I don ’ t know La Brea Avenue from Sunset Boulevard: Los Angeles mystifies me with its sprawling municipalities, severe beauty, and Californian easiness. I ’ m drawn to its romance and repulsed by its squalor. Flying in from Seattle to visit my boyfriend’s sister, I’m always entranced by the Pacific glittering in the sun and, once landed, I never want for amusement, but after Venice Beach and drinks on a busy patio, I notice the sun-bleached billboards, an old gas station with its windows knocked out, roads like my own city’s in desperate need of repair. Within hours L.A.’s sheen can fade, but I find it nonetheless inviting. More so, in fact, for its attainability for those of us who don’t meet its expectations of beauty. If I could take the heat, my inner Lana Del Rey could blossom here, I know it — gorgeous and tragic, chemically experimental, desperate for desperation, just as ready to die as love. For now, I ’ ll have to make do with a decent tequila buzz and admission to the ominously gated Museum of Death , which stands on an unassuming stretch of what I ’ m told is Hollywood Boulevard.
The squat, industrial building appears rather pleased with itself. Shrouded in ivy, the museum ’ s entrance boasts a two-dimensional, ten-foot skull that scowls at passersby, determined to scare the hell out of those who enter. While the breeze outside has chilled to a whisper, the air in the lobby feels thick, like lake water muddied by time and trespass: You can feel it linger over exposed flesh and nestle in creases. The entryway displays an extensive selection of souvenirs spattered with museum identifiers and skulls.
Greeted by a woman with coppery skin and hair, we shuffle forward to pay admission. “ Any of you been here before? ” she asks. We say no, adding quickly that we ’ ve meant to, but the woman seems disinterested in patron loyalty. “ Then I should warn you to take your time. If you feel nauseous or dizzy, don ’ t force yourself to go on. We have plenty of people pass out. You don ’ t want to be one of them. ”
I typically respond to medical advisory with sheepish acquiescence. But once through the corridor, I ’ m startled by a confused sense of regret. Not a dizzy feeling, but still a reason to second-guess our little field trip. The first small room is devoted to the 1970s career, case, incarceration, and art of John Wayne Gacy, Jr. On some level I had expected to spend much of the tour visiting with serial killers, if only as mimeographs and Polaroids, but none have needled into my subconscious the way Gacy has. Sufjan Stevens, the folk singer, is much to blame; write one lovely, empathetic song about the man who dressed as a clown then raped and murdered boys, and you ’ ve essentially tapped into every facet of my nexus of desire and dread.
Stevens released the track the summer before I entered college, five years before I would come to terms with my sexuality. The fear that its repression might one day result in my committing atrocities like Gacy ’ s was already stewing deep inside then. “ In my best behavior, ” sings Stevens, sweetly, hauntingly. “ I am really just like him. ” Whatever he meant when he wrote that line I ’ ll never know, but I knew what I felt when I heard it. David Sedaris knows, too. In his essay “ Chicken in the Henhouse, ” the humorist recalls a radio call-in show in which the Catholic priest scandal was the focal point. “ Little by little, ” Sedaris writes, “ they ’ d begin interchanging the words homosexual and pedophile , speaking as if they were one and the same. ” It ’ s possible every gay boy has at one point or another questioned the distinction in terms; the loudest, most pervasive stories of child abuse seem to involve an adult of the same sex. Though I was raised Protestant, the theory persists in those circles as well, if not in that specific form, in others that include hypnotism, demon possession, and Satanism. Even on my best behavior, I couldn ’ t amount to anything more than a monster.
But here in this room, with photo after photo of Gacy ’ s disgusting face, my only feeling is sadness: for the boys he hurt, for the boy I was when I believed that the only possible outcome for a homosexual was one involving pedophilia. Life looked bleak, and death so appealing. All I ’ d heard about people like me came from the likes of Audrey, the radio show antagonist, saying, “ These homosexuals can ’ t reproduce themselves, and so they go into the schools and try to recruit our young people. ” Likely, she pictured a sad, sweaty clown, liquor on his breath and a glint in his eye.
