The Museum of Natural History has a bright, shiny, happy new dinosaur hall with sunshine streaming in through floor-to-ceiling windows and colorful signs explaining educational facts about those crowd-pleasing dino bones that all of the schoolkiddies came here to see.

Yet after the children bounce out of the dinosaur exhibit and into the museum's dramatic, churchlike rotunda, the flow of the museum takes them next to a cavernous, stretching and windowless chamber: the room where the dinosaurs used to dwell before they moved on to brighter, tonier digs. A hush comes over the babes and they cling tighter to their guardians and move into the next exhibit hall.

Still, it's only the fifth-spookiest exhibit at the museum. There is more in store for these innocents as they wind their way through the building's marble halls, on a forced march through the…

(Cue reverb-heavy organ music)

Five creepiest exhibits in the Natural History Museum…

Shadows of the dead; Credit: L.J. Williamson

Shadows of the dead; Credit: L.J. Williamson

5. The Fin Whale

This whale skeleton is now the sole occupant of the room that once housed the museum's entire collection of dinosaur skeletons. In a theatrical, Hollywood-worthy display, the whale's massive, bleached vertebrae are spotlighted from both sides, projecting skeletal shadows onto the walls of the dimly-lit room as a sound system emits what are supposedly whale calls yet are more reminiscent of the moans of anguished spirits. The immense skeleton serves as a stark visual reminder that death eventually overtakes us all, even the mightiest among us.

A thousand crawling legs; Credit: L.J. Williamson

A thousand crawling legs; Credit: L.J. Williamson

4. The Insect Zoo
If your night terrors are filled with thin, spidery legs, you would do well to avoid this place. Especially the millipedes. For the sake of all that is holy, avoid the curling, thickly armored, deep brown millipedes. The millipedes who want nothing more than to escape their glass-walled prisons and lunge at your throat, their millions of thin, wavering legs brushing and scratching against the thin skin of your collarbone as they skitter their way up your neck and into your ear canal.

They may try to follow you home.; Credit: L.J. Williamson

They may try to follow you home.; Credit: L.J. Williamson

3. The Visible Vault

Anyone who's seen the cheesy yet consciousness-invading seventies-era Karen Black horror film Trilogy of Terror — you know, the one where the Zuni fetish doll comes to life and tries to stab her — will be looking over their shoulder to make sure the grimacing figurines in this dark exhibit of ancient Latin American artifacts don't creep out of their murky display cases to gnaw at your ankles.

Megamouth; Credit: L.J. Williamson

Megamouth; Credit: L.J. Williamson

2. The Sea Monsters

The crumbling, formaldehyde-preserved corpse of a gigantic and terrifying behemoth known as a coelacanth steeping in a sickly yellowish brown liquid never fails to elicit a shudder from all who lay eyes upon it. Leviathans are not merely the stuff of nautical myth — they are real, and they swim among us.

Still need more evidence? Just as the bile has settled away from your throat and back down to your gut, round the corner and you'll be faced with a near-repeat of the same nightmarish vision you've just confronted, but worse. At the other end of the museum's main floor, a second case features an approximately 1,000-foot-long (give or take) oarfish, also smothered in a formaldehyde bath. These exhibits successfully prove that, yes, Virginia, there are such things as sea monsters. Such as the dead ones lying before you.

Credit: L.J. Williamson

Credit: L.J. Williamson

1. The Ralph W. Schreiber Hall of Birds

This is unquestionably the creepiest section of the museum, bar none. Even on heavily trafficked days, the World of Birds exhibit is rarely crowded, instead lying lonely and forgotten on one of museum's upper floors.

Since alcohol isn't allowed inside the museum, you are strongly urged NOT to gather a group of friends in the World of Birds exhibit with a flask concealed in your vest pocket to play a drinking game, swigging every time a frightened child (1) refuses to enter (2) pleads to leave or (3) whimpers or weeps in fear. Also, do NOT take two drinks every time an adult (1) says “this place is creepy,” or (2) references Alfred Hitchcock.

Looming vultures, murderous birds of prey, and eldritch artifacts of the taxidermist's craft fill this aviary of the dead, a multi-chambered spookhouse in which the air is punctuated by startling squawks and screeches designed to make unsuspecting visitors leap from their socks.

Although “lifelike” is the aim of most of the museum's displays, such as the dioramas in the Hall of North American Mammals, such pretense is blithely dispensed with here. An overwhelming number of deceased birds stares out at unnerved visitors from within crowded glass cases, where they unconcernedly stand shoulder to shoulder with the skeletal remains of their dead kindred. In a chest that visitors are invited to open, one drawer is filled with severed heads. Another holds an eviscerated specimen that lies open like a book. A prominent pelican has yellow-rimmed glass eyes, while several other specimens have eyes stuffed only with balls of white cotton and lie belly up, like birds never do.

The hall continues into a marshland exhibit where the lighting simulates a sunrise that never comes, a time warp of perpetual twilight where wetland birds hoot at your misfortune. Then it's on to an even darker room with menacing, carrion-eating condors hover overhead on a shadowy cliff, then into a still darker enclosure, an overgrown rainforest where choked with dusty plastic leaves.

Other haunting visions follow, including a diorama of a cityscape overrun by monstrous, bloody-taloned, half-bird/half-human hybrids of gargantuan proportions, and a throbbing set of lungs, pink, rubbery, and still breathing outside of the body they were ripped from.

Have a fun field trip, kids!

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