Issue 25:2015 10 22: Frightened now?

22 October 2015

Frightened Now?

By Neil Tidmarsh


As Halloween approaches, let us consider the strange light (as from a dim and flickering candle) which four of this week’s news stories cast on the power exercised over the blood of the living and the bones of the dead by the omnipotent forces ruling this world. Come closer, oh brave-but-trembling reader, and I will tell you more… ah, but first, have you securely locked your door (newly-empowered spies prowl the night) and closed your curtains (surveillance drones patrol the starless sky)? Have you debugged your smart-phone? Have you run the anti-virus software on your computer? Good. Then we can begin. Listen…

We start by pointing a finger at the New Zealand police. Or rather, they point them at us. All ten fingers, in fact. A full set of digits. The digits of a school teacher called Jessie Fendell. Jessie died in 1933, but she has been helping the New Zealand police fight crime from beyond the grave ever since. But fear not, brave reader. Those fingers which the police are pointing at us are not spectral, but corporeal, cut from her corpse at death and held in police custody ever since (though perhaps you find the fingers of a body which has been dead for 82 years even more frightening than ghostly ones?). The police needed them to learn how to use fingerprints of the dead, and for years they “were used as props for young police learning post-mortem procedures”. Then, in the 1990s, the Police Forensics Collection passed them to the New Zealand Police Museum. Three months ago, museum staff decided that Jessie’s fingers should be returned to her family, and began to look for relatives. A great nephew was found, the fingers were handed over, and last Saturday they were put into their own little coffin and laid to rest in Jessie Fendell’s grave in the town of Oamaru. So those fingers pointing at you now aren’t even corporeal, let alone spectral, but figurative. Disappointed? Read on…

We go next to Paris. The city of light and life, of joie de vivre. Or the city of darkness and death? There is a labyrinth of tunnels beneath Paris, and the inscription above their entrance reads “Stop! Here is the empire of death!” The tunnels are ‘Les Catacombes’, the world’s largest repository of human bones. They were dug in ancient times as quarries, and bones were first transferred here from overcrowded cemeteries in 1785. Now they are lined with skulls and bones, the final resting place of more than six million Parisians, twenty metres beneath the pavements of Montparnasse. They are open during the day, and attract 350,000 tourists a year. But this Halloween, two lucky winners of a competition will spend the night down there among the skeletons, with a bed, fine cuisine and live music laid on for them. The competition is organised by Airbnb, which has paid about €300,000 to the city council for the hire of the venue. The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, says that the deal will help pay for the restoration of the catacombs. But she has come under fire from the centre right Republican opposition which accuses her of desecrating the ‘empire of death’ and of breaking a law which says that “respect due to the human body does not cease with death”.

From the dead we return to the living, from the Old World to the New. But don’t be reassured. In the land of Edgar Allan Poe and Stephen King, the bodies of the living have far more to worry about than do the peaceful dead. We speak of powerful, dark-robed beings who demand warm human blood in Alabama, of animated skeletons inhabiting the streets of New York…

Last month, judge Marvin Wiggins made a macabre offer to an Alabama courtroom “full of offenders who had been ordered to pay fines for a variety of crimes including assault, fraud and drug possession”. If they didn’t pay the fines, he told them, they would go to jail – unless they went and gave blood at the mobile blood donation clinic which was parked outside the court buildings that day. Many of them did indeed give blood, and walked free with the promise that $100 would be deducted from their fines. Human rights activist groups have protested in horror and claim that the $100 hasn’t been deducted; medical ethics experts have issued warnings about public health issues; and it seems that the blood will never be used anyway. The blood bank involved had recently been ordered to pay $4 million in compensation for an HIV-tainted blood transfusion; its company has said that it would not accept donations made in place of a fine because that was an improper incentive; and hospitals usually refuse to use such blood for transfusions anyway.

In New York, it has just emerged that the Police Department is using super-secret x-ray vans to… well, it’s so super-secret that we don’t really know what they’re being used for. But the technology was developed in Afghanistan, so we can guess that they’re some sort of counter-terrorism measure, able to look through buildings and vehicles for hidden bombs, and through clothes for weapons. But the NYPD is refusing to say precisely when, where or how often these military-grade vans and their equipment are being used, or what kind of danger exposure to their x-ray radiation may pose to the public. But imagine what New York must look like to the police operating those vans; a city inhabited by skeletons. Skeletons walking, running, driving cars, riding bicycles, sitting working at office desks or eating at restaurant tables.

And all the while those policemen are searching for skeletons carrying infernal machines which could really turn New York into a city of the dead, a city of skeletons which don’t move and will never move again.

Such an attack, on New York, on London… now that is the real nightmare scenario, terrifying beyond all Halloweens. Admit it – you’re frightened now, aren’t you?

So am I.

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