When Death Is a Fascination

For some, scrutinizing the deaths of others is a source of intrigue, enjoyment, and community. Is this pastime perverse, harmless, or an honest confrontation of what we all face?


When Scott Michaels purchased the domain FindADeath.com in 1997, he had no sense of the phenomenon he was starting. He was just a regular guy who happened to be really interested in dead people, and he devoted his site to documenting the last days, autopsy reports, death certificates, and grave sites of some of Hollywood’s biggest stars.

Michaels quickly found a fanbase hungry for details of celebrity deaths beyond what mainstream news media could (or would) provide. The bloody crime-scene photographs. Open-casket shots. Glimpses from the coroner’s table.

Over the last 18 years, Michaels has found kinship among his followers: a group of people who stare at car accidents—literally and metaphorically—the way he does. In 1999, he addressed them in a post: “Hi, Death Hags,” he began. The name stuck (and he later copyrighted it). They were the Death Hags, and they were not ashamed.

Today, Michaels’s Death Hags are more numerous than they ever have been. There are more than 10,000 registered members of the FindADeath.com forums—which boast over 1.4 million posts—and another 2,000 fans on Facebook.

With the Death Hags, Michaels found a community. He gets Christmas cards each year from people he knows only through the Internet. And now, he says, his dark interest feels less odd. Everyone has an interest in death, he says—the Death Hags just aren’t afraid to admit it. “Everyone was buying their tabloids and tucking them into their Wall Street Journal,” he says. “[The Death Hags] shouted out loud.”

Michaels’s site is unique in its singular devotion to the gruesome display of famous deaths, but the details of death can be found on more mainstream sites than his. Even on Pinterest, I was able to find photographs of Chris Farley’s gruesome death scene and Anna Nicole Smith’s face peering from a body bag. From the site’s acceptable use policy: “We allow most violent or gory images that could be considered newsworthy, but we’ll take down ones that are likely to create a bad experience for people who accidentally find them.” (“We don’t try to define ‘newsworthy,’” Pinterest says.)

Frank, unflinching discussions of death are more mainstream, prevalent, and hip than ever. Mortician Caitlin Doughty’s Smoke Gets In Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory was a New York Times bestseller in 2014, and her “Ask a Mortician” YouTube series—addressing everything from necrophilia to the worst ways to die—has millions of views. Sixth-generation undertaker Caleb Wilde has found a certain amount of celebrity for his irreverent views on death, penning articles like, “How To Take a Funeral Selfie Without Being a Horrible Person.”

And Michaels has built a career on the deaths of others. On FindADeath.com, he sells memorabilia from famous death locations—bricks from Sharon Tate’s fireplace for 50 bucks, a sliver of Rock Hudson’s deathbed for $29.95. His company, Dearly Departed Tours, has shuttled more than 40,000 tourists on his “tragical history tours” of Hollywood, driving them past the sidewalk where River Phoenix overdosed, the hotel where Janis Joplin died.

But even Michaels says that there are things online he wishes he had never seen. In the modern age, finding violence and death online is nothing novel. In a recent interview on the Reply All podcast with New York Times journalist Rukmini Callimachi, who covers terrorism, she says there is a new ISIS beheading video every couple of days.

“They’re so frequent,” she told host, PJ Vogt. Callimachi says she’ll cover her eyes while watching them, “just as a way to let less of it come into me.”

“Now with the click of your finger you can find that stuff and more,” Michaels says. “If I had a kid I would never let them around a computer.”

But he draws a blurry moral line: “I don’t want to see somebody getting their head chopped off,” Michaels says, “But I would look at a picture of their head.”

* * *

Some psychiatrists say the abundance of online discussion, photographs and videos of death are a sign of a shift away from taboo. But the barrage of blood online presents another question: At what point does “confronting death” become voyeurism? It could be that the availability of online gore is a sign of taboos around death being lifted.

But what if some people just get a kick out of seeing graphic photos? What does that say?

