Of Death and Los Angeles
He was visible only for a brief moment. His mother lifted him from the stroller and pulled him up to her chest, allowing him to rest his pie dough cheek on her shoulder as he continued to make the soft, neutral gurglings, neither distressed nor happy, typical of young humans. These sounds had been present throughout our visit, pulsating just beneath the gentle hum of the air conditioner and fluorescent lights, but only now did we see their source—full bodied and undeniable. A fat little four or five month old, wrapped up in an androgynous cream-colored onesie. We were all crammed together when she picked him up, the stroller resting in the doorway and inhibiting us from passing onto the next section. She swayed from side to side as she held him, seemingly oblivious to the four other people ensnared in the closet sized room by the intrusive contraption. I glanced at my three companions and we exchanged a look Carrie would later described as a telepathic conversation.
Consensus was unanimous. The baby should not be here.
We were at the Museum of Death, one in about a dozen “must see” attractions I’d staked out for my spring vacation. We had visited two separate cemeteries to see the graves of a slew of celebrities: Peter Finch, a few Ramones, Rodney Dangerfield, Natalie Wood, Ray Bradbury, Dean Martin. We took a self-guided driving tour of famous murder sites: the condo where Nicole Simpson was stabbed, the Encino home where Phil Hartman was shot, the lot, the house long ago torn down, where the Manson family committed the brutal murders of Sharon Tate and her houseguests. I felt an occasional shuddering of guilt at my bloodlust tourism. I would remember how Sharon Tate’s sister ran into Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and asked him, point blank, why he was exploiting Sharon’s death by living and recording albums in the home where she was killed. This would remind me how the California-themed bloodshed that’s somehow prematurely faded into the folkloric realm of American consciousness is connected to very real people who’d likely rather not have personal tragedies gawked at by overeager Midwestern tourists. Such thoughts, however, did not weigh on my conscious too terribly long. Maybe it was the often-lamented brand of detachment that comes from being a millennial, how the constant bombardment of violent imagery allows one to slowly disengage and become less and less sensitive to what we consume. However, I imagine the explanation is both simpler and far less cynical. I was just on vacation and, at the time, thinking was not so much a priority.
I did not feel anything during what Carrie and I came to refer to as the LA Death Tour of 2014. There were no truly profound realizations about humanity, mortality, or an individual’s capacity for violence. One cannot force such realizations. They tend to come when we least expect and are triggered by the most innocuous moments.
That is perhaps the greatest folly of a place like the Museum of Death. You cannot force it. When one goes in expecting to be confronted by the overwhelming fact of mortality one has already, before crossing the threshold, unconsciously built up a certain whose-afraid-of-the-big-bad-wolf swagger to ward off a very public panic attack. The inclination then becomes to laugh, rather than stare agape with terror, in the face of death.
I think we were all secretly grateful for the baby. He restored the authentic sense of outrage and horror missing from our museum experience.
I do not remember a time when I was not death-obsessed. The fact I am going to die is a daily thought, that Promethean blessing of having such a notion pushed into the peripheral a gift I never received.
I attribute some of this to my upbringing. I was never entirely unaware of God and heaven but religion was not a major part of my very early childhood. I was not baptized until I was six. Before then ideas of death, eternity, and an afterlife were largely left to my own imagination. I remembered nothing before my birth and so I assumed I would remember nothing after. Existence was, for me, akin to what Nabokov laid out in his stark opening of Speak, Memory—a brief light rocking between two eternities of darkness. There was also my father. I do not know if he did not, on principle, believe in sugar coating things for children or if he simply did not know how but few topics were off limits. He sang me the Johnny Cash song “Delia’s Gone” as a lullaby. The song’s climatic moment was the part I found most captivating. First time I shot her, I shot her in the side. Hard to watch her suffer, but with the second shot she died. It was disturbing to the point I could not recoil, any feelings of repulsion trumped by the stronger inclination to pry, a hunger to know as much as I possibly could about a darkness that was inexplicably enticing. My mother sometimes pulled him back a bit. We were on a plane to Florida in the late 90’s and he was reading a copy of Newsweek. A pretty little girl was on the cover, the headline reading, “What really happened to JonBenet?” When I asked about this my mother leaned in from across the aisle and said, “Do not tell her.” He complied, but magazines were always left out and I was an advanced reader. It did not take me long to find out.
That’s the other thing—I grew up in the 90’s. This was time when death, violent death, was a subject rarely absent from the headlines. The biggest story of the decade was the OJ Simpson murder trial, covered exhaustively by the media. It took only two hours after the bodies were discovered for author Tom Colbert to get on the phone with an LA publisher to propose an instant book on the case. After Simpson became a fugitive in June, then ABC president Roone Arledge commanded a cooperative all-program effort to cover the story, sending producers from Day One, Nightline, Primetime Live, 20/20, and Turning Point to the scene of the crime. The Los Angeles Times featured the case on its front page for more than 300 days after the murder, and it was given more airtime on the Big Three news networks than the Bosnian Wars and the Oklahoma City Bombing combined. America was gripped with that same hunger to pry that captivated my three year-old self when hearing the tragic saga of Delia. More than 95 million people watched the infamous car chase. Dominoes pizza reported a record high in sales, more orders placed that night than on the average Super Bowl Sunday.
