Photo by Chris Dovi
"Professor" Mark Cline's Haunted Monster Museum and park maze is exactly what you'd expect: a mad-cap collection of weird, cartoon-like spooks and spectres molded from fiberglass and contained in a haunted house-themed attraction.
Cline has filled the land around Natural Bridge in Rockbridge County with his unusual creations, which also include Foamhenge, a recreation of Stonehenge, except in Styrofoam. His creative headquarters is Enchanted Castle Studios.
Most recently, he's created Professor Cline's Dinosaur Kingdom, a bizarre mixed metaphor of imagined history that envisions a hidden valley in Virginia circa 1863, where malevolent Union Army forces attempt to "rustle up the dinos to use as a weapon of mass destruction against the South." The confusing stew of history and evolutionary theory lampoons everything from Confederate history revisionists to Creationism-versus-Darwinism dogmatists.
It's all fair game for Cline.
Lanky, with veins protruding from sinewy arms, and a ruddy complexion from days spent in his outdoor studio, the 51-year-old Cline shrugs from under a battered straw cowboy hat at his fluid ability to merge with the reality around him: "Oh, it's always been weird," he says of his view of the world.
Others are not so amused.
A faint smell of char still wafts through the gaping maw of the gargoyle's toothy snarl framing the wrought-iron entry gate to Professor Cline's Haunted Monster Museum, its trailhead located in a corner of Natural Bridge's overflow parking lot. That lot shares access with a Baptist church that, Cline says, had long objected to the museum's presence.
The dense thicket surrounding the remains of the museum is cordoned off by yellow crime-scene tape. Cline stops short of blaming the church for the fire that consumed his monsters, but he doesn't discourage associations.
"Somebody burnt the mansion down on the 16th of April," Cline says, more than a sprinkling of disgust peppering his words. "They set my stage on fire."
Cline may believe in man's ability to make magic, but he's no believer in coincidences. This is the second time fire struck his creations in recent years. The studio where he does his work was also a victim of fire.
"Somebody wrote me a letter saying I was doing the work of the devil," he says, kicking the dirt outside his warehouse determinedly. "P.T. Barnum had three fires — I'm one behind him."
He holds up the anonymous threatening letter that was sent to him after the studio fire.
The intentional torching of Cline's Monster Mansion wasn't the first time society failed to recognize his genius.
The first was in 1982, when he moved from Waynesboro to Virginia Beach with the idea of creating a monster museum there. It was a flop, and Cline was limping home when his rambling wreck of a car stranded him in Mechanicsville with little more than five dollars to his name.
Cline's autobiographical account takes on a fairy-tale mystique and sounds like the basis for one of his themed attractions: a downtrodden younger version of himself decides to write his mechanic a bad check and spends that last five dollars with Ms. Dora, a local palm reader, who tells him his "dreams would come true beyond what you can imagine."
Truth and tall tale intersected at Natural Bridge not long after. He says he based his decision to move there on a tourist map he found printed on a diner placemat. He started again creating 3-D versions of his imagination's fancy and was rewarded with the "dumb luck" of the 1982 Knoxville World's Fair that put his roadside attraction smack in the way of thousands of travelers heading west.
And far from the devil's work, he sees his ability to make children and adults smile and laugh as a divine gift. "I'm a normal guy who has been loaned an extraordinary ability," he says. "These pictures form in my head, how to take something from nothing and form it into a complex piece."
The pictures started when he was a child growing up in Waynesboro — a poor student labeled as learning disabled long before ADHD was diagnosed. In Cline's case, he was put in class with "some kids who were borderline retarded, and to survive I had to become the class clown."
Eventually, the clown needed props. And Cline started making them himself from papier-mâché and latex.
Fire or not, Cline doesn't slow down. He's currently working with a cable network to develop a reality show about roadside Americana. "I'll be like the Johnny Appleseed of roadside art," he says, spelling out a premise that would have him dropping in on unsuspecting towns across the country and bestowing on them weird public art and a general sense of confusion before hitting the road again.
Recently his work, including a self-explanatory piece titled "Franken-Chicken," was exhibited at the Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke.
Back on the mount where Foamhenge commands the view, the unbroken hiss of summertime bugs echoes across the vale. And the sweeping Appalachian skyline is unbroken too, but for the ring of massive foam blocks that Cline textured to appear like weathered stone using his elaborate fiber-glassing process.
This place was in many ways his first Johnny Appleseed project. And regardless of how some in Natural Bridge may view his monster museum, Foamhenge was at one time a project that — bizarrely — helped unify the community. Though he was the master of ceremonies, the project's construction mobilized people from all around this mountain community.
"People donated foam, wood, metal and even excavating," says Cline, relating a touching tale of neighbors helping neighbors in a project that -- for whatever strange reason -- they all believed in. In a strange way, it's not hard to imagine a similar communal effort overtaking the prehistoric residents of English countryside as they transported huge stone slabs over vast distances to erect their tribute to some forgotten deity. Now, as it was 10,000 years ago, Cline says, Foamhenge "became a part of something that as a little bit bigger than their everyday lives."
But unlike that timeless rocky testament to early human cooperation, Cline says, there's no way Foamhenge will last long enough to puzzle tourists from some future time. It will have to be enough to confuse the visitors of our own time, since foam is not nearly so durable as granite.
Walking close by the massive blocks that look so convincing from a few dozen yards reveals cracks and tears. The fiberglass coatings that protect the foam blocks at the heart of Cline's monument are beginning to break down from long exposure to the elements.
"We're not sure what to do with Foamhenge," Cline says, a little wistfully. "It wasn't meant to last this long."