Debbie Reynders, a Belgian collector and trader who runs an Instagram account of almost 4,000 followers with her husband, told me that this reticence arises from fear of being stigmatized publicly as strange or morbid. “People outside of the community often see what we do as maybe a little disturbing,” she said. “But the people who collect and trade are really genuine people, open and lovely. But a bit guarded. Especially to journalists.”
Like Scragg, Reynders and her husband started collecting after buying their first skull on a whim online. She told me that when it arrived in the mail there was an initial “shock factor,” but this slowly transformed into fascination and, eventually, obsession. Now they both work part-time and spend their remaining hours trading and maintaining their growing collection. “It’s not about the money,” she says. “We just sell skulls so we can buy more skulls. I think for the real collectors it’s always that way.”
Instagram’s network not only allows collectors to find new buyers and sellers, but also to curate and market their wares in a visually compelling way, much like a fashion label or jewelry designer might. No one does this better than Scragg, who now spends all of his time trading online as well as managing his oddities shop-cum-museum in Essex.
His aesthetic is a cross between Victorian Gothic and colonial explorer, as if Edgar Allan Poe wrote the screenplay for Indiana Jones. Scroll through his feed and you’ll see mummified cats laid out on red velvet, Victorian dolls with staring glass eyes, pickled organs, and numerous ancient-looking craniums. Occasionally, Scragg himself features in a post—black eye liner, druid-like face tattoos, a naval-length ginger beard that coalesces into a single dreadlock—a true influencer in the world of the macabre.
Reynders also takes a lot of pride in the aesthetics of her artifacts. Chatting over Skype, she took me on a virtual tour of her collection, laid out meticulously inside a glass cabinet, a throwback to the 16th century, when the nobility would curate “cabinets of curiosity,” bric-a-brac collections of exotic items gathered from around the globe, often with a human skull as the centerpiece.
There was a female pelvis, a number of medical skulls, gynecological instruments, tribal decorations, and then, right at the end, three tiny, alien-looking skeletons all in a row. “They are fetuses,” Reynders explained. “A still-born, a 13-week-old, and a six-month-old.”
When I asked Reynders where she got these from, she said she sourced most of her collection from other trusted collectors in the community. She says that what matters most to her and other traders is that they are receiving real bone, rather than resin or plastic. Beyond that, though, the true provenance of the item—or the identity of the person to whom it once belonged—is almost impossible to prove.
Scragg agrees. “When most people see a human remain they feel like there should be some information about who they were and where they come from and everything else,” he explains. “But they have passed through so many hands over the years, that when you buy it there isn’t this strong provenance to know exactly where it comes from.”
Most of the remains that are traded, both online and offline, are likely decommissioned dentistry or medical specimens that have been circulating from collector to collector for decades. The usual provenance of these bones is India, which was the center of the human remains trade under British colonial rule in the 19th century, when medical institutions were known to pressure those who performed traditional cremations to ship bones to England, to be used by medical students.