Mistress of the macabre
Chico’s own Comtesse De Spair revels in weaving one of the Web’s creepiest sites of morbid tales
Sugar and spice and everything nice—that’s what little girls are made of. Whoever wrote that little ditty must have been delusional. History has hundreds of thousands of instances that prove that doggerel wrong. Comtesse De Spair is living proof.
Born in Chico and raised on a quiet canyon in Paradise, the Comtesse De Spair is the master of one of the most morbidly historic and humorous Web sites on the Internet, “The Asylum Eclectica” (asylumeclectica.com).
The Comtesse, who doesn’t want her identity revealed because she is a respected member of the community and an upper-level executive of a company with plunging stock, has a fascination of subjects that many people would consider, well, morbid. Not looking like the stereotyped pale-skinned, black-lipped, vampire-fanged gothette is one of the many things that make Comtesse De Spair and her Web site interesting. You wouldn’t know that she is a historian and compiler of all things morbid if you saw her at the supermarket.
“I sometimes pepper a conversation with a bit of arcane little morbid facts,” said the Comtesse. “At which point, people often will quickly excuse themselves.”
The Asylum Eclectica is extensively crammed with morbid human history, and when you get to the brass tacks, human history is pretty morbid. Sections include the Morbid Fact du Jour (which you can have e-mailed to you every day), the Malady of the Month, All Things Dark And Gruesome and The Morbid Sightseer. It also has a sizable links section and suggested reading through Amazon. The site would literally take over 24 hours of online time to explore.
The Comtesse was seriously depressed from grade school through college and beyond—to the point where she had absolutely no social interaction whatsoever, making her literally bedridden from anxiety. But, thanks to modern medication, things have much improved for her.
Her fascination with morbidity came naturally and not through a horrible childhood or a traumatic experience.
“I always wish that I could provide a decent answer, like, “My father locked me in a crypt with my Great Great Great Aunt Evangeline when I was 4 years old,” said the Comtesse. “There was no single event that changed my life; I’ve just always been interested in the macabre. There are a few instances that do stand out in my mind, though. I remember going to the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum in San Jose when I was around 5 or 6 years old and looking at the mummies and laughing because their bared teeth and dried, contorted lips gave the impression that they were smiling at me.”
As a child she used to spend hours looking through old issues of National Geographic, fascinated by all the pictures of ancient corpses and the tales of tragedies like the Anchorage, Alaska, earthquake. She was also obsessed with the TV shows In Search Of… and When Havoc Strikes. She especially liked the In Search Of… episodes about ghosts and Bigfoot. “I used to set my heart racing walking home from my friend’s house at night along a tree-shrouded road thinking that every little noise was Sasquatch lying in wait,” said the Comtesse. “I was also the type of kid who would lie down and ‘play dead’ trying to entice the circling vultures to visit me, and to my eternal regret, they never did.”
After surviving high school, the Comtesse received a B.A. in anthropology from Chico State University. She chose anthropology because it is, after all, the second most morbid major after medicine. She has always lived in Chico.
The Asylum Eclectica was launched in 1996, while the Comtesse was recovering from a broken arm. With all that time on her hands, or hand, she decided to share her collection of morbid trivia with the world. “Initially,” said the Comtesse, “I was very interested in design and used to spend hours finding the perfect image and Photoshopping it to perfection, but nowadays I’m more of an archivist, trying to load as much arcane information out there as possible before I plunge to my death in a 737—like anything that exciting would ever happen to me!”
The Asylum Eclectica has scary movie recommendations and links to sites about shark attacks, Jack the Ripper, the Triangle Shirt factory fire and the infamous Wisconsin cannibal Ed Gein. The user-friendly site also has a category called “My Brush With Morbidity,” where readers send in their real-life experiences with traumatic events. Doing so can be therapeutic, as many of them have never before written down their experiences.
“I have a vast collection of morbid books that I use to supply the Morbid Fact Du Jour feature,” said the Comtesse. “The great thing about morbid facts is that there is an endless supply of them. If I’m ever short on material, I can always rely on someone to send me some atrocious, blood-curdling story.”
