Mark Hogancamp lives two lives. On the surface, he's an off-kilter loner who lives by himself and drags a toy Jeep behind him on walks. He admits has no social life (or car). But when Hogancamp goes to his backyard, he enters into another world — and leads another life. In Marwencol, the hyper-realistic miniature recreation of a 1940s Belgian village that Hogancamp created in his backyard, he acts out his dreams through his alter ego, Hoagie, a tough WWII soldier figurine. It's that part of his life that earned Hogancamp art shows, documentaries, books, and now a movie starring Steve Carrell.
Welcome to Marwen, released on December 25, explores the harrowing conditions that led to Hogancamp's retreat into Marwencol. That said, the film deviates in some ways from the actual facts of what happened to Hogancamp, beginning with a fateful day in 2000.
So, what did happen that day? Something absolutely terrible. On April 8, 2000, Hogancamp got to talking to five young men at a bar in Kingston, NY. After a few drinks had established camaraderie between the group, Hogancamp revealed that he enjoyed wearing nylons and heels at home. When Hogancamp left the bar at the end of the evening, the men were waiting to jump him. The men beat Hogancamp within an inch of his life. He was gravely injured in every part of his body — doctors had to reinsert his eye.
Hogancamp spent nine days in a coma. When he woke, he had forgotten nearly everything about his life before the attack — even now, Hogancamp will watch his wedding video with his ex-wife and not remember her at all. He also went from drinking nearly two liters of whiskey a day to not desiring a drink at all.
Hogancamp's recovery process was thwarted by insurance woes. After 40 days recuperating in the hospital, his Medicaid ran out. Hogancamp received physical, cognitive, and occupational therapy for a year, during which he relearned how to walk. Unfortunately, Hogancamp's state-sponsored insurance only covered therapy for a year. After that, he was on his own — and he was livid about it. Hogancamp's idea for Marwencol stemmed from that anger, as well as from the illustrations of WWII he'd drawn in his "past life."
“When my therapy was cut off I hated every man on Earth,” Hogancamp said in an interview with The Guardian. “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.’ I needed to do something.”
That "something" was Marwen (the "col" was added as a nod to his friend, Colleen). Marwencol is a recreation of a 1940s Belgian village. To populate the village, Hogancamp created figurines for everyone in his life, including the attackers, using 12-inch dolls purchased from the local hobby shop. The village composition changes with each of Hogancamp's photoshoots.
In the Guardian interview, Hogancamp explains he created Marwencol with the express purpose of being able to kill his attackers. In the world of Marwencol, his attackers take the form of the Schutzstaffel, the paramilitary group in Nazi Germany. Hoagie and his friends are Marwencol's protectors. "The first time I killed all five of them, I felt a little bit better. That violent hatred and anger subsided a little," Hogancamp told The Guardian. "I’ve killed them every which way. I’ve killed them in ways Satan himself hasn’t even thought of.” Most of the time, the women of Marwencol are the ones doing the killing. In real life, though, his attackers got off a lot easier. Only three of his attackers went to prison, and all were out by 2010.
Though a private person, Hogancamp's work has achieved a very public life with photo shows and documentaries. Still, even if we can see Marwencol, we can't have complete access to the very intricate web of relationships located in the miniature village. For example, Hoagie, Hogancamp's alter-ego, is married to a blonde Russian woman named Anna Romanov (Hogancamp's wife was named Anastaisa). Deja, another one of Marwencol's women, is in love with Hoagie. In the movie, she's a villain, but Deja has acted as a "positive force" for the "real" Hoagie, according to Chris Shellen, co-author of the Marwencol book.
Although Hoagie has women chasing after him, the real Hogancamp has taken romantic relationships off the table. In the 2010 documentary Marwencol, Hogancamp expressed he doesn't "want to get hurt again." Welcome to Marwen, however, still leaves romantic possibility on the table for Mark.
For the real Hogancamp, Marwencol is enough. “Everybody at one time or another wishes they had a double that could things that they couldn't ever do. So what I do with the alter egos is that I can tell my friends you can be anybody you want, be anybody you want. Have as many girls as you want," Hogancamp said in the documentary.
Finally, in one respect, Hogancamp is the same post-assault. He continues to wear nylons and his heels, which number over 300 pairs. The only difference? Now, he's open about it. “I wore nylon in secret before the attack, and then after the attack I wear my stockings proudly in public, as women once wore their stockings proudly,” he told The Advocate.
Hogancamp also clarified his sexual identity in the same interview with The Advocate. “I am a male, and I always want to be a male,” Hogancamp explained. “I am not homophobic, just a heterosexual cross-dresser, from the waist down. I do not want to change into a woman, nor do I feel as though I'm a 'woman trapped in a man's body.' I merely re-create women with my own legs and feet in a mirror on the floor, to stay close to women, and for my pleasure.”
While this aspect of his life didn't appear in the trailer, it appears in the movie. “I collect women’s essence. I wear heels sometimes because they connect me to dames. I like dames,” Mark (the character) explains.
For a more immersive version of this extraordinary story, catch Welcome to Marwen in theaters on December 25.