“Our son was born on February 2, 1997. I became pregnant a few months after I touched the Fertility Statues in San Antonio after trying to conceive for 11 years!”
— unattributed quote on a Ripley’s Believe It or Not! brochure entitled “African Fertility Statues: The Legend”
OK, here’s why this story is topical: I received two press releases from the Ripley’s Believe It or Not company within a couple of months. The first semi-interested me: Ripley’s heralded the exhibition of a 10-by-10-foot chunk of the Berlin Wall. The second, though, titillated the hell out of me: This very week, Ripley’s is mounting (har) an exhibit of African fertility statues about which the press release copy suggested: Please Don’t Touch — Unless You Want a Baby!
Let me lay my cards on the table.
1. I freaking love Ripley’s Believe It or Not.
I look at the syndicated column in the newspaper religiously (my favorite columns are the ones in which you can tell the Ripley’s writers are totally having to make the best of what they’ve got: “Dwayne Frankenhoffer of Ames, Iowa, has a birthmark on his thigh in the shape of a top hat!”). And I remember well the seductive pull of the neon-bedecked palace of bullshit on my pliant kiddie mind, back when it opened up directly across from the Alamo. “Real” museums, my parents insisted, don’t feature animatronic T-Rexes (um ... except the Witte, currently), Dippin’ Dots (TM), or wax figurines of Jessica Tandy. But I loved the shrunken heads, the heady atmosphere of Depression-era exoticism, tiny paintings on grains of rice, and my holiest of holies, the Galveston Hurricane Room.
This was a chamber about half again the size of a largish residential family room, one wall of which was dominated by a house facade worthy of a small-town production of Oklahoma! The room also contained hundreds of frazzly faux ferns, a quasi-tree, and a crowd of potted palms. You’d be herded into this place with 10 or so other visitors, whereupon some recording or employee recited a few facts about the tragic storm (death toll, mostly) and explained that you were about to experience just what it felt like. Then the overhead lights would snap off, plunging you into surprise darkness. A bellowing recorded soundtrack of actual thunder would come on like an audial freight train while flashing strobe lamps provided the only light in the room and simulated lightning. Most importantly, somebody’d turn on (I guess) a shitload of large fans. REALLY POWERFUL FANS.
The Galveston Hurricane Room experience lasted maybe three minutes. It thrilled me to pieces, all that roar and flash and wind. It presents an analogy, too: The Galveston Hurricane Room is to a real hurricane as the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum is to ... well, not a “real” museum — more like the warehoused paraphernalia of tacky bits of the collective American subconscious, all xenophobia and -philia, two-headed calves and celebrity obsession. One artifact of Ripley’s promotional material (of which there are tons) is a small card printed with an image of a pop-eyed man and the legend “Actually, it’s impolite not to stare.” As an institution, Ripley’s Believe It or Not gives you full permission to wallow in a mixture of safe improbabilities and shameless schadenfreude.
2. I’m not too delighted by our culture’s fetishization of fertility, pregnancy, and babies.
Some of my attitude is personal prejudice, sure (I’m not a mom; I like babies but I can’t commit to one), but it’s got a basis in a troubling reality: Why are we all watching for baby bumps on famous women? Why is half of TLC and Discovery’s programming either birth footage of some kind, or spotlighting middle-class white families with 19 — and counting — offspring, as though it’s a good idea, psychologically, anatomically or ecologically? Why is Kate Gosselin on Dancing With the Stars, while Nadya Suleman, the “Octomom,” is relegated to being sorta the Ripley’s version of Michelle Duggar? Babies, as presented by the current zeitgeist, are a status symbol, the object of every woman’s desire, and to decline — or be unable — to bear a whole lot of them is seen as either dangerous or tragic. And people wonder why our teenage pregnancy rate is still so damn high.
So when the Ripley’s Believe It or Not empire appeared to be throwing its baby-makin’ hat into the baby-makin’ ring, it piqued my interest. I learned that Ripley’s had “acquired” the collection of African fertility statues in 1993, and had housed it in their headquarters building, whereupon 13 office employees got pregnant. The media phenomenon that followed, Ripley’s materials claim, was even covered in 1995 by the Wall Street Journal (internet research didn’t turn up the WSJ story, but yielded a lot of local newspaper articles quoting the press release/hawking the oncoming tour). The mid-’90s worldwide tour had included San Antonio, and had allegedly helped at least one nameless lady conceive (see quote above).
I planned to head over to the Alamo Plaza location to view the statues (not to touch them, though) and to interview the hopeful would-be moms, eager to note the intersection of mysterious kitsch, personal stories, and cultural anxiety. The only problem was, when I called the corporate HQ in Orlando, Florida, a person who spoke off the record said that the statues “might still be probably in transit.” S/he was hopeful they might make it to us by my deadline, though. S/he promised to send big ol’ jpegs of the idols in situ, which s/he did, and to get the SATX PR person in touch with me about getting a look-see. Upon further questioning, s/he informed me that the fertility statues are particularly popular in Latin markets ... as are “Passion of Christ” wax-figure dioramas. Huh.
