Throughout history we have sought to preserve pieces of history and the world around us through the use of museums. Here both the history of our civilization and of our natural or even unnatural world can be protected from being lost to the tides of time and studied by all who care to look at them, and museums can cover quite a wide range of fascinating wonders. It also appears that they can house their share of horrors as well, and while equally important in their own way, they manage to crawl under our skin to unsettle and disturb. Here are some of the creepiest, even sinister museums in the world, where one can be just as shocked and horrified as they are educated.
Many of the creepiest and scariest museums out there have to do with medical research, anomalies, and flat out body horror. One such place is the so-called Plastinarium, in the town of Guben, Germany. In 1977, the anatomist Gunther von Hagens developed a way to use polymers to preserve human tissue, in essence injecting them with plastic in a process he called “plastination.” To achieve this, almost all of the water is extracted from dead tissue, and the bodies, both human and animal, are submerged in acetone to remove any extraneous fatty tissue, after which they are placed in vacuum sealed vats of synthetic polymer to infuse the tissue with plastic and perpetually freeze the bodies into whatever pose or state is desired. This rather gruesome embalming process proved to be quite controversial at the time, but von Hagens spent many years perfecting the process to the point that he could immortalize the dead in all manner of incredible states.
Von Hagens would turn this macabre hobby into a full-fledged museum when he spent millions of dollars of his own money to convert a warehouse once used as a clothing factory into a house of horrors that he would call his Body Worlds exhibit. A typical tour of the museum involves taking visitors through a step by step look into the plastination process in the very lab where the whole unsettling thing takes place, after which they move on to the many preserved specimens put on display. Here one can see human and animal corpses carved up, flayed, and posed in various gruesome, even obscene stances, some of them fully splayed out to expose the veins and organs, others seeming to be frozen in mid-explosion, as well as a whole giraffe preserved for the world to see, and new morbid specimens are being added all of the time.
Although this may seem to be sickening to many, the Body Worlds exhibit has nevertheless proven to be insanely popular, and has toured to such far-flung places as London, Tokyo, Istanbul, and Boston. People obviously have a grim curiosity when it comes to such things, and this has made von Hagen rather well-off indeed. Although the human corpses on display are supposedly from people who willingly donated their bodies to the exhibit, there has nevertheless been a good amount of debate on the ethics involved with twisting and warping post-mortem remains into a such a creepy sideshow of the macabre, and the show has faced its fair share of lawsuits and controversy. Despite this, the spooky, deeply unsettling museum still goes strong, and churns out specimens for use in medical schools as well.
Every bit as eerie is the famed Mutter Museum, of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Opened in 1858 and named after the medical inventor Dr. Thomas Mütter, the museum serves as a chronicle of medical history through the ages. While there is the typical fare of what you would expect of such an establishment, such as medical instruments and anatomical specimens, the exhibit often takes a sharp turn into squirm-inducing horrors and grotesqueries as well. One such showcase of terror is the Hyrtl Skull Collection, which consists of a wall composed of around 140 skulls complete with notes on how each one of the people died. There is also the displayed body of a woman who is thought to have died of yellow fever and dug up in 1875 to find that she has mysteriously been encased within a gelatinous fatty substance similar to soap, earning her the name “The Soap Lady.”
Other weird attractions include such medical oddities as slides cut from Einstein’s brain, a Civil War field amputation kit, a large malignant tumor removed from President Grover Cleveland’s hard palate, a 9-foot long human colon full of feces, a plaster cast of the conjoined liver from the famous Siamese twins Chang and Eng Bunker, a wax model of a woman with a horn protruding from her forehead, and the tallest human skeleton on display, as well as jars full of deformed fetuses, various photos of people with rare and mysterious deformities or diseases, and of course rows and rows of skulls. Although the whole thing is rather grim and may even send some people running to the restroom to retch, it is all rather educational in nature, and although it may haunt your dreams you will likely at least learn something fascinating in the process of wandering its haunting exhibits.
Similar exhibits can be seen at the Morbid Anatomy Museum, Brooklyn, N.Y., where you can see research books, images, and anatomical art related to medicine and death, as well as jarred animals, taxidermy specimens, and numerous death masks of historical figures, celebrities, and murderers. There is also the Musee Dupuytren, in Paris, France, opened in 1835 and where you can be entranced by the horrific sight of of thousands of specimens featuring the world of the diseased and deformed. Some examples of what to expect are deformed human body parts, conjoined twins, malformed fetuses, people with birth defects, anomalous brains, and freaks of nature, all hovering within jars and vats of preservative liquid. The exhibit is filled out by various wax models of people suffering from a wide range of physical abnormalities, and the whole thing is not for the feint of heart.