The museum displays several letters, messily scrawled on low-grade paper, alongside Gacy ’ s crude original art, clowns mostly. There are photos as well, news clippings, tracing the trajectory of a man who violated children before introducing them to death. I realize as I scour these materials — detailing his brutality, his clear lack of remorse, his wanton cruelty — that, however sentimental and earnest Stevens ’ s music is, there is no way on earth I can relate to this murderer, no matter how vulnerable I am to a somber melody. In an ironic twist, my fear of becoming Gacy reflected my inability to manifest him; my overblown sense of guilt precluded his menace. Fear stemmed from dramatic and outlandish conclusions that had little to do with reality, and as it suffocated in an anaerobic environment I had contrived as a safeguard, it started to hallucinate, drawing lines where lines were never meant to go.
Mercifully, I feel no more teenaged fear of lashing out in simultaneous acts of indulgence and revenge. Since coming out, my empathy now lies by its greatest measure with thirty-three dead boys, many packed into the crawl space of a Chicago home. It ’ s not ours to know if any of them were queer, but it ’ s hard for me to believe none of them were, their world shifting in ripples after the Stonewall riots of 1969. What can be said of boys whose misplaced trust, optimism, friendship, and good humor had in turn been used as fatal weapons against them? It seems like danger sometimes develops in direct proportion to safety. Beauty and decay: the unhappy conjoined twins of progress.
I ’ m wondering now what it will mean to go on with this tour, having already seen its capacity to reflect my bifurcated anxieties about death, both its cause and its experience.
Moving into subsequent rooms, however, I ’ m struck by how easily I fall into the flow. Stifled as the air may be, I am rather comfortable moving through the gallery, which brims with guillotine history, state-sponsored executions, gruesome crimes of passion, myriad picklings of life forms, and genocide. As with most exhibits, I begin attentively, attempting to read in full every placard and notation, only to become quickly overwhelmed by the volume. How can one begin to process the breadth of fatality chronicled in what is ostensibly a gritty, punk mausoleum packed with shellacked and framed taxidermy? For many of us, digesting one person ’ s death requires an exhaustive grieving period.
My grandmother died recently, after months of assisted living, medicinal cocktails, frequent hospital visits, an excruciating hip fracture, hospice, and the execution of advance directives. At ninety, her body had reached a point of preparing itself for an exit; she made her peace and passed on, leaving the rest of us to figure out how to cope without her joy and enthusiasm. To imagine, just for a moment, the rippling effect of grief on the families and friends affected by each death represented in the museum leaves me feeling defeated. So it follows that I would adopt some apathy and move on, grateful to once again put safely behind me the ghost that Gacy ’ s face shook from a crypt many years closed.
Happily, there is a segue. Between one room of grim, government-issued death sentences and another that features gruesome, if idiotic, photos of a woman and her lover murdering her husband whilst taking turns posing for a disposable camera, there lies a mortuary antechamber. It is significant to note that I have long considered undertaking as something of a backup career to this wacky book industry I ’ m tangled up in. (Thanks, Thomas Lynch.) The vocation would exercise my fascination with the complexities and beauty of human anatomy without having the responsibility of keeping a body alive. Additionally, in assisting the bereaved, I could employ skills in empathy and compassion that I cultivated throughout my Christian upbringing, however jaded I may be now toward organized worship.
The antechamber is crammed with caskets, urns, rubber tubing, embalming fluid, makeup, and doodads designed to keep a cadaver looking dignified for viewings — domes to keep eyelids round and plump, stitching to keep mouths closed, stuff like that: emblems of grace the likes of Gacy never afford to victims. Suddenly my fascination with the Museum of Death has lost its modifier, morbid . My ghosts evanesce for a moment, and I gamely study every odd, every end, imagining a life a little too close to the HBO series Six Feet Under to feel like I fully grasp the implications of this “ alternate career. ” Absent the body horror, the heartbreaking discoveries left in the wake of human brutality, the agonizing final moments, months or years of physical decay, death boasts numerous curios for those of us aiming for that shiny, flawless finish.
My grandmother was cremated, like my grandfather and his parents, and the interment ceremony at the mausoleum was brief and quiet. Only a few people were present, the handful of us who had seen her during her final days, when her body no longer remembered how it should look or act—we who could appreciate the mercy of incineration. Her memorial service would be the following day at her retirement home, but the moments we spent in that quiet room full of urns felt potent to me, even sacred. Whole lives stood represented by a name and two dates engraved into brass. I don ’ t say reduced because I think that ’ s simplistic; we never talk about religious iconography as having been reduced to a few strokes of a paintbrush. The names, dates, urns, flowers — they ’ re all telling a story replete with holiness.