It’s not really surprising why the crime made headlines. A murder that occurred in Hollywood, a place so utterly inaccessible already, provided viewers a comfortable enough distance from which to peer into a violent scene. Los Angeles feels somehow unreal to the outside world and because of this the Simpson murders would become, much like the Manson murders that came before, part of the intangible realm of the folkloric well before funerals were even held. These brands of high-profile murder cases are always pegged as symptomatic of whatever’s wrong with this damn country today, but this is only a way to deflect the obvious. We want to know because death, in all its varied forms, fascinates. Our interest is not intellectual; it’s voyeuristic. This voyeurism is not beyond my understanding. I do not blame people, or even judge them, for wanting to know. Such curiosity is innate, likely the result of being the only species capable of understanding its mortality. I would rather just acknowledge it for what it is than mask it as social responsibility, act as if we have an obligation to uncover nitty-gritty details that more often than not do nothing to illuminate the causes for such crimes or prevent their reoccurrence.
I have always been a voyeur. I can admit that. By age 24, Los Angeles was an ideal spring break getaway. I could take in the grotesque details of very famous deaths while still feeling protected, the sense of unreal provided by the Hollywood scene serving as a barrier between death and myself.
The Museum of Death is not about horror, according to creators. It’s about death. There is no externally enforced age limit as we all die, but the website warns of graphic material and pleads for mature audiences only. It houses artwork from serial killers, execution and torture devices, a suicide machine made by Dr. Kevorkian, original crime scene photos, body bags, coffins, autopsy instruments, and the severed head of French serial killer Henri Landru. The skin is bronze now with age and one can gaze into the sockets of his eyes, but the head is so mummified, made so profoundly inhuman by the passing of time, it’s hardly unsettling at all. It looks like a relic from a joke shop. Still. There were some moments, brief ones, that almost got to us. For Carrie, it was a video of a public stoning, the slapping sound of an object against skin familiar enough that it horrified when heard in this context. For me, it was the embalmment section.
The physicality of death jars me. Death, in terms of what happens to our conscious minds, is unknowable. My body, the most real thing about myself, is different and its death, my death, can be understood. To know how it will decay, to imagine the decomposition of my grandfather’s corpse under the earth in rural Michigan, makes death feel like a palpable process. The embalmment exhibit shook me. I approached a small corner of the room where there were photos of the burial preparations of an infant, the eyes of this small doll-like being sewn shut by the gloved hands of an unseen mortician. I got a sense of a weight on my back, the warning sign of a panic attack, when the woman entered. She pushed the stroller up to where I stood, considering the photos alongside me. She was wordless, her expression blank, and seemed unaware that the average person might find such a scene odd. I could hear the soft baby sounds, that gentle gurgling, and the sheer absurdity of the moment was too much for me to take.
I am not a casual laugher. To say I laughed is perhaps a misnomer. There have been three people in my life who’ve proclaimed to love my laugh and such declarations remind me of a scene from a documentary about serial killer Aileen Wuornos. The born-again Christian who adopted Aileen while she was in prison proclaims she fell in love with the killer when looking into her sweet, soulful eyes and so we flash, immediately, to Aileen’s mug shot where she gives the camera her terrifying bug-eyed gaze. My laugh sounds like a lunatic’s laugh. I cannot fathom why anyone would find it endearing. It is more of a cackle, a manic guffaw like a cartoon witch. I ran from the room, making this sound, and Carrie gently pulled me into the last wing of the exhibit.
In this last room, Traces of Death plays on a loop. Traces of Death, not the better known Faces of Death, is a Z-grade horror film that proclaims to have more realistic footage than its predecessor. It was not particularly horrifying. The combination of the corny heavy metal music, out of focus footage, and the Vincent Price-esque voiceovers made the movie impossible to take seriously. We watched for about five minutes, snickering, and then stepped back into the lobby. We immediately discussed the baby.
We shamed the woman, proclaimed her an irresponsible parent for taking a child so young into a place like that. While I agreed at the time, later on I came to wonder how much any of us actually cared. Could a child that young even process such images, let alone remember them later in life? Probably not, but the disapproval seemed so needed at the time. Human connection, even in the form of something as seemingly noble as moral outrage, sometimes feels like no more than a distraction from death. The baby gave us something to be outraged by and this allowed us to disengage slightly from the overwhelming fact of impermanence.
Epiphany cannot be forced and media meant to provoke feelings of distress often leads to such displays of false indignation, cries of “Think of the children!” when the children are probably okay. This does not, however, mean people are detached. I do not think we are detached at all. It’s just that true moments of shock tend to come in moments that are both private and unexpected. We are walking home from the grocery store in late June and catch the distinct scent of cardboard boxes, cheese, and congealed grease as a Dominoes delivery car whizzes by. We are struck. At home, we drink a glass of red wine alone and reflect on this lousy world and the people in it, the awful things they do to one another, and how mere survival is often a precarious matter.
Erin Wisti decided to move to Los Angeles while on the vacation mentioned in this essay and currently resides in East Hollywood. She has an MFA in nonfiction from Columbia College Chicago and her work has previously appeared in The Butter, Role Reboot, Bayou Magazine, Chicago Literati, and other places. She started writing around the age of three, when her father informed her becoming a pot belly pig when she grew up was impossible. Erin retains a love of pigs to this day, as well as cats, Tom Waits, Alice Munro, and doing a Vince Vaughn impression people either find hilarious or incredibly off-putting. You can follow her on Twitter: @ErinWisti.