These mannequins from a 1955 nuclear test radiate a creepy allure; a haunting emotional pallor of doom. They were carefully set up in life-sized doll houses for the sole purpose to be destroyed so we could see what happened to them. They’re lifeless, cold stand-ins for our mundane days, our delicate and warm heartbeats. They represent those quiet, safe-but-stifling moments in our homes with family and friends. We may be comfortable, or itching with wanderlust, but we don’t expect anything out of the ordinary. We expect the next moment to continue on much as the last did.
Some of the dummies were lined up in rows outside, but others were inside. Their arms are bent, their heads tilted, they were posed sharing a meal or sitting in the living room. If you just sneak a sideways glance at them you would think they were real people in the midst of engaging conversation.
Then, in an instant, these plastic objects imbued with whatever meaning we project on them from our sentimental hearts, endure an atomic blast, and are found in uncomfortable positions next to their chairs, tables and sofas. Their limbs are blasted off, and the ones tied to posts lean at odd angles. Their uncanny, manufactured serenity has been destroyed, and it’s mesmerizing to look at.
In 2008’s The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Indiana Jones finds himself in one of these towns (Doom Town) right before the test. It’s an arresting seen that inspired Call of Duty‘s Nuketown. In the movie they upped the creep factor by rigging the house he came upon with electricity and leaving the television blaring. How Indiana made it out alive is a bit questionable (George Lucas claims scientists are 50/50 about whether or not he could have really survived the blast by ducking into a refrigerator,) but the scene gets our attention (and probably makes it’s way into a number of nightmare.)
These doomed dummies were a part of scientific, military test, but they’re also a strange comment on our lives. It’s art that didn’t mean to be art. Humans are fascinated by apocalyptic scenarios, we’ve been waiting for the world to explode long before we ever created nuclear weapons, and these dolls are a focus for these fears. They’re a suspension of a moment, a dream of suspended domestic bliss and a nightmare of unseen catastrophe that quietly buzzes through our paranoia and anxieties.
At the time we dealt with our anxieties with glittery distractions like patriotism and Miss Atomic Bomb pageants. Here’s 1957’s winner:
You can still tour the Nevada test site, including the place known as “Survival Town” where these mannequins existed for a time reaching for soup cans and canoodling on beds before their destruction. Tests ended in the early nineties, a fact that official tour material seems to lament.
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