Phoenixmasonry, a Web site for and about U.S. Freemasons, contains scans of a fascinating catalog, DeMoulin Bros. Fraternal Supply Catalog No. 439. Published in 1930, this pamphlet contains elaborate, expensive gag devices designed to trick and entertain people at Masonic gatherings.
Many of the pages feature items containing goats, such as the Ferris Wheel Coaster Goat, which combines a blindfolded rider, a toy goat, bleating sound effects and a starter’s pistol, all in some gyroscope-like device, for maximum disorientation sadism larfs results.
What kind of results? A testimonial on the product page for the Human Centipede claims, “We are very well-pleased with the paraphernailia we are using, and it is the only thing to keep up the attendance.” Because shocking people is hilarious. Please note how disturbed the men on the “centipede” appear to be by the electrical lines emanating from their asses.
I’m particularly interested in the Electric Branding Iron, which uses a heated “bluff” iron to which is attached a chamber of fake smoke, to create the illusion that the candidate is actually being branded. This is not just some cheap, quick trick. This is highly involved pageantry [see illustration with two guys holding down the candidate] with real functional props. In fact, it’s a performance as much for the audience as for the candidate.
Mason 1: “Come on down to the Lodge tonight. We’re gonna pretend to brand Jenkins. It’ll be a scream!!”
Mason 2: “I’ll bring the popcorn.”
Mason 3: “Can I dress up as the Devil?”
I find this rather disturbing… The gags remind me of the punishment spectacles referred to in Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, in which, for example, criminals were hanged publicly, events that the attendees treated as festival days. The extreme violence of such penal displays, in which someone could be hung, then drawn [dragged by a horse] and then quartered [chopped into pieces], seems reflected in the extremity of the gags here, in which someone is not just blindfolded, but also stuck on a fake goat AND turned upside-down AND frightened by a blank going off. These pranks represent spectacular overkill. I’m sure it’s enthralling to watch the recipients get pranked, but the overkill makes me think that some of these pranks were motivated less by good fun and more by Schadenfreude.
Also…blackface is inherently funny.