder, the vice president of Exhibits at the Franklin Institute, “has received an overwhelmingly positive response from the public thus far.”
It features more than 200 organs, tissue samples and complete bodies, including a woman eight months into pregnancy and one massive, fully-preserved and partially-hided horse.
Perhaps most striking and unconsidered in the exhibit is the human element of it all. These “cadavers” were all people who willingly donated themselves to science after their death and now find themselves immortalized as legitimate works of art.
It can be difficult at times, especially in the aforementioned wing of the exhibit dealing fetuses and pregnancies, to not find oneself caught up in the philosophical and spiritual side of life and death.
Upon entering the exhibit you find a sign informing visitors that all personal information regarding the cadavers has been kept private, which enhances the overall experience, allowing for an open-ended re-imagining of the donors’ lives before plastination.
What they looked like, who they were, how they died – if these questions don’t rush to the front of one’s brain while taking in the exhibit, then he or she is simply not putting in the mental effort that the project deserves.
Emotional elements aside, Body Worlds is a crash course on the human anatomy and kinesiology, as the bodies are all preserved in special positions that fully demonstrate the power of certain regions of the body, as well as how they work in tandem.
It should be required viewing for students majoring in any of the fields related to the human body. One complaint about the Body Worlds exhibit, however, is that it is noticeably gender biased, with roughly 85 percent of the full body preservations being male. The first female form doesn’t show up until the fourth room.
Though it is understandable that you have to take what you get with human body donation, it does leave a gap in being able to compare the physiological differences in the genders.
The exhibit also lacks a comparative display of unhealthy forms, which can be easily remedied by a trip to the Mutter Museum at 19 S. 22nd St.
Mutter provides the freak show element that Body Worlds tends to lack, and should also be required visiting not during the Halloween season, but year-round, as it is as equally distinctive as Body Worlds. Some of these faults may be corrected with Body Worlds 2, a second collection of forms currently on display in Toronto until the end of February.
Though according to Body Worlds public relations representative Lauren Rose, “there are no current plans to bring Body Worlds 2 … to Philadelphia.”
When sitting around this Halloween, digging past the Now N’ Laters for some actual chocolate, and in the mood for a scare, try an unconventional path.
Instead of being frightened by a fictional psycho-slasher ripping out organs, take in dose of unsettling reality and see what you made someday be reduced to a big pile of skin and bones.
Slade Bracey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.