5 Discoveries From America's Weirdest 'Haunted' Museum
Usually around this time of year, I like to write spooky articles. This year, I thought I’d write a sort of sequel article to one of my favorite things I’ve ever written: my article about the time I was locked in a haunted house.
Part of that article talks about my obsession with the television show Ghost Adventures, which, if you haven’t seen it, is basically like if Scooby-Doo were all frat dudes. It’s incredible and I love it, even as a skeptic. Maybe especially as a skeptic. So when I decided to spend my thirtieth birthday in Vegas, I knew I had to see Ghost Adventures host and creator Zak Bagan’s magnum opus: Zak Bagan’s The Haunted Museum, a collection of macabre and allegedly haunted artifacts housed in the former home of porn star Jenna Jameson. Vegas, baby!
And, as it turned out, it was pretty much exactly as goofy as you’d expect from a museum run by a guy who looks like this:
They Lay It On Pretty Thick Before You Even Arrive
I don’t really believe in ghosts at all, but I’m fascinated by the supernatural. I didn’t go into this with an I’m-way-too-cool-for-this attitude—and I had a lot of fun!—but also I wasn’t expecting an attraction in a suburb to hold the secret of life after death. That would be like if you pulled off the highway to see the World’s Largest Muffler and the guy who sold you the tickets casually mentioned that they have a perpetual motion machine. I’m pretty sure if someone had total and absolute proof that human souls exist, they’d at least be on the Strip.
Pretty much any supernatural place that appeals to a sense of reality uses showmanship to put the marks—sorry, the “customers”—into a frame of mind where they’re more apt to believe in the supernatural. And man do they ever lay it on thick at Zak Bagan’s The Haunted Museum. It’s a ticketed attraction, so before you go, you have to go to their website.
Right off the bat, they’re flaunting their spooky credentials at you. “LAS VEGAS’ SCARIEST ATTRACTION,” gushes a publication simply entitled Weekly. This is a pretty bold claim for a town that has a show where dudes twist their dongs into animal simulacra, appropriately called Puppetry of the Penis. You think you can scare me, website? I stayed at the cheapest room Circus Circus had to offer and found, and I swear this isn’t a bit, an actual mummified meatball in my room.
Anyway, when you buy tickets, you have to sign a waiver. A lot of the waiver is saying you super-duper promise not to take any photos or video, but they’re allowed to film you and use it in any which way they please. I wasn’t too thrilled about the possibility of ending up on a YouTube compilation called ZAK BAGANS’ THE HAUNTED MUSEUM - BEST SCARED BALD GUYS WITH BAD POSTURE (AUTOTUNE) (REUPLOAD), but what can you do?
I was much more interested in the part of the waiver that released the place from any and all legal liability resulting from paranormal harm. Which, to stand up in court, would probably require a legal precedent that ghosts exist. I desperately, desperately want someone who thinks they’ve become haunted to take this case to court, where a “jury of their peers” means that a Ouija Board is used to render the verdict. Actually, hang on, I need to call my manager—I think Ghost Court, my new reality pilot idea, might actually sell.
Obviously, the waiver is just theatrics meant to trick idiots into thinking this MUST be real and potentially dangerous, there’s legally non-actionable paperwork involved! Also, every dude in an infomercial wearing a white lab coat is obviously a real doctor!
The Tour Guides Raise Some Questions (And Answer None)
Paperwork signed, my wife and I headed in. Of the group of ten or so people they paired us with, only we two made it all the way to the end. The rest left part of the way through the tour, either due to boredom or extreme fear-induced diarrhea. A boomer couple in our group left about halfway through when they were told they had to keep their masks on for the whole tour and no amount of entitled middle-aged whining could dissuade management. That was probably the scariest thing that happened.
This was a guided tour, presumably because there needed to be someone present to stop people from putting haunted objects in their mouths. The very first room was just full of generic unrelated spooky crap, like if someone went to a yard sale held by every girl I’ve ever dated. There was also a life-size animatronic of the top half of Zak Bagans, whose eyes lit up and played a prerecorded message welcoming us to the museum. It looked like if Zoltar from Big had even worse facial hair.
After RoboBagans gave us the spiel, the tour guide pointed out some of the more interesting artifacts in the room. Then she asked if anyone had any questions about anything. Indulging her, I pointed at what appeared to be a gigantic wooden headboard and said “What’s the story on that?” “Oh, I don’t know,” she said. Huh. I’m sorry, I assumed you needed at least a masters in ghostology to work here. Didn’t know this was AMATEUR HOUR. “Zak just brought it here one day,” she continued. So is it haunted in any way, or is this place Zak Bagans’ The Haunted Museum and Headboard Storage?
This got a strange echo at the end of the tour. We ended with a different guide (they switched halfway, possibly for a mandated exorcism break), one who was, like our first guide, a cute goth girl. The place only seems to go for goth girls, come to think of it, so maybe me and Zak Bagans have something in common. She asked if we had any final questions, and I asked what supernatural experiences she’d personally had here. “Too many to count!” she said. You might notice that isn’t actually an answer. I paid 80 goddamn dollars for this ticket, and you can’t even “yes, and” me up a story about the time you looked directly at a Q-tip the Unabomber once used and it told you the manner, but not the date, of your own death?
