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Death Tours— A Killer Passion

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.


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.


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.”


Scott Michaels with one bedpost from the deathbed of Rock Hudson

(photo: Michelle Majors)


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

(photo: Michelle Majors)

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Spite and Will

IMG_2540 No, spite and will aren’t the names of new felines in my home. But thanks, I’ll make a note to add them to the possibilities for my next ones. Why was I doing this again? The toes on my left foot were already quietly complaining about the three mile hike they’d just endured. Why were they now clipped into a pedal to climb the asphalt to where the trail was a few minutes before and roll around the rocky bends on two wheels? Why do it again, why? Because it was there? Because when I do things I fear, I feel vindicated? Because, for whatever demented reason I like breathing through pain on a warmer-than-usual February day? No. Not at all. I don’t do cliché. Okay, yes, the teensiest bit of my focus was on those exact things. Mostly uttered on every downstroke uphill, ‘You’ll pedal up this hill, you’ll ignore what hurts, endure the heat and anything else, you’ll finish what you started, and you’ll feel better afterward, damn it!” Yeah, I hate the drill sergeant I turn into on a bike. For the most part, I was willed to pedal over those rutted, twisty-turny bends for spite. Yes, you read correctly. For spite. I know. Spite can rot your heart like cotton candy does to molars or what crab grass does to lawns or even what urine does to spoil pool water. (Yeah, that’s not chlorine you smell, ask your pool guy.) But spite can also work in your favor and make something good out of an unfortunate situation, much like an oyster and a pearl. One tiny grain of sand gets that oyster’s dander up but it breathes through the irritation and what comes of it is a pearl. Now, I could get into the length of time that actually takes and any mating rituals that may or may not ensue due to the sand’s irritation, but that’s not what this is about. This is an entertainment piece about spite and will. For oysters’ mating rituals, Google it or ask Siri.

So, what created this spite, ill will, and angst, inside me you might ask? A few hours prior, I was attempting to rouse my lackadaisical energy with copious amounts of coffee. Call me an addict if you must. It’s my only vice. I suppose it’s possible that the amount of caffeine spiked the spite to that level but in this case, I don’t think that was the camel straw. Curse my incessant need for flavored cups of joe in the morning. I get up two hours before morning rides to have it. That way I’m not stopping anyone riding with me in order to find a restroom because that’s what happens when you combine caffeine with a female’s renal sysem. On mornings if I oversleep I’m known for creative coffee ingestion: instant coffee in my oatmeal, coffee in a water bottle, there are even a few instant coffee bags stashed in my pantry in case I don’t have water. I don’t want to think about it but I’d tuck a bag between my cheek and gums if it came to that. Don’t judge and don’t be a hater, it’s not crack. As I slugged down my coffee (sipping’s for hipsters) some inspiration wafted in on the aroma. It’s a nice day. I should do a short hike. The closest trail is two miles from my house. I got there to find no parking was available. That is to say, everyone else in Whittier had the same idea. They must all drink the same coffee. Someone was pulling out of a side stall, however, so I pulled in behind them and took their spot. I was even thoughtful and pulled all the way forward where a dumpster was so people could park behind me and I wouldn’t get bumped because no one knows how to parallel park. Now, you know those moments when you have a slice of intuition, a gut instinct, a tiny notion inside you that says maybe there’s a better choice to be made? In this case, that choice was that I could wait for someone to exit one of the other parking stalls so I might have an actual space with slanted lines. As I said above, I’d had coffee. Waiting wasn’t entertained. That notion, that intuition, that gut instinct that ever so briefly lit up my thoughts just before I locked my door and walked away should have had flashers, gun turrets, sirens, and Darth Vader’s voice attached so I wouldn’t have thumbed my nose at it like it was wearing white after Labor Day.

no bikesI had my hike and did my rehab on the trail. Much better to do walking lunges and other knee tortures where I could bask in the warmth of the morning instead of being indoors. It even smelled better than a rehab gym. I breathed in and out while watching a hawk hunt down its prey, and wondered why I’d never ridden my bike on that trail. It was fairly devoid of foot traffic and not very long. On a day when I’m crunched for time it might be an ideal ride. I kept seeing signs posted for no dogs, no horses, but nary a mention of no bikes. I could manage it at a later date, knowing where it ends and eventually meets up with Murphy Ranch Park. What a great idea for a ride. Then on the way back, I saw a small sign, albeit hidden behind some brush and in a roped off area: ‘No Bikes’. My excitement was quelled. Hopes were dashed. It wasn’t fair. Just a single sign with a picture of a bike crossed out. It also had a picture of a horse crossed out but certainly, the trail still held remnants of a horse having been there. Even though I imagined it’d be difficult for a ranger to ride up behind a horse and wrangle it to give its owner a fine, I wondered why a bike wasn’t permitted. But, if that’s the way it goes, then that’s the way it goes. I didn’t want a fine. I’d find somewhere else to get my knobbies dirty.

