Fear Factor 4 (Part 2): ‘Bloody hell, Dave!’ further Uncanny adventures of Del Hughes
I’ve packed an overnight bag, Geoff (my elderly Kangoo) is fuelled up, and we’re both raring to take to the open road. Tim posits I’m off for a ‘sneaky night away with a fancy man’. Lol! But he’s not 100% wrong because, though I will be seeing my beau, it’ll be alongside several hundred others, so it won’t be the intimate seduction scenario Tim might imagine.
And, being totally honest, even if it was, I certainly wouldn’t choose the Tiverton Travelodge for a night of unbridled passion.
But now, my pedal’s hard to the metal, and Geoff is gasping as we slog up the 18% incline that marks the point where Risca becomes Pontywaun.
We’ve chugged past an inordinate amount of Baptist chapels, Methodist meeting houses, C of E (or W) churches, and what can only be described as a tin shed, but that’s spiritualists for you – no need of pesky, or pricey, religious trappings in their houses of worship, and fair play to them for that.
However, after passing a chantry, sporting the ever cheery, ‘The End is Nigh’, it proved swiftly prophetic, and before sat-nav lady could wrap her tongue around Gelli-Unig Place, I pulled over, parked up, and heard her sigh of relief as she chirpily intoned, ‘You have reached your destination’.
Geoff breathed a sigh of relief too, though that was his radiator overheating. Sod’s law.
We’re en route to Exeter – more on that later – and since I’ve got some time to kill, I decided to take a detour and stop off at a museum I’ve wanted to visit for some years.
I actually stumbled across it during a ‘weird stuff in Wales’ Google search, and already I can tell that, boyo-oh-boyo, this place is weird, with a capital, and bold, W.
Outside, faux cobwebs and gigantic fluffy spiders add a touch of eerie to the traditional miner’s house, as does the setting. Though the cottage itself is cosily cwtched between the steep greenwood peaks of Mynydd y Lan and Twmbarlwm, the cool mist that’s coiling along the valley floor definitely brings a creepy chill to this bright, autumnal day.
But if more evidence were required, regarding the strangeness of this unassuming stone semi, the two willow wreaths which adorn the front doors provide some visible clues; one featuring a pentagram, which exudes strong Blair Witch vibes, whilst the other, rather disturbingly, contains various decapitated dolls’ heads – well, I hope they’re dolls. Eek!
So I’m at The Morbitorium, which contains ‘Curios for the curious, and oddities for the odd’, and since I’m both, I can’t wait to get inside and have a root around. But I’ve just noticed that it doesn’t open until 11:00am, and it’s currently half ten. Bummer.
Still, you can book online, and to bypass any potential queues, I filled in the form, grabbed the first slot of the day, and settled in for a thirty minute wait. But, the instant the transaction completed, the sage green door swung open and I was greeted by Dave. Spooky.
Dave grinned and shattered my sibylline illusions. ‘Nah. The booking page beeped, so I thought I’d let you in early.’
Dave is the owner, and custodian, of this cottage of curiosities. He’s bearded, with long hair and has a touch of the Gandalf about him, though the nose ring, circular specs, and fancy hat (embroidered with gold swirls and small pieces of mirrored glass), make him look less bewitching, and slightly more beatnik. But, as I soon discovered, Dave is a fount of considerable kooky knowledge.
We began our tour in the front room, which was a true freaky feast for the eyes. There were stuffed animals everywhere, and I don’t mean the cuddly toy variety (though there was an original Bagpuss which I’d snaffle in a second). But no, here bright-eyed squirrels rub shoulders with pheasants, seagulls face-off against ducks, and ferrets are twisted into improbable poses.
There were even a couple of taxidermised cats on the windowsill; a ginger one, curled up as if asleep, whilst the black puss was so realistic, you could almost expect it to start grooming its whiskers … which it did, causing me to literally yelp in fright, and Dave to enjoy a hearty chuckle at my expense.
There were beautifully lit cabinets filled with all manner of Victorian ‘remedies’ – heavy on the cocaine – whilst another held hundreds of porcelain gnashers, and a selection of glass eyes. Created in the 1930s, they made for a surprisingly colourful display, though the eye-extractor tool will forever haunt my nightmares.
And then we moved to the back room which housed more arcane and esoteric artifacts. As you enter, you’re confronted by a huge display of ouija boards, and Dave pointed out his favourite which was an understated sepia original.