And yet, what I learned about my grandmother ’ s ashes made me let out a peal of laughter. Years ago, when my grandfather—an engineer who lived his life convinced of Murphy ’ s Law—passed on, his cremains were poured into an urn to sit beside the one holding his parents ’ ashes. As an only child, he and his wife would share one urn in the family crypt. Logistics would, however, prove troublesome: My grandfather was a very tall man, and his ashes would not leave enough room for the entirety of my grandmother ’ s. To me and my aunts, this turn of events was comically fitting. My uncle, however, grew irate with the funerary staff. Trespassing his mother ’ s final dignity marred the possibility of that conclusive, flawless finish.
What happens with the cadaver impacts the family deeply, occasionally in ways even they don ’ t expect. It reminds me that I should be working on a living will. I don ’ t want my boyfriend or parents in the awful position of determining how long I stay on life support; I don ’ t want my manuscripts to be lost in a digital purgatory. As a teen, I ’ d grown fond of the idea of death, and fantasized about the grief and regret others might express when I passed away. Usually there were grisly car wrecks or tragic drownings involved — dramatic, gorgeous, desperate cries for attention. I thought in death I might experience the intimacy and honesty I longed for in life. Now I realize how messy death is, not so much with fluids and decay as with paperwork. Does Nick know my personal identification numbers? Which bills are in my name? What happens to our mortgage? There are so many pieces ready to fall out of place the moment we breathe our last, partners and family get buried, too. Now my overblown hallucinatory fears spawn from the cases in which family members box out surviving queer partners.
Moreover, my worst fear is Nick not coming home: When he works late, that part of my brain that once fantasized about the end of my life flips the script. In my nightmares, the streets of Seattle become rife with senseless murderers.
Which brings me to the room at the end of a long, narrow hallway, by now my margarita buzz has entirely worn off. I lurk in the doorway a moment before immersing myself in the Manson murders, and it ’ s then that I actually feel the nausea I ’ d previously been warned of. So disturbing is Charles Manson ’ s craving for fame and his psychopathic power to kill with other people ’ s hands. In Manson , biographer Jeff Guinn reminds us how “‘ he appeared to relish ’ the crowd that jammed the courtroom to see him. ” If fame was all he ever wanted, he ’ s succeeded in spades, and this room is a witness.
Charlie ’ s legacy intrigues me because it fully captures a pivotal moment in history through the lens of Hollywood glamour. It is horror as much as it is gossip, as cinematic as it is nauseating. I take a deep breath and imagine L.A. in the late 1960s. The Vietnam War machine, chaos at Altamont Speedway, ongoing racial unrest, particularly since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. — and here again we have the Stonewall riots, backlash to police brutality directed at queer bar patrons in New York City — fear and death already soaked through ’ 69, and now this. I marvel at how so many earth-shattering events date back to that year, an era filtered through so much media — so much entertainment — that I can ’ t help but see it in melodramatic sepia.
Charlie had his “ crazy ” act, a defense mechanism he perfected in his troubled youth, to scare away threats, theatrics he employed from his trial all the way through to sentencing. However Brian Hugh Warner chose to assume the Manson name, I can be certain the macabre theatre of Marilyn Manson is how I first became familiar with Charlie. I was a closeted gay kid in the ’ 00s, with no access to the stage but a casual relationship to Hot Topic franchises. I ’ ve never cared for Marilyn ’ s music, much like the world never cared for Charlie ’ s, but from my sheltered religious upbringing, the Marilyn character seemed dangerous. Maybe I understand his cultish allure better in retrospect because Lana Del Rey does for me what Marilyn never could. I identify with Lana because I, too, have imagined dark, tragic romances culminating in death. Her theatre is not unlike Marilyn ’ s in that sense. Or Charlie ’ s for that matter: “ death is psychosomatic, ” he kept telling his devotees. But while Marilyn and Lana found success in their music, Charlie only managed to cultivate a small following — but they killed at his command, something that cannot be said of the others. Nevertheless, looking around at the crime scene photos, autopsy notes, and original art by the convicted felon (serial killers love drawing; they ’ re also tremendously bad at it), it looks like Manson finally got what he came for: recognition.
