Night At The Museum 4: The Crawlspace Beneath The Smithsonian

Canada's Criminals Hall of Fame Wax Museum

The Criminals Hall of Fame wax museum doesn’t exist anymore, but in 2005 it was one of the premier morbid low-rent wax museum destinations of the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, a mildewed tourist town weirdly full of morbid low-rent wax museums. I was there on a summer vacation with my family, and I dragged my brother into that place basically as soon as we arrived.

Inside, a few long dark hallways opened up to various life-sized dioramas, each featuring cast-off department store mannequins outfitted with lumpy wax heads of questionable likeness and the various accoutrements (axe, .44 pistol, refrigerator full of body parts) made famous in each of the cases being portrayed. I don’t specifically remember there being a PA system that blared a “Spooky Halloween Sounds” CD full of ghost moaning and rattling chains, but if you told me there had been I would definitely believe you.

One of the exhibits featured Ted Bundy but his wax face was so bland and generic it looked like the default head that came with the mannequin, so they had to overcompensate by giving him a college sweatshirt and a fake cast and sling. Another exhibit had a little Hitler behind glass but he looked more like Walter Matthau than Hitler, maybe drunkenly coaching a little league team full of Hitler Youths when he wasn’t standing there in the museum. Another had a wax John Wayne Gacy in full clown regalia, but he had a rainbow wig that he never wore as Pogo and I remember pointing this out like we were watching an X-Men movie and I was complaining about the costumes being different in the comics. Even to a nihilistic teenager it all felt pretty tacky, like a Holocaust museum you navigate by bumper car.

There were a few other wax museums in the neighborhood that were more reputable, or at least less staggeringly exploitative. Tourists who didn't want to gawk at a wax Hitler could go elsewhere and see a wax Forrest Gump or a wax Tom Selleck and enjoy more ethical photo opportunities. But it’s not like Criminals Hall of Fame was some perversion of the original waxworks tradition. For just about as long as crowds have paid admission to see wax figures of famous people, the most popular wax figure exhibits have been the ones that featured murder and violence and severed body parts.

Madam Tussaud, for sure the most famous wax sculptor you've ever heard of unless you're some kind of seriously committed wax pervert, created lots of her own morbid art amid the political violence of the French Revolution. Tussaud, then Anna Maria “Marie” Grosholtz, learned the wax sculpture trade as a child when her mother accepted a housekeeping job with a physician and artist named Philippe Curtius, to whom Marie would grow so close she came to think of him as an uncle. Here’s more from an article on History Today:

It was from this ‘uncle’ that Marie learned her art as a child and after he had moved to Paris, where he scored a fashionable success, she and her mother joined him and she became his assistant. As a result, she met many of the leading French aristocrats and intellectuals of the day and she modelled both Voltaire and Rousseau from life. In the 1780s she was employed to teach Madame Elizabeth, Louis XVI’s sister, and met the King and many of the royal family. Curtius later developed Jacobin sympathies and Marie met Robespierre and other revolutionaries in her uncle’s circle.

As the Terror took its toll, Marie was forced to make casts of the heads of victims of the guillotine, many of whom had been her uncle’s friends and dinner guests. In one episode, the leaders of the mob that hacked the Princess de Lamballe to pieces stood over Marie while she took a cast of the severed head, its auburn hair horribly smeared with blood. Marie had known the princess and liked her. She made a mould of the head of Louis XVI himself after his execution. When Marat was stabbed in his bath by Charlotte Corday, the National Assembly instructed Marie to make his death mask and sketch the scene exactly for the painter David. She took a cast of Charlotte Corday’s face, too, after her execution, and later modelled the severed heads of both Marie Antoinette and Robespierre.

When the Terror ended, Marie accepted an invitation to exhibit her portraits in London, and then spent decades touring the British Isles with her work. When she finally established her flagship wax museum in London in 1835, she took care to designate a "Special Room" to house the royal death masks, along with an Egyptian mummy, a model of the guillotine, and other pieces of proto-goth memorabilia she'd collected in the intervening years. This room became the "Chamber of Horrors," and was so popular that visitors were charged higher admission fees to see it. 

Most of the exhibits at Criminals Hall of Fame were inept, but a couple of them were legitimately unsettling. In one, an older woman opened her door to Boston Strangler Albert DeSalvo, who stood on her porch giving her some bullshit story, looking to gain entry to her apartment. She looked genuinely nervous in the ominous porch light, expressive in a way that made me feel like I was seeing something I shouldn’t have.

In another exhibit a little further down the hall, two teenagers made out inside a car while David Berkowitz lurked in the shadows just feet away from them. The shadows were really doing most of the heavy lifting in this one, considering whoever sculpted these figures had about as much facility for likenesses as they did for tasteful sensitivity, but it was still really creepy.

