“The veil is getting thin, my friends, And strange things will pass through.”
This, according to a prolific writer, Unknown, in a poem about “a fine fall day,” hearing phantom whispers and laughter on an autumnal stroll.
No doubt about it, autumn in East Dallas brings changes, and it’s more than just the first respite from the unrelenting heat. As Halloween approaches, pumpkins appear on doorsteps — pumpkins that will wear sinister grins come Oct. 31. All Hallows’ Eve seems to bring out our inner Vincent Price as we gleefully decorate our otherwise ordinary lawns with Styrofoam tombstones and hang plastic skeletons in our doorways.
But long after most of us have packed away the zombie masks and witch hats, some in the neighborhood continue to embrace the creepy, the macabre.
Strange things abound at Lakewood antique shop Curiosities. Owned by mother-son team Terry and Jason Cohen, the store displays folk art, funky primitives and, well, curiosities. Sure, you’ll find standard items such as vintage linens, Fiestaware and cast-iron toys from the turn of the century. A few steps away, though, and you’re eyeballing glass eyes. And 1930s medical models graphically depicting eye diseases and facial tumors. Over here is a Civil War surgeon’s kit with sharp, painful-looking instruments. Nearby sits a jar of teeth in a milky liquid. Perhaps you’re in the market for your own electro-shock kit.
The Cohens agree, though, that one of the oddest pieces in their shop is the African monkey fetish, a statuette with a monkey skull and fur. It probably stood guard in an African village and was blessed with magical powers by the tribe’s holy man. The monkey and its mate actually were purchased by a props person for use in the Nicolas Cage movie “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” After the movie wrapped, the props guy sent them back to the Cohens, claiming the monkeys had “bad mojo.” One of the monkeys sold. Jason says he’s waiting for the phone to ring, expecting the current owner to ask them to buy it back. The other monkey remains in the store, even though Jason would like to add it to his personal collection. His wife, however, has put the kibosh on the idea: “She won’t allow it in the house,” he says with a laugh.
Jason, who lives in Junius Heights, is a lifelong collector and has a particular fascination with Victorian death portraits. Post-mortem photography became a trend during the early days of daguerreotypes, especially for families who couldn’t afford a painted portrait. This less expensive alternative preserved a loved one’s image, and it was often the only photo of the person. That might explain why some photos have the dead propped up in chairs or standing, some even with their eyes propped open. While some may judge such images to be morbid, Jason says he sees the beauty in them: “It was an interesting way to remember loved ones.”
His mom, Terry, a Lakewood Heights resident, also gravitates to the quirky Victorian era, her collection more focused on mourning jewelry. The Victorians used the hair of the dead to create intricate wreaths that were framed, but they also used a loved one’s hair in jewelry, weaving and braiding the hair into cords upon which they hung lockets filled with locks of hair. Terry explains, “I find them sentimental, comforting.”
Terry also has an interest in taxidermy and recalls a “cool” find by a customer who had been cleaning out a barn: a mummified cat. The Cohens bought the cat, and it sold in a couple of days. Terry’s personal collection includes lots of exotic birds, and she is especially fond of those enclosed in antique glass domes. She has branched out a bit with other animals, including a couple of mice. Unfortunately, she has one less mouse now since her dog helped himself to a little stuffed snack.
Curiosities sells all manner of taxidermy: bobcats, baby ducks, rattlesnakes, beavers. Longtime customer Liz Simmons, a Hollywood Heights resident, has added an “awesomely creepy” bobcat, coyote, and jackalope to her collection. Simmons insists she is a “total animal lover” but she appreciates taxidermy as a “weird art form” and decided to try her hand at stuffing critters. Known for her holiday displays, she decided to add rats to her Christmas dioramas. Laughed at when she sought instruction on rat taxidermy, she purchased a DVD on how to work on squirrels. The rest is stuffed-rat history. If you see Simmons around the neighborhood, ask her about the taxidermied rat Christmas play she’s working on. And if anyone can tell her where to find a nutria …
Another customer, according to Jason, collects “crackly, crusty dollheads and makes unusual creations out of them.” And then there’s the fellow who buys up quack medical devices to use as props in his staged photos, many depicting crime scenes. The Cohens say that lately, quite a number of customers have come in search of human skulls and pickled fetuses. Chances are, the unknown poet would agree: Strange things, indeed.
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