in a nutshell


Although I’m trying most diligently to post at least every other day, I find myself in something of a quandary. Sometimes there’s just too much going on in my addled brain that I forget to come up with a suitable topic during the day’s run. (This particular run’s Stuff You Should Know topics were the world’s deadliest animals and shrunken heads. Perhaps my not being inspired by them is not necessarily a bad thing.) But then I took the dog for her evening constitutional and listened to the podcast ‘What Makes a Serial Killer’, which brought to mind an article about nutshell studies I’d squirrelled away over the summer. I’ve a folder marked ‘blog notions’ that I’ve been adding to over the last year or so. I guess I’m a collector, but not, I hope, in the John Fowles sense of the word.

I was casting about for something to to watch one night, and came across Of Dolls & Murder, a documentary about crime scenes and dollhouses. In the last few years, I’ve found myself watching more and more documentaries. I’ve also found myself watching no few fascinating documentaries about crimes from the last century. (Another one I’d highly recommend is Cropsey, a study of a real-life boogeyman figure from Staten Island urban legendry.) And so, once I read the film’s synopsis on its website, which I’ll share below, there was nothing to be done but watch:

Before forensics, DNA, and CSI we had dollhouses – an unimaginable collection of miniature crime scenes, known as the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. Created in the 1930s and 1940s by a crime-fighting grandmother, Frances Glessner Lee created the Nutshells to help homicide detectives hone their investigative skills. These surreal dollhouses reveal a dystopic and disturbing slice of domestic life with doll corpses representing actual murder victims, or perhaps something that just looks like murder. Despite all the advances in forensics, the Nutshells are still used today to train detectives. Documentary film, Of Dolls and Murder, explores the dioramas, the woman who created them, and their relationship to modern day forensics. From the iconic CSI television show to the Body Farm and criminally minded college students, legendary filmmaker and true crime aficionado, John Waters narrates the tiny world of big time murder.

I’ll admit there’s something undeniably sensationalist about the blurb. (I mean, ‘crime-fighting grandmother’ and a reference to CSI … it’s all a bit, pardon the word choice, overkill.) But the very use of the word ‘nutshell’ in this rather macabre and unexpected setting proved irresistible. After all, it’s not every day when someone can watch a film about such an unusual subject matter, and still be immersed in it long after the film’s seventy-minute running time has passed.

Unlike some other ‘reviews’, I’ll not divulge anything more about the documentary’s content. Indeed, it’s something that very much has to be seen to be believed. That said, the nutshells are so hyperreal (with apologies, or perhaps credit, to Umberto Eco) that I had a devil of a time trying to find an acceptable image to use for this post. Even the Lizzie Borden image from the last one was a only a matter of finding something artistic, if a little tongue in cheek. In the case of the nutshells, I suppose it can be said that they are artistic enough in themselves, if in a rather grotesque way. But choosing one that wasn’t too unsettling at first glance proved no easy task. (Coincidentally, there’s something decidedly Borden-esque about the one I’ve chosen.) If you’re curious to see more, you can find what you’re looking for here. For full effect, I recommend waiting for a dark and stormy night, though you can set the Bulwer-Lytton aside. There’s simply no room for Paul Clifford in the tiny worlds of Frances Glessner Lee.


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