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Writers' Club of Whittier

Death Tours— A Killer Passion

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2Dearly Departed Cropped -- photo by Scott Michaels

(photo courtesy Scott Michaels)

When you walk into the Dearly Departed Tours on Sunset, waiting for your white tour van to pick you up, you’re waiting in a museum of sorts: there’s the pink suitcase that was in actress Jayne Mansfield’s fatal car accident; the door from the room where avant garde performer “Divine” died; and an oil painting by convicted serial killer John Wayne Gacy, to name a few. Additionally, the walls are festooned with various clippings of Hollywood deaths and murders. You can also purchase a “Got Death?” tee shirt (in black, of course). All manner of death memorabilia is here, in a space slightly bigger than a one car garage.

As a young child, Scott Michaels once heard about an old lady who lived in his Detroit neighborhood. This old lady was special….because rumor had it she hacked her husband to death. Michaels rode his bike over to the house where the dastardly deed was supposedly committed, just to have a look-see. It eventually turned out to be just that, a rumor, because the event never occurred. But this was the beginning of a young boy’s life long passion for finding out about interesting endings of local famous people.

“When I was a kid, there was a belief if you drive past a cemetery, you’re supposed to hold your breath. It’s forbidden. So therefore, it’s an attraction. “ Michaels has always had a fascination with cemeteries and death. As a kid, Michaels was bullied in school, for being overweight and gay. His love for finding out how people’s lives ended was a way for him to stand out in a different kind of way “… kind of me being ‘dangerous’,” he says. When reading biographies, he would always flip to the end of the book first, to find out how it ended—-the manner and method of how the person died. When he discovered a book on James Dean’s death, he was amazed and happily surprised there was a whole book devoted just to his death.

When he was a young man, Michaels lived in London for a few years. He was living there when Diana, Princess of Wales was killed in a car crash in Paris. He wanted to go visit the site of the accident, but due to his immigration status at the time, he wasn’t allowed to leave the country. However, as soon as he was permitted, he went to at the accident location and even had his photo taken there. It was then he had an idea. “I wanted everyone who couldn’t travel to Paris to be able to see the actual site of Diana’s death.” In the days before Google Earth and other such search engines, Michaels created findadeath.com in1999. Here, you could search for the death of a famous celebrity and find photos of the death site, their end of life story and other interesting tidbits.   In 2005, he started Dearly Departed Tours in Hollywood. Here, after paying the price of admission, one could be trekked around Hollywood and the various sites of murders/suicides/deaths of the famous and not so famous.

Over the years, there have been many surprising and horrific celebrity deaths which have been highlighted on findadeath.com and the Dearly Departed tours. The general public have not even heard of the most shocking deaths which give even Michaels the creeps. These deaths included Albert Dekker, an actor from the 1940’s and ‘50s, who was found by his fiancee, naked, tied up and dead in his bathtub. The more lurid details of his death included the fact that explicit words were written on his body in red lipstick and that the Coroner determined he had died of auto-erotic asphyxiation. A case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time was the incredibly horrific killing of Hollywood screenwriter Robert Lees, who was 91 years old when he was murdered in his home. He was killed and decapitated by a homeless man, who then took Lees’ head with him when he went to the back house of the property Lees owned and killed a retired physician, Morley Engleson, who was living in that house as well.

Michaels even invented a new phrase — “death hag”. When he first started his findadeath.com website, it opened with a greeting “Hi, death hags!”. Michaels attributes his coining of this phrase to two things: one, he is a long time fan of John Waters, who reportedly coined the term “fame hag”; second, Michaels is openly gay and is obviously aware of the term “fag hag”. So it wasn’t much of a leap for him add “death hag” to the lexicon in using that term to describe himself and people like him who enjoy reading about or visiting sites of deaths, in particular, unusual ones. “Death hag was a joke….it was just something people embraced. Death hag has become a thing.” In fact, the term “death hag” has become ubiquitous and landed itself in the online Urban Dictionary.

Not everyone is a death hag though. Michaels has received numerous emails and posts, chastising him for his interest in death. In some cases, he’s received communication from family or friends of the people he’s featured either on findadeath.com or his Dearly Departed Tours. He’s gotten numerous variations of “I can’t believe you said this about my family member.” To him, it’s something interesting and informative for the public. Additionally, he believes “If you don’t want the attention, don’t be famous.” He notes it’s interesting how on the one hand, celebrities want and even need fame to be successful. But from his perspective, fame is not something you can “turn on and off.” Michaels believes there should be respect both ways: from the celebrity to understand how things that happen to them are of interest but at the same time, the death hags or public need to respect and give privacy at times. He mentioned a celebrity should be able to bury their non-celebrity family member without having to look over their shoulder for photographers documenting the event but admits “It’s a weird, blurry line.” Even Michaels’ own family has questioned his passionate death hag status. His father has said to him “Why do you have to say this stuff?” He reminds his father that this “…is what I do.”

