Remember that eerie, evil spell book from the best movie of 1993, Hocus Pocus? The one Bette Midler and her other witchy friends consulted for instructions re: how-to-become-immortal? Remember how that book was fixed with an unblinking, human eye? (…and did this not also give you nightmares?!) Turns out Disney’s best Halloween flick may not have been referencing fiction after all. A team of Harvard scientists have just uncovered a 19th century book they believe to be bound with….wait for it… bona fide human skin.
The book — which was a regular fixture in the Harvard Houghton library, until recent tests determined the source of its creepy cover — is Arsène Houssaye’s Des destinées de l’ame, which translates as The Destiny Of The Soul. The text of this body-bag is (somewhat ironically) described as “a meditation on the soul and life after death.”
Houssaye allegedly presented this book to his friend, Dr. Ludovic Bouland, and the latter likely provided the cover’s “source materials.” And in maybe the creepiest epigram known to book-kind, Bouland inscribed Des destinées with a note reading, “a book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering: I had kept this piece of human skin taken from the back of a woman.” A process called ‘peptide mass fingerprinting’ was used to ascertain that the book cover most likely came from the body of one of Bouland’s post-mortem female mental patients. So…yeeeeeeeeeeeeek.
For the not-quite-creeped-out-enough: according to the Houghton library blog, the practice of binding books in human skin was in fact quite common, once upon a time — there are records of people-paper dating all the way back to the 16th century. “The confessions of criminals were occasionally bound in the skin of the convicted, or an individual might request to be memorialized for family or lovers in the form of a book.”
It’s all got me thinking — what are some of the other creepy books history has to offer? Perhaps there are few as on-the-nose as Houssaye’s skin-tillating text, but there are plenty of oddities in the back of our big figurative library. For instance…
Joseph H. Peterson’s Grimorium Verum is a handbook of black magic, carried down from an eighteenth century text attributed to the “Alibeck the Egyptian of Memphis.” Not to besmirch the beliefs of any practicing Wiccas, but the GV describes spells and means for those looking to woo the disinterested, discover treasure, or (eeeeek) “resucitate the dead.” The book also begins with the rather off-putting, “There are three powers, which are Lucifer, Beelzebuth and Astaroth.”
The Voynich manuscript is an illustrated tome written in a completely indecipherable language – seven hundred years’ worth of scientists have been unable to de-code its symbols. Though the vellum paper has been carbon-dated to the early 15th century – and it’s believed that the text was written in Northern Italy during the Renaissance – the manuscript bears no relation to a Germanic or Romance language. Novels and movies have speculated wildly about what the book contains, but all to no avail. As a result, Voynich has become a fixture of modern cryptology studies.
The Ripley Scroll is an alchemical text – it describes, in pictograms, the creation and uses of the Philosopher’s Stone, source of the Elixir of Life. That’s right, folks: the Philosopher’s Stone, a la Harry Potter. Talk about a talented Mr. Ripley.
The Oera Linda is another book that remains a mystery. Written in Old Frisian and dated to the 19th century, this text is thought to be a piece of elaborate mythology. For many years, scientists considered it a hoax — that is, until the Nazis grew interested in the Linda’s contents and began a hunt for the manuscript. The most curious of the book’s contents might be the many references to the lost city of Atlantis.
…but speaking again of skin, there are also plenty of creepy mysteries penned in the typewriter age and beyond. Flashing forward a few hundred years…
Thomas Harris’ Silence of the Lambs. You’ve seen the movie, and were promptly horrified. But the majority of internet folk who’ve read and reviewed Harris’ dark meditation describe the book as “way scarier.” Following Buffalo Bill (a serial murderer who skins his victims) and Clarice Starling (an ingenue FBI agent), this book is a citizen of Creep City.
Rosemary’s Baby, another nightmare. Ira Levin’s dark tale of a woman who gives birth to the Devil is also said to be stronger in book form. This book is often called one of the scariest horror stories ever written.
In 1984, Stephen King (the grand maestro of American horror himself) lauded Clive Barker’s Books of Blood collection as “the future of horror.” Full of demons and haunted houses, these grisly stories are not for the faint of heart.
And finally, another throwback to classic films: Stephen King’s The Shining. Following a young family who find themselves stranded at the Overlook Hotel one miserable winter, this novel is widely considered a take-the-cake of creepy.
So whether you’re interested in the historical curio or the freaky fiction, know that there are all sorts of macabre mysteries waiting for your rainy afternoon. Happy Heebie-Jeebies!
(Images via The Guardian, GuildofOccultSciences.weebly.com, Blastr, CliveBarker.com, Amazon, Wikipedia, Flavorwire, Levity.com, Crystallinks.com)