Descent into Darkness

Enthusiasts of the macabre describe fascination with the subject matter

The online digital culture has branded the months from August to October as “spooky season,” an extended period in which those who regularly engage with dark content can showcase their interests unabashedly without the fear of being shamed for maintaining a fascination in the macabre. These interests include true-crime television and podcast entertainment, paranormal stories, programs, and tours, goth or alternative rock music, frequenting historical museum exhibitions and a dedicated readership to fiction and non-fiction macabre works, to name a few.

Although the internet has allotted a specific time of the year to indulge in these interests publically, such content has loyal, year-round consumers and is in fact, quite profitable.

Ella Morton, the co-author of Atlas Obscura, the New York Times best-selling book, has written pieces on obscure places around the globe that attract curious tourists and is open-minded to what kinds of subject matter are to be considered “macabre” in the first place. Morton has also written articles for Atlas Obscura’s editorial department about exhibitions on human anatomy, underwater crime scene investigation, the cultural history of capes, and my personal favorite, the mathematical equation that depicts how long it would take for vampires to annihilate humanity (that is, if vampires existed).

While waiting at a deli outside her publisher’s office Tuesday, Oct. 10, Morton took to to answer a few questions about how to approach writing about macabre topics. In a private direct message on Twitter, the New Zealand-born, Australian-raised author sent her video response.

“Regarding talking about macabre things, I think a really good place to start would be reflecting on why people consider the subject or the practice or the place to be ‘macabre’ in the first place. Because (something) might not be universally perceived as macabre and might be an opportunity to look at why the culture considers it to be disturbing or confronting,” said Morton, before offering a few subjects that often raise eyebrows. “So for example, in the US, I think that death is regarded as (a topic that) makes people squeamish and it’s not something that people like to talk about in polite company. Whereas in Mexico, it’s completely different. There is a cemetery where relatives of the dead will take people’s bones out of their grave and clean them every year. And to them, that’s a mark of respect.”

Morton further explained that certain practices, customs, topics, and content in one culture might be considered strange and uncomfortable, whereas, in other cultures, they might be widely accepted or perhaps even cherished.

“I think looking at a culture’s attitude toward a particular subject is a good place to start,” said Morton.

Morton also noted that the specific audience who interacts with macabre content also makes a huge difference in the perception of its acceptability in everyday life.

“If you are looking at things like medical museums, doctors or people who conduct autopsies would not see the specimens there as disturbing or strange. I love medical museums. I see them as a really cool opportunity to learn about what’s inside our bodies and how things can go wrong. So they are invaluable in terms of educating people, especially people in the medical profession,” she said.

Education, surprisingly, is a reoccurring theme when discussing macabre subject matter. There seems to be a fine line between fostering a healthy interest and education in strange histories, biology and stories and fetishizing creepy content.

When questioned about how to walk this line when presenting dark content to her readers, Morton emphasized exercising sensitivity for the subject and researching the context and culture in which it resides.

“I think also just a general sensitivity when you are writing or talking about a subject is really useful. Learn about the context in which it occurs. There (are) so many practices around the world that are reflections of the group or society in which they happen. A lot of practices involving the dead are signs of respect and reflections of how the, uh, dead person,” Morton gave a small laugh realizing she was overheard by another customer in the deli, “functioned in their community and how they are treated after death,” Morton concluded.

Morton is someone who regularly grapples with these questions as a part of her career as a writer and a vital member of the Atlas Obscura community, but she is not alone in this.

Oliva Wargo, a Boise State senior and member of the Honors College majoring in Global Studies with an emphasis in sustainability, is a huge advocate for museum-education and has an impressive resume having launched marketing campaigns for various exhibitions in Idaho, some of which deal with heavy and often dark subject matter.

Wargo became involved in museum education at the Discovery Center of Idaho, a nonprofit science museum in Boise, Idaho. Working her way up from a visitor services associate to weekend management, she has overseen the front desk as well as weekend education operations. In addition to those positions, Wargo managed all social media marketing initiatives at the Discovery Center.

As of late, she is working with founder and executive director Palina Louangketh in creating the Idaho Museum of International Diaspora, a museum focused on the stories of refugees and immigrants in Boise. She currently acts as the manager of media communications as an intern until funds are obtained to hire her on permanently.

Wargo discussed the ethics of sensationalizing in marketing for certain museum exhibitions in order to draw a crowd and generate a profit, explaining how doing so could potentially be crossing the line by encouraging an unhealthy interest in particular topics. Wargo explained that though sensationalizing an exhibit is essential to making the subject exciting to the audience, it could also lead to the audience leaving disappointed and unlikely to return.

“I think a balance between sensationalizing the content as well as being accurate in marketing is what is needed. That way you’re able to not only bring in people once, but hopefully again and again, and maybe even inspire membership purchases,” Wargo said.

When asked about museums, exhibitions and tours that capitalize on an individual’s deep-laden interest in the macabre, Wargo offered some valuable insight into how these places should market and present the material in an ethical manner.