There are some museums that seem to be devoted to the very idea of death itself. One such museum is Lombrosp’s Museum of Criminal Anthropology in Italy, which was founded by the Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso, who was convinced that the size and shape of a person’s skull determined their criminal potential. To this end he became obsessed with collecting and dissecting the skulls of all manner of people with violent or aberrant pasts, including soldiers, murderers, and madmen. These he would put on display for all to see, as well as weapons used in actual murders, full skeletons or brains of killers and other remains, and countless photographs of crimes and crime scenes. To top off the surreal and unsettling atmosphere is Lombroso’s own severed head, which greets visitors from a jar of formaldehyde.
In the United States there are two museums focused on death in Hollywood, California and New Orleans, Louisiana, both imaginatively named “The Museum of Death.” These exhibits are supposedly the grim of the grim, featuring images of murders, videos of autopsies, footage of real deaths, coffins, autopsy instruments, funeral paraphernalia and embalming instruments, execution photos, the severed head of French serial killer Henri Désiré Landru (AKA the Blue Beard of Paris), all manner of rather gruesome photos related to death, and other assorted murderabilia. The self-guided tour is purportedly so intense and graphic that even the most unflappable of people with the strongest of stomachs are said to frequently pass out or leave in a panic before the whole thing is over.
Thailand has a similar museum of death, called the Siriraj Medical Museum, in Bangkok, which features such stomach churning sights as human bodies ravaged by murderers, exhibits illustrating the effects of knife and bullet wounds upon the human body, and the mummified body of a Thai cannibal and serial killer named Si Ouey. Like many of the museums we have looked at so far, it seems that the sheer revulsion these exhibits can evoke has not hurt the museum’s popularity, and it is purported to be one of the most popular attractions in the city. Why this should be is anyone’s guess, but it does seem that we tend to be paradoxically drawn to that which repels us.
Another species of this sort of museum are those that deal with showcasing the various forms of torture the ever creative human mind has come up with over the centuries. In Amsterdam, Netherlands, there is the Torture Museum, which chronicles the dark history of torture and execution devices. There is a vast array of over 40 pieces of torture equipment on display here, as well as tools used for interrogation that should leave anyone feeling a little queasy at the very least. The Medieval Torture Museum, in San Gimignano, Italy, also has an insanely sadistic lineup of tools of torture used in the Middle Ages. The museum itself is located in an actual 13th century dungeon, and features working versions of such old classics such as the guillotine and the rack, as well as many others such as the spike lined coffin used to horrifically maim victims, known as the Maiden of Nuremberg, and a device used to tear a cheating wife’s breasts from her body. Grim stuff indeed. Be sure to visit the gift shop on your way out!
In the United States there is the Glore Psychiatric Museum, in St. Joseph, Missouri, which was opened on the grounds of an abandoned mental hospital in 1968. Here you can see the variety of rather colorful and morbid ways people in the past tried to drive the insanity out of people, which amounted to basically torture. There are a plethora of devices that one might not be surprised to find in the Dark Ages. A chair in which patients sat and were bled out for months at a time due to the prevailing theory that too much blood caused disorders, a giant wheel upon which patients ran nonstop to make them too tired to be crazy, electroshock devices, cold water dunking buckets, and a seemingly nonstop array of psychiatry tools of the day straight out of a horror movie await all those who come here, all lovingly recreated with lifelike mannequins. To round it all out is the artwork of diseased minds liberally plastered about, and various charts and graphs detailing all of the suffering.
If all of this is a little too real for you and a bit too close to human suffering and evil, you can try out some of the many, many museums devoted to the supernatural. In Paris, France there is the Museum of Vampires and Legendary Creatures. The museum was founded by a historian and scholar on the paranormal and demonology, with a particular interest in vampires, by the name of Jacques Sirgent, after spending decades collecting a treasure trove of occult items and various movie props connected to the bloodsucking fiends.
The entrance is already a melodramatic affair, replete with a black and scarlet entrance and garden made up to look like a graveyard complete with plastic skeletons and bats that make it look almost like a Halloween haunted house, after which one passes into the museum proper. Within, visitors are treated to a vast collection of old arcane books associated with vampires, reams of all manner of objects and artifacts concerning them, such as vampire killing kits, historical artifacts used for vampire rituals, and countless items illustrating the lore, myth, and superstition that they have invoked over the centuries. Scattered amongst these are numerous old props from vampire movies and toys as well. If you have any interest in vampires at all, this place is a definite must-see.
The state of Connecticut, in the United States, has no less than two of the best museums for the paranormal. Perhaps most well known is the Museum of the Occult, in Monroe, Connecticut. The creepy museum has a splendid pedigree, started by none other than renowned paranormal investigators and ghost and demon busting couple Ed and Lorraine Warren, and features all of the spooky, often cursed items they have accrued over 60 years. The museum opened in 1952, and features an enormous array of all manner of haunted items, relics, artifacts, and case files associated with their controversial work, which are all stowed away in the dark confines of the basement of their own home.