But I was drawn to the gaudy – a cerise Mystifying Oracle Board, and a rather incongruous one, featuring Scooby Doo and the gang, haring away from a ‘ghost’, with psychedelic flowers and strategically placed ‘Jeepers’, ‘Jinkies’, and the iconic ‘Zoinks.’
That was another item I’d have liked to filch – and I’d have gotten away with it, if it hadn’t been for those meddling kids – well, Dave.
Where had they all come from? Dave pulled out a folder, containing papers and letters, all of which related surprisingly similar events, and like Emma’s note, hinted at dark doings after the board had been used.
It seemed that the Morbitorium drew those who had (possibly) been touched by the paranormal, thus acting as an unofficial supernatural surrender zone.
But this room also contained the most bizarre items in Dave’s collection. We started with shrunken heads. At my look of horror, Dave hastened to reassure, ‘They’re copies, and this one is made from alpaca skin.’
Frankly, despite the silky facial hair, and the humanoid features, it wasn’t a curio I’d want on my mantlepiece, but Dave was fond of it, ‘even though it took around a week to settle in.’
Uh, what now?
For several nights after the head entered the museum, Dave and his partner had heard loud bangs and crashes, but then would wake to an undamaged and pristine museum. Dave reckoned it was the head, ironically, finding its feet. Lol!
But, next came my favourite piece, as I beheld the beauty of an, honest to god, vampire hunting kit. The craftsmanship was outstanding, and when Dave opened the lid and I peered inside … it was blooming extraordinary.
Lined with violet velvet – Shudder! – the bottles of holy water, crushed garlic, plus a variety of other pointy-toothed-terror deterrents, glowed richly against the polished copper straps that held them snugly in place. Along with a dagger, there was even a Victorian pistol, complete with essential silver-tipped bullets.
A massive mallet was hidden beneath, to ensure that stakes are fully driven home – you’d need arms like Schwarzenegger, or Buffy, to thrust a stick through a sternum, so a hefty hammer is a necessity. And those stakes were sharp enough to make mincemeat of any children of the night – though I don’t mean those hoodie-wearing youths who loiter outside the local Spar.
Honestly, this place was a treasure trove. The occultist, Aleister Crowley’s death mask (repro), was set beside an artist’s naïve rendition of Boleskine House. And then I discovered ‘witch nails.’
They used to be square-headed coffin nails, but with our modern ‘MDF glued approach to casket building’, they’re difficult to source these days. Dave, with what I’m learning is his excellent attention to detail, now simply takes them to the local cemetery, buries them, and waits awhile until they rust.
And this same meticulousness is applied to his wands, which he cuts every solstice, dries, then carves, thereby ensuring the wood is imbued with magical equinox energy. Obviously, I had a go, but my attempt at ‘Wingardium Leviosa’ garnered no miraculous results, floating or otherwise. (Harry Potter, be damned!)
But, thinking about floating brings us nicely onto what Dave calls ‘wet specimens’. I didn’t inspect every jar, in which all manner of miscellanea were submerged, but he ran me through some of the scraps of fur and tissues he had on show.
There were mice, lambs brains, scores of organs, medical samples, and veterinary odds and ends. But once he mentioned puppies – even though they’d been stillborn – I wasn’t keen to probe further.
Anything human? ‘No, I don’t have the licenses for that…’ Phew! ‘…though I once had some items from a chap who collected freak show stuff from the 1850s, and he had a genuine two-headed baby.’ Nope!
Apparently, it’s common for ‘suspending solutions to cloud over time’, and Dave’s the man who can change your fluids – like a sort of mystical mechanic.
It starts with formaldehyde which is what ‘fixes the specimen in place, stiffening and preserving, and then they’re put into isopropyl alcohol for the long term.’
It was fascinating, fairly macabre, but I guess that’s what passes for a normal day at The Morbitorium.
And then came the most absorbing part of the tour – the gift shop! After extensive browsing, I bought an enamel ‘feminist witch’ pin, a massive witchy mug (which I later discovered can hold a Travelodge’s kettle worth of coffee), and an epic, ‘I heart Weird Shit’ badge! Perfect.
But on the way out, I started noticing all I’d missed on the way in. The ventriloquist dummy gave me shivers, and a few medical gadgets took me down the (rampant) rabbit-hole of Victorian ‘blood circulators’. (Yep, we’re talking vibrators!)
Bloody hell, Dave! These were full-on, heavy-duty machinery! And God help the lady who fancied getting her juices flowing, because you’d need a fair pair of biceps to get that device ricking. Dave obligingly demonstrated, but after a few cranks, even he was struggling.
