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The Allure of Extremes

December 17, 2014 in History

December 17, 2014 12:00 p.m.

With his syndicated weekly feature, Believe It or Not!, his radio and television shows and Odditoriums, those dim-lit exhibition halls of the bizarre, grotesque and weird, Robert Leroy Ripley was easily the most popular American icon of the twentieth century.

One of my salient childhood memories is of poring over the Believe It or Not! box cartoon in the lower right-hand corner of the Sunday newspaper’s “funnies” page. A chubby, myopic, bookish child, I was convinced of my own secret weirdness, yet here was a celebrated, infinitely varied province of extremes, peculiarities and wonderment. Here were monsters and saints, the deformed and defamed, the largest this, the smallest that in the world — always that thrilling phrase, “in the world!” Robert Ripley’s Believe It or Not! cartoons transformed my child’s hunger for excess, my fascination with oddness into fact-as-entertainment. Ripley fed the nation’s appetite for awe, wonder and terror by recognizing the de-vitalizing effect of the mundane, the electrifying frisson of the foreign and disturbing. A curator of the incredible, he understood that shock makes us feel alive, and that fear and ecstasy mirror one another. He shrewdly understood something else – that we like to be blown out of ordinary consciousness, for a time at least, before returning to the everyday, the familiar, the seemingly safe.

What is it about the bizarre, the grotesque, the weird that fascinates? What exactly is the allure of the odd, the irrational, the extreme? As a child, my circumscribed world, thanks to my well-meaning parents, was ordered, scheduled, disciplined. It was a predictable, thus boring, litany of chores and schoolwork. As Samuel Beckett said in Waiting for Godot, “habit is a great deadener.” Covertly, I rebelled against the deadening effects of habit and routine, the surfeit of safety. With each Sunday’s Believe It or Not! cartoon, I peered between the bars of my soft, suburban penitentiary into other worlds, glimpsed tantalizing dangers and discoveries. I saw that a person could adventure to exotic places, cure or contract terrible diseases, battle outer monsters and inner demons, be challenged to defeat death by science or an inexplicable miracle. This evidence of a greater, stranger life, these weekly encounters with the outlandish, proved irresistible.

Part of Ripley’s phenomenal success lay in his open invitation to the nation’s people to invent their own wacky tricks, uncover oddball but true phenomena in their …read more


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