Death Takes a Holiday
I am glad that my friend and colleague, Gus Mastrapa, agreed to drive me around Los Angeles.
I am glad because, otherwise, I might have spent an entire third day listing around the Rose Bowl Motel. (Until somebody convinces me it’s worth going out, I vacation as I live: boringly.)
I was in L.A. for a wedding. The wedding itself was beautiful, by the way. My part of it, though, didn’t quite go without a hitch: “And what dress will you be wearing today,” a woman my age asked me.
“I’m wearing it,” I stiffly replied.
I made Gus wait as I smoked near the museum’s sandwich board. “Just getting a head start on a theme,” I laughed.
“Ohhhh,” she said to me.
“And I borrowed it,” I concluded. Oof.
The wedding was splendid – we were on a mountaintop in Beverly Hills, hobnobbing with soap opera stars I can’t even name – but the whole event thrust me into a weird headspace. When will my life start? I wondered during the ceremony.
A day and a half later, Gus put me in his wife’s Honda and motored us all over Los Angeles. Just as we were zooming down Hollywood’s very cheesiest block, Gus and I simultaneously saw something called the Museum of Death. We agreed it sounded like an adventure, so Gus circled with the Honda and then pulled into the museum’s lot.
I made Gus wait as I smoked near the museum’s sandwich board. “Just getting a head start on a theme,” I laughed.
We went inside. I handed the worker, Eric, my credit card, and then he asked to see my ID also, “although you do have a trustworthy face. But they say those are the ones to watch out for,” he smirked.
At this I pointed toward the entryway labeled Serial Killer Archives and joked, “Sure! That’s my room!” and Eric chuckled politely. In retrospect, Eric has his patter memorized, and every museum patron probably makes an identical joke on cue.
Gus talked to Eric for a longer while: at its earliest, the Museum of Death was located in San Diego and it had been some 10 years since Gus had last visited. Many of the living animals Gus remembered from San Diego were now, ironically, located in the Taxidermy Room.
Okay: I guess there are fair warnings posted all over the museum, and especially in its foyer, but I was too zealous to pay any mind. If I had ever looked around, I might have realized the Museum of Death wasn’t meant for a patron like me.
After all, I go out of my way to avoid death. I’d already told Gus all about my car, about its five-star safety rating and six airbags; moreover, I am rankled by the very mention of death, or even illness. My mother cannot talk to me without my flipping my poor little lid. In a podcast I recorded with some kindly Londoners last month – they’d asked me to speak to my Unwinnable column on death and Creatures – I admitted that, in my childhood, it was impossible for me to so much as acknowledge death’s constant possibility. By the time I was teenaged, most of my loved ones had already gone that way. I’ve never expected to live past 35, you know? (Well, hopefully you don’t know.)
Eric told us there was no photography allowed in the museum. “But there’s no flash on an iPhone,” I pleaded stupidly. Then Eric threatened to murder and stuff me – not in those exact words, but very nearly. (In the interest of not being gutted and displayed like some common museum attraction, let me stress that, no, neither Gus nor I took the photographs in this article.)
Gus and I went through the entryway. The first room was a trove of famed serial killers’ letters and paintings. Now I understood, at last, why photographs aren’t permitted: the Internet has inadvertently made this museum unviable. As soon as something from the museum’s hard-earned private collection appears online, it loses all its value.
The next room was a Crispin-Glover-gasm of turn-of-the-century morticians’ gear. While Gus and I watched a training video, I began talking about my adoptive father’s death, which is now exactly one year past. My father had been cremated despite his wishes. “I think my mom wanted to know for sure,” I mused to Gus. “People don’t want to think about what happens after death, like, in the ground.” I smiled. “Otherwise you imagine the rotting. Ugh. Is that normal? It’s so Poe.”
Then I thought about the art of dressing people up, about how dead people in caskets never quite look like themselves. I was staring at syringes and valves, and then I moved toward an 1800s makeup caboodle. (I actually took up monster makeup, my birth-dad’s hobby, soon after his death. When I was 11 I inherited my birth-dad’s 1960s monster magazine, sparking my lifelong obsession with fake gore and real goop.) The dusty makeup kit uncannily resembled my dad’s own collection of crepe wool and greasepaint tubes.
