By Rebecca Ford
For someone who is always surrounded by death, Cathee Shultz is very lively. Her energy is electric, especially when she’s talking about her fascination with death, and the vast collection of death-related items at the Museum of Death.
Shultz and husband J.D. Healy originally opened the museum in San Diego in 1995, but moved it up to Hollywood in 2000. At its current location on Hollywood Boulevard near Gower Street, the museum encompasses several rooms, each with a different theme, such as serial killers (with art and letters from infamous killers including Richard Ramirez and Nico Claux), executions (with beheading photos) and embalming (with an instructional video). Patch caught up with Shultz to find out more about her unique exhibits.
Hollywood Patch: How did you get started?
Cathee Shultz: It evolved from an art gallery we had. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, we were doing artwork and letters from serial killers, mostly artwork. And in the process, we were writing to serial killers and collecting their letters. Those really didn’t go on display unless they were really notorious like (Charles) Manson or (Richard) Ramirez, and rarely we sold those. We relocated the gallery into an old mortuary in San Diego. It was a really cool space, it was haunted, really fun. And a lot of the shows we were doing dealt with death — not just serial killers, but execution and just general death. Along with sex, drugs and money — anything that would confront the public. And one day we thought, “Wow, this death thing is just so fascinating and these are the most popular shows, and it’s such an interesting subject matter for us, let’s open a museum.”
Patch: What is one of your favorite items?
Shultz: Chaos, the pig. That was our pet pig. We usually stuff our animals. Our iguana, she’s huge, she died in September. She’s supposed to be ready any day now. Yeah, the pets I love the most.
Patch: What do you think fascinates people about death and this museum?
Shultz: You can come here to see death and live to tell about it, or walk out alive. It’s like driving down the freeway and seeing a car crash, and you have to look. It’s a natural reaction to want to look because you’re still alive. Unless you’re a doctor, or a coroner or a funeral director or someone close to that industry, you don’t get to see dead people. Most people in America don’t see a dead body until they’re in their 40s.
Patch: What’s your favorite part about running this museum?
Shultz: Talking to people about death. I find death fascinating. I know it’s morbid, but the more I see it, the more it makes me happy to be alive. I think life is such a great thing. We’re only here for about 100 years, if we’re lucky, so make the most of every single day. Because once you’re gone, you’re gone. Even if you believe in coming back, you’re never coming back here, in this body.
Patch: What do you plan on adding in the future?
Shultz: We’re planning a big display on 9/11 for the 10-year anniversary. We collected so much stuff during 9/11 and it’s in storage and we’re going to pull it out this year. Also, a big war display on the current war — Afghanistan and Iraq. What else? Oh, teen shooters.
Patch: Did you get worried that a war display or a 9/11 display will create anger or make people upset?
Shultz: I hope so. I definitely hope so! Yes, I want people to be angry about people who kill people. The thing that scares me is the young kids who come in, and don’t really know who Charles Manson is and think he’s some hero. That’s scary to me. I’ll walk through to make sure people see what he did. Or Richard Ramirez. People think he’s cool. You know what he did? He scooped out people’s eyeballs with a spoon and ate them. Think that’s real nice? It’s not cool at all. I learned it when I started writing to them.
Patch: Tell me more about writing to serial killers.
Shultz: I was really intrigued by them because we’re human. We’re not separated from them at all by much DNA. How can I have a hard time killing a spider, and they can hunt down and kill people they don’t know? These creepy dudes, and women, kill people they don’t know. So I started writing to them, but it was a bad idea. I mean, I learned over the years that they’re human, and I didn’t want to see them as human. I wanted to remember them as monsters. But when you’re getting letters from somebody and they’re talking about the weather, it humanizes them to the point where you can’t call them monsters anymore.
Anybody who’s fascinated, I’d give them the addresses, and say write to them. See how you feel about it a year from now when they start to try to control you through the letters. Because they do — they’re total control freaks. And the one thing I didn’t do when I was writing to them, I didn’t photocopy my letters so I knew what I said to them. And they’d catch me in these lies because I’m not going to tell them where I live or where I work, so I’d tell white lies. They’d write me back and start questioning me. So, that’s what I advise — if you’re going to write to them, photocopy your letters.
Patch: Did all the serial killers write back?
Shultz: Oh, yeah. Everybody but (Jeffrey) Dahmer. We wrote to Dahmer about a month before he was killed, and I didn’t expect a response. There’s a few people who do this in the country and we’re all sort of familiar with each other, and they’d all told me he won’t write back.
Patch: Have you had any interesting experiences with visitors who come to the museum?
Shultz: We get people who pass out. I had a Marine pass out on Sunday. We get a lot of Marines who pass out. I wasn’t here when he passed out, but when I came out, he went back in. When he finished it, I asked him what was it that made him pass out. Because usually they’ll just say, “Oh, I’m dehydrated. Oh, my blood sugar’s low.” Yeah, right. He came out, and said, “Well, I was watching that embalming video, and there’s a part in it where they pull out the femoral artery, and they drain the blood. I’m a Marine, and they teach you, at all costs, protect the femoral artery. And I started sweating and I just passed out.”