Zak Bagans is a paranormal investigator and television personality, known for his Travel Channel show Ghost Adventures. I have never viewed any of his works, and knew almost nothing about him before the tour through his museum. I was expecting something cheesy, maybe a few jump scares or creepy stories about 'haunted' items; some real-life equivalent of those fake paranormal and alien investigation shows I watched on the History Channel when I was a kid. What I got instead was a gross amalgamation of campy movie aesthetics and real-life horror. Real-life tragedy is exploited to lean credibility to otherwise mundane 'supernatural' memorabilia.
The Haunted Museum, as a physical location, is the place where Zak Bagans puts all the weird shit he's found on his ghosting adventures. It is, in one sense, the modern equivalent of a cabinet of curiosities. The tour through the house consists of following a series of guides from room to room as they explain the history of some of the objects on display. The house itself is introduced, briefly, as a supposedly haunted location. This is the reason Zak Bagans bought the place.
The objects in his collection fall generally into two types: haunted artifacts, and true-crime memorabilia. They are arranged in the rooms according to theme. The first few rooms are fairly benign: there's a creepy doll room, a movie-prop room, a room with gambling paraphernalia and a rigged roulette table once owned by a mobster. At this point the whole thing was quaint. Each cramped room was dim except for red or yellow back lights, the air was filled with incense and smoke to evoke the mood of a seance, and the guides talked up a few of the objects on display before shuffling us along to the next one. It was amusing, but harmless, until we got to the Ed Gein room.
Ed Gein, our guide explained to us, is the inspiration for Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw massacre as well as several other horror movie killers. He murdered a number of women in the 1950s and made clothing from their skin. The room in the Haunted Museum is an imitation of the barn in which he dismembered his victims. A television screen against the far wall depicts news coverage of the investigation around Ed Gein, and the fake body of a farmer hangs in the rafters above the display. In the center of the room was a cauldron, enclosed in a glass case. This cauldron, we are told, is the very one in which the murderer cooked the entrails of his victims. The guide then goes on to describe how Ed Gein wore the skin of the women he killed, and how he decorated his house in human nipples.
I was familiar with Ed Gein before visiting the Museum. It is always disquieting to be reminded of him, and seeing the cauldron was certainly surreal, but the room that really disturbed me was the Robert Berdella exhibit.
Robert Berdella was another serial killer. He tortured, raped, and killed at least six men in the 1980s. Zak's exhibit features a video recording of the only interview Berdella ever did with the media after his capture, the bed in which he kept his victims (behind another glass case), and pictures of the six men he killed. Robert himself took those photos. They are in black and white, and show the men after the have died and/or during some process of their torture. Here they have been blown up and hung on the wall like art pieces. I glanced at the first two, then did not look more closely. A mannequin was wrapped up in the bed, imitating the twisting of a body trapped in agony. The bed sheet itself is still stained with the feces it came with, as our guide made sure to point out. They emphasized, three times, that Berdella did indeed rape his victims, as well as point to the rod he sodomized them with. It was propped up against the bed.
This room, on its own, is shocking, and horrifying. What makes it grotesque is how it figures into the larger structure of the tour as a whole. There is no time given to reflect on the atrocities before you. There is no information given on who the victims were, what they were doing before Berdella kidnapped them, or how their families reacted to the justice provided for them. Only photos of their corpses. The bodies of the victims are on display in the same context as a famously 'haunted' dybbuk box, the basement stairs and dirt from the so-called 'Demon House' (yes, Zak Bagans transplanted part of the house from Indiana to his museum in Nevada), and a possessed doll that supposedly gives you heart-attacks. They are treated as the same ting: oddities, not people or victims or killers. Props used for spooky theatrics.