Evidently a warning is posted in the next hallway, but I was not ready for it: there’s a series of explicit photographs in which a woman and her lover have murdered and dismembered the woman’s husband. “Oh!” I said, grabbing at my roiling stomach. “Oh!” I repeated, clasping my hands over my mouth. I spent a long time with those photographs anyway, looking away, looking back. It was a tug-of-war, my queasiness and moral opposition at vacillating odds with my curiosity.
The Museum of Death is proud of its legacy of “Falling Ovations” – which is to say, its collections have the ability to make visitors faint. So if nothing else, I only managed to never fall down.
The crime scene photos from 1940s drunk-driving accidents were inexplicably located much too close to the Heaven’s Gate memorabilia. I spent more time with the accident photos than with the purple Nikes, but I did utter to Gus, as I was thinking on Heaven’s Gate, “Why didn’t I ever realize how bizarre it was?”
“You were young,” Gus said sharply.
“I wasn’t, though!” I insisted. “I just never realized!” And now I pondered aloud at – even though I knew Heaven’s Gate was a tragedy at the time! – how I hadn’t quite connected, in complete mental sentences, with its strangeness.
Then I told Gus the terrific story about how my friend Robyn, who attended a performance-arts school, was somehow left out of its secret illicit sex cult. They never invited her to join in – Robyn didn’t know about it until the school was shut down – and to this day, Robyn is irritated about having been excluded. It ought to be a relief to her, but instead she takes the memory at its worst. We laughed.
I examined the collection of human skulls. In the Suicide Hallway I spent a long time looking at GG Allin stuff. I stopped at a pair of black-and-white photographs of a man who’d committed suicide at his desk. “Gee,” I said. “Bet he wouldn’t’ve done that if he’d known he was gonna wind up in here.”
Then, later, there were marvelous, never-published forensic photographs of the Black Dahlia, who in death had been bisected along her torso. Wordlessly, I motioned at a replica of the L.A. Times’ newspaper coverage, then at the huge advertisement for “archival reproductions” printed along its bottom margin. Gus stared. “Oh,” he said. “Do you see? This was reprinted as a movie tie-in. That is,” and he chuckled, “incredibly cynical.”
Next to all this was the Charles Manson room. In the Manson room’s video a woman was speaking, very persuasively, in Manson’s defense. I remember the moment I glanced at Gus in horror, and we shared a split-instant of recognition. “Okay,” he said. “For a second there I really started to believe her.”
I rolled my eyes. “Oh, me, too,” I said emphatically, “and then I remembered, just no.”
We nodded at each other and left the room.
Somewhere else, JFK’s death photos – priceless pictures that are said to not exist – hung on the wall in cheap plastic dime frames. Nearby were plaster death masks of Katherine Hepburn and James Dean.
The Taxidermy Room was the room that really got me gibbering. Inside there were wood “forms,” around which animal furs are eventually wrapped.
I started telling Gus about how, in the beginning, we really did stuff animals, with sawdust I think, about how they were gruesomely misshapen as a result, and about how now, in modern-day taxidermy, we use fiberglass forms instead. I thought aloud about how, as with any open-casket funeral, the deceased can never look quite the way it did in life. I excitedly described a book called Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads, which outlines the natural history museum’s long, slow debt to its predecessor, the freaky sideshow. “Freak shows are why we love science,” I reminded Gus happily. “Freak shows are why we have science.”
Gus’s favorite exhibit in the museum is Jayne Mansfield’s chihuahua, which is this awful walleyed thing displayed behind a plate of glass. The poor dog, having died in the car accident that also took Mansfield’s life, had been willed to Anton LaVey, of all people. I don’t think Mansfield meant for LaVey to end up with a dog corpse, but there you are.
“You know, Mariska Hargitay survived that car accident,” I told Gus.
“Who’s that?” Gus asked me.
“Jayne Mansfield’s daughter. She was in the car, in the backseat. Olivia Benson? On Law and Order: SVU?”
“Is she,” and Gus hesitated, “normal?”
“I mean, she has kind of crazy eyes,” I laughed, “but in interviews she seems like super well-adjusted.”
The final room was screening a bad dub of “Traces of Death.” Gus and I stuck around only to marvel at a pair of elderly tourists who were sitting on a sofa and watching the video with wide, rapt eyes. Gus asked me if I were ready to leave. “Yes, please,” I said.
