The Museum of Death Resurrects Itself in Hollywood

”This isn’t a horror museum,” Museum of Death owner JD Healy tells LAMag. ”We’re not looking to scare people.”

If you’re a fan of murder, mayhem, and general weirdness, the last few years in Los Angeles have been difficult. 

First, the Dearly Departed Tours shuttered, taking Mae West’s dentures and Jayne Mansfield’s crumpled car off into the desert. Then, the Museum of Death — a stalwart in Hollywood since 2008 — gave up its Tinseltown home.

Instead, they focused on their New Orleans location, which had opened in 2015. Pandemic restrictions were much lighter there, owner JD Healy tells LAMag, “and they really know how to throw a party when you die in New Orleans.”

But now, the Museum of Death is rising from the grave — like fans always knew it would, — in Hollywood, and the grand reopening of their skull gates is just a few days away. 

“We’ve been getting 20-25 calls a day,” he says with a smile, though he quietly gnashes his teeth when he discusses either the many delays or the city’s labyrinthine permit and licensing requirements.

Before its first Hollywood iteration, the museum was located in a former mortuary in San Diego, having grown out of Healy’s art project about how consumerism takes us from birth to death. 

Healy and wife Cathee Shultz first began writing to serial killers — she put down her pen when “Night Stalker” Richard Ramirez asked for a picture of her feet — and then they began collecting death-related pieces (a full-size gallows and a guillotine were early scores) before deciding to show what they had assembled. 

“This isn’t a horror museum; the name tells you that,”  he insists. “We’re not looking to scare people, because we’re all still learning. We really don’t know anything about death.”

“People who are afraid to die are not living,” he adds.

Museum of Death skull gates
The entrance to L.A.’s Museum of Death.

James T. Bartlett

In the new Hollywood space, the first thing guests will notice is the dark red floor. Then, over the box office, they’ll see multi-colored light boxes showcasing crime scene photos from the brutal murder of Elizabeth Short, known as the Black Dahlia, in 1947, which is perhaps still Los Angeles’s most infamous unsolved crime. 

But the Black Dahlia photos and some of the other exhibits and artifacts here are not for the faint-hearted.

On Healy’s a quick tour around the two-floor building — which covers other California-centric stories like the Manson Family murders, the 1997 Heaven’s Gate cult suicide and the deaths of celebrities like James Dean — the vastness of the collection is slowly revealed.

There is something compelling and/or shocking almost everywhere you look, with detailed rooms featuring the extraordinarily bizarre world of funerary items, blueprints for the first electric chair, rare photos of the executed men from the Nuremberg Trials, natural disasters and more.

Healy points out an intricate – and rather violent – poster depicting Custer’s Last Stand at Little Bighorn in 1876. 

“That was an advertisement for Anheuser Busch. Death is often intertwined and used in advertising,” he says.

When I was there, many of the items were under dust sheets, in piles or half-hung on walls, as the last-minute preparations were still  underway, but then there was a completed wall of skulls, fully-lit and staring right at me.

Motion-sensing lights left areas in darkness while we were browsing, necessitating the use of a smartphone flashlight — and then coming across a John F. Kennedy head wound model, disturbing paintings by serial killers, or even just a Klieg light illuminating a pile of books and newspaper headlines about infamous murders added a creepy touch to the atmosphere.

Carefully curated and constantly evolving – Healy notes how he found the actual bunk beds and clothes from Heaven’s Gate – he and Schultz have a deep financial investment in their venture. They live in the Hollywood Hills, from where he regularly researches and buys new artifacts and ephemera and frequently receives items through the mail from fans and fellow collectors. 

Perhaps the largest investment at the new museum is a highly-detailed painting completed over a period of 18 months by Joe Colman, who uses a jeweler’s lens and a single-strand brush. Framed with coins, arrowheads, bullets and teeth, the subject at the center is Swift Runner, a Native American cannibal.

Healy then casually mentions another item he’s particularly enthused about: a book covered in human skin and pictures of the man who happily donated his skin for the purpose. 

There is also an ancient mummy and pieces relating to ethnography, other items related cannibalism and shrunken heads, some of which might challenge today’s visitors beyond a first-glance shock value.

Emphasizing the educational aspect of the museum, Healy insists that his “hands aren’t tied” when it comes to developing the collection. “We’re not going to politically-correct ourselves out,” he says.

Museum of Death taxidermy animals
Museum of Death taxidemy exhibit

James T. Bartlett

Arriving at a ceiling-high glass case of weird specimens, Healy proudly points out several taxidermy dogs.  

“That one is Buddy, our dog,” he explains. “Chaos, our pot-bellied pig, is there. I’ll never miss them, because they’re always here with me.” 

He adds that their two-headed turtle, which still splashes around in a gold fountain at the front gates, will eventually live forever behind the same glass once it shuffles off this mortal coil.   

At the end of the experience, guests pass through a barred prison door that came from Alcatraz. 

Before we part ways, Healy adds that the Museum of Death is already looking at opening another location in Seattle.

“Have a happy life!” he says cheerily — and you know that he really means it. 

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