The Wax Dummy’s Shame

Here come the mannequins

Avert your eyes

Avert your eyes

Tall and cool and terrible

no common ground

no common ground

for you

and me

they’re an awful sight to see …




The tourists looked glumly through the windows of the wax museum. It was closed for the day, and the wind off the water was cold. On the other side of the glass, where it was warm, The Rock, The Hulk, and Evander Holyfield avoided their disappointed gazes. Poison Ivy, Wonder Woman, Harley Quinn, and some sort of bondage figure on all fours perched on a high shelf in the lobby. The dummies’ arrangement suggested something so retrograde it was hard to believe it was done purposely.

How do wax museums continue to exist? One of their original functions was to provide encounters with celebrities distant in space, time, or class, but there are countless digital encounters to be had now with real murderers, movie stars, and monarchs, without even leaving your couch. Who needs wax figures? Most dummies cannot even Tweet their political beliefs.

Some may see in wax museums the charm of the doll collection, but there is menace in putting together “life-sized” and “dolls.”

Wax museums serve, I suppose, as cabinets of curiosity, or inoculations against the weirdness of the world, but the dummies are often so poorly-made they are stripped of the power of the uncanny and are merely tacky or unrecognizable. (The problems of making a dummy look alive are similar to those of taxidermy.)

What these “museums” are, mostly, is oddly different, and thirst for that will never be quenched. Whenever cities get big enough to have symphonies, public art galleries, theater, and opera, wax museums will come barreling in to make everybody rubes again. They belong to the same class of oddities that popped up when highway travel became possible in this country: the two-headed fetal calf, the gator-farm merman, the concrete dinosaur, the Fountain of Youth well, the world’s largest chest of drawers, world’s largest ball of paint. We register difference as magic, and even cheap roadside diversions recall pilgrimages of miracles and dread—to Lourdes, or the gallows for a public hanging.

It does no good to say we enjoy being reminded of our roots. Our roots simply find us. They open gift shops with equally-dubious talismans of candy cigarettes, frayed jerky, pennies crushed in gears, keychains made of alligator paws, and apple dolls with shrunken heads and faded crochet vests.

For me, the old-style tacky and handcrafted lacking-in-skill is more interesting than the new breed of wax dummy, which is as photorealistic as a Duane Hanson sculpture, without the benefit of Hanson’s wry wit.

The Rock, for instance, seen through the front window of the museum, seemed pretty close to perfect, though there was discussion among the tourists as to whether he was too small. It was as if a laser body scanner had measured every millimeter of actor Dwayne Johnson, software had scaled him to 95 percent, and a 3D printer had poured him out—maybe in polyresin, not wax. Even his eyes were right and avoided the problems of what is called the Uncanny Valley. But what challenge, other than coding, was there in applying the latest tech to the wax-dummy problem? More importantly, does a photorealistic dummy Rock get us any closer to smelling what The Rock is cooking?

This is the problem of art in a nutshell: Data is not everything in representation. The overdetermined dummy claims, Now you know what The Rock is like, but what we hear even louder than with the flawed dummy is, I’m not a real boy. (Mannequins, on the other hand, know no shame, even stripped to their sexless torsos and left standing in a window. Despite their generic faces, they will be wearing the latest Dior. Will you?)

The shame of the wax dummy is that it always more closely resembles the corpse, which may account for why there is often a chamber of horrors in the wax museum, where the dead and mutilated pile up in their own convincing rigor mortis. (Wonder cabinets have always included memento mori.) In these chambers, which are spectacles of what we love at our worst and most tasteless, the dummies better succeed because they have nothing left to say.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.