Los Angeles: The place death lives

By Megan Singleton

Megan Singleton summons up the courage to enter the Museum of Death in LA, and ponders the Dark Tourism trend

The entrance to the Museum of Death, Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, California. Photo / Megan Singleton
The entrance to the Museum of Death, Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, California. Photo / Megan Singleton

I should never have gone in. I knew when I was looking around the welcome area that this museum would freak me out, but in the interests of a good story, I paid $15 and walked through the curtains.

"Welcome area" is a misnomer. There is nothing welcoming about the Museum of Death on LA's Sunset Boulevard. Behind the blood-red velvet curtains was another curtain, this time clinking beads. We pushed them apart and the noise made a woman in the windowless room nearly collapse in fright. I soon saw why.

She and her husband were engrossed in newspaper clippings accompanied by crime scene photos of a gruesome death. We laughed uneasily.

This place made me jumpy. It had a slight smell that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and my stomach began to churn. My husband - a policeman - was utterly fascinated, more by the audacity of the exhibition than by the images he was seeing. I just wanted to clutch his arm and close my eyes.

The owner of this grisly flotsam of humanity, James Dean (he assured me this was his real name), explained that this current collection is only a part of what he owns in the genre of death. He's been an avid collector for 25 years and his exhibits run from his own taxidermied pets in a dusty trophy room to body bags, torture chairs and gruesome crime scene photos that he has requested directly from the courts and now displays on the walls.

In the United States, the First Amendment right to freedom of expression means that the victim's right to privacy doesn't exist. When I asked Dean about this, he just responded that the victims' families don't have to visit. Apparently it's okay in America to gather information and images about anybody to make money out of them.

It took me several hours before my stomach settled and I was able to shove the images aside. And it got me thinking about the ethics around this genre known as Dark Tourism. Where should we draw the line?

Is it okay that photos of a man who has been decapitated by his betraying wife and her secret boyfriend are now on the wall at The Museum of Death? Incidentally, it was these photos that were her downfall. She and her lover, both naked and posing with a hacksaw poised over the mutilated body of her unsuspecting husband as he watched television, were processed by a "friend" at a local drug store, but packaged by another colleague, who called the cops. The man got life in prison and she got six years. She's already out.

But, while I was affected by the things I saw here, I wonder if I would feel the same way about the collection of gruesome photos of Pol Pot's Tuol Sleng prison in Cambodia.

Or is this somehow an educational pilgrimage, a piece of history that, by visiting and being shocked, we vow never to forget the horror that one person, one regime or one nation can perpetrate on the innocent?

Or is it a numbers game? Paying money to visit the site where many deaths took place seems somehow noble, but when it's one anonymous person without political motivation, it's sick?

Perhaps it's the grisly images? I visited the Crime Museum in Washington DC two years ago. There, exhibitions feature graphic accounts of serial killers and brutal mafia wars in Chicago in the 1910s, but without the colour photos.

However, Ted Bundy's VW Beetle sits in the foyer of that institution, doors thrust open to show exactly where he placed his bound victims before torturing and killing them.

It seems that today, we can be too blase about immersing ourselves in the macabre. Over time we've depersonalised it so that other people's suffering barely moves us. Many monuments around the world are in place to remember tragic passings - New York's 911 Freedom Tower will be completed in 2013, 12 years after the attack.

It's a conundrum. I don't want to see footage of people leaping to their deaths from the World Trade Center, but I'm okay to read their names in the memorial that now lies on the site where they brutally landed that day. Is it different for everyone, perhaps? Dark Tourism is a popular genre; just look at the hordes who go to Gallipoli each year. But seeing photos of the bloodied and broken bodies lying at Chunuk Bair might be where we draw the line.

If Dark Tourism can help give us an insight into a world in which we don't want to live, then maybe it has its place. But if it is purely a revenue stream for twisted individuals to indulge in a base fantasy world, then I say use the red marker and draw that line.

* Megan Singleton was assisted to the Los Angeles by Air Tahiti Nui.

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