A few weeks ago, I made my first trip to the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Odditorium on West 42nd Street to celebrate my birthday. With me were my parents and my boyfriend. When we were young, my brothers and I went through a period where we spent time pouring over Ripley’s books, and the Guinness Book of World Records. I remember being very taken with the photo of the Indian man who had the world’s longest fingernails. I’m also intrigued by anything having to do with circuses, and as my father pointed out Ripley’s is as close to the freak shows he saw in his childhood as you can find these days.
I assumed that the Odditorium would have a fairly high cheese factor, which it did. Out front there is an animated mannequin dressed as a bearded lady singing a song about herself. There was a photo display about Robert Wadlow, the Alton Giant; film footage of Johnny Eck, the legless acrobat; a taxidermied chicken that lived for 17 days without a head; a model of a giant, prehistoric crocodile (which wouldn’t have been that out of place at the Natural History Museum) and a stuffed two-headed calf. At the same time, there were some beautiful things. Ripley collected Asian art and artifacts, and there are some beautiful jade pieces. There is a Spanish Armada built entirely of toothpicks. In the historical section, there’s John Wilkes Booth’s derringer (a wee bit of a firearm); a genuine Iron Maiden and other instruments of torture; and a lock of Napoleon’s hair. There’s also a video loop playing in a small theatre which features among other things, a family that suffers from “werewolf disease” (abundant hair growth on one’s face and upper body), and a skateboarding dog.
It’s not a cheap ticket (approximately $30) to get in to Ripley’s. But the exhibits were double the size I expected, and the big finish is some of Ripley’s shrunken head collection. We were there on a Saturday night around 7, and it was a very busy place: families, college kids, tourists. It wasn’t until I got home and started reading my souvenir guidebook that I found out how big this Ripley empire is. There are thirty Ripley museums, all over the world in Canada, Malaysia, England, Denmark, Mexico, Thailand, the U.S. and Australia. Ripley certainly made the most of his travels and information-gathering when he was alive: there were his newspaper cartoons, and radio shows (there’s streaming radio broadcasts from the 1930s and 1940s on the website above). But the man died in 1949. Other than marketing, what has kept the whole operation going for the last 58 years? Is it the freakish aspect? The wish to be scared and/or grossed-out? The romantic image of Ripley the world traveler, bringing these exotic treasures back to our world, for us to marvel at? Or a combination of all three?