Mark Hogancamp awoke from his coma in agony, and he was someplace he didn’t recognize. He gazed toward the ceiling trying to recall how he’d got there and how long he might have been unconscious. There was only one thing he knew for sure – the year was 1984. However, according to The Guardian, a figure next to him responded, “No. It’s 2000.”
Hogancamp’s memories of his life are limited to what other people have described, and notebooks and journals he’s kept since 1984. After he was nearly beaten to death in 2000 by five men in Kingston, New York, he remembers nothing of his wife or their five-year marriage, nor the fact that he ended up addicted to alcohol and alone.
Hogancamp spent more than a month recovering from the attack in hospital. He spent a further year undergoing physical therapy to relearn how to walk and talk, as well as other basic motor functions. But when his health insurance ran out he was sent home, with a long road to recovery still ahead.
Feeling let down by the people who were supposed to help him, Hogancamp was on his own. Still filled with anger over what had happened, he realized he needed an escape. He requird something to keep his mind occupied and give him a means to move forward with his life.
Three years later a neighbor spotted Hogancamp walking up the road, dragging a toy jeep behind him. The latter started taking photos of the military vehicle, which intrigued the neighbor, being a photographer himself. And when he asked Hogancamp if he could see his work, the photos he subsequently left in the neighbor’s mailbox were from another world.
But before we find out about Hogancamp’s photos, let’s learn more about the events leading up to this chance encounter with his neighbor. When he woke up in hospital, Hogancamp was sure he was in Ibiza, Spain, in the year 1984. Furthermore, he was in the navy, he recalled, but that’s all he could work out. Sadly, the brutal attack he’d sustained had all but wiped his memory.
But Hogancamp would soon learn more about his predicament following a conversation with someone beside his hospital bed. The Guardian, which did an extensive piece on the man in 2015, relayed the conversation. The man apparently said to him, “Five guys beat you almost to death. You’ve been in a coma for nine days.” Hogancamp, for his part, then responded, “I forgive them.” But the stranger insisted he wouldn’t if he’d known what his assailants had done to him.
Apparently, what Hogancamp knows of the attack is what he learned from the trial against the assailants. They were five in number, aged from their late teens to early 20s. They were in a local bar called The Anchorage, where witnesses recalled the men getting along well, despite Hogancamp being nearly twice their age. One of the men had German heritage, as he did, so they bonded over that and apparently cracked jokes about Nazis.
They said their goodbyes, and Hogancamp stayed at the bar as the young men left. He was, at this stage, battling an alcohol addiction which saw him drinking nearly half a gallon of whisky a day. However, when Hogancamp left, he ran into the group of men he had been hanging out with earlier that evening – they had been waiting for him.
“I [left] the bar,” Hogancamp explained to the Guardian. “And from what I hear, I talked to them for a bit, then I turned around and started walking home, and they attacked me from behind.” Hogancamp, however, has no recollection of the assault, which is perhaps a small mercy.
Hogancamp was knocked out almost immediately, but his assailants continued to jump on his head for a full minute before running away from the scene. He was found by strangers who carefully rolled him onto his side while blood poured from his mouth and nose. At this stage, he’d also stopped breathing.
The injuries Hogancamp sustained were horrific, and he described them to The Guardian. He said, “The doctors had to take my eyeball out, put it on my cheek, clean out the bone fragments, and put my eye back in.” He then spent nine days in a coma and a further month recovering in hospital before being sent home. Hogancamp stayed in physiotherapy for a year, which he said helped, but that then ran out too due his insurance. By now, he was still in pain; and upset at his predicament.
“When my therapy was cut off, I hated every man on Earth,” Hogancamp explained. “I felt like I’d been kicked out of the tribe of men on planet Earth. But after a month of hating everything I thought, ‘I have to do something or else this hate and anger is going to build up and kill me.’”
It was Hogancamp’s neighbor, David Naugle, who spotted him taking snaps of a toy jeep three years later. Naugle worked as a photographer on a magazine and was intrigued by what his Hogancamp was doing. The latter then described that Naugle “flipped out” when he saw the photos he posted in the man’s letterbox.
In the years since his attack, Hogancamp has lived a modest life funded on disability checks. When The Guardian visited him in 2015, home was a trailer parked up near Kingston, New York, which doubled as a workshop of sorts. Action figures and Barbie dolls were scattered about the place, destined to appear in a world he’d kept secret for three years.
What stood out about Hogancamp’s home, however, could be found on the lawn located behind it. It was the result of what he had spent years working on to refocus the anger that had consumed him in the absence of physical therapy: a tiny world named Marwencol, made entirely out of materials he’d found.
Marwencol is a fictional town modelled on World War II-era Belgium. The one-sixth scale creation was painstakingly constructed by Hogancamp, a former carpenter. To create it, he used reclaimed wood, glass, window frames, wallpaper, carpet, nails, screws, action figures and Barbie dolls. Marwencol became therapy for Hogancamp, who felt that the best way to move forward was to first stimulate his imagination.
However, as we can see in the pictures, Marwencol is no kids’ playground; it’s a location that’s ravaged by war. There are scenes splattered with blood – sometimes using red nail polish for a longer-lasting “fresh” look – where men are violently beaten and left for dead. But it wasn’t just the story told in Hogancamp’s photos that piqued photographer David Naugle’s interest.
Apparently, what struck Naugle was how cinematic Hogancamp’s images looked; he clearly had an eye for exemplary composition. His use of light and the angles at which he captured his one-sixth scale subjects gave a compellingly lifelike quality to Marwencol and the scenes played out in it. And the town’s detail is mind blowing.
