John Marr: In all, my childhood was really normal.
Vale: When did you learn how to read?
JM: In the first grade, just like everyone else. But even before I could read, I was always looking at picture books. One of my favorites, Der Strummelpeter, belonged to my mother. This was a very formative book. It’s a collection of illustrated poems by Dr Heinrich Hoffman, written in the 1830s. The title character, “Slovenly Peter,” never cuts his hair, has incredibly long fingernails and is dirty and smells bad. There are other cautionary tales, like “The Sad Story of the Matches” (about a girl who sets herself on fire playing with matches). Probably the best-known is “The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb.” Little Conrad’s mother is going out, and as she leaves, her last words are, “Don’t suck your thumbs.” Naturally, as soon as mom is gone Conrad starts sucking away. Suddenly a tall, long-legged “scissor man” leaps into the room and cuts off Conrad’s thumbs with an enormous pair of scissors. The last picture shows little Conrad looking really sad, with bloody stumps where his thumbs used to be.
V: Wow, what a privileged childhood–
JM: Those were my mother’s books when she was a girl in Germany. Naturally, they were all in German, but that didn’t make any difference since I couldn’t read anyway. When I did learn to read, I tracked down English translations for the better ones. There were others I liked that were never translated into English, but they weren’t as sadistic. You’ve just gotta love German children’s literature!
V: When you grew up, was the TV on eight hours a day?
JM: No. Actually, one of my more formative childhood experiences occurred when I was in first grade: our picture tube blew up. [laughs] I still remember the picture cutting out in the middle of “Stingrays” and smoke pouring out the back of the set! We were without a TV for a year, and this just intensified my reading habit
V: Wasn’t the “Death at Disneyland” issue also hard to research?
JM: There wasn’t any convenient place where you can just look up a list of all the people who have been killed at Disneyland, and needless to say, the park is of no help whatsoever. By going through newspaper indexes I got the more recent stories. If a guy got squashed at the Matterhorn ride and reporters are present, you can just imagine the Disney rep saying, “Come on into the office, boys. Yeah, it’s real tragic. He was probably drunk; we’re investigating it. It doesn’t look like there was any ride malfunction–back in ’63 someone else got killed in the same way.”
I might read this and scribble down, “Matterhorn, 1963” and then go through the Orange County newspapers day by day for that year. The U.C. Berkeley library microfilm room used to receive newspapers from every county in California. I have an Alumni Association lifetime membership which I got just for the library card, but anyone can get a U.C. library card just by paying money.
V: “Death at Disneyland” and “Death at the Zoo” seem like related topics–
JM: But they’re different. With caged, frustrated and ferocious animals, the intimation of violence and danger is always present, but nobody expects to meet the Grim Reaper at “The Happiest Place on Earth”!
But what’s even more amazing than the two deaths on the Matterhorn is the pair on the People Mover, which proceeds at two miles per hour. One corpse was so tightly wedged between cars that workers had to dismantle everything to extricate the victim’s remains. I guess looks can be deceiving!
V: Another future-issue theme that comes to mind is “Death on College Campuses”–
JM: College campuses are fertile areas for extreme behavior. When I went to U.C. Berkeley it seemed like something bizarre happened like clockwork every quarter. I was almost tempted to do a “Death in Berkeley” issue.
Berkeley will always be a fertile source of material; there’s definitely no shortage of crazy people there. College provides a high-pressure environment; a lot of people have their self-image tied up with academic success, and when things start going bad they can easily go beserk.