The Comtesse’s job involves extensive traveling, which leads to the Morbid Sightseer Page, which is entirely written and photographed by the Comtesse. Her favorite morbid tourist attraction is the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, with its great collection of 19th-century medical-school teaching specimens: deformed babies in jars, grotesque wax models of vile skin diseases and a collection of objects removed from people’s stomachs.
Other favorite places to visit are old asylums and prisons. “The Glore Psychiatric Museum in St. Joseph, Mo., was quite interesting,” said the Comtesse. “It contains many exhibits of the cruel methods of ‘treatment’ they used on inmates in the ‘good old days,’ and lots of memorabilia created by mental patients during their stay. My favorite prison is probably Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. It’s the oldest ‘modern-style’ penal institution in the country, and it’s an absolutely creepy place to visit.”
The source of her historic news clippings are culled from some old 1890s-era copies of the Butte Weekly Record (the forerunner of the Chico-Enterprise Record) that she picked up at an antiques store in Oroville a few years ago, but the bulk of the articles are taken from a series of scrapbooks that an eBay entrepreneur came across at an estate sale in Connecticut.
Apparently, a morbidly minded kindred soul back in the 1880s to 1890s in Connecticut liked to cut out all the morbid articles from newspapers and glue them onto the pages of boring old textbooks. The seller decided to sell them one at a time on eBay, and they were being auctioned off for amazingly high sums of money ($200 to $900 apiece), so the Comtesse started purchasing photocopies of the scrapbooks from him. She has about four of the scrapbooks, and another cyberfriend purchased original copies of two more of the scrapbooks.
“Personally, if I were the seller, I would have kept the collection together, as it’s absolutely priceless to me,” said the Comtesse. “I would have looked into reprinting the stories as a curious chronicle of the era. It’s really rather sad the collection has been tossed out like ashes from a biplane.”
The Comtesse is not without humor; in truth, she’s as much of a smart aleck as Bugs Bunny. A recent Morbid Fact du Jour was about an English youth who, under the delusion of being a vampire, killed a 90-year-old woman to drink her blood.
“What a horrible thing to do to a poor old woman! And why on earth would any self-respecting vampire want old blood anyway? You know, the kidneys aren’t filtering things quite as well anymore, so there’s all those toxins, not to mention the plaque build-up, and who knows what sort of medications are coursing through those veins,” the Comtesse retorted.
She does receive a fair share of hate mail from people who probably shouldn’t be looking at The Asylum Eclectica anyway.
“I’ve had good reviews of Morbid Fact du Jour in Maxim magazine,” said the Comtesse. “I receive letters on a daily basis from kindred souls thanking me for the site. But of course there is always the hate mail, which I always keep because it’s so amusing, filled as it is with the sort of spelling and grammatical errors that would give an English teacher a brain hemorrhage. It does seem to be a love-it-or-hate-it kind of site, which I think is a good thing because at least it gets people thinking.”
The Comtesse loves her hometown, especially the older neighborhoods with the huge trees and distinctive architecture, like the Esplanade between downtown and the Miller Mansion, or the streets just east of downtown. She is slowly finding out about a bit of Chico’s morbid history.
“A few years ago,” said the Comtesse, “a man found a trunk in an attic in the Bay Area that contained photographs, letters, and clippings regarding a family from the Chico area who suffered a horrific tragedy back in the 1890s. Several of the children were on their way to school from their home in Butte Creek Canyon, and while attempting to cross the flooded creek, their carriage overturned and the children were drowned. The driver of the carriage was a 16-year-old girl, and the trunk contained her journal. I remember reading the excerpts and being struck by the poetry of her writing when she was only 13 years old. I sought out the graves of the children in the Chico Cemetery, and I still have the news clipping with a picture of the girl.”
One of the Comtesse’s future projects is to create a tour guide to the Chico Cemetery with stories like that of the drowned family to be read as you stand and reflect at the graves. Order your tickets for the Halloween season now.