Then his partner appeared with a plate of scrambled eggs, so it seemed as good a time as any to push off.
Ninety-three hassle-free miles later, I was happily ensconced in my basic, but comfortable, room in the Tiverton Travelodge, my fluid-filled legs resting on four pillows. (My medication means that I sometimes retain water, and today was one of those days. Joy.)
I had hoped my ankles might miraculously reappear before my big night out, but alas… Footwear that evening, to accommodate my elephantine feet, were my elderly beribboned moccasins, aka slippers. Sigh.
At sixish, Geoff and I set off on the last leg of our trip, destination Northcott Theatre. And sat-nav certainly earned her keep; we breezed through Exeter, bypassed rush hour traffic, and arrived at the car park at 6:35pm. Perfect timing for a pre-show drink to calm my nerves.
Because I was there to see Uncanny: I Know What I Saw. In my last article, I wrote about how I became involved with this show, and I’d been given four free tickets to watch it at my nearest theatre (Cardiff), on 12th November.
But I couldn’t wait that long – not because I was excited to see myself on screen, oh no, it’s because I’m absolutely dreading it. And so, I’d come along, alone, to watch it from the shadows.
But as I walked to the theatre, the weather closed in, storm clouds gathered, and it made the whole set-up ominously ill-omened. Mind, that was probably just my mood.
Did I mention I was bloody terrified? I messaged Tim for some much-needed support, and he did come through for me, even if it was a somewhat facetious response – and didn’t arrive until the interval. Eye roll.
Once inside, I grabbed a bottle of water, necked a diazepam, and took a look at the merch available; #TeamSceptic and #TeamBeliever t-shirts, Danny’s book (which is a damn good read), along with mugs, magazines and posters.
But I didn’t want any mementos of tonight – seeing myself on screen would be traumatic reminder enough.
Now shush, it’s starting!
Interval, and I haven’t appeared yet. Hopefully, my interview’s been consigned to the cutting room floor, and another’s taken my place? But nope. In Danny’s shed (which has been emulated on stage), I spot a teddy bear lamp and know I’ll be up next. Wish me luck guys.
Okay, so yes, it was dreadful – initially. I looked pretty chunky, but since the camera adds ten pounds, and there were two cameras on me, maybe I’m not quite as weighty in the flesh? But my face was flushed, and my hair was, as feared, mildly crazy.
However, there was no huge screen, with me appearing in ultra HD. Instead, I was displayed on the side flats of Danny’s shed, which meant the wooden slats softened my face, and made me much more tolerable to watch. Yay!
And no one laughed, at least, not at me, so that was another fear unfounded – though I seemed to talk for an inordinate amount of time about bears. And no, I dunno why. But the important bit was that my story went down well, with believers and sceptics alike.
I know what I saw
And I think that’s the aspect of Uncanny that makes it such a success – those debates between the audience and experts. Tonight, Chris French was the opposition, with Evelyn Hollow, her of the high cheekbones and doe eyes, batting for the believers. And though their input was intriguing, Chris won’t ever manage to convince me that what I experienced wasn’t 100% real.
And I also got a tiny taste of celebrity afterwards, with numerous people approaching me to say thanks for sharing my story. It was lovely, and it seems that the #uncannycommunity has really created a safe space for believers, sceptics, and those on the fence, to come together and discuss the paranormal in an open and respectful way – and which, in our frightening, and increasingly fragmented world, makes it a rare kind of animal indeed.
Before I left, I had a brief chat with Danny and the team, thanking them for doing my story justice. And I’m actually looking forward to Cardiff, because who cares what I look like? All that matters is, to coin a phrase, I know what I saw, and now I’m more than happy for others to share my experience too.
Visit The Morbitorium website for details of opening hours, taxidermy courses, and witchcraft/magic workshops run by Delphi Nile. I’d spent a couple of hours there, but despite that, one visit was certainly not enough to examine the total array of weirdness, and I’ll certainly be returning soon. And for an entrance fee of £2.50, it’s great value for money too.
Tickets for the live show – Uncanny: I Know What I Saw – are available here, though many venues are sold out. But keep an eye on the Twitter (X) page – @uncannypodlive – where extra tickets, and returns, are occasionally made available.
And apologies, once again, if I’ve piqued your interest in my own personal ghost story. If you’ve got tickets for the tour, Danny (and I) will tell you all about it. But if not, I’ll be writing about it once the tour finishes in December … because who doesn’t love a good ghost story at Christmas?
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