If that sounds defeatist, I would warn that there is something worse about forgetting him. I ’ d like to believe that those paying attention to Charlie are smarter for it, and more prepared to thwart future Charlie Mansons. Furthermore, it ’ s those who are paying attention to the victims, like Amber Tamblyn, that I consider wiser . Of Sharon Tate, in the elegiac collection of poetry Dark Sparkler , Tamblyn imagines the actress ’ s unborn child seeing “ blades like ships crash through her vessels,/ a celestial pattern,/ the deep peepholes of God. ” Provocatively, the poem faces a sinister illustration by Marilyn Manson, commissioned for the book, and Tamblyn seizes the recognition Charlie grasped for, re-appropriating it to the mother and baby he killed. Dark Sparkler stands vigil for Hollywood ’ s lost daughters — women who died young, their memories quickly fading from the public consciousness — and subverts the machine by drawing attention to its castoffs. It invokes the very kind of woman Lana Del Rey channels in her performances.
Too often in death we remember the killer and not the killed. Activists urge us to say the names of women brutalized and murdered by police: Tanisha Anderson, Rekia Boyd, Miriam Carey, Michelle Cusseaux, Shelly Frey, and Kayla Moore. And I ’ m still thinking about those boys in Gacy ’ s basement. In our own ways we are grasping for emblems of dignity to apply to mutilated corpses, invoking a coda on lives cut short, refuting the loudest stories by telling the truer versions.
Truthfully, I want to believe that the Museum of Death aims toward the revolutionary act of remembrance, but it ’ s less apparent. It certainly doesn ’ t condone the actions of vicious murderers, but there ’ s a little too much voyeuristic gratification involved for me to see any particularly noble intentions either. That said, I’m complicit; I am here, on my own dime, and not exactly hating the experience. I think it ’ s completely normal to have a curiosity, even fascination, with death. It is, after all, a fact of life, and a life fully lived should be rewarded with its unburdening. My grandmother came into this world in 1924, and she went on to become a nurse, marry, raise four children, devote countless hours to her community, and enrich the lives of seven grandchildren before passing on. Though her finish on this earth had been relatively gentle, in many ways flawless, my memory of her can now fully reside in the occasion when she finally met Nick, rather than my bearing witness to the pain of her final months. Leaning toward me to observe how handsome he is, she put to final rest that ghost that had haunted me for decades. It is a piece of her that I can carry with me forever.
Her memorial service, the day following the interment of her ashes, was plentiful with anecdotes like that, a ceremony for her excellency. Say Her Name protesters and Amber Tamblyn ’ s poetry declare that the act of remembering—and speaking out—in the face of death is powerful; it can be an indictment. Survivors solidify their relationship to the grieved, whether coming to harmony with the loss or in righteous anger over it, but to remain silent feels like a second death. Fatality is a fact—how we respond to it determines its lasting effect on the living.
Maybe the same can be said of this museum. As I gawk at the Manson exhibit, I wonder, How does someone like this happen? Jeff Guinn is succinct in his concluding analysis: Charlie Manson was “ the wrong man in the right place at the right time. ” But coming to that realization requires more than a quick dismissal of the study as morbid, depraved, or depressing. One must reconcile with devastation to have any hope of recovering from it. Death — and its museum, I must now admit — offers itself in an irksomely neutral way. Its causes may be legion, but its effect is simple and unique. We may rage, or weep, or deny causes of death, but at some point we must reconcile with its nature.
And it ’ s easy to get waylaid by the gruesome details, violent struggles, secretive plots, inhumane policies, legal paperwork, and urns too small to fit what remains. In the avalanche of events begun by a death, how quickly we can forget who it was that lived.
When I eventually wander back into the lobby, I ’ m in a haze. More tourists have stumbled in the front door and are laughing with the woman behind the counter over her latest shipment of souvenirs—squirrel taxidermy, I think. It seems like a small detail, but their glee troubles me. Emerging from my tour of the exhibits, I am in a solemn mood strangely akin to the one I was in at my grandmother’s interment. And yet, hadn ’ t I been laughing shortly thereafter, too? It takes me a few moments to relax again and appreciate their rapport for what it is: people reconciling with death.
Nick rejoins me in the lobby, and then his sister. As we drift around the gift shop area, we quietly reminisce about our experiences, careful not to let the woman behind the counter overhear in case we thought the museum crass or tacky. Our consensus, however, was one of enjoyment, and so we take our time shopping. But I want to talk more openly. I want to debrief fully and share what made me sick and what made me sad and what made me laugh, and so I suggest getting another round of drinks. Somewhere in that dark, glamorous city Lana Del Rey is always singing about, a small watering hole is calling my name. The night outside the museum is still young, still beautiful. And when we finally quit this place, it feels like a mercy.