When I asked about the chunk of Berlin Wall, my Ripley’s Deep Throat — a throat which I fantasized was encircled by the golden rings worn by the Padaung tribe of Burma to elongate their necks! — got cagey, claiming that no, there were no Berlin wall chunks ... or there were, but San Antonio didn’t have any, and where had I heard that, anyway?
“Your press release,” I said.
“Oh,” s/he said.
Bryan Rindfuss and I decided to visit the Alamo Plaza Ripley’s in order to (hopefully) observe the installation of the figures, and to chat with Janie Droemer, Ripley’s local PR agent. Droemer was friendly, vivacious, knowledgeable, and all-around awesome; I liked her even though she had the sad task of informing me that a. the fertility figures had not arrived yet, after all, and b. the Galveston Hurricane Room is no more. But she showed us the display detailing how wax figures are made, then walked us through the wax museum, and chirpily informed us that the wax process is always improving and that she hopes to get more and better figures, and retire some of the older, hoarier ones (which she pointed out to us, but asked that I not delineate in the article, for fear, maybe, of hurting their feelings.)
She also let us see an in-progress, soon-to-open private party room in the basement. This party room is great. No kidding. Big fake rock formations, interactive exhibits including a “Save the baby T-Rex” installation that I won’t spoil for you, a wall-sized world map with wooden doors you can lift to find out bizarre trivia (guess what Gypsies in Romania trained bears to do? MASSAGE PEOPLE), and room for a crowd. Droemer hopes it will become a popular scene for children’s birthday parties; Bryan and I schemed to throw our own. She then endeared herself to us by rescuing a struggling black beetle on the stairway, scooping it up with a piece of paper and running out of the museum to lay it carefully in some shrubbery. Then, she had to get back to work. However, she’d arranged for us to get free wax casts of our hands (ordinarily $9) and a “face in the hole” keepsake photo (normally $12-$15 for keychain size, $18 for an 8 ½ x 11 inch print).
Divested of our purported journalistic purpose, Rindfuss and I sort of lost our shit and just scoured the place. We did, in fact, get our hands cast in paraffin by a lovely and skillful young woman named Roxanne, who then presented us with our wax hands in baggies full of ice, like transplant organs. Then we got our picture taken against a green screen, our faces to be digitized and placed in a chosen scenario. We rejected wrestlers and weightlifters and Sports Illustrated swimsuit-model backgrounds in favor of an astronaut theme, but they couldn’t find the digital background for it, so we went for old-timey “cantina kids.” We scared each other in what Boemer called “the horror section,” which, among other creepy dioramas, features a scene starring not just one, but both iterations of the Chupacabra: the humbler, doglike Texas variety and the Puerto Rican “giant Gremlin” variety. We were disappointed in wax Jesus, feeling He should’ve been much better looking. The goblin-esque, soul-eating “Wendy” figure in the Peter Pan diorama terrified us, but we were amused by “Tinkerbell,” who was dangling by a highly visible length of fishing line. We laughed a lot.
Tired of wax, we ambled over to the other half of Ripley’s, located — rather confusingly — down the street. There, we came upon a car Lee Harvey Oswald had ridden in on the way to the book depository (“I had that same car in high school,” Bryan mused), some optical-illusion exhibits, and ... a chunk of the Berlin Wall. Ten-by-10 feet it was, just like the PR literature had promised. Accompanied by a video of Berlin 1989 footage, as per press release. WTF? It disoriented me profoundly to be denied one physical object of culture journalism I’d been counting on, only to be confronted by another object which sources had denied existed. But there it was, the Berlin Wall ... but freshly painted, seemingly, and with rather tasteful tidy bits of legible graffiti written entirely in English.
Now, I cannot aver that this Berlin Wall was bogus, nor can I disprove the ovary-jostling effect of fertility idols. It’s possible that this partial structure I was looking at was a Berlin Wall, but not “the” Berlin Wall. And maybe the placebo effect makes one horny. Frankly, it doesn’t even really matter all that much. Ripley’s Believe It or Not is less a museum than a museum-themed amusement park. Nobody thinks the Jaws ride at Universal Studios is a real shark attack, but it’s a real approximation, a genuine experience. I think there’s value in that. Ripley’s estimates that value to be about $25 per visit.
By the time you read this, there will have been a public unveiling (on Tuesday) of the African fertility statues, which I plan to attend, not least of which to see the guest of honor, a San Antonio woman who birthed a baby girl as a result of having handled the statues (among other things, one presumes) during their last tour. She will even bring the child with her, as living proof of ... what? A heavily mediated reality? That fucking sometimes “works?” That we need to believe in the uncanny, the narratively satisfying, in our preconceptions of a magical Africa, in anything other than a universe in which you can trust neither your perceptions nor material structures, such as walls?
All I know for sure is, if one of y’all throw a shindig in that awesome basement party room, I better get an evite. •