Midnight Menagerie

Bob cat taxidermy
Nice kitty: Mounted wildlife displays at the L.C. Bates Museum get sinister at Halloween.

At a natural history museum in Hinckley, the living meet the dead with the lights turned out.

By Joel Crabtree
Photographs by Jason P. Smith
Backlit by a fading autumn sky and framed by leafless trees, the L.C. Bates Museum looks like it could be the establishing shot of an old-timey horror flick. The perfect symmetry of the hilltop edifice, its front stairs ascending between twin turrets, gives off a darkly institutional vibe. And inside, the lofty rooms are full of hundreds of dead animals.

large animal skull

Every year, around Halloween, the museum gets even spookier. For two nights, museum staffers shut off all the lights — except for a few splashes of uplighting that cast exaggerated, ghastly animal shadows on the walls — and host a BYO-flashlight tour. It’s unnerving to plunge into the dark behind a single narrow beam, especially when you’re surrounded by an army of taxidermic birds, mounted fish, and stock-still bears and lynx. Hitchcock would have had a field day with a set like this.

But once your eyes adjust to the dark and your mind adjusts to the presence of so many lifeless animals, the flashlight tours aren’t so scary. On the walkway outside are a few cheery jack-o’-lanterns, and costumed kids are among the most enthusiastic visitors.

There’s a lighthearted irreverence to the event: strewn among the exhibits are fake spider webs (and some real ones), plus other bits of Halloween décor: A raccoon sports a bowtie and cat ears. Two wall-mounted antelope wear cowboy hats for the occasion.

Visitors experience the museum’s collection in a novel and more intimate way, museum educator Serena Sanborn says, when they can only illuminate, say, a bobcat by itself, or even just one part of that bobcat: “You really notice details. And a lot of people who come all the time notice something new that they’ve never seen.”

Downstairs, in the basement, staffers leave the lights on, but they keep up the mix of fun, macabre, and educational. Visitors can pull up a table to inspect the museum’s array of bat skulls or pick apart a few owl pellets. One night last year, after the sky outside had turned full dark, Sanborn stopped to talk with a young girl who looked particularly eager to dig into a dry clump of owl puke. Sanborn explained how an owl’s gizzard traps what the rest of the digestive system can’t handle — bones, fur — and how the bird then regurgitates those leftovers. The girl, intrigued, got to work on her pellet, and when she yanked out a mouse’s jawbone a couple minutes later, a jack-o’-lantern grin spread across her face.

Flashlight tours at the L.C. Bates Museum are Oct. 21, 27, and 28, 5:30­–8:30 p.m. 14 Easler Rd., Hinckley. 207-238-4250. $3 adults, $1 children.