Museum of Death provides morbid thrills

Like many native Southern Californians, I become extremely dramatic when it rains. So when faced with a slight drizzle last weekend, I donned black clothing and visited the Museum of Death.

MOD was founded in 1995 by J.D. Healy and Cathee Shultz, who “realized the void in the death education in this country and decided to make death their life’s work.” Prior to founding the museum, the couple curated a controversial art show featuring work by serial killers.

After exiting the Metro’s Hollywood/Vine station, my friends and I trudged down the Hollywood Walk of Fame, which was devoid of tourists due to the gloomy weather, until we spotted the Museum of Death in all its glory: a small, one-story building concealed by vines and pink flowers. We entered the museum through an iron gate adorned with a giant skull.

I was expecting another weird, kitschy Hollywood experience akin to Ripley’s Believe It or Not! or the Hollywood Wax Museum. Warning signs of MOD’s serious scariness appeared as soon as we entered the building. The gift shop features taxidermied animals, hearts in jars and T-shirts that proclaim, “I passed out at Museum of Death.”

“Should I get the enclosed heart for my girlfriend for Valentine’s Day?” my friend Aaron asked sarcastically.

The museum is split into 12 sections that have names such as “Suicide Hall,” “Antique Mortician Apparatuses” and “Cannibalism Niche.” In the first section, “Serial Killer Archives,” we learned that our own Los Angeles is the serial murder capital of the world.

“There’s something that will make my parents happy,” commented my friend Nicole.

The room features an A to Z guide to serial killers, from Albert Fish to the Zodiac Killer, as well as a helpful list of the “Top 10 Ways to Tell if Your Neighbor’s a Serial Killer.” Telltale signs include changing the channel whenever “America’s Most Wanted” is on, as well as a rapid expansion of the town newspaper’s obituary section.

As an ode to MOD’s start as an art show, walls are covered in the art of serial killers, gallery-style. If you don’t think about how jarring it is to see notorious killers celebrated and memorialized like celebrities, the displays are intriguing. One of the creepiest murderers featured — and in a room dedicated to serial killers, that’s something — was Pogo the Clown, who dressed up as a party clown to gain access to young children. A glass case prominently displays Pogo’s red and white shoes.

As we passed through the “Carnage Corridor,” I hit my limit. Gruesome images that I won’t describe in detail included a crazy wife who’d murdered her husband. Even more disturbing was the MOD description, which noted that the woman was alive and out of prison. Terrified and slightly nauseated, I found myself wondering what brought me here; I’d never even made it through a scary movie. Then I remembered — it was the rain’s fault.

We rushed out of the corridor into the “Room of Skulls,” which included dogs, giraffes and elephants.

“At least we know for sure that everything in here is dead,” said my friend Chai.

The museum is at times educational; it satiates long-festering curiosities. Events like the Manson murders and the Heaven’s Gate scandal, which I’d only heard vaguely about, were explained in explicit detail. MOD went all out in recreating the scene from Heaven’s Gate, a mass suicide that occurred in San Diego in 1997. The display includes actual bunk beds and uniforms from the group.

These investigative qualities were reiterated by Clark, one of the museum’s workers, when asked what we’d been wondering all along — why would anyone want to work here?

Clark reassured me that his career choice was driven by noble curiosity, not a creepy obsession with gruesome death scenes.

“I became interested in the Museum of Death because it describes events that happened when I was a kid, so I never fully understood them,” explained Clark, who now pens many of the museum’s display descriptions.

The museum prides itself on authenticity. Initially, I thought the museum’s $15 admission ($13 for students) was a bit pretentious, until I realized how expensive it is to obtain real Heaven’s Gate uniforms, antique caskets from the 1990s, and the head of Henri Landru, an 1800s French serial killer also known as Bluebeard. Visitors who can stomach fully examining all of the museum’s grotesque displays definitely get their money’s worth of death education.

So, why visit the Museum of Death? Why do people watch horror movies and go to haunted houses? For some reason, fear and entertainment go hand in hand, maybe because the fear of death makes us happy to be alive. We might have left scared and disturbed, but also grateful to be alive.

But mostly disturbed.

Erin Rode is a freshman studying environmental engineering and print and digital journalism. Her column, “The Rode Less Traveled,” runs Thursdays.