In Marwencol, Hogancamp created an impressively realistic bar named the Ruined Stocking Cat Fight Club, purported to be the only one of its kind in Belgium. The drinks served in the bar contain ice made of recovered windshield glass, smashed and left lying in the street. And alongside the bar is a host of other amenities.
The locations that make up Marwencol are typical of many small towns. For example, there’s a bank, gas station, town hall, a cemetery and an ice cream fountain. Some of Marwencol’s landmarks are inspired by places in Hogancamp’s hometown, Kingston, and the characters who live there are familiar to him too.
Some of Marwencol’s residents are based on Hogancamp’s real-world neighbors, while others are friends he’s made online through a community of combat miniaturists. And while there are some who are entirely the product of his imagination, there’s one recurring character who crops up in many of Hogancamp’s photographs.
Captain Hogie is a U.S. fighter pilot with intense eyes and a prominent scar across his face. The doll may look like Nicholas Cage, but Captain Hogie is in fact Hogancamp’s alter ego. And his scar is reminiscent of the injury he sustained that night in 2000.
In one Marwencol scene enacted by Hogancamp and photographed, Captain Hogie is the subject of a vicious beating from Nazi S.S. soldiers. Much like the attack Hogancamp received outside the bar that night, Hogie lies on the ground defenceless against the blows the figures administer on him.
Marwencol, you see, is Hogancamp’s therapy, and through it, he has found a release for his anger. He told The Guardian, “Marwencol was solely made up so I could kill those five guys. I had no way to do it in real life. I played it over in my head. I’d get caught. I’d go to prison. I’d get the chair.”
“The first time I killed all five of them, I felt a little bit better,” Hogancamp recalled. “That violent hatred and anger subsided a little.” And it’s a scenario that he’s played out over and over again. He described, “I’ve killed them every which way. I’ve killed them in ways Satan himself hasn’t even thought of.”
In the real world, however, Hogancamp’s attackers were caught and put on trial. Two of the men got probation, with two serving a two-year prison sentence and the man considered the group’s leader receiving nine years. But although Marwencol is a place born out of pain, there also exists a lot of love in the town.
The name Marwencol, meanwhile, is a combination of Mark, Wendy and Colleen – himself and two women he held particular affection for. But, perhaps unusually, some photos show scenarios where the S.S. men attack Captain Hogie, but the assailants are often dealt with by Marwencol’s women. For Hogancamp, it’s a sign that he’s loved.
“The only species on Earth that haven’t attacked me are women,” Hogancamp explained to the Guardian. In Marwencol, women serve as his protectors – in one scene, the S.S. soldiers torture two women to reveal Hogie’s whereabouts, but they never give in to their abusers.
So, then, Marwencol was Hogancamp’s refuge, where he recovered some of his physical and cognitive abilities. Feeling persecuted in the real world, particularly after his attack, he built a safe haven; an alternative reality where people accepted him for who he is. That’s because, for many years, Hogancamp had a secret he’d kept hidden – and it’s what initiated his beating in 2000.
When Hogancamp was drinking, laughing and joking with his assailants back in 2000, he told them something he didn’t usually make public. He liked to wear women’s clothing – not entire outfits, rather nylons and high-heeled shoes. He told The Guardian, “I kept it very secret. But I got talking to these guys…”
“I was given the ultimate truth serum, which is alcohol,” Hogancamp continued. “I guess I thought people could handle it. But apparently not.” He learned of his fondness for nylon and stilettos when he left hospital and returned home to a closet filled with women’s footwear. And all it took for the feeling to return was to slip a pair on.
One thing Hogancamp hasn’t tried again since the attack is alcohol; the beating took away the memory of what it tastes like. He continued, “That’s what scares me about booze. One sip and I’ll be back to half-a-gallon a day.”
Hogancamp became so immersed in Marwencol that he called it his “second life,” he explained to the New York Times in 2011. Then, when he finally opened the door to his secret world to his neighbor David Naugle, a whole new one opened up to him. That’s because when he showed Hogancamp’s photos to his editor, they decided the world needed to see them.
A spread offering a window into Marwencol appeared in Esopus, an art magazine serving New York, after Naugle showed staff there the images. As it happened, a filmmaker and subscriber to Esopus, Jeff Malmberg, saw the feature and was intrigued. He wanted to know more about Hogancamp and his world, and so shot the documentary Marwencol.
Marwencol debuted at the South by Southwest film festival in spring 2010 to much critical acclaim, picking up numerous awards along the way. However, Malmberg accrued far more material than he could possibly fit into the movie’s time constraints. So his wife, Chris Shellen, who got to know Hogancamp throughout filming, co-wrote a book with him.
The book, Welcome To Marwencol, features around 600 photos and documents the mechanics of Hogancamp’s work on the World War II-era Belgian town. As Shellen explained to Wired in 2015, “What [Hogencamp] does is very difficult. He gets out there every single day and gets down in the mud with bugs crawling on him trying to take the photo that’s going to capture what he sees in his head.”
Hogancamp’s story, too, has hit the big screen. Back to the Future director Robert Zemeckis was inspired when he caught the Marwencol documentary while channel surfing in 2010. Exploring Hogancamp’s journey to recovery, the director brought the miniature town alive through motion capture.
Hogancamp struggles with the attention his work has earned him over the years, but he continues to make progress from his terrible beating. He told the New York Times, “I’ve gotten over the anger. Wanting to go out and kill all men just because they took from me what I loved the most. That’s why I created my own world where my people love me for who I am.”
“Doctors say that people with traumatic brain injury usually make most of their improvement in the first two years,” book co-author Shellen told Wired. She said that as of 2015, Hogancamp had found a girlfriend and was attending gallery openings. The writer added that he “just keeps getting better. When you think about what happened to [him] and see how he’s been able to bring some order and peace to the chaos inside, I think it’s kind of inspiring.”