Most people are a little hungry for blood, says Gail Saltz, an associate professor of psychiatry at The New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornel School of Medicine and frequent expert guest on shows from Oprah to 20/20. “People want to go see car races not just because they love the racing of cars, but because a car might hit the wall and blow up,” she says. “There is a fascination with seeing disasters, horrific things.” A part of every human’s nature is to be a little sadomasochistic, she says. Society, though, keeps those impulses at bay, controlling “urges to do something terrible,” she says.

Seeing death can also give people a rush, as long as it’s from a safe distance. In flipping through images of, say, Princess Diana’s fatal car accident, we get the thrill of feeling close to danger without actually being in danger. “You’re safe in your seat behind your computer,” Saltz says.

But people are also drawn to looking at tragedy in order to confront humans’ greatest fear.

“We are probably more afraid of death than anything else,” Saltz says. “The fascination with viewing someone who is [dead] … is driven by that sort of supreme fear of ours which makes us want to know more and to understand the experience and feel like we have some kind of window in.” It could be a way of trying to feel prepared for something we can never truly be ready for.

It could also be schadenfreude.

“[It’s] partially driven by the wish to have the things they imagine the celebrities have,” Saltz says. “I can feel less terrible about [the fact that] I don’t get to have it because look at the price you pay: You pay with your life.”

Scott Bonn, a professor of criminology and sociology at Drew University, agrees. People “love disasters of all sorts,” he says. A dead celebrity photo, for some, is reassurance. “The average person … their lives are rather mundane and not that happy. These things divert our attention and remind us after all, as mundane and shitty as my life might be, it’s not that bad.”

Bonn wrote a book about America’s obsession with serial killers. He says that reading about the heinous crimes committed by John Wayne Gacy or Jeffery Dahmer, or looking at pictures of the murder scenes, are ways of getting a cheap thrill, like watching a scary movie. “It’s a form of escapism,” Bonn says. “There’s an inherent need to get close to the edge of the abyss and look in without falling in.”

But that’s nothing new. In 1934, hordes swarmed the just-ambushed automobile of gangsters Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, snipping off locks of hair and flipping open pocket knives to slice ears and fingers off the notorious criminals.

Compared to that, looking at pictures online seems almost benign.

* * *

As the camera rolls, a group of four white tourists take their seats at a restaurant, where bellydancers gyrate around them as they look over the menu. Waiters bring out platters of “special dining implements.” Tonight they’ll have the house special: the brains of a live monkey.

The diners, acquiescing to the ploys of their servers, begin whacking at the head of the screaming monkey with tiny mallets. And when it stops, they scoop at its brains with forks, smiling as they chew.

It’s a scene from the cult classic Faces of Death, a 1978 shockumentary that portrays death in dozens of forms: suicides, botched surgeries, gator attacks, executions, car accidents, flesh-eating cults. Many of the scenes were faked—including the monkey shot (the brains were dyed cauliflower). But more than a few of the scenes were real, too.

In 1978, writer and director John Schwartz was on the verge of becoming a cult cinema superhero. He was approached by a Japanese production company to produce a documentary about death. “They wanted us to capture the horror of death, and the more macabre the better,” he writes in his memoir.

The film was a hit at the box office, grossing $35 million and spawning a string of sequels and imitators.

Over the phone, Schwartz explains that the film was meant to break taboos surrounding death. “There’s some people that say ‘You’re a sick fuck,’ and ‘Screw you,’ you know?” he says. But “many of the reviews said it was a remarkable exploration into our deepest, darkest secrets.” Today, Schwartz thinks he had some small hand in creating the culture that now seeks out violent imagery online, instead of at the movie theater. “I have found [that] people can’t get enough of this stuff.”

Schwartz was onto something. He was bringing death, no matter how gory or gruesome, out into the daylight. That’s something that Eric Wilson, an English professor at Wake Forest University, discusses in his book, Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck.

Up until the 1900s, people died at home. “Adults and children alike were intimate with death—its sounds and its smells, the agony of it, and its peace,” Wilson writes. “Since the 1950s, though, the health-care industry has increasingly taken charge of death, as well as birth. Now—enticed by well-trained doctors, sophisticated medical technologies, and spotless rooms—almost everyone, understandably, goes to the hospital to die.”

