I walked up the steps to the castle for my date with the King of Handcuffs and Keys. Before all two of you (okay, I’m dreaming big, people, all THREE of you) let your imaginations run to wild and dirty 50 Shades of Grey-esque thoughts, cool your jets.
The castle is on the National Register of Historic Places, and it is beyond words beautiful. Quite fittingly, the antique building is home to the Appleton Historical Museum . There are rotating exhibits, the current one dedicated to the history of Wisconsin food traditions and farming. I stayed there longer than I anticipated (because hey, it’s food and I was secretly hoping for a free sample somewhere), which only left an hour for the reason I was really there, to visit with the King of Handcuffs, and perhaps the greatest and most clever illusionist and escape artist of all-time.
His is the only permanent exhibit at the museum, and the day I went I had the place to myself. Before my visit, I’d actually been hoping for the exhibit to be empty. That changed when I heard this invisible typewriter being used, and unfortunately, the sound was on a creepy loop. It was right next to a TV displaying a film that crammed Houdini’s 52 years of life into 3 minutes. The sound wouldn’t have been so bad if there wasn’t also a jail cell to my left, a torture device in the next room, display cases of handcuffs and keys, and a plethora of pictures with Houdini contorted and hanging in various positions. Sometimes in straight jackets. Sometimes wearing nothing but handcuffs, just to prove to people that he wasn’t hiding keys anywhere.
The typewriter isn’t the focus here, though, so I’ll try to get the sound out of my mind. (But if you want, feel free to imagine it looping throughout this post.)
There were two things that really stuck out to me, the first being how Houdini, though an entertaining escape artist, seemed to be an escape artist and illusionist by nature. It started when he changed his name from Ehrich Weiss to Harry Houdini in 1913 (which I guess sounds more stage-like, so who could blame him?), and even though he was born in Budapest, Hungary, he told everyone he’d been born in Appleton, Wisconsin (his family immigrated to Appleton when he was 4, and he only lived in Appleton until he was 8). When he was 12 Houdini ran away for a year to join the circus. He attempted (and failed) at being a magician before realizing his talent of being an escape artist. In all of these decisions, Houdini seemed to be escaping from the life he came into and running toward this life of entertainment. The entertainment world itself can be seen as an illusion. He rejected the idea of a “normal” life and chased the grand life of being a performer. I could be reading too much into his life decisions, yet I couldn’t help but think his entire life was spent in some sort of escape artistry, always trying to out-do himself, always moving toward the next best thing laying ahead, and always moving away from the current version of himself.
The other point of interest was the haunted bust of Houdini, which greeted me as I entered the exhibit. Much like the typewriter that clicked and dinged every second I was there, I felt the eyes of his statue following me as I made my way through the rooms, watching me as I noted the handcuffs, keys, and restraints from Houdini’s glory days. We had a staring contest as I went back and forth on whether or not to take a picture of the head. While it probably wasn’t smart for someone cursed with technology to have a picture of a haunted statue on her phone, there was no explanation provided as to why the bust is considered haunted.
So I took the picture anyway. In fact, I took a selfie* with my man Harry because we’re adorable together (but we’re not as cute as he and his wife Bess were**).
Initially, I was creeped out by the head, and avoided it by going through the rest of the exhibit first. I tried my hand at some of his tricks, which I failed miserably at, and I read up on the life of this man who lived for the thrill of entertaining others. The most memorable quotation I read was from his wife Bess talking about Harry’s incredible acts. She’d said his ability was based not so much on his skills of escaping, but more on his ability to face and overcome fear. Continuing with that, there was a poster I’d read later on that said he inspired others to escape from the chains that held them back. During that time period in our country, this message was especially powerful for African-Americans and women who were struggling to gain rights. He gave people hope. People could see a man who was physically chained up free himself. It seemed impossible, sure, but he was also proving that it could be done.
Given that Houdini was all about facing and freeing oneself from fear, I found it ironic that this Houdini bust could be haunted. And since there’s no reason behind the idea (that I know of. I’ve Googled it, and I haven’t found anything about the head at all!), I think maybe Houdini would be disappointed that people are afraid of it. Or maybe it’s a challenge, him asking us to face something haunted/scary? (Orrrrr I’m thinking too much about it, which is the correct answer 97% of the time).
It made me think of the things I might be afraid of, the things I don’t allow myself to do or go for out of fear. On the more immediate side of fear, I wouldn’t go NEAR a trunk in one of the rooms because I thought some Harry Houdini impersonator would jump out of it, like I was at a middle school haunted house. Same went for the jail cell that, even though there was an opening where I could walk in AND out of the cell of my own volition, I found myself growing slightly panicked that I couldn’t find a key should I want to open the cell door. And, you know, just being alone with that typewriter was scary enough. These are just distractions from the “real” fears of my life right now, which all circle around the job hunt, and in the end are still very small. What if I take the wrong job? What if I don’t take a job because it doesn’t seem like the right job but it actually is? What if I move away and I hate it? There are different keys people can use to free themselves from their fears. In my case, the key is to make decisions. Once a decision’s made, then the fear is taken out of the situation. To all three of you reading this, what keeps you in chains? What do you fear, and what keys can you use to free yourself? (Sorry, went a little deep there).
While standing in front of a fun house mirror, going from a giant (which is kind of a dream for me because I’m the shortest in my family) to a shrimp (which hit too close to home), I realized that the museum was closing. I know I’ll be back, but as I bid farewell to Harry Houdini’s haunted head, and the eerie typewriter loop escorted me out of the exhibit, I think maybe next time I won’t come alone. #fraidycat
**Harry Houdini met his wife Bess when he was 20 and she was 18. They got married after a 13-day romance. When it’s love, it’s love, right?
*I apologize in advance if any of you experience hauntings after looking at the picture of me and the haunted Houdini head.