The feeling is unmistakable. You're halfway down the cramped stairway of a murky basement museum, no one in sight except your host, when the first wall full of a giant collection of hammers comes into view. A chill streaks down your spine. Did I tell anyone where I was going today? If I turn and run, will I make it to the car before the Mallet King peens me?
There are scores of Scary Museums in America. Don't get us wrong -- we couldn't live without 'em. A stop at one can make the difference between a dull Sunday outing, and an invigorating brush with Serial Madness. Presentation style varies, from meticulously labeled, tastefully lit galleries of sacred bone chips, to a card table crowded with Nazi lugers and automatic weapons.
And, unlike the predictable adrenaline jolt you get on a theme park roller coaster or haunted house attraction, scary museums often sneak up on you...
It's the sudden realization during your tour of the Wheels Museum that owner Max Nordeen probably spent all winter standing in his unheated building, memorizing a 4-hour long spiel about the 1939 World's Fair, novelty gear shift knobs, and John Deere's death notice.
It's that moment when Harry Finley, bachelor owner of the world's only Museum of Menstruation, shows you the basement back room -- with hundreds of menstrual and feminine hygiene products piled to the ceiling. Harry finally closed a few years ago, since he had a day job, so now his collection is very private.
Even sans host, terror can strike. In the Petrified Wood Museum's bizarre pioneer life diorama, a dwarf mannequin woman sits at a table full of shrink-wrapped plastic Kentucky Fried Chicken. A stuffed cat plays a fiddle. A pet casket labeled "Time Capsule" sits atop the fridge. [Update: The dwarf mannequin now sits at an organ at a mock Lemmon wedding. The stuffed animals playing musical instruments have been put in storage.]
Some scary museums become institutionalized, continuing after the collector's death. The collections of medical oddities at the Mutter Museum, Philadelphia, PA, and the National Museum of Health and Medicine, Washington, DC, began in the 19th century. Someone started squirreling away pieces of Lincoln's skull, two-headed babies, and giant colons -- just so that they could be shown to others. Most body parts exhibited are over a century old, so you're probably safe...
Sometimes the scariest museums are the ones you just barely avoid. An after-dark peek in the entrance of Ma'Cille's Museum of Miscellanea, Gordo, AL, convinced us to move on before the owner showed up. And we'll never get another chance -- Ma'Cille died and the museum contents were auctioned off in 1998.
The Mother's Day Museum scares us to this day, and we never set foot inside. Call us wimps -- but we lived to tell the tale...
These places don't set out to chill your blood. In nearly every case, our scary museum hosts have been cordial, extremely knowledgeable about their area of study or fetish, and in no way threatening. If one of them was going to whack us with the World's Largest Meat Cleaver, sink our rental car in the pond behind the shed, pickle our heads and preserve them in Mason jars, he/she would've done it already.
But perhaps part of our protection is that we are cut from the same cloth. Is this Web site no less scary, a virtual basement of obsessive collecting? Did we show you this animated meat cleaver yet?
More Scary Museums
Belhaven Museum: Pickled freaks and preserves.
Sponge Divers Museum, Spongeorama: Disturbing sponger dioramas behind grimy Plexiglas. The infomercial guy scared us.
Madam Laveau's Voodoo Shop: Potions, merman, Island mojo, freaky hoo ha -- right on New Orleans' Bourbon Street.
Perhaps the true horrors are those bright and ostensibly happy institutions, where visitors fully immerse before the flesh-eating bacteria goes to work:
- Focus on the Family Visitor Center, Colorado Springs, Colorado. An all-smiles host or hostess greets you and offers to answer any questions you might have about the televangelist empire. The A-Bend-A-Go plastic tube looks innocent enough to feed your kids into... but why is there a B-17 bomber in the basement?
- Amway Headquarters and Museum, Ada, Michigan, a self-contained city, with its hallways of pyramid distributor plaques and busloads of Stepford children.
- Palace of Gold, New Vrindaban, West Virginia. A perennial favorite, always cheery in a utopian fog kind of way.