Dyeing the Dead, a Dying Art: And Other Tricks of the Horror-Shop Business at Dapper Cadaver
When you absolutely, positively need that dead baby overnight, BJ Winslow is the man to see. If you’ve ever wondered if there are corpses inside those austere, prefab concrete warehouses in the industrial section of Burbank, there are now. Fake ones. Winslow’s horror shop, Dapper Cadaver, has just made the move to a space twice as big as his old Hollywood Boulevard spot, meaning there is now room to properly walk around the torture furniture.
But some things haven’t changed — at his brand-new office, Winslow still hangs up his coat inside the iron maiden he’s had for years.
“This is our collection of oddities,” Winslow says with pride as he inventories his new digs. “We have taxidermy squirrels, phrenology heads, a two-headed mouse. Here,” he says with the wave of an arm, “we have our autopsy instruments, bone saws, skull mallets. Any way you need to open a skull, we’ve got the tools.”
The more wicked instruments are not for sale to dubious individuals. “Like, we’re not going to sell the autopsy long knife to private citizens,” Winslow says. “It’s too dangerous.” As for identifying who is dubious and who isn’t, a psycho is like a piece of fine art: You know one when you see one.
The shop’s most beautiful item, in Winslow’s opinion, is a diaphonized rat whose bones glow red beneath white jelly flesh. “Diaphonization is the dying art of dyeing the dead,” he quips, then scans the Victorian caskets propped against a wall. “This is a child’s casket, never used, obviously. We also have a selection of modern caskets. Then, over here. we have corpses. Mutilated corpses, male corpses, female corpses, baby corpses, a whole family pack.”
He stoops to inspect the interrogation chair. It took a beating at a party and came back with some of its spikes falling off. In the middle of showing off a pig fetus from 1858 — looking ever so much like a disturbingly large, kosher pickle — an employee scurries in with two almost identical hearts in two jars. “Excuse me, BJ. Which one should we send?”
Winslow frowns at the two jars appraisingly. “Definitely this one,” he decides. “With the hearts in jars,” he explains, “a lot of people give them as romantic gifts.”
He takes a cell phone call from the producers of the new Friday the 13th, but won’t reveal the gruesome details. “Yes ... yes ... we can do that . excellent.” He laughs his creepy little laugh.
Winslow is 30 years old, a cheerful and gregarious person, with a lupine beard and longish, translucent werewolf fingernails. He grew up in Petaluma next to a cemetery and a forest.
“I was always coming home with bones,” he says.
From the cemetery?
“No, from the forest.”
As you’d expect, he is not scared of much. Not of the Feegee mermaid slumbering in a glass case. Not of the replica eye with the nerve still attached. Certainly not of the miscellaneous spleens, kidneys and lungs — the largest specimen selection this side of the county morgue.
Other people, however, are plenty scared of Winslow and his merchandise. “Screaming children have always been a part of my life,” he sighs contentedly.
His own mild-mannered Buddhist assistant Tristan shivers as I flip through gory photos of Winslow’s contributions to Saw, Nip/Tuck and Silent Hill in the brag book. “I never look at that stuff,” Tristan cringes. “Buddhism is about compassion and there’s not much compassion in there.” But then Tristan’s grimace softens into a grin. He picks up a gummy mouse on the counter: “Want a rat? These are great to put in the freezer. Then you go, ‘Hey mom! Can you get me some ice?’ I’ve got a rat sitting on the lap of a naked Barbie doll in my fridge.”
“It’s nice having the store,” Winslow says. “When you’re the kid growing up collecting bone saws, it worries the aunt.” Blood, however, is thicker than water. “Dear BJ,” his aunt wrote in her holiday card, “Every year TV gets more violent and disgusting. You must be doing very well. We’re so proud.”
The only truly haunted item in the place, a leering monkey-skull talisman necklace presented to Winslow by a Burmese headhunter, used to be at his house — until his wife made him remove it. It was giving her nightmares.
Winslow’s role in the store is all-inclusive. It means fashioning a severed pig head one day, and blogging the next. “Every so often I get someone in the shop, who asks me if I think vampires are real in a tone so serious I know if I say ‘yes,’ they’ll offer to suck my blood,” he writes. “So I usually dodge the question.”
People who are in the business of making things scary are drawn to him like zombies to fresh meat. Sideshowmen, freak-show proprietors, hungry film students. He has a skull for every budget, a hand-wrapped mummy for every personality.
Verisimilitude is the goal. To get more realistic-looking foam tombstones, you’d pretty much have to die. “BJ does good work, and his prices are reasonable,” one satisfied customer says. “For example, say you’re in the market for reusable latex intestines. You can search all week and you won’t beat his price: only $8 a foot — and you have a choice of large intestines or small intestines. If you just need to rent your intestines, you can do so at half price.”
You can even rent the very skeletons that danced with the cast of Bones in a TV commercial. Or the brain that starred in Young Frankenstein the Musical. But those desperate for a chupacabra are out of luck. Winslow’s sold to a carnival in Florida. “No,” he reconsiders, “I mean, it escaped.”
People who require things that are unintentionally scary come to him as well. He spent the morning taking Internet orders and dealing with the mole penis bone people from the Bacula Society. “I can get you one, no questions asked,” he says.
An order for fake daggers came in, and then someone needed a skull for a production of Hamlet. “This skull’s name is Marcus,” Winslow says, “but he’s going to play Horatio.” He puts the skull on a table already crowded with human and animal specimens with assorted maladies — ax to the head, 22-caliber shot, bashed, machete-chopped, etcetera.
“I used to pick up stuff like this all the time,” he reminisces while on hold, phone cradled on his shoulder. “Well, not the tiger! I didn’t grow up in Africa.”
More recently, some television producers needed tapeworms in a big hurry. “Well, we don’t keep tapeworms in stock,” he says. So you can imagine his glee calling the TV station and ultimately declaring: “Your worms are in the air.”
“I’m only looking to get one torso,” he says, turning his attention to the person on the other end of the line. “Those are gone? There’s zero of those left? Darn.”
Next month Winslow will start hosting artist nights where people come in to sketch from the skeletons. He figures these nights will be called Drawing Blood.
It should be said that none of the human remains are real. He once got a request for human brains. “You’ve come to the right place,” he said. “We’ve got more brains than anybody in the city. We’ve got foam brains, silicone brains, jello brains, deer brains, sheep brains, cow brains, small brains, big brains, any brains you need.”
“No,” said the caller. “It’s gotta be real human brains.”
This was in the first few months he’d been on the job, before he learned to ask why someone might want genuine human guts. He tracked down an organ broker. “The organ broker was like, ‘No, dude. You can’t have a brain.’” It was a gross mistake.
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