the Museum of Death

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A Siamese turtle! An actual Siamese turtle. About the size of my two open hands together, were they joined on the same wrist, the turtle swam  carefully in its large aquarium, positioned on a rock, both its heads above water. The large shell was conjoined, divided in the middle, so the two turtles each had their own heads, front legs, and front shells, but shared the back of the shell and the back legs. It was simultaneously adorable, mystifying, and absolutely frightening.

“How old is this turtle?” I asked the man behind the desk.

He looked up from his phone. “Turtles. Two of them. Twenty years old. The owner got them when they were babies, and they are healthy, so they could live another twenty. Heck, they will probably outlive me.”

I ended up in the Museum of Death on accident. I had been walking around, and literally wound up on its doorstep. Not one to question fate, I walked inside and bought a ticket.

The museum was crowded, with poorly organized displays and walls covered in photgraphs, newspaper clippings, and wordy biographies. The rooms twisted into each other like an old antique shop, with random collections of things shoved haphazardly into each space. There seemed to be little rhyme or reason except for the primary theme: Death. And I had to admit, a lot of the content was startling.

The first room seemed to almost romanticize and celebrate serial killers themselves. There were framed photographs of letters written by serial killers in jail, trading cards with their photos on them, and original artwork done by the killers during their life spans. Busy wordy posters told their life stories, including terrible details about their murders.

By far the most disturbing in this room were the photos of John Wayne Gacy, a gay serial killer who murdered dozens of men, in his clown uniform. Apparently, he used to host children’s birthday parties as a clown named Pogo. He drew himself as Pogo multiple times while in jail, and there the art hung, next to the massive shoes he wore during those days. On the opposite wall, stories about Jeffrey Dahmer, another gay serial killer. I’ve recently researched both men as I look into gay history, and their stories absolutely haunt me.

In the next room, it got worse. An entire room dedicated to the Manson Family murders, along with detailed stories and something I was completely unprepared for: the crime scene photos and the autopsy photos of Sharon Tate and the other victims. In another room, more photos of the like, including the Black Dahlia victim.

More autopsy pictures. Pictures of dead babies and beheaded soldiers. Crash crashes with corpses. Bodies found decomposing in the woods. It was all shocking, horrifying, sadistic, and stomach-turning. I wondered how I was even able to look at these pictures, and then remembered that I watch the Walking Dead and American Horror Story, shows that glorify horror and violence and murder. The difference here: these were real.

I left rooms discussing mass suicides and assassinations and suicides and mass graves and concentration camps. As I walked away, nodding at the Siamese turtle one more time, I contemplated death. Everything dies and decays. Stone cracks and splits, mountains erode, and humans live their lives and pass on to the next, returning to the earth they came from. Death doesn’t bother me. It’s tragic death that gets to me. It’s human cruelty and lives cut short. It’s lost potential and broken relationships.

When I slept, I didn’t have nightmares, I just felt sad. And then I remembered the Siamese turtle, a little creature that defied all odds and has lived decades, in an aquarium in the front of a museum that celebrates and glorifies death. And suddenly that irony brought a smile to my face.

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