Sad, Sick, and Sensational Stories: A Reflection on the Role of Horror Museums
What do haunted places, clowns, microbes, breakups, cursed objects, and supernatural creatures all have in common? Besides the obvious creepy factor, they have also all had exhibits or entire museums dedicated to them at one time or another. Horror museums are a phenomenon widely discussed in movies, television, YouTube videos, news articles, and tourist websites. While they are perhaps little understood, beyond the sensational aspect, they do help us grasp the reflective role of museums in our societies.
A model of the bloodsucking creature Yara-ma-yha-who (originating among indigenous Australians from Bloodsuckers: Legends to Leeches (ROM feature exhibit, November 2019–March 2020).
Photo courtesy of the Author.
The idea for this blog post actually came about a few months ago, when I was watching an episode of The Good Place. In order to stay spoiler free, let’s just say some characters end up on the run in hell (yes, literally!). In disguise, they find themselves stuck in a hall of the “Museum of Human Misery” where animated human dioramas depicting low-level torture form the vast majority of exhibits. Their charade is up when one brand new diorama is unveiled — featuring our heroes torturing one another. Although certainly strange without context, this scene highlights a trait of many museums — the ability to confront the best and worst of ourselves (usually referring to the loftily imagined ‘humankind,’ rather than the very literal direction the show takes!).
The museum in “Black Museum” (the finale of the fourth season of Black Mirror) similarly serves as a mirror for the worst parts of a society set in the horrifyingly not-so-far-off future. Without giving too much away, many objects in this museum don’t just represent human stories — but actual elements of human consciousness. As the enthusiastic curator/docent says, there is a “sad, sick story behind almost everything” in the museum. A show like this, much like horror museums or other controversial sites of dark tourism, can “tell us a lot about what it is to be human.” Further, also according to a professor researching the phenomenon, tourists of these places have the opportunity to “reflect on and try to better understand the evil that we’re capable of.”
A framed explanation of the linguistic origin of the word "vampire" from Bloodsuckers: Legends to Leeches (ROM feature exhibit, November 2019–March 2020). Photo courtesy of the Author.
If you search for horror museums, you’d find tourist-oriented top-10 or top-20 lists with museums right around the world. One in particular, the Warren Occult Museum formerly located in Monroe, Connecticut (but recently closed due to zoning violations) is closely linked to well-known horror films. Reportedly filled with cursed objects that formed the basis of movies such as Annabelle (a doll that is perhaps the most famous of the collection) or the Conjuring series, it was a popular destination for various YouTubers as well (with about 3 million views on a segment of Buzzfeed Unsolved).
Further, according to such lists, museums focusing on one particular scary or gross object are quite popular. Themes include ventriloquism (Fort Mitchell, Kentucky), disgusting food (Malmo, Sweden) and clowns (Leipzig, Germany). One noteworthy variant of these object-themed horror museums focuses on the medical sciences. These gore-filled exhibits include those located on the sites of hospitals (a former operating theatre, in London, England) and those dedicated to dentists (also located in London, England), pharmacies (New Orleans, Louisiana), microbes (Amsterdam, Netherlands), locks of hair (Cappadocia, Turkey), parasites (Tokyo, Japan), brains (Bengaluru, India), devastating breakups (Zagreb, Croatia and LA, California), and death (as one medical museum is known colloquially, located in Bangkok, Thailand). This idea of body-based horror also conjures images of wax museums, which reportedly “would not be complete” without a chamber of horrors. Perhaps the most horrific type of all are the ones linked to historically grim places or practices. These include museums dedicated to medieval crime (Rothenburg, Germany), magic and witchcraft (Cornwall, England), and torture (Amsterdam, Netherlands), among others.
A movie poster of Dracula from the early 1930s. The ROM exhibit It's Alive! Classic Horror and Sci-Fi Art from the Kirk Hammett Collection (July 2019–January 2020) did a good job discussing the xenophobia and racism inherent in many classic early horror films. Photo courtesy of the Author.
Finally, museums or exhibits dedicated to the dead can also be quite commonly found – from Sicilian catacombs to shrunken heads in Oxford, England. Notably, the Pitt Rivers Museum actually very recently (in September 2020) permanently closed their gallery of shrunken heads, as part of their efforts to decolonize their institution. Due to this connection to colonization and to othering, this deserves an entirely separate conversation – one which I will explore in an upcoming blog. What is worth noting at the present is how, by looking at the sordid histories of some of these earliest collecting practices, it is clear that horror has always had a place in the museum.