Zak Bagans has several other exhibits based around real people/crimes. The latter part of the tour contains a room with items from a yacht on which a woman was probably murdered and dumped into the sea. Her killer is still at large and being investigated. Another features the last known pictures of a woman who, a paranormal-obsessive herself, was trying to invoke a demonic possession. Zak also has a room dedicated to memorabilia from various murderers from throughout history. It features a portrait of Charles Manson, painted in the artist's own blood. None are as disturbing as the Berdella room, but all have the same disquieting aura. In all the cases, it is never the victims we learn about. It is only the killers we see, or the objects with which they have killed.
There is a 'celebrity' room, which features the chair Michel Jackson supposedly died in, a black suit owned by Johnny Cash, etc. Strangely, it also features a dress worn by one of Ed Gein's victims. There is no information beyond how she was killed. Did she write? Did she sing? What ambitions did she have before she died? She is a celebrity, it seems, only for being murdered.
Later on, in the upstairs section of the tour, there is a small display with mannequins, dismembered and covered in fake blood. A table in the center has a few of their limbs on it. The man in front of me laughed when one of the models lurched out at him, rigged up like something from a carnival's haunted house.
The midpoint of the tour features the display most revealing of Zak Bagans' intent and fixation. It is a miniature recreation of a P. T. Barnum circus (the same P. T. Barnum who was the subject of the movie The Greatest Showman). About two pool-tables worth of space are dedicated to displaying clowns, elephants, circus tents, and concession stands. The room is filled with a rainbow of lights; the air tinted with the scent of popcorn. This room is only loosely connected with the next one (a narrow maze through a collection of clown figures) and does not really fit into the haunt or horror theme of the rest of the museum. The guide who introduced this room described Barnum as one of Zak's idols, and it was when I reflected upon this moment that the whole strange experience made sense:
Zak's museum is a macabre freak show. It does not care about the people it is using, or the reality of the stories it is telling. There is no overall theme or substantial connecting tissue. It is interested only in the immediate attention of the audience, taking their $44 and hustling them from one vignette to another. Zak might have a genuine passion for his collection, but it is presented to the tour as a brag: 'Look at my stuff, isn't it weird?' What real stories are presented are cheapened by their juxtaposition with ghost-stories and creepy dolls. This 'museum' is tasteless and exploitative, using real victims as shock value, idolizing their killers, and fetishizing the objects of their humiliation.
Let's step back for a moment. I have, until now, implicitly assumed that the 'haunted' objects in Zak Bagans' collection are all fake. I do no believe in ghosts, or spirits, or the lingering 'energies' of the dead. If you do, then you might find the above argument uncompelling. The juxtaposition of fake and real falls away, and the victims of Ed Gein are as real as the victims of the Demon House or the dybbuk box. I would ask then, if it is the case that some or all of these 'haunted' objects are indeed haunted, is that not substantially worse? Not only are the images and items of victims being exploited, but also their souls--a still-lingering piece of their literal consciousness. The tour is not a seance or a divination. The guides are theatrical, not reverent or respectful, and come off as something closer to magicians than mediums.
|Healing Garden; photo taken from album on its Yelp page|
When I first started writing this post, I put this sentence in my notes: "the individual vignettes are relatively harmless, bu the sum total is a gross conglomerate that fails as a museum and as an act of theatrics." After writing everything out, I no longer believe it is harmless. The fake stuff is harmless. The real stuff--the Ed Gein room, the Berdella room--is disrespectful. Were it only a haunted house with creepy dolls and dybbuk boxes then---sure, it's fine; whatever. People are into that. No one's getting hurt. Were it actually a museum, were one had time to absorb things at their own pace, and where the victims were portrayed along with their killers, then, yes, some of the content would still be disturbing, but it would not have felt like exploitation. Respect, I feel, is displaying a person's life, not just their corpse. As it is, the experience fails at being anything. The best descriptor I have is, as I said above, a freak show, with all its connotations and history.
Zak Bagans The Haunted Mansion does a disservice to the dead, and is an insult to the living. If you're ever in Vegas, don't go there.