War trophies get a pretty bad rap. While there was a time not long ago when the president of the United States opened his mail with a Japanese soldier's arm bone and Japan itself was up to its nose in Korean noses, it's rare you'll be reading a book about Vietnam these days and hit a paragraph that starts, "One really cool platoon started making necklaces out of ears they cut off dead Viet Cong bodies." It just stopped being cute, I guess.
Even taking non-anatomical souvenirs from a dead body tends to get folks' panties in a twist. People try to pin this on a bunch of ethical mumbo jumbo, saying that pulling the boots off an ex-person is a slippery slope toward urinating in his bullet wounds, but the long and the short of it is that we think dead people's stuff is haunted. When the military code of justice forbids soldiers from messing with corpses for fear of "dishonouring the dead," the dead they're referring to is the guy who used to live in the body, which makes the primary goal of the law to prevent soldiers from pissing off (or on) enemy ghosts. And why would the law take interest in preserving the well-being of ghosts? Because ghosts haunt shit.This might sound like a load to you because I used the words "ghost" and "haunted". You probably think you're better than ghosts, that ghosts are girl shit. You probably say that the REAL reason we don't let our troops come home with backpacks full of bloody Iraqi Republican Guard socks is because we hold a much more progressive attitude toward the people we blow up with grenades than our grandfathers did – that at least we don't dehumanise them before we unhumanise them. I hate to rain on your little rational-thinking party, but the better part of our funerary customs (especially if we're Asian) come from the fear that if somebody died wearing or holding something, they may have gotten their death on it. That's why people are iffy about buying murder houses or listening to a hair-metal band who immolated 96 of their fans; we all instinctually believe that death is contagious. Which is like a full developmental step below ghosts.
While this doesn't speak wonders for the evolution of human psychology, it's pretty great for collectibles. Nothing ups the value of a run-of-the-mill kitchen implement or piece of clothing like someone dying all over it. It's like smearing it with interesting butter. And – as with ghosts – the eviler the person who died on it, the heavier the smear.So while the dress shoes I bought from a Burlington hospice thrift store were undoubtedly died in, they've probably just got regular old-man death on them, unless the Vermonter who croaked in them molested his daughters or something. Not so evil.On the other hand, my grandfather brought a bunch of Luftwaffe daggers and swastika armbands home with him from WWII, and while the family consensus is that he probably won them in a poker game, the very possibility that they may have at one point been wrested from the rigored grips of a dead Nazi hand imbues them with such a sense of eldritch doom that we keep them in a trunk in the basement just to contain their evil, evil energy. That and so people won't think we we're Nazis.Even more evil than my heirloom Naziana is this little gem that I picked up during my hour-long stint as a war reporter in Syria. Can you tell what it is? It's a face mask a member of the al Nusra Front was wearing when he got shot through the brains. How dark is that? See that orange-ringed hole above the visor hole? That's where the bullet went in.
If anything is haunted, surely it's this cocksucker: A ninja mask, traditionally the most evil garment, worn by an al Qaeda fighter as he died trying to kill people for not being Muslim. Not only was a categorically evil person wearing it when he bit the big one – he was using it to commit an evil act at the time of death, and the gray matter that spilled all over its front and back may actually have contained evil thoughts. I fucking dare you to out-evil that.Now, as a sophisticated urban bachelor, I own a number of things that generally give people the willies, from my ceremony book from the Church of Scientology to the real-toucan-feather headdress I make my croc skull wear to a tiny rubber fetus in a crocheted onesie that Christians give to pregnant teenagers to convince them not to have an abortion. In terms of sheer jolting power, though, nothing holds a candle to that mask. I have yet to show it to someone – and I have shown it to people who own human skulls, drawings by Charles Manson and an entire manuscript by a convicted sex murderer – whose immediate response was not "Please put that awful thing away."I'd love to claim that this death mask serves as a sort of memento mori or that I keep it as a tool for contemplating the abysmal depths that reside within us all, but considering it lives in my sock drawer and only comes out to spook houseguests, I'm just gonna admit that it's an evilnir. But what an evilnir it is! Sometimes when I'm lying in bed, I like to picture it in its drawer, its eye slit glowing phosphorescent red while a faint plume of gunsmoke pours out of its bullet hole and Diamanda Galas slowly crescendos from the walls. Good luck sleeping after that, me!Now before I'm decried as a fool for using such an infernally charged totem as a divider between my socks and underwear, I know what I'm doing. I fully expect that playing with these dark forces will result in the awakening of a ghastly legion of dead jihadists or my transformation into an avatar for the forces of primal hate that infected the mask's original owner. In fact, I'm writing this mostly so that when my viscera are found dripping from my bedroom ceiling onto my eyeless corpse, you all will know who the culprit is – my al Qaeda death mask. In the meantime, if anybody knows a good framer, I need to get this fucker shadow-boxed.Follow Thomas Morton on Twitter.