The exit of the trail empties right into the entrance of the parking lot and I could see the white passenger door to my Mini with some people standing next to it pointing and laughing. My heart raced a little faster. How dare they! I clicked the remote to unlock the doors so the evil laughers would take the hint the owner was approaching and they should back up out my face before something bad happens. I stared them down and then realized why they were heckling my Mini. Nestled beneath its clean black wiper blade rested a manila parking ticket. But, why? I parked in a side stall with a box around it and a line separating a box behind it. I read the ticket. ‘Parking in a no-parking’. What? There’s no sign stating that anywhere! There was only a dumpster a foot away from my hood. I eyed the dumpster. And then recalled that notion, that gut instinct, that slice of intuition from earlier that I uncaringly, even hubristically, shoved away. On that dumpster, let me reiterate, a foot away, was a sign mocking me: ‘School bus parking only M-F 8:00 AM-11:00AM’. I brushed the dirt off my pants and glanced down at my watch: 11:20. Guilty as charged. $70 for the infraction. Oyster shell opened. Grain of sand imbedded.

I started up my car and as I drove home I knew what I had to do. I had to ride the trail to amend this wrong. To soothe the suffering. To stuff the pacifier of righteous indignation into the fussy mouth of justice, which in this case was a park ranger but you get the gist. Does that make me a bad person? Just as this isn’t about oysters’ mating rituals, it’s also not about what makes a person bad, although I’m not going to argue that the lyrics to ‘Bad’ by Michael Jackson weren’t racing through my hippocampus as I pedaled around every bend and over every rutted hill. I’d like to tell you I rode with reckless abandon, screaming loudly, ‘Because I’m bad, I’m bad, you know it!’ as I rode past the posted sign with the bike crossed out, but anyone who reads this and is aware of my knee will know better. Truth is, that sign was like a burning cross and I didn’t want to get too close for fear of being branded with the image somewhere that only a coroner would see when I’m dead. However, what I can tell you is no oysters were hurt as a result of this rant. FYI, it can take three years for that pearl to appear and all because of an oyster’s spite and will to stay the path it was on regardless of something that was irritating it. Aren’t you glad it didn’t take that long for me?


Celebrity Stubble

Before the Academy Awards show arrives, let’s see a show of hands: am I the only one tired of grungy-faced men who think they look sexy?

Yeah, I know it was originally supposed to suggest a tousled just-woke-up casualness, as if a man had only moments ago tumbled out of bed shirtless and in boxer shorts. But today the five o’clock shadow has elbowed its way into any event with a red carpet, and attacked random men in tuxedoes. Oh, please! Let the fad die.

I have no problem with a well-trimmed beard, goatee, mustache, or soul patch – but celebrity scruff? No. To me it’s acceptable for an actor to employ a grubby face only as a screen character, like Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones, but I am annoyed when he shows up for a TV interview looking like an old prospector. I think awards presenters are exhibiting rebelliousness, or lack of respect, to think they can sync “unkempt” with a black tie.

My theory is that insecure men want to emulate heartthrobs, and distractingly gorgeous men want to see how far they can push their fans’ loyalty. Ordinary men think this applies to them as well.

Did you know it’s possible for a man to watch videos showing how to shave the underside of his chin and the hollow of his cheek (using the proper gels, of course)? And that there are websites to help him find doctors who will do facial hair implants? It takes a lot of work to look like you forgot to shave.

Are you shaking your head yet? I am.

OK, Hollywood: stop the madness. Hire a research consultant or someone old enough to know that “5:00 o’clock shadow” came from an era when men shaved before going to work – and wore sandpapery whiskers by the time they headed home. Real men didn’t preen over a face full of stubble before leaving the bathroom to appear in public. They got a close shave and drew women near enough to prove it.

Time to move on, Hollywood. If Don Johnson can annul his first two marriages and divorce his third wife, why can’t other men be brave enough to let go of designer stubble? After all, Sonny Crockett’s vice died in Miami in 1989. May it rest in peace.