Macabre History

My son C loves the macabre. He’s a sensitive boy; he can’t watch Finding Nemo, but strangely can watch Iron Man. And he’s not too fond of history when it doesn’t involve trains.

But even still, we have managed to find resources to get him engaged and interested in history – through the macabre.

Macabre History, Image: Lego horse and pikeman

You see, history is macabre. It’s not clean. It smelled. Nasty things happened. The beautiful dresses worn at Versailles had brown hems so the dirt wouldn’t show. The rich had platform shoes to get through the muck without spoiling stockings. And that’s only talking about the super rich in history.

But studying the macabre in history also involves asking interesting questions, like how many people died constructing famous buildings? Why do we do live the way we do? Why are there rules on safety? Why do we have health inspectors? Food standards? Ingredient lists on supermarket food?  Why a balanced diet? Flush toilets? No weeing in the street? Putting garbage in the bin?

And that’s a great hook to interest a boy who loves the strange and grotesque.

Here are some wonderfully macabre history-things:

Filthy Cities documentary: London, Paris, New York. This was really awesome, as we have been able to combine Biology and History. We’ve been learning about the great architecture of London after the fires of 1666 – the new sewer systems of the Victorian age, and how the filth of Paris drove Parisians to revolution – really hands-on macabre stuff. He loved it. And in the process of learning about disgusting things, he’s also learning about the history of western culture as we know it today – for example, how Napoleon and his nephew cleaned up Paris, and some of the triggers for the French revolution.

As a result, he’s then become fascinated with some of the technology of past times – which had lead to a fascination with playing games like Civilization V, and technology trees, as well as talking about the different ‘ages’ – Stone, Bronze and Iron.

This fascination with technology, buildings and filth has led to other documentaries, like the BBC documentary on the building of the worlds first modern sewer system by Joseph Bazalgette, the discovery of what caused cholera and the creation of those lovely embankments we see along the Thames.

We’ve even gone to ancient Rome and learned about the health conditions of people in the ancient world with Terry Jones.

We’ve learned all about disease and disease transmission – why Vaccinations are a good idea, and the history of medicine through shows like Medical Mavericks – a documentary on doctors who experimented on themselves to answer questions about why we need vitamins, minerals, etc rather than just ‘food’ in general. So we’ve learned about the diseases caused by malnutrition.

This focus on the horrible has also helped him understand everyday things – why must we wash our hands? Flush toilets? Put food in the fridge? Vacuum and clean the house? Why is garbage collected? And how long would it take for cities to stop working if these things weren’t done? This last idea is explored in the documentary “Greatest Cities of the World” by Griff Rhys Jones – when he follows people who keep a city running around for a day in six major cities.

You may wonder why I’m not mentioning Horrible Histories – which seems perfect. But as the target market for that is kids, and C cannot cope with shows about kids in peril. (As we witnessed when watching the section on children in cloth mills losing limbs due to having to climb under working machinery. That was many weeks of upset, and questions, ‘Why would they do that to kids?‘ Though that too led to questions on legal working age and why there are protections against child-employment in many countries – but not all). As long as the peril is not aimed at kids, he loves it. Otherwise…

He also loves the National Geographic documentaries on disasters – volcano, tornado, tsunamis, floods in the Forces of Nature Documentaries.

Basement Collapse in Lego

He even created a Lego version of basement disasters, which was prescient – as that’s exactly what happened in pre-revolutionary France.

This is one of the many ways he processes this information – through macabre creations and stories. And he loves getting a reaction out of me – I’m pretty easy to gross out – I  can’t watch any modern horror movies. Kids huh?

We’ve even done more contemporary history – when we watched our way through a series on the Art of Germany. Which you might not link with the macabre – until you realise that Hitler hated modern art, and modern architecture – and actively tried to destroy it. So we learned all about Hilter’s attempt to discredit and eventually shutter the Bauhaus and this school and their buildings’ effect on modernism. But we also learned about the Brandenburg Gate, checkpoint Charlie and the Berlin wall. Which naturally led to the documentaries on escaping from East Berlin – which were epic. I’m still in awe at the people who surfed out, and the ones who built their own planes to fly in and out in a night. (This is another instance of convergent interests, as one of his favourite games, Cities in Motion, has a selection of Berlin maps – with a mid 20th Century map that has the Berlin wall…)

The Macabre is fun. It’s all fascinating, nauseating, and necessary. And it’s the way C prefers his history – real, unglamourised, and dirty.

What strategies have you used to help your kids delve into history?

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