The scores of people lined up outside seemed normal. But once they paid their $10 admission fee Saturday morning and filed into the Oddities and Curiosities Expo at the John A. Alario Sr. Event Center near Westwego, all indications of normalcy evaporated immediately.
“So cute,” gushed Lorelei Hedrick of Gulfport, Mississippi, studying a tiny turtle carcass preserved in a glass jar by a century-old process called “diaphonization.” It had caused the creature to become as translucent and brightly colored as a gummy bear. The silhouette of its tiny bones could be clearly seen through the jellied, rainbow flesh.
Hedrick happily plopped down 70 bucks for the macabre, palm-sized treasure. “I bought him because he has such a cute little face,” she said. “I actually have a whole room dedicated to stuff like this. There’s a parlor where you can look at all my cool stuff.”
A sign at the Aphelion Necrology booth, where Hedrick bought her Technicolor turtle, assured shoppers that all of the specimens had been “ethically sourced,” presumably meaning that the turtles, snakes and baby kangaroo had died of natural causes before being, uh, diaphonized.
The Aphelion Necrology booth was one of 125 exhibitors from across the United States gathered in the show, which travels to 26 cities from coast to coast. Hedrick was among a predicted 5,000 visitors to the event, which blended the wonders of zoology with tongue-in-cheek ghoulishness. It was a place where Grizzly Adams and Morticia Addams could easily find common ground.
Nick Cestone, a purveyor of skulls and bone-based arts and crafts, said his biggest seller was the brass knuckles made from the toothy jaws of deer. Potential customers want to be reassured that, if they were to punch someone in the face with the $20 to $40 knuckles, it would leave tooth marks, he said.
Asked to explain the enthusiasm his customers have for bones, skulls and such, Cestone said that he thought they had the kind of moms who encouraged them to “go outside and get dirty and find something.”
Stephanie and Brian Magby are still going out and finding things. Such as delicate mouse and parakeet skeletons that they pose in shoebox-sized cityscape dioramas scrawled with authentic-looking miniature graffiti tags. “There’s a lot of apocalyptic stuff going on,” Brian Magby, with sublime understatement, said of the disquieting artworks.
Stephanie Magby explained that the couple’s charmingly grotesque sculptures, which can run to $350, were inspired by a naturally mummified mouse they discovered under their mattress.
Speaking of rodents, New Orleans artist Miette Jackson displays powder blue-dyed, stuffed rats as if the tiny taxidermied pests were either entering or escaping a hole in a small picture frame. She said the front half of her rats cost $100, while the rear ends cost only $80 because “the butts don’t take as much work.”
Some of the show’s vendors eschewed artistry altogether and simply offered unaltered preserved animals. On Saturday, bargain hunters could have purchased an enormous vintage water buffalo head and shoulders for $4,500, a caribou trophy for $500 or a whole stuffed baboon for $1,000.
There would seem to be nothing more captivating than crumpled creatures in jars of alcohol, especially murky alcohol. Such things, which are known as “wet specimens” in the biological studies trade, drew an awe-struck crowd at the show.
The jarred cats were some of the most disturbing offerings. At $75, they were also some of the most expensive. Rattlesnakes cost $50, the best-selling octopi were $25 and tiny leeches were $5. As Boss, owner of the Bossities wet specimens booth, joked, “They’re really easy pets.”
At $25, the pickled parasitic fish known as lampreys probably provided the most creepiness for the buck. As Rose F of the Bossities booth put it, “The lampreys make you cringe, if you’re normal at all.”
One of the most stomach-fluttering objects in the entire sprawling show was the $950 embalming kit from the 1930s, complete with tools, makeup and four bottles of embalming fluid. When asked whether the antique kit came with a cadaver, Justyn Travers, owner of Dark and Deviant Oddities, laughingly replied: “I can’t do all the work for you.”
Not everyone was eager to discuss their odd and curious purchases. The handsome young man proudly carrying the handsome stuffed crow declined to describe the motivation behind his purchase. And when asked what she planned to do with a $5 bag of snake ribs, a woman wearing fluorescent green work boots said, “spells.” She would not elaborate.
“You don’t know somebody’s weird until they feel at home,” said Michelle Cozzaglio, who founded the Oddities and Curiosities Expo with her husband in 2017, “and we try to provide a safe place to feel at home. New Orleans is weird anyways.”
Cozzaglio hit the nail on the head. Despite the endless array of forbidding displays, the Expo vibe wasn’t alienating, it was inviting. To wander the aisles was like being invited to the world’s best Halloween party held in a haunted hunting lodge, connected to a mad scientist’s laboratory, occupied by an artists’ commune. Wonderment was in the air. After all, deep down we’re all fascinated by the icky stuff that reminds of death and, conversely, of life, aren’t we? It’s just normal.
The expo lasted only one day. Cozzaglio promised it will be back next year.
All manner of mayhem can snarl New Orleans’ streets. Potholes, unfinished construction, floods – each can clog an artery in the blink of an eye.