As we marched toward the Honda, Gus pointed out the “Hollywood” letters, spelled out in capital floorboards, on the mountainous horizon. We talked about the failed actress who, in the 1940s, threw herself from the ‘H’. She even left a suicide note, signed with her own initials. Oh, what was her name? [Peg Entwhistle – Editor] Anyway, even in death it took two days for anyone to so much as guess at her identity. Like many of us, she died anonymously and alone.
In the car we talked about the museum. Gus admitted that, once the self-guided tour began, he’d worried it was the wrong place to take me. Or he worried I at least ought to have been warned.
The Museum of Death is uncomfortable to visit. It is cavalier about death; it is uncompromisingly irreverent, confrontational, even sick. In truth, if I had understood what the museum would be like, I might’ve never gone in. I told Gus the museum was more “Faces of Death” than I ordinarily approve. I added that, since I don’t spend any time on that part of the Internet – my eyes are perpetually averted, here – the museum had been illuminating.
Gus agreed that certain aspects of the museum had rubbed him wrong, too. “Some of the serial killer memorabilia verges on hero-worship,” he said. I nodded.
I told Gus the 1940s drunk-driving photographs were the most fun for me. “They’re grisly,” I told him, “but it all feels very distant anyway.”
“Sure,” Gus agreed, “because you think, ‘That’ll never happen to me! We don’t drive those kinds of cars now!'”
And then, for the first time in my life, I was suddenly talking about two friends who had been murdered. I’d never talked about those deaths before, but now I was telling Gus about them in spite of myself.
An earlier draft of this column described those deaths in detail. During that draft’s writing I nervously phoned my friend Mike, admitting to him that I’ve never understood why our mutual friend was killed. If that death is a photograph pinned up on the metaphorical museum wall of my mind, there has never been an explanatory caption posted underneath. A lot of deaths – murders, suicides – are like that, aren’t they? So Mike talked to me about that death a long time; afterward, I realized I didn’t feel any finality, any closure, at all. Maybe talking helped me, but the actual Knowing didn’t.
The day after our trip, Gus tweeted that our visit had been strangely “life-affirming.” I was at that moment sitting, white-knuckled, on a plane. I looked at my iPhone and nodded.
When you leave the Museum of Death, Eric (or whoever is working that day) greets you on your way out: “Have a great life!” I guess it’s part of Eric’s script, too – it’s the museum’s stock farewell. It didn’t strike me at the time. If it had, it would have hit me very hard.
I chose freelance writing because, put simply, life is short. It’s an unlikely career pick, to be sure. If I were a little more industrious, or a little faster on the uptake, maybe there would be some money in it. I don’t know.
I can explain that choice, though – and there is a real reason, apart from my being impossible to work with, chronically late, and terrified of leaving the apartment. But it wasn’t until I was criss-crossing the United States in my car Clyde, gamifying my celebrity gossip job by blogging, on schedule, from truck stops, that I got it into my crazy head that I could indeed write anything from anywhere. I kept thinking about my adoptive dad, about how he’d wanted to be a poet. (Writer Justin Amirkhani has beaten me to the punch, as it were, with his dangerously audacious travel project Gamer Unplugged.)
I said this in my review of Anna Anthropy’s book, but it strongly bears repeating: don’t sit around. Take risks. Regret is one thing; disappointing yourself is quite another. Maybe it’s important to always drive toward something.
I recently returned to wearing my engagement ring, this time on my right hand. If you’re going to fail repeatedly, you might as well do that decisively, too. You might as well choose to use the fine china, if you know what I mean.
A couple weeks ago my friend Whitney tentatively asked me about my birth-dad.
“Hmm,” I said, putting my chin in my palm and talking slowly, carefully, through my fingers. “I will say, I think I finally understand it now,” I told Whitney. “He was 35 years old, and he’d never gotten it together.”
I considered it awhile. I pushed aside my anxiety about lapping my birth-dad in age, and I seriously contemplated.
“I wish he would’ve waited,” I said finally. “If he’d waited maybe 10 years, he’d have discovered a cultural phenomenon, an entire generation of people who have no idea what they’re doing or what they want out of life.”
This gave me the giggles, and once I’d caught my breath I tried to explain: “They say the average person switches careers like 10 times. And that’s great news for me! It’s given me some leeway. Nowadays I can almost pass for normal.”
The Museum of Death is located at 6031 Hollywood Blvd in Hollywood, California. Admission is $15. You can follow Jenn Frank on Twitter @Jennatar, where she never talks about death or monster make-up.