Perhaps the weirdest thing about the tour guides was how quickly they rushed us through the exhibits. This room with a haunted doll? Just walk past real quick, don’t stop, you’ll get cursed! This room with the shrunken head of a suspected murderer? Hurry up, no gawking—you don’t wanna be cursed, do you? This other room with an even haunteder doll? You know the drill, pal: power walk past if you don’t want a one-way ticket to Curseville. It’s really weird how the fear of getting cursed also led to the museum being a very efficient walking tour that didn’t cause bottlenecks. Total coincidence!
The Scary Stuff Isn’t That Scary
Probably the scariest thing in the museum is a bunch of vintage marionettes that dance and jitter around in a hand-painted theater from turn-of-the-century Germany. It wasn’t SCARY scary, though. It was more unnerving, like a door in a truck stop bathroom marked “Clowns ONLY.” Frankly, the museum wasn’t scary.
It was interesting in places and pretty fun if you like kitsch, but look: If you don’t go into the museum already believing in ghosts, it’s not going to change your mind. Oh sure, they’ll gleefully show you footage of people in the museum who passed out mysteriously or began screaming, calling it absolute proof of life after death. But if you have cameras and you funnel enough dehydrated tourists, you’re bound to get a few freakouts.
The centerpieces of the museum that were apparently the most haunted—the Vortices, if you will—had a lot of buildup around them. A lot of telling the tour group that you didn’t have to see the Super Spooky Thing if you didn’t want to, and are you sure you want to see it? There was one room all about an “artifact” called The Devil’s Rocking Chair, because, like aging gracefully and jeans without images on the back pockets, “overselling” simply isn’t a concept Zak Bagans is acquainted with.
This room had lots of photos of a chair that was somehow associated with demonic possession, plus posters from all the films said demonic possession inspired. They played audio from the exorcism and, I dunno, it kinda just sounded like a normal kid throwing a fit because they had to do church stuff on a weeknight. And then, after all this buildup, the guide pressed a button on a little device she had. The normal lights dimmed, and baleful red lights started to glow. A door in the wall opened slowly, to reveal … a totally normal chair. Your average Goodwill has ten of them stacked in the back next to an inexplicable number of Garfield phones and a fondue pot with the heating element missing.
They used to let people sit in the chair, but they had to stop doing that after too many paranormal incidents. It was simply too haunted, you see. I looked it up later and they stopped doing this right when filming on The Conjuring 3: The Devil Made Me Do It began, a film which is based on the same demonic possession that chair is related to. Between this and the tie-in episode Ghost Adventures did in the house the Devil’s Rocking Chair is originally from, it kinda maybe seems like there was some mutually beneficial publicity going on.
Another room was dedicated to the so-called Demon House, a house where yet another demonic possession was said to have occurred. Ghost Adventures did a whole documentary special on that house, and for me, the weird thing was it’s from Gary, Indiana—my hometown. They showed a few documentary clips, and one said a man started bleeding “inexplicably” from his facial orifices as he was in the house and … yeah, no, nothing notable there. It’s Gary, Indiana. The main exports are noxious steel mill fumes, asbestos runoff, and sadness. Sometimes you just have a little facial bleeding.
They finally let us into the Demon House room to see the stairs from the house and a few other parts, and this is when I realized, wait a second, I used to drive past this house every weekday when I worked at a dentist’s office in high school. So, the scariest things they showed us were a literal chair and part of a house I used to drive past when the dentist made me buy rat traps.
Some Of It Doesn’t Even Pretend To Be Haunted?
Most of the museum is dedicated to haunted objects, but parts are just full of weird shit Zak Bagans has accumulated over the years. One room was full of Wild West stuff, which was neat. There was a whole portion dedicated to circus memorabilia, which I gotta say was actually pretty cool. “P.T. Barnum is a personal hero of Zak’s,” said our guide. The dude who made millions using showmanship to make normal stuff seem freaky? The fella associated with the quote “There’s a sucker born every minute”? Wow, my whole worldview has been shattered.
There was a room full of serial killer ephemera, which honestly struck me as a little … I don’t know, unseemly? I’m the furthest thing in the world from a prude or a censor, but profiting from actual humans who were killed in horrific ways feels a little off to me. I totally get having a fascination with the macabre. Clive Barker is one of my favorite authors. Maybe I’m a hypocrite, since I have human remains decorating my house.
That guy or gal voluntarily sold their bone for that purpose, though. The people Ted Bundy murdered? Less so. The museum had some Jeffrey Dahmer memorabilia, and one of his victims was my wife’s cousin. I don’t know if I’d be upset if people were using the horrific deaths in my family as lurid tourist-bait, but then again, so far, no one has tried to sell tickets to see the Sweater of the World Champion Badger Fighter (Former).
Another weird area was dedicated to film props Bagans bought. Some were at least spooky-adjacent: a uniform from Ghostbusters, the trench coat