Doctors handle the gore, morticians prettify bodies. Wilson argues that death is not something we regularly encounter anymore, adding an extra layer of mystery and intrigue. In his book, Wilson quotes French historian Philippe Aries: “When death arrives, it is regarded as an accident, a sign of hopelessness and clumsiness that must be put out of mind.”

Over the phone, Wilson explains that he was drawn to writing about why it’s so hard for us to look away from gore because he, himself, felt an attraction to it. “I’ve had an abiding interest in the melancholy,” he says. “I wanted to understand the complexity of that.”

He struggled: Should he feel guilty about watching a beheading video? Was it normal to do that? Perverse? Depends on if you’ve got a meaningful intent, he says.

“What if my interest is that I want to see the world as it is? I want to be honest about the suffering,” he says. “There is something noble about that. Morbid curiosity can tap into something quite meaningful in us.”

But feeling guilty about it is something that Wilson says psychoanalyst Carl Jung had a theory for. The part of people that feels like they shouldn’t be looking at the macabre is the “shadow self,” and Wilson says that is the “part of your being that’s a reservoir of everything you loathe and fear.”

“Most of us go through life repressing that,” Wilson says. “Some would say that our interest in horror films is our shadow side expressing [itself].”

People get a perverse thrill in watching blood spill onscreen before them—it’s visceral but distant; taboo but not too taboo. Seeking out that thrill is fine, Wilson says, as long as people are aware of their intentions, and they’ve got it in check. “Over-fixation on violent footage—either fictional or nonfictional—can be destructive,” he says. “It can lead to desensitization. If I’m going for a sick thrill, I’m going to need more and more intense violence to get that sick thrill.”

* * *

Michael Curtiss is a 55-year-old online-marketing coordinator for a theater company and a freelance theater critic. He is a proud Death Hag, and in his mind, Scott Michaels is a visionary. “We all think he’s God,” Curtiss says. “He’s one of the people responsible for bringing the whole concept of death, and particularly celebrity death, out of the freak-show arena.”

When he stumbled on the FindADeath.com, Curtiss couldn’t look away. And, unexpectedly, he found a community filled with love, united in death. Together, the Death Hags indulge their dark fascinations. And in doing so, they become a little more okay with dying.

“We’re not afraid of [death],” Curtiss says. “We understand what it is. We understand that there is no one way to mark somebody’s death.”

Curtiss admits that the Death Hags are not always kind, especially to dead celebrities. He says that joking about, say, Amy Winehouse’s death isn’t so much entertainment as it is a“post-modern contemporary coping mechanism.”

“It’s your way of laughing in the dark. You realize on some level that what happened to Amy Winehouse is going to come to you one day,” he says. “One day you’ll be the shape under the sheet.”

But the Death Hags don’t laugh when members of their own tribe die. Curtiss recalls the death of one frequent poster, who killed himself, on the FindaDeath forums. “The people that ran the sites knew him, and knew he wouldn’t have been really happy to have his death swept under the rug.”

The man’s death prompted a conversation about mental health, and Curtiss says that the Death Hag forums suddenly became a place of support for people saying that they struggled with suicidal thoughts, too. Even here, among so much death, people encouraged others to stay alive.

The Death Hags “were never founded with the expressed intent of saving the world, as it were,” Curtiss says. “But if we can help one person maybe get past a tough time, it’s worth it.”

Scott Michaels, who created all this, has seen more dead celebrities than most. He hosts some tours from the driver’s seat of a hearse. He’s held parties in coroner’s offices. His arms are tattooed with monsters and ghosts.

After all these years among the dead, he still doesn’t have an answer to what happens when you die. All he knows is that it’s coming. And instead of letting death stalk him, he chases after it.

He hopes for a death less terrible, less terrifying, and more merciful than the ones he’s spent his life pursuing. Across the thick of his right arm reads a prayer:

From the goblins and the ghosties and the long leggity beasties, may the good lord protect me.

“I can’t figure out if death is the thing I’m least afraid of or most afraid of,” he says.