Monday, July 18, 2011
MYTHCOMICS #20: TALES FROM THE CRYPT #33 (1952)
PLOT-SUMMARY: The Crypt-Keeper introduces the story "Lower Berth" (story: Feldstein; art Davis), the tale of a traveling carnival/freakshow run by one Ernest Feeley. The star attraction of Feeley's freakfest is a female mummy, nicknamed "Myrna." Feeley acquired the mummy from a retired archaelogist, Zachary Cling, who travels with the show and tells audiences of the mummy's gruesome past: that she was taped up and buried alive for refusing the advances of a Pharaoh. When the carnival passes a "small Ozark town," Feeley gets a new attraction from a doctor named Jeb Sickles. Sickles relates that he was called to help the son of a mountain-woman, but was unable to save the man-- whose corpse Sickles saved, because the man had two heads. Feeley invites Sickles to join the show and share in the profits from exhibiting the two-headed corpse, named "Enoch." For many weeks thereafter, Myrna, upright in her coffin, and Enoch in a tank of formaldehyde, are exhibited in the same tent, and though both are dead they seem to stare at one another even as the gawkers stare at them. One day Feeley decides to move Myrna outside the tent to draw in crowds, promoting Enoch as the "star of the show." For the first time, Myrna and Enoch are separated-- so on that night, the two corpses come alive and steal away. Sickles and Cling both accuse one another of ripping off the exhibits, but soon Feeley figures out that the corpses left on their own (which he seems to accept rather easily). The three showmen track their wayward exhibits to a justice of the peace. The judge tells them that he just married two people who smelled very strangely, though that was the only odd this judge noticed, being that he's blind. No one can find Enoch and Myrna, so the carnival returns to its tour. A year later, it returns to the Ozark community where Feeley acquired Enoch. An old coot tells Feeley that there are stories of monsters living in the cave where Sickles encountered the old mountain-woman and her ailing son. Feeley, Sickles and Cling seek out the cave, and to their joy find the fugitive corpses, which they happily transport back to the carnival. As the story ends, the three showmen overlook the fruit of a monstrous union: a baby who will one day grow up to be-- the Crypt-Keeper himself.
MYTH-ANALYSIS: As the Crypt-Keeper's narration points out, this story was not the first EC tale to give an origin to one of the horror-tale hosts: the Old Witch was the first to receive that honor.
EC horror-tales routinely featured horrendous puns, and this story sports one of the worst at the end: "You might say, the mummy was my mommy!" Given that tendency, it's surprising that the pun in the title remains only implicit. There is no actual "lower berth" in the story: plainly "berth" means "birth." Apparently the 1950s societal taboos against references to sex and pregnancy were so ingrained that even EC wouldn't spell out that this was a story about a "birth" that resulted as a union of what have been called the "lower" organs.
EC's horror-tales were still popular in 1952 and had not yet suffered the worst of the societal backlash against them. Thus Feldstein's narration take an almost cocky pleasure in asserting that traveling carnivals with their freakshows comprised the "only entertainment" Americans had "about eighty years ago," prior to the rise of such mass-market media as "radio,movies, television and comic books." By so doing, Feldstein defines the human need for entertainment as essentially voyeuristic, perhaps in contrast to those pundits who claimed that only mass-market entertainments depended on sex and horror. Feeley's carnival depends entirely on the appeal to voyeurism, and for a time Myrna is Feeley's greatest attraction because Myrna presents a spectacle of the human form degraded by death. Other freak-attractions are mentioned but there's no allusions to the traditions of the hooch dancers or any other "sexy" attractions. But then, in the EC universe, there can be just as much salaciousness in gazing at Thanatos as at Eros.
Prior to the jokey "marriage" of Enoch and Myrna, only Myrna's backstory alludes to sex. According to Cling, in ancient Egypt the future mummy (actually named "Myranah," which presumably sounded more Mediterranean to Feldstein's ears) was a lady-in-waiting to the Pharaoh's wife. "Myrna" is so "faithful to her mistress" that she rather unwisely refuses the Pharaoh's attentions and so ends up suffering the same live-burial-in-mummy-bandages that befell Boris Karloff's Imhotep in that seminal mummy-film, 1932's THE MUMMY. Presumably Myrna dies a virgin, and one could probably assume the same of Enoch, in that prior to the doctor's discovery of him the double-domed fellow is living in a cave with his mother, even though Sickles puts Enoch's age at "twenny-two." Plainly Feldstein could've given Enoch's corpse any sort of deformity to make it eligible to the carnival. The fact that Enoch is two-headed sounds like another implicit pun, this time on the biological reason why only human males can be said to have two heads.
After those two crazy undead kids run off, Sickles and Cling each accuse each other of sabotage, as each have been shown to be jealous of their positions in the carnival pecking-order. The effect, though, is more like the fathers of an eloping bride and groom quarreling about which offspring is to blame for the indiscretion. The three showmen also seem to have been named to suggest sex and death, with Feeley and Cling representing the former and Sickles the latter (as in the notion of a sickle as a harvesting-device, like the Grim Reaper's scythe).
The device of the judge is no less drawn from formulaic stories of elopement. On one level the judge is blind just to lend a degree of credibility to the idea of his marrying a pair of reanimated corpses. On another level, it's significant that the judge is the only figure in the story (except perhaps Enoch's mother) who isn't defined by the desire to look, even in the judge's case his not looking isn't a matter of choice on his part. The notion that two corpses would not want to have sex outside the bounds of marriage pokes fun at the connubial institution, though from another angle it also suggests the power that the institution had for that society.
No reason is given as to why the two corpses conveniently drop dead when the three showmen arrive at the cave. One must logically assume that they've been quasi-alive for the year-long interim that Myrna carries her child by Enoch (since, as we all know, dead-alive women give birth the same way living women do). Probably the only reason Myrna and Enoch die again is in order to set up the Crypt-Keeper's final gag, where he appeals to EC readers to let him know if they ever hear of a traveling carnival that still shows off his "old man" and "old lady," so that he can drop them an anniversary card.