The Museum of Death in Hollywood seems fairly innocuous on the outside. It isn’t until you walk in the front door and are confronted with the “test picture” that you have some idea what’s in store for you. The test picture reveals a hideous accident scene where a motorcyclist and a semi-truck collided, scattering the remains of the biker over the pavement. He was in seven “chunks”, entrails artfully arranged, various body parts decorating the road. I found myself trying to figure out which chunks of his body belonged where, analyzing the bits and pieces as if I could somehow reconstruct him in my mind. My stomach turned over and I felt dizzy; yet I couldn’t tear myself away from that picture. This man had been reduced to meat. I don’t know how else to put it. This was dead beyond the mere ending of life; this was butchery and desecration. It felt as if something perpetuated an unholy act. But what? It was an accident, that’s all, something that could happen to any of us at any time.
I moved through the various rooms. Ironically, the one thing I couldn’t watch was the embalming video. The man was dead, but watching the technician struggle to insert embalming fluid into his femoral artery was just too much for me. Again, meat: pale, cold, rubbery meat. The Victorian pictures of dead children didn’t pose a problem for me until I saw the baby with her eyes wide open. She seemed shocked, surprised by her demise, somehow frozen in the loss of her entire life. The head of the serial killer didn’t move me–it seemed as if it had been pickled and dried for all eternity. I didn’t spend much time in the Manson rooms; too familiar, too sad. The Heaven’s Gate presentation left me cold–stupid people making even stupider decisions. I felt no connection to those tragedies. Later, I walked down the hallway and was confronted by a series of pictures taken by the psycho boyfriend of a woman who decided to 1) convince her boyfriend to murder her husband, 2) dismember the corpse with a saw, starting with his genitalia, and 3) take pictures of the whole process, since it was so much fun to document how she stuck the severed foot into the mouth of his bloody, decapitated head, placed the middle finger of his severed hand up his nose, and various other delightful fancies. She, of course, was naked during this whole process, enjoying herself tremendously. The joy would have never ended if the moronic couple hadn’t decided to send the roll of film to Thrifty’s for developing (this was the 80’s–no digital photos). The shocked clerk notified the authorities, they were duly arrested, and the wife–well, she’s out of jail now. Boys, be careful who you date on the Internet or your pictures will end up in the Museum of Death.
There were some realities I could not face. The pictures of torture and the mangled corpses from the war in Iraq, the death camp photos from Hitler’s reign of terror, victims of the Salvadoran death squads . . . the brute facts of the pain we inflict upon each other was more than I could stand. The grand scale of that horror is numbing, beyond emotion. It was, instead, the smaller and more intimate portraits of death that remained burned into my psyche: the autopsy photos of JFK, the last picture of Marilyn Monroe, dead and livid, her eyes open. She looked like a confused child, overcome with the reality of her last moments. I cried looking at her; the most powerful man and the most beautiful woman, humiliated and defeated. The serial killer rooms, with Gacy’s artwork on display, reflected a total loss of humanity or any of the qualities that identify us as human. This was a study in pathology and psychosis, a portrait of minds so altered by trauma or genetic deficit–or perhaps head injuries to just the wrong area–that there was no way to understand them as fully sentient beings. They were creatures from the underworld, or perhaps fragments of nightmares come to life. Their lack of empathy or compassion–or even identification with other human beings–placed them into a different category of existence. They would kill me and eat me like a wild animal would–it’s just their nature.
The continuous loop of “Traces of Death” played in the “lounge” for our amusement. By that time, I was unable to feel much of anything but nausea. I watched it, and felt a slight revulsion, but I had reached the point of saturation. Amazing how one can become resistant to these images, how they lose their meaning after a while–is that what happens to people after years of violence? I suppose so; but to feel it in myself was horrifying. The end of my journey brought some insights: first, I was thrilled to be alive. I felt as if I had escaped something, even if briefly. Second, corpses have lost what makes them human–a soul, an animating spirit. They may contain traces of a last emotion, or perhaps the soul lingers awhile after their bodily death, attempting to make sense of the incomprehensible. Essentially, however, dead bodies are meat. They are only shells or remains, something left behind. We are supposed to feel some veneration for the dead body, but I felt none. Ironically, all those bloody, dismembered and destroyed corpses only reinforced my belief in the soul. The road kill in the “test picture” has nothing to do with who he was, or is now. None of those bodies, however gruesomely displayed, tell us anything about the spirit that moves on. When I’m a dead body, I am not me; I’m just a chunk of organic material.
That’s OK. It sucks to die, especially if you’re the husband of an insane and morbidly creative woman. But once your death is over, your life starts again. Death is just a brief, unpleasant moment that will pass into history. Trust me, you won’t care what they do to your poor mortal coil. Unless, of course, your better half is busy stuffing your privates into your ears.