Exploring Our Relationship to Props at MoPop’s Horror Exhibit

It was a Seattle Fall day. That is when Seattle feels like Seattle. Gray folded across the skies so that everything else was gray too. The Space Needle did not stand out as special, just a large gray spire in a gray sky. The Museum of Pop Culture did not seem special despite its architecture that has always been a monument to creativity. Even the multi-colored alien layers that make up its architecture from the ground drooped under the blustery thick air, a little muggy, holding the potency of the end of something, certainly of the season.

I had chauffeured my girls downtown for their event. They went to the new Opera House to do a ballet event shaped around Cinderella. I did not go happily. I have a bad foot and it makes for hard walking. It needs some surgery soon. I limped sadly into the eccentrically designed building with stark colors muted by the clouds. I felt the way the sky looked anyway and needed to kill time. We all had some kind of Seasonal Affective Disorder – either kills us or makes us stronger. I saw the Chris Cornell tribute outside for the first time and then saw the Nirvana tribute inside for the hundredth time and decided to let it make me stronger.

I needed to whittle away the time now. MoPop (does it not hurt, every time we do not write Experience Music Project or EMP?) has featured a horror exhibit the last few years. I’ve largely focused any time there around the music exhibition, with the understanding that these pop-culture aatractions have allowed my favorite local museum to grow its membership and offer something outside the mainstay exhibits, as good as they are to revisit. Scared to Death it’s called.

A family entered the elevator with me. Their daughter was the only one scared to death, dragging her feet and finally running with her brother, escaping the horrors that would await on the floor below. The only horror for me would have been taking the stairs with crutches. I was perfectly happy to elevator. We joked on the way down about how great it is having kids so we could terrify them, and when the doors opened we were transported to all our favorite places, given free reign over the props that fill our imaginations and our living nightmares.

What does it mean to encounter a movie prop in person? First, there is the abstraction of the thing. We’re used to a movie in its own context, taken on its own terms. Is it not somehow reductive, just in premise, to scale around the Alien from Aliens (1986) and have it captured in glass when our imagination wants to not see it coming? The totality of its fear is that it is faster than us, instinctively smarter in the foreign environment of space? But here it stands, nestled within the glass, not so hostile as it is rendered an abstract artifact of our consumption.

To explore a small museum of these trinkets means to take the items back on your own terms. To look at the Michael Myers mask from Halloween 6 (1989) head-on and to peer into the face you never wanted to see in person. That worn face, from many-a-Halloween, now without a head. A mask on its own does not mean much. To see the complementary gear of the Rob Zombie Halloween (2007) helps a little. Those old coveralls really do the job filling out the costume. And what then, do we imagine them as wearable, now? I felt the pang of relatability with the objects – now they existed within my space, within the context of my environment, my city, my means of experiencing them. The control has been subverted out of the horror and been given to the viewer.

Funny seeing you here. The mask from Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995).

I wandered the small hall, crippled slightly by my crutches. There was a little maze of body bags. I prodded one to test the path and scared someone slightly, which delighted me. The tightly arranged fixtures displayed everything horror movies can hope to be. They are the optimism of a genre that loves decadence. A horror prop is different than most others, like the small fantasy section of MoPop, which inspires curiosity and playfulness. The horror section does something different when we take it on our own terms.

I made sure to try all of the interactive features. There was a little scream booth so I screamed in it. There was a Videodrome (1983)-like TV so I touched it and felt the impression of my hand sinking into the TV, vaguely horrifying images replicated to the screen set up behind it. It’s a nice little exhibit, but I felt a small emptiness, of seeing the things that ought to be a part of something greater, stripped to their base components.

A prop will tell us something so specific, accumulating to a greater functional idea of who characters are, what the setting is, how the rules of the world operate. To divorce them from their setting places all of the magic back into the prop, and little television booths do their best to fill in the context of what we see and feel. Had everyone here seen the movies, I wondered. Do they understand why the prop is interesting in its movie? My observations say they haven’t and that they don’t.

I hobbled on from the exhibit and thought I’d test my theories on the music exhibits. Pearl Jam, as I’m sure to establish repeatedly here, is my favorite band, and while I went for the horror, I spent over an hour just perusing Pearl Jam-centric items. The journey was even worth taking the stairs. The opening of “Once”, the jaunty ascension that opened the fullest and most refined of the Seattle albums in Ten, elevated me up the stairway with little pain. At the top, cuts of my favorite songs played. I saw memorabilia from shows I had been to. Parts and parcels of my favorite thing, represented in a way that felt wholly complete.

After passing a row of memorabilia, I turned and stopped. My heart sank low as I looked up. It was a statue of the great Andrew Wood. I leaned into my crutches for support and somberly sobbed before the statue. The design implied so many demons were pulling down at him, with his great charismatic smile overlooking the history that he inspired, the platinum albums framed for posterity, the kind he’d never get to make, but they were his. In my hour at the exhibit, I witnessed three other people fall somewhere between choked up and full-on crying.

I do not think a movie prop could inspire the same emotion, while a movie itself inevitably could. It seems to be a thing of proximity and completeness too, that Pearl Jam has been allotted the room and focus to tell the entire story of a city. Their sound is well-described in the several little sound studios. It is the offering of hope, the great counter to the loss of potential in the Nirvana exhibit, that exudes such meaningful feelings. When I was sat alone in the little theater with a woman who started crying, I just knew what it meant. To say the song may reduce it, imagine your favorite song, and what it means, and getting to celebrate it, in its fullest aspect, and you have it.

The great Andrew Wood, hailing over the Pearl Jam exhibit. How is the context different for our relation to experiencing a musical artifact?

I could not do this with a horror movie prop. This does not mean to ascribe a different value. If an entire exhibit could be designed around Alien (1979), it could only hope to capture exactly what that movie feels like, how it sounds, how it feels. To experience so many contrasting feelings next to each other, it means something else. Here is the interrogation chair from Hostel (2015), and now, the shirt of Freddy Kreuger. They do not mean anything together, but separately; do you not want to see them and experience just a component of the movies you love?

What Scared to Death offers is an important opportunity after all. To share our most-loved genre with likeminded individuals, and explore the minuscule aspects of what we love. And absolutely, we are the jaded press. To meet a movie star should not mean anything too special beyond an exciting interview opportunity. We would not take a selfie. To see the shirt or mask that a likely non-star, an invisible actor in a horror picture, once wore, it may not affect us any differently. We already have the baked-in idea of the thing. It is still a damned cool opportunity to get to experience the fabric of the props, to understand their detailing at such a specific level that hopefully, it enlivens their placement in the movie the next time. What could be better entering the horror movie season, than to really go explore some of their elements in person? It’s a must for next month’s festivities. Seattle will still be gray when you leave, explore our little treasures while they are available to us.

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