What they both had in common, aside from criminal subjects who were so sweaty and lumpy in real life that they lent themselves perfectly to the medium of wax sculpture, was a framing of the experience of those crimes from the victim's perspective. You definitely couldn't call them tasteful, but after a dozen childish dioramas full of expressionless mannequins and rubber severed limbs it felt important to remember that all this rickety haunted house mythmaking was built on the lives and pain of real people. It was a sobering thought, full of more pure horror than anything else in the museum, and it only lasted about as long as it took to walk to the next exhibit.

The next one was a big dinner table decked out with a feast of human body parts, with Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers and Leatherface all gathered to eat together in a Last Supper tableau. These were the only killers in the museum who didn't also exist in real life, and the jarring effect of their inclusion was only heightened by the fact that they were all dressed in snazzy matching suits like they were in Reservoir Dogs, like we’d just caught Freddy and Leatherface arguing about "Like a Virgin" before they headed out to rob a jewelry store.

In his book The Riverman, Detective Robert Keppel describes interviewing Ted Bundy at Florida State Prison where Bundy was on Death Row during the 1980s. Bundy had intimated that he could help Seattle law enforcement track down the then-unknown Green River Killer by lending them his first-hand expertise on the subject, and one of his suggestions was for Seattle police to hold a marathon of slasher films at a local theater so they could photograph, profile, and investigate anyone who attended. Bundy argued that a person with a compulsion for real-life murder would also have a near-obsessive interest in hockey-mask-and-chainsaw cinematic depictions of murder, and would almost certainly attend the screening.

The cops didn't use this strategy, but Bundy's argument has always stuck with me, as someone who has spent more time than most sitting in slasher movie audiences. Most horror film fans, like true crime fans, are kind and empathetic people who are just looking for a way to safely engage the fears they have about the world around them, but most horror film and true crime fans also know that Jeffrey Dahmer used to put on a VHS of Exorcist 3 when he’d bring victims back to his apartment, that John Wayne Gacy did Freddy Krueger paintings, that the Zodiac Killer was obsessed with The Most Dangerous Game, and on and on and on. In other words, I know I’m not a piece of shit, and if you’re reading this you’re probably not a piece of shit, but we both know there are some real pieces of shit out there who like a lot of the same stuff we like.

One morning on this same Niagara Falls trip we went to an IHOP for breakfast, where I saw a skinhead with a bunch of iron cross and SS and swastika tattoos. It was jarring to see this shit out in the wild after gawking at its wax dramatization, a feeling kind of like running into Jason Voorhees outside a theater where I’d just watched a Friday the 13th movie (Except I guess in this metaphor, Jason insists that the reason he hacked all those camp counselors to death with a machete is “economic anxiety”). I found myself wondering whether Pancake Skinhead had also visited Criminals Hall of Fame, and what it said about me if he had.

Remember that little Hitler behind glass I mentioned a bunch of paragraphs ago? The reason it ended up behind glass is that the original wax Hitler was stolen from the museum one day in 1999 during business hours and had to be replaced. Any wax museum that installs a Hitler can expect to have their exhibit tampered with, but the people who commit those acts of vandalism tend to be pretty clearly anti-Hitler. If you cover a Hitler in red paint or punch its head off, there’s very little doubt about your motivations, but if you just silently abscond with the Hitler like you’re shoplifting it from a Rite Aid, you’re leaving everyone to infer, to imagine your neo-Nazi Walter Matthau Hitler shrine, to feel guilt about patronizing a business that provided you the centerpiece.

In the 1953 film House of Wax, Vincent Price plays wax sculptor Henry Jarrod, whose business partner Matthew Burke tries to convince him to sculpt some real-life criminals to capitalize on their audience's increasing taste for lurid subject matter. Jarrod refuses, feeling such exploitative art to be beneath him, so Burke douses the waxworks in kerosene and torches the place for an insurance payout, horribly burning Jarrod in the process and leaving him for dead. Jarrod returns months later, disfigured and using a wheelchair, and opens a new wax museum, this one finally including a Chamber of Horrors depicting gruesome historical tragedies. The exhibit is a huge success, and new sculptures are added just as Burke and his loved ones are killed by a cloaked figure, who turns out to be (Spoilers for a sixty-six year old movie, heads up) Jarrod himself, with all of the new sculptures in the Chamber of Horrors turning out to be the wax-encased corpses of the recent dead.

There’s a pretty good metaphor for the true crime entertainment industry in there somewhere, except for the fact that the people in the movie stop going to Jarrod’s wax museum after they find out it’s full of actual dead bodies. In real life, where you can go see German child murderer Peter Kürten’s preserved head at the Ripley’s museum in Wisconsin or Ted Bundy’s VW Beetle at Alcatraz East in Tennessee or Madam Tussaud’s original French Aristocratic death masks at her flagship museum in London, an exhibit like that would be extremely popular. You’d just have to be real careful around all the other people in that crowd.

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