Michaels’ tours focus on famous and sensational deaths, but behind the scenes he quietly donates money to victims groups. He doesn’t do this for accolades, as most people aren’t aware of his donations. First, he has tours of the Tate-LaBianca murders, which were perpetrated by the followers of Charles Manson. For those who know, Sharon Tate was 8 1/2 months pregnant with her first child with husband, director Roman Polanski. On one horrific night, two weeks before she was scheduled to have her baby, she along with four others were murdered by Mason’s followers on his orders. As part of his giving back, Michaels donates a portion of money from the tours of that crime to a victims group. Additionally, he once met Sharon Tate’s sister, Debra, at an event. Tate was reportedly aware of his tour covering the events surrounding her sister’s death and supportive of his efforts in educating people about what happened on those two horrible days.

DearlyDepartedScottMichaelsDebraTatephoto

A photo of Scott Michaels with Debra Tate–sister of murdered Sharon Tate.

Second, Michaels hosts a “Dearly Departed” weekend, where aficionados for all things death and death related, get together to have fun, get educated and raise money. The money raised on those weekends goes to purchase a grave marker for some unfortunate soul who was placed in an unmarked grave. So far, Michaels and his annual event have purchased and placed grave markers for various performers and victims of violence. The most recent event, in 2014, raised money to place a marker on the grave of actor Jonathan Hale (he played Mr. Dithers in the Blondie movies). “I decided to host my own weekend.   The purpose is to have fun and have a raffle. I go around this particular cemetery and see who is in unmarked graves.” This is Michaels way of paying back, especially to those that Hollywood seems to have forgotten.

For the future, Michaels would love to expand his Los Angeles Dearly Departed Tours to other topics. One might be a tour delineating some non-celebrity famous deaths. He mentioned considering having a “serial killer” tour, which might highlight local notorious murders such as the Hillside Strangler or a tour specifically dealing with the murder and theories behind it, of the Black Dahlia. He also has ideas for tours in other parts of the country that have special interest for him, cities such as Chicago and Detroit. If successful, eventually he would like to start a tour in London, which has all manner of history from which to glean horrific deaths.

Suffice to say, Scott Michaels is a life long death hag. Even if he were gifted with a sudden financial windfall, he wouldn’t fold the business and go rest on his laurels— he says he would pour the money back into Dearly Departed. Although his signature white “Dearly Departed” tour buses look crisp and clean, if he had a financial downfall “I’d get nicer vehicles and make it flashier.” He has a passion and love for all things death hag and bizarre; these interests are also shared by his husband, Troy Musgrave. “He’s just as enthusiastic about the same things I like.” One day, a recent death hag outing for the couple included: seeing the “Jaws” shark being worked on; attending the Venice Beach Freak Show and finally, seeing the handprints of Anissa Jones (“Buffy” from “A Family Affair”) in concrete in front of her former house near the beach.

Michaels has produced and starred in a number of documentaries, including Dearly Departed Volume 1 (2006) and Dearly Departed Volume 2 (2014) (which take you on a tour of Los Angeles and point out various celebrity deaths). His other passion is for the “Rocky Horror Picture Show” and he even wrote a book in 2002 which documents the advent of the theater show into it’s cult movie status.

DearlyDepartedScottMichaelsRockyHorror

When asked how he’d like to be remembered when he finally becomes an entry on Findadeath, he laughs and says sarcastically, “Fondly. (laughs) It’s just karma, I’m sure I’m gonna die in some weird way.” Until then though, Scott Michaels is collecting, compiling and educating death hags about the latest celebrity death. “How famous people die and weirdo deaths together—-they’re an obsession.”

DearlyDepartedScottMichaelsRockHudson'sBedPost

Scott Michaels with one bedpost from the deathbed of Rock Hudson

(photo: Michelle Majors)

DearlyDepartedScottMichaelsJayneMansfieldLuggagge

The pink suitcase that was with Jayne Mansfield in her fatal car accident.

(photo: Michelle Majors)

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