The Warrens, founders of the the New England Society for Psychic Research, who are famous for investigating the controversial Amityville haunting, as well as the case of the witch named Bathsheba, upon which the film The Conjuring is based, as well as the case of the haunted doll Annabelle, also with a movie of its own, have managed to amass an impressive amount of various weird stuff in their museum. Most notably are all of the supposedly cursed, possessed, and haunted items they have locked away here, for the stated purpose of keeping them from causing any more trouble. By far the most infamous of these is the actual haunted Annabelle doll itself, which looks like a creepy Raggedy Anne doll and sits behind a glass case upon which is written “Warning: Positively Do Not Open,” its visage cheerful yet sinister at the same time, perhaps watching curious visitors right back.
Besides Annabelle, there is a possessed “Shadow Doll,” which is said to be able to visit people in their dreams and stop their heart, and this is just the beginning of the bizarre exhibited here. Other miscellaneous items of evil are demon masks, voodoo masks and dolls, ritualistic objects, satanic tools and idols, death curses, human skulls, an organ that is said to play by itself in the dead of night, an actual vampire coffin, possessed toys, pieces of haunted houses, numerous haunted dolls, shrunken heads, a child tombstone purportedly used as a Satanic altar, and a mirror that summons spirits, among many, many others, and this is said to be the largest such collection of items in the world. Visitors to the museum have reported all kinds of strange occurrences, such as a feeling of inexplicable dread, panic attacks, cold spots, anomalous noises, the sense of being watched, and items seeming to move on their own, and there are warnings to enter here at your own risk. Perfect for Halloween, I’d say.
Besides museums of human horrors and the paranormal, there are others that cover an eclectic range of the creepy and weird. At Fort Mitchell, Kentucky is the Vent Haven Museum, which is completely devoted to ventriloquism and ventriloquist’s dummies. The collection of nightmare fuel began in 1910, when the ventriloquist William Shakespeare Berger began to collect the dummies at a steady pace, forcing him to renovate his home and add new buildings just so that he could store them all. Eventually, the hundreds of dummies were put on display for curiosity seekers, who file into a large theater filled with row upon row of over 800 ventriloquist dummies crammed into every available seat. Visitors stand on the stage of the theater to see the deeply creepy display as the dummies’ unblinking dead eyes look upon them from their seats. The museum also features photos, playbills, and historical books on ventriloquism, but the dummies are by far the main event. It is an unsettling experience to be sure, and this is the only museum of its kind in the world.
If ventriloquist dummies are not spooky or disturbing enough for you, how about a museum devoted to clowns? Billing itself as “The Funniest Museum on Earth,” some visitors to the Clown Hall of Fame and Research Center, in Baraboo, Wisconsin, may disagree. Opened in 1987 and supported by clown organizations all over the world (yes, these exist) the museum is dedicated to all manner of clown merchandise and memorabilia, and has the stated objective of “the preservation and advancement of clown art and achievement.” Here visitors can see clown costumes, props, scrapbooks of legendary circus clowns, and assorted artifacts, archives and photographs from throughout the history of clowns, as well as watch clown performances and other special events concerning clowns. There is also a clown hall of fame featuring famous clowns from all over the world, with the “Lifetime of Laughter Achievement Award” belonging to Willard Scott, who most will know as the original Ronald McDonald and Bozo the clown. No word on where Pennywise sits in this hierarchy.
Last but certainly not least we come to another of the only museums of its kind. Sitting amongst the buildings of the bustling Meguro area of Tokyo, Japan, is a rather nondescript building that holds within it a spellbindingly horrific collection of thousands upon thousands of parasites from all over the world. Opened in 1953, the Meguro Parasitological Museum has a collection of around 45,000 specimens of all manner of parasites, including tapeworms measuring nearly 9 meters long and other creepy crawlies preserved in jars, as well as animals and human body parts which have been ravaged by various parasites floating in vats of formaldehyde, and countless photographs of parasites and their effects. Walking through this nightmare inducing exhibition and learning about the life cycles and methods of parasitic invasion, many of which you would have never thought of, is at the same time educational and horrifying, and you will never look at parasites in the same light again.
Museums are undeniably an important part of preserving the natural and cultural heritage of our planet. Without them many of these wonders, curiosities, and anomalies would be lost to time and largely unknown by the masses. Yet as much as they serve to educate and enlighten, as we have seen here museums can also shock, disturb, frighten, and challenge the way we see the world. Here we can see all manner of spooky exhibits and collections that show us the darkness that lurks behind the veneer of what we think we know, forever kept for viewing, snapshots of the weird and terrible snatched from obscurity and kept for all to see.