There’s an undeniable fascination with the morbid, strange and unusual and while we’re not quite sure why, people tend to be drawn to the things that scare them. From shirts at teen clothing stores with the word “witch” plastered all over them to faux animal skulls in nearly every home goods store, it’s safe to say that embracing your inner creep is becoming part of the mainstream. It’s about time the squares caught up — Mike Zohn, co-owner of Obscura Antiques, has been dealing in the dark and macabre for decades.
For over 20 years, Zohn and Evan Michelson have been researching, hunting down, and selling antiques and oddities to curious patrons far and wide. Between running their shop in the East Village and starring in their own hit television show, they’ve seen just about every kind of object and every kind of customer there is. From time to time, they even pack up some of their strangest items and hit the road. We caught up with them at the 19th Annual Philadelphia Tattoo Arts Convention, and there seemed no better time to ask the burning question — why do people like this stuff?
“It’s a certain look, a certain aesthetic, a certain feel,” Zohn starts, surrounded by vintage medical books graphically depicting disease, tiny specimens preserved in blocks of resin, and massive jars filled to the brim with real human bones. “When you look at something and are like ‘what is this’ and ‘why is this’ and ‘how did this get here’ and ‘where has this been’ and ‘who did this,’ it starts stirring those questions, and that's the sort of stuff we like. Some people come to the shop and say, ‘I would never want any of this in my house but I find it fascinating.’ It’s that attraction-repulsion thing. No one wants to be in a car accident, but everyone slows down to watch it, to take a look.”
He gestures toward a table covered in antique Addams Family playing cards, a dish filled with glass eyeballs and some beautifully framed vintage funeral photography. “A rollercoaster, a horror movie, or something — you’re afraid, something in your head is like ‘no no no’ but you want to see it. It’s the contradiction, the yin and the yang, the opposites that are working together to produce this feeling that makes it fascinating.”
The folks over at Obscura are essentially doing what the circus once did. Waking up each day, surrendering to the daily routine — it can get old pretty quick. Before all of the distractions of modern technology, people looked forward to the day the circus came to town, a welcome break from the norm, a shock to the system,a “what the hell am I looking at?” moment to shake up the monotony of regular, everyday life. Thanks to Zohn and Michelson, however, this much needed escape from normalcy is now exceedingly more accessible.
“After a while, no matter what you’re doing, if you eat pizza every day, I don’t know — sometimes you want a burger,” Zohn laughs. “It’s a break from your usual, and I think a little strange and a little unusual is exciting.”
If you’re in NYC and haven’t stopped by Obscura Antiques & Oddities, well, you’re simply fucking up. If you’re not in the area, you’re in luck, they’re no strangers to travel. “We do horror conventions, we’re not a horror shop, but we do horror conventions,” Zohn says. “We do comic cons, tattoo conventions. It's the audience. It’s the people who like this stuff even if it's not EXACTLY what they do.”
Obscura has also recently relaunched their website and online store to fulfill your creepiest needs no matter the distance, so head over and grab yourself some vintage embalming tools and human skulls while they’re hot.