The Museum of Death is a Hollywood fixture, a palate cleanser for those who’ve spent the day searching for stars on the Walk of Fame. Founded in the mid 90s by married couple JD Healy and Cathee Shultz as a home for their dark memorabilia, it’s long been a destination for those drawn to the morbid. But in recent years, as our pop culture tastes have become increasingly embedded with true crime, it’s taken on a new role. Today, visitors pair the gore with surprisingly nuanced meditations on human nature.
Of course, this has always been the museum’s intention. It originally grew out of an art show curated by JD and Cathee that included a piece featuring the names of every person on death row in the US. The audience was captivated by it. Recognising the teeming fascination with the sub-genre, the pair began writing to the prisoners, inviting them to submit art about their lives, feelings, and experiences.
Walking through the museum today is a personal challenge in what you can stomach. Photos and phones are banned, they want you to be totally immersed in what you're facing. The first room is dedicated to serial killers; displaying the aforementioned art, along with letters, collectables, and personal items from the likes of John Wayne Gacy and Richard Ramirez. Room two somehow finds a way to be even more intense, thanks to the mummified head of a 19th century French mass murderer who married and killed numerous women — a real life Bluebeard. The crowds gasp, challenging each other to take snatched glances.
But beyond the gore—and to be clear there is a lot—room after room it becomes a study in not only death and violence, but our personal and societal relationship with it. Manager Erek Michael muses: “Obviously there is an interest in this material, we’re seeing it come full circle with all the podcasts, TV shows, you can go online and look up these things. But to see the actual objects makes it more real for people. This is life.”
Much is made of our current true crime obsession, and its role in steadying ourselves when the world feels out of control. We want to believe we have the ability to restore order, that even we could right a wrong, solve a murder, from the comfort of home. But the museum reminds us that this obsession with violence extends back much further.
Pop culture has always been enticed by the macabre. As early as 1903, silent films such as Infernal Cauldron were dealing with what happens to sinners after death. But Erek points out that things really began to escalate in the 90s when movies like Natural Born Killers reintroduced psychotic mass murderers as more than inhuman monsters. Suddenly they were anti-heroes. “Murder is the ultimate rebellion,” quips Erek.
The bloody fandom extends beyond fiction and into real life. The cabinets dedicated to Manson, Gacy, Ramirez and other serial killers look like celebrity shrines, garnished with fan letters and photos. Even the museum subjects themselves aren’t even immune to the frenzy. Gacy, the killer clown, was prison pen pals with another Museum of Death resident GG Allen; a punk musician whose work in the 80s and 90s was so disturbing and unhinged that even those who worshiped serial killers found him off-putting.
As the smiling crowds suggest, the museum violence is consumed in the same way it is through podcasts, movies, books and TV. It’s in front of you but still distant, safe to explore. Attendees aren’t that different from the serial killer groupies who sent the Night Stalker love letters and naked polaroids, happy to flirt, safe in the knowledge he’d never be released.
It’s easy to muse over why we like globally infamous crimes. But pushing further into the museum, the curators lead you to think about death it in broader terms. Death rights are explored across countries, cultures and eras. Memento moris, Victorian hair jewellery and photography remind you how people cauterised and comforted themselves against the fear of losing a loved one before modern medicine.
Elsewhere, intricate embalming videos and coffin displays hat-tip difficult and complex work of people in the funeral industry. Graphic industry instructional videos demonstrate how they master the body’s natural urge to decay, to allow us to see our loved ones one more time, washed and freshly suited. Even animal deaths are included. Surprisingly it’s this area that appears to upset and move the most people. They look at graphic crime scene photos without wincing, but weep over the taxidermied remains of Jayne Mansfield's chihuahua.
Once the shock wears off, the museum is a strangely personal space. You’re ultimately asked to confront what you’re most afraid of. While celebrity, infamy, pop culture, and time can sanitise violence, other less talked about parts of the project disturb in different ways. Car crash images draw the most downcast eyes and turned heads. Looking at snaps of a serial killer victim, it’s easy to feel it could never be you. You can observe the dummy dressed in an authentic heaven’s gate uniform and scoff that you wouldn’t drink the Kool Aid. But mangled cars remind you of the thin line between order and chaos you ignore everyday. You can’t say that when you walk out and get in your car, you’ll definitely make it home.
When asked if he still finds any exhibit disturbing Erek pauses, until the sound of a bonesaw cracking a skull, from a video in another room, cuts through. “That, that sound still gets me,” he says. It’s a real sound, one that might one day come from his own body. When the noise stops, he collects his thoughts again and returns to the question. “The intangibles are scary, man’s inhumanity to man and what people are thinking.”