One of my new favorite gift shops is at the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office.
Cheekily named "Skeletons in the Closet," the gift shop is a great source for travel mugs that say "Bodily Fluids" and chalk outline beach towels. They used to sell body bags, but as I learned during a recent visit, those items have been phased out — once they stopped letting people engrave them with "mother-in-law," the products no longer flew off the shelves.
It's a bit jarring to know that people are perusing fake crime scene kits and sweatshirts emblazoned with "CORONER" right next to the room where relatives pick up the property of their deceased loved ones, but honestly, it makes sense here. It's true that the sun shines most days in L.A., but that doesn't mean there's not a dark vibe to the city.
Think about it — how many people have set out for Hollywood, convinced they're the next A-list starlet or director, only to make headlines not for their movies, but rather their tragic demises? This is the place where the Black Dahlia took her last breath, and the Manson family was able to instill fear in millions.
Those are the extremes, of course, but L.A. really does have a dark side. There are thousands of old homes, theaters, parks, bridges, schools, hospitals, museums, and cemeteries that are said to be haunted. Intrigued by all of the morbid destinations the city has to offer, I decided to go to some of the spookier places in Los Angeles.
That's how I found myself at Skeletons in the Closet. Housed in the old Los Angeles General Hospital building, I quickly learned the gift shop has a sense of humor — there are signs on the wall that read "Shoplifters' next-of-kin will be notified" and "Checks accepted with two forms of I.D. or dental records."
Forget Macy's or Kohl's — you can find everything you need at Skeletons in the Closet, as long as you're cool with your shirts, lunch bag, and hat having the coroner's logo or a drawing of a skeleton dressed up like Sherlock Holmes. The gift shop actually opened 25 years ago as a joke — as the kind woman who works there, Edna, told me, an employee made a shirt with a body outline on it, and everyone thought it was hilarious and asked for one. They figured they might as well start selling them to the public, too.
Halloween is the store's busiest time of the month, because people want to dress up as the coroner. Celebrities stop by — there are photos of Matt Damon, Megan Mullally, Dustin Hoffman, and Emily Deschanel on display — and visitors come from around the world, with some making sure to stop by for new items every time they're in town. Right before I arrived, Edna said, a man walked in after having picked up his brother's property in the room next door. He told her: "My brother would kill me if I didn't come in and buy anything."
I had wondered if people came in and took issue with the fact that while they were dealing with the death of a family member, the coroner's office was selling merchandise just a few yards away, but Edna said no, she gets more positive comments than negative. I walked out of there with a few reasonably priced pens and a note pad that says "We're dying for your business...L.A. County Coroner's Gift Shop."
Next up was the Bearded Lady's Mystic Museum in Burbank, which is also an art gallery and gift shop. There are all sorts of oddities on display, with many pieces from the Victorian era. In one corner there's old medical instruments, looking so dicey it's enough to make you drop to your knees so you can thank God for modern medicine. Lining the shelves are eerie post-mortem photos from the 19th and early 20th centuries, old prayer cards and funeral notices, and bottles and tins containing embalming fluid and Esco Beautifying Tint, "for adding natural color to pallid cases."
Thoroughly creeped out, I made my way to the gift shop area, where I met Mystic Dylan. He's the in-house psychic who does tarot, palm, and bone readings. I asked him to tell me about my past lives, using the tarot. This was an auspicious time, he said, as I was meeting him the day after the Autumnal Equinox and the 326th anniversary of the execution of eight people accused of being witches in Salem.
He shuffled the deck, and I chose my cards, fully ready to be told that I was once a queen. Mystic Dylan instead informed me that my first card showed that way back in the day, I was actually an outcast who was most likely a lady of the night. It wasn't what I expected to hear, but does help explain why I like lucite so much. The reading lasted about 15 minutes — you can pay for longer sessions — and was super informative, with Mystic Dylan explaining how the cards were connected and reassuring me they showed that whichever path I take in life, I'll be successful.
Now, if you have a strong stomach, you can visit the Museum of Death in Hollywood. I do not, and after reading the Yelp reviews warning people this wasn't for the faint of heart, immediately realized this place was just too ghoulish for me. There are letters from serial killers, a mummified head, crime scene photos, video of a live autopsy, and so on. I skipped ahead to Plan B — visiting celebrity graves.
Hollywood Forever and the Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park are probably the two best cemeteries to visit if you want to pay your respects to a famous person. Hollywood Forever is where Rudolph Valentino, Cecil B. DeMille, Bugsy Siegel, and two Ramones — Johnny and Dee Dee — are all buried, and if you want to spend the night there, you can — since 2002, Cinespia has hosted outdoor movie screenings at the cemetery, complete with DJs and themed photo booths. It's just as fascinating to drive through Hollywood Forever and look at the huge, elaborate monuments that belong to regular people, featuring engraved portraits of the deceased, religious symbols, and long poems.
Westwood Village Memorial Park isn't the biggest cemetery, but it's filled with recognizable names — Gene Kelly, Farrah Fawcett, Merv Griffin, Ray Bradbury, Hugh Hefner, and the one who attracts the most visitors, Marilyn Monroe. Her headstone is simple — all it says is "Marilyn Monroe, 1926 - 1962" — but it's discolored due to the fans who come and kiss it, leaving pink and red lipstick marks behind.
I barely scratched the surface of the eerie places I could visit, and after going to Skeletons in the Closet, I wouldn't even place it in that category — it's too in on the joke to be creepy, although I'm not convinced that building isn't haunted. Having a reading with Mystic Dylan was eye-opening, and even the cemeteries felt tranquil. Still, once Halloween is over, I'll likely save the spooky outings for next Oct. 31, even if I do spend the entire year scribbling notes with my chalk outline pen on my coroner's office pad of paper.