“When it comes to topics such as death and violent crimes, I think there is an interesting side of our society that does fetishize those ideas. However, it is most definitely possible to present difficult/gruesome subject matter in ways that don’t glorify it. First off, when it comes to marketing, you want to be certain that you are respecting the stories of the victims/individuals that directly dealt with the macabre events,” Wargo said. “At the Discovery Center of Idaho, we hosted an exhibition filled with real human bodies, as an opportunity for people to learn about human anatomy through studying actual human bodies. In all of our marketing, photos of the bodies were prohibited, as well as prohibited when visitors were in the actual exhibition. In a way, this not only is respectful of the human exhibits, but from a marketing standpoint also creates some mystery as to what is in the exhibition, and that people will have to come and see for themselves to learn more!”

Wargo also suggested that there are steps that museums, tour guides, and marketing professionals can tackle these subjects in a way that can prevent attendees’ imaginations from running wild and processing the content in an unhealthy way.

“We were glorifying the bodies through embracing their anatomical beauty, (but), had there been more violent content I am certain we would have marketed around that. We also were completely honest in where the bodies came from: donated from an institution of scientific research in Taiwan. That takes away the opportunity for people to come up with their own ideas of how we acquired the bodies, which can result in some weird fetishized theories from people,” Wargo added.

Additionally, experiences offered by places such as the Idaho State Penitentiary, the LA Museum of Death and the History of New Orleans tours often pin curious individuals face to face with gruesome subject matter for the sake of education, and of course, for entertainment.

Wargo lastly recalled an experience she had while on a macabre tour herself and explained the virtues of such immersive experiences.

“I have visited the Idaho Penitentiary a couple of times and have participated in their death tours. I appreciate the way they share the content as stories, with beginnings, middles, and ends. It tells how and why the prisoners arrived at the penitentiary, their experience there, and their death, whether it be through execution or from not surviving the environment of prison, or murder by other prisoners in some cases,” Wargo explained. “This narrative form of education gives visitors the full story of that person and doesn’t allow them the opportunity to come up with their own ideas of how that person lived their life. Being in the prison when hearing these stories most definitely adds to the overall experience. I am all about immersive museum education, in bringing visitors to the time and place of the content they are learning about, which is something really cool the Idaho Penitentiary is able to accomplish within the historic building.”

When it comes to embracing the macabre and topics surround death, the human body and decay, none are more equipped to offer advice in this area than mortician and author Caitlin Doughty. Doughty is the founder of The Order of the Good Death, an online association of writers, funeral directors, researchers, forensic pathologists and psychologists, creators, and architectural monument designers who have banded together for a cause they like to call the “Death Positive Movement.”

Doughty has written numerous non-fiction works detailing her experience working in the funeral industry, her travels around the world witnessing the funeral practices of foreign cultures, and the questions she hears most often from children about death and how best to address them. Doughty is also an avid video content creator and the owner of the California-based funeral home, Undertaking LA.

A response received from Tara Chavez-Perez, who manages inquiries and bookings for Caitlin Doughty, pointed me in the direction of The Order of the Good Death’s webpage to better explain the message The Order seeks to share with the world.

“The Order is about making death a part of your life. Staring down your death fears—whether it be your own death, the death of those you love, the pain of dying, the afterlife (or lack thereof), grief, corpses, bodily decomposition, or all of the above. Accepting that death itself is natural, but the death anxiety of modern culture is not,” the statement read.

The Order of the Good Death, along with Doughty, believe that confrontation of what our culture perceives to be macabre and unsettling has caused a great deal of “death anxiety” causing individuals to fear interactions with the dead and confronting their own mortality which can lead to a lack of closure and unnecessary mental health struggles and emotional distress.

Another Los Angeles native who is committed to sharing the correlation between embracing the macabre and mental health is Alex Schegetz, a 25-year-old former journalism student works for an online pop-culture publication, and is a current brand ambassador for Hot Topic.

Schegetz created the website Hauntingly Human, as a safe haven for individuals, like herself, who are drawn to particularly creepy works of fiction, horror, true crime and just about everything deemed odd and macabre in our society.

“I suffer from General Anxiety Disorder (GAD) as well as depression, and I attribute a lot of my interests to my disorders. I’ve always used fantasy and horror to get away from myself, whether it be in books or film,” wrote Schegetz.

Schegetz is devoted to alerting social media to what is happening in the Halloween or “Haunt Industry,” as she calls it, and by doing so has found a community of likeminded people who share her ideas concerning mental health, identity, community, and embracing macabre interests, or any interest that aligns closely with one’s true self.

“People may have different reasons for being drawn to the strange and unusual, but some use it to cope with their own demons. As someone who deals with anxiety disorders and depression, I have found that the scariest and most haunted places I have ever been to are in my own mind. No matter how many haunts I have attended, how many horror movies I watch, the monsters and villains within them have never frightened me more than the terrible things I have made up and convinced myself to be true,” Schegetz said.