Were its lungs to move, at least, one might suppose the figure represented by the wax or clay or stone or plastic were merely paralyzed. Without breath, however, there seems no question but that it must be dead. Therefore, we must surmise that the wax figure, like other statues, suggests the dead rather than the living. A wax museum is a mausoleum, a house of death.
However, the figures, we also feel, may be only pretending to be dead. They may breathe when our attention is focused elsewhere. Their hearts may beat in secret. They may grimace, or even gibber, when we are, for the moment, absent, or otherwise occupied. They might even be revenants, returned from the dead, disguising themselves as mere effigies of the quick. Even if they do not move, they may be alive. They may be watching our every move. They may be thinking. They may be communicating with one another by some secret, silent means. They may mean us harm, and, when the moment is right, they may strike, hurting or even destroying us, before we’ve realized what’s afoot.
Wax figures of human form are mirror images of ourselves, but they are silent and still. They seem to mock us with their waxen visages. There’s something unreal about them; at the same time, there is something all too real about them. They are not quite right. They invite our study and our thought. They bid us to consider them, and, in meditating upon their smooth features and their too-bright eyes, to consider ourselves, too, for, in studying them, we study ourselves.
Who was this Winston Churchill, this Joan of Arc, this Abraham Lincoln? Are the stories we’ve heard of them true? Could this man have led England through the blood, sweat, toil, and tears of its World War II years? Did this slip of a girl really defeat the armies both of England and of Burgundy? Was she truly burned alive at the stake before being hailed as a saint? Surely not? How could such cruelty have been possible against a mere girl? Did this tall and gangly man in top hat and tails hold together a nation rent by a terrible civil war which pit brother against brother and North against South, and was a simple bullet in the head enough to bring his craggy, noble features to the ruin of the grave? Looking at their wax effigies, it all seems unlikely. It seems impossible. If the true-life counterparts of these figures could do such amazing feats, perhaps we, who are yet made of flesh and blood, might do likewise, we hope.
But there are horrible figures in wax museums, too, some real, others imaginary, and they also ask us to think of them and of ourselves, reflected off and projected from them. Consider this one, Adolph Hitler. Did this absurd little man with the odd mustache really kill six million Jews and nearly defeat the combined military might of the world? It seems preposterous. Or what about that one, Ted Bundy? Could such a handsome, clean-cut young man really have killed nearly thirty women, one as young as fifteen, without remorse, taking pleasure, in fact, in such monstrous deeds? Perhaps, if so, then such creatures as the vampire, the witch, the werewolf, and the mummy, also depicted in wax and set up in their niches and alcoves, upon pedestals, might also creep in the night or even stalk the corridors and chambers of this very house of wax!
Shadows may precede their footfalls, so we should keep careful watch.
We fear the wax museum for much the same reason that we fear the funhouse, wherein we can see little in the dark until a burst of flame reveals a leering face or a snarling mouth full of fangs. When such sights as these, or a headless corpse, a skeleton, or a dagger in a bleeding heart, are revealed to us, amid the flaring fire or the flashing lightning, we are shocked and frightened, but only because, in our imaginations, we have envisioned monsters much more terrible, much more horrible, much more dreadful. We have, in short, scared ourselves. Half to death, perhaps.
That’s why the house of wax--or, for that matter, a haunted house, a subterranean cave, a remote resort, an abandoned church, a deep forest, a scientific laboratory, or the attics or basements or closets of our childhood homes--frightens us half out of our wits. We create the monsters. We are they.