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A Considerable Town

Behind the Scenes at the Museum of Death

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Thu, Oct 24, 2013 at 6:00 AM
click to enlarge JD Healy and Cathee Shultz with their pet iguana - PHOTO BY RYAN ORANGE
  • Photo by Ryan Orange
  • JD Healy and Cathee Shultz with their pet iguana

The madness of Halloween is here, and across L.A. mazes and haunted houses are screaming for your dollar. For JD Healy and Cathee Shultz, though, it's just another day at the office.

The couple's Museum of Death, located just off the main tourist drag at Hollywood and Gower, regularly has customers fainting over what they see — though Healy is quick to point out that it's for a different reason than most gore-heavy attractions: "We're not about horror; we're about death. If I wanted to scare people, believe me, I could, but that's not our main goal. We're holding a mirror up to society, and we want to educate people about death — for you to scare yourself."

Initially located in San Diego, the museum grew unexpectedly out of Healy's conceptual project about breakfast cereal, and how consumerism manipulates us from cradle to grave. Punning on the homophones of cereal and serial, the married couple separately wrote to a number of serial killers, though Shultz stopped when Night Stalker Richard Ramirez asked for a picture of her feet.

Over time, things began to go in another direction. Healy built an exhibit of execution devices — life-size gallows, guillotine and pendulum — and when the pair learned that their gallery building had been the first mortuary in San Diego, they decided to use the basement as a small museum to house Healy's "dark and deep" artworks, exhibits and letters. Their annual show of serial-killer artwork became a popular event.

Seeking a bigger audience, they decided in 2000 to move the museum to Hollywood, but landlord hassles kept it closed for several years. The couple worked at normal jobs, even as they kept up their mutual love of collecting "anything that's different — anything that's not normal," as Healy puts it. (The Hollywood museum finally opened in 2008.)

Donations came in, too — old police files and crime-scene photographs (don't drink and drive, kids, and wear a seat belt!). The most notable is presented beside the Alcatraz door, which serves as entrance to the exhibits. "There was a paranoid schizophrenic who, after reading in the Bible, 'If thy hand offend thee, cut it off,' did exactly that," Healy says. "The hospital tried but failed to reattach it, and somehow en route to the incinerator it ended up on our doorstep."

Since the man was still alive, Healy couldn't show it — "It really had nothing to do with death." He kept the hand for years in his freezer before selling it to a photographer; the buyer's photo is now on display.

Healy was, he admits, "a strange kid": "I would find dead animals or roadkill, bury them in the backyard, then dig up the bones. I had a pet crab I used to take walking on a leash. I was always asking questions my parents wouldn't answer about death."

Clean-shaven under his Dodgers cap, the fast-talking 52-year-old sees the museum as a series of carefully curated installations — the Mortician & Funeral Room, for instance, with its fascinating "how-to" video about embalming. While it initially seems harmless ("Tilt the deceased's head 15 degrees to the right for viewing"; who knew?), it gets much more graphic. "We had a Marine drop right here, passed out," says Shultz, 51.

The walls in this room are covered with an exhibition called "Fanning the Flames of Death." Though there are also caskets, body bags and morticians' instruments, it's the huge display of matchbooks and fans from funeral homes and crematoriums that catches the eye.

"They give you matches so you can smoke — which will kill you!" Healy says, shaking his head. He moves to a glass cabinet of other mortuary-branded souvenirs. "There's a gun-shaped comb, pocket knives, ice tongs, shrimp forks, a frozen food saw? Who was the person who came up with these?"

Nearby is a small, white-lined box containing beautiful brown flowers — woven from the hair of living family members as a gift for the deceased, a common tribute in Victorian times. Early and infant death was so common then that "mourning" could include family pictures featuring the child's corpse.

Recent acquisitions include taxidermied puppies from England, a two-headed calf and a hippo's skull. (Healy has a passion for skulls, explaining, "I just think they look really cool.") The latter now sits alongside the skulls of a hammerhead shark, giraffe, elephant and many others.

He is always looking for shrunken heads, to join the murdering "Bluebeard of France" and others: "Whenever the mail comes, it's like Christmas. We get parcels of all sizes, and we don't know what's inside them — it's so much fun!"

Another recent arrival? A quilt hand-sewn by the Manson Family (every square has a floral swastika). Opposite that are displayed a realistic-looking scorpion and spider made out of Manson's underwear; above it, a baseball signed by the cult leader.

The museum once had Manson's prison jacket, but Healy regretfully sold it to a major Hollywood actor because the museum needed the money. "There's a lot of people who have money and collect weird shit, but they don't share it like I do," he laments.

Then there's the re-creation of a room at the Heaven's Gate mass-suicide site in 1997 — complete with clothes from one of the victims. There are also caskets, stuffed odd animals, death masks and other areas like Suicide Hall and the Cannibalism Niche.

Healy is reluctant to name a fan favorite, but Shultz cites John Wayne Gacy's self-portraits and a small series of photographs under the moniker "Heads & Tales." The most notable shows two meth-addled lovers, circa 1990, nakedly cavorting with the body of the woman's husband, then sawing it into pieces. The photo of the woman smiling at the camera like a prom queen as she places the huge saw over the dead man's neck is chilling, as is the fact that a plea deal to testify against her lover means that she's long out of jail.

The couple is planning a second museum in New Orleans. In the longer term, they hope that eventually Healy will be mummified and Shultz will be plastinated, à la "Body Worlds," becoming an exhibit in their own museum. Their beloved potbellied pet pig, Chaos, is already here — both his taxidermied and skeleton form can be found in the Theatre of Death — and when their Siamese turtle and iguana shuffle off this mortal coil, they'll join him.

Healy professes not to be afraid of death — or anything at all. But his wife quietly confesses there were a couple of times he was rattled. An offer of the dress worn by young actress Rebecca Schaeffer, who was killed by a stalker, and whose body had been exhumed and re-dressed, "freaked him out."

And then there was a visit by an executive from one of the studios: "He gave us his business card, then opened a book he was carrying. Pressed between two of the pages like a thin bookmark was the skin of someone's big toe."

Healy understands the appeal of the macabre.

"People want to be close to the action but without being close enough to get hurt — it's the same as looky-loos going past a car crash," he says. "Society hides so much from us, and while we want to see the crash, we also want to know what's under the sheet."


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