“For thousands of years, cultures around the world have used fasting as a toll of religious devotion, mental focus, political protest, and as a folk remedy for illness and disease. Some view it as the reset button for the human body, while others see it as a chance to elevate their consciousness. Whatever the goal, though, the means are always the same: the absence or reduction of food for a period of time. But history is filled with proof that desperate people will go to extraordinary lengths in order to find peace and relief. And in the process, some people have even died for it.”
Opening with the line “They mummified themselves” (in reference to the persistent ingestion of resin by Buddhist monks) and closing with “Even killers need to be efficient,” Episode 116 of Aaron Mahnke’s hit podcast Lore serves up a morbid smorgasbord for listeners.
“Something Blue” takes the questionable practice of therapeutic fasting as its subject. The episode deals mainly with the now-infamous “Starvation Doctor” Linda Hazzard (who had no real medical training). Running the (appropriately-named) Hazzard Institute in Seattle in the early-20th Century, Linda blurred the line between asceticism and sadism. She would prescribe “broth diets and marathon enemas,” and draw scalding hot baths for her patients. Her concept of “therapeutic massage” involved slapping people on the stomach and repeatedly shouting “eliminate!” at them. But Linda’s dubious efforts didn’t just turn “health care” into an ominous oxymoron. Making Annie Wilkes look like Florence Nightingale, Linda was actually a mass murderess in illness-fighting disguise. She would rob her gullible clientele of their savings and personal belongings while methodically stealing their most valuable possession of all: their very lives.
Mahnke’s narrative briefly steps away from Linda Hazzard’s story to note a couple of historical instances of fasting. We learn that such form of abstinence was an attempted defense against evil for the ancient Greeks (who believed that “demons could only enter a person’s body through the mouth”). Mahnke also remarks on Cotton Mather proposition of fasting as a possible “solution to Salem’s witchcraft panic.” These details are fascinating, and my only critique of this relatively short episode is that I wish Mahnke had incorporated more of them.
The charismatic yet dissembling Linda Hazzard, who managed to charm people into a state of starvation, is a quintessential hero-villainess from a Gothic tale. Her pseudo-sanitarium formed a locus classicus of entrapment, an ostensible prison that people had to be ransomed out of by loved ones rather than simply released. The image of emaciated patients wandering like the walking dead through the woods surrounding the institute could have been spliced from a horror film. Concluding with an account of supporting player Edgar Butterworth (a bison-bone collector turned undertaker, who entered into strategic alliance with Linda Hazard by disposing of the many bodies she provided), “Something Borrowed” undoubtedly has all the makings of a terrific American Gothic biopic.