A sudden spurt of steamy fog from the cauldron made my head jerk up. I turned to see the woman behind the desk release a trigger button and cackle at me.
“You were looking way too serious,” she half-apologized, still shaking her head and chuckling at me. She had a point. I was in the Museum of the Bizarre, Wilmington’s only “Odditorium,” located on the corner of Water and Orange streets. If ever there was a place that should be fun, light-hearted and mirth-filled, it is an Odditorium. But the mischievous museum staff member was right: I was far too serious; this would have been more fun with friends to laugh and joke with. But, as an only child, my default is usually to go do things by myself.
Consequently, on a beautiful sunny afternoon, I wandered among the oddities that had called out to Justin LaNasa over the years of his life: an exorcism kit, masonic artifacts, suits of armor, and assorted bits of celebrity hair, including Alexander Hamilton (which should fetch a pretty penny right now, with all the excitement on Broadway). I gave her a smile and turned back to the display about Nellie Noll, the River Witch of Marietta, Pennsylvania. The ornate cauldron with reliefs on the legs and border seemed a bit much for a poor rural witch in the 1920s, but I had to admit the display was pretty impressive.
But the skeleton of the Fort Fisher Mermaid in the next exhibit over stopped me in my tracks, her body positioned in an action shot—somehow a cross between weaving through water and a ship’s figurehead. But the teeth, the fangs in her open mouth ready to strike were heart-arresting in their malevolence. Nope—not Disney’s Ariel! This mermaid meant business to the bottom of the sea.
Regular readers of the Live Local column will remember last year I made a list of almost 50 excursions aimed at re-discovering the beautiful area in which we dwell. I didn’t even come close to finishing the proposed list. So in an effort to make some headway and learn more about our tourist attractions, I wandered down Front Street to the corner of Orange where Cape Fear Serpentarium is located. Next door is the Museum of the Bizarre. I figured between these two I could be a hometown tourist for an afternoon.
The Cape Fear Serpentarium is an experience that seems to defy description. On the day I walked in, a Green Tree Python was coiled around what appeared to be a mouse. Periodically, the snake would strike at the mouse and go back to staring at me with a look that clearly communicated he wasn’t sharing and I shouldn’t bother to ask.
Through the hallway, I encountered an enclosure surrounded by clear glass, floor to ceiling, so people could see a saltwater crocodile, both submerged and above the waterline. At my approach, the croc stirred himself, angled my direction and maneuvered so his eyes were floating just above the waterline. I became instantly, completely still. A million-year dormant instinct took over: “If I just don’t move, he won’t see me.” After what felt like an eternity, the croc gave up and resubmerged. I backed away slowly then turned and took in a wall of bushmaster snakes.
Dean Ripa, founder of the Serpentarium, is a world expert on bushmasters. He was the first person to successfully breed them in captivity, so the extensive displays dedicated to them should not have come as a surprise—except that when looking straight at something that kills (bushmasters are considered the most deadly venomous snakes in the world; several signs at the Serpentarium remind the fact) and cause excruciating pain along the way, it is always startling. One sign details Ripa’s experiences waiting for the EMS to arrive following a bushmaster bite. His then-wife gave him five vials of antivenom and he still nearly died. He described a numbness and euphoria by the time the ambulance arrived.
“I never stopped thinking about the Alamo from that day to this. I’m a huge collector of memorabilia. I’ve got Davy Crockett’s bullet pouch. I’ve got Colonel Travis’s belt.” — Phil Collins
Back in the main hall, anacondas as big around as my thighs undulated luxuriously in and out of the water in their enclosures. Their size unnerves me, their movement terrifies; yet, they mesmerize. They exude power, the sort of confidence in an ability to eat you for lunch, but don’t need to prove it in a “move over, you are in my light, buddy” kind of way.
Several families with small children swirled through the exhibits and I couldn’t help but wonder what the snakes think of all the potential food walking by and talking about them. A monitor lizard danced on his hind legs against the glass, lunging, climbing, sliding, and falling back to ground. A little boy shrieked in response, “Is Deadpool scared?”
His exasperated mother responded, “Deadpool is never scared.”
The denizens of the Serpentarium both unnerve and fascinate; I am such a geek the shear amount of information that Ripa and staff display in signage can hold my interest for hours. Anyone who so clearly has grasped their life’s purpose as Ripa enthralls me (I mean he has it by the throat compared to many people). I just love, respect and admire that kind of devotion to a passion. To have an expert of Ripa’s caliber living and working in our midst is pretty mind-blowing. For $9 visitors can watch them feed the snakes during the feeding show on Saturday and Sunday.
Maybe that’s part of what I love about Odditoriums. I am very drawn to the type of museum that starts as someone’s collection in a living room. The Museum of the Bizarre grew out of Justin LaNasa’s movie props (mostly horror films), bizarre art, Alister Crowley’s door bell, Houdini’s Ouija board, and an assortment of Civil War and White House ephemera. It is not quite the same intensity or level of scientific achievement that Ripa has garnered, but still the odd devotion to a collection that (like Ripa’s snakes) outgrows the living room and somehow demands a larger audience, remains a source of wonder for me. Maybe I just recognize a kindred spirit of an obsessive whose passions outgrow the bounds of a hobby (1,600 unpacked boxes of books sing their siren call to me…).
If anything, opportunities like this provide for the possibility of stepping into someone else’s worldview for a few minutes of the day. More so, they remind me of just what an amazing place we live. When my friend Nancy first moved to Chicago her dad told her to make sure she did all the touristy stuff in the first few weeks, because otherwise she would put it off and never get around to it. I regularly rediscover the wisdom of that advice. When I do stop and remind myself that people travel great distances to come here, and make time to seek out some of our attractions, it is always surprising. I am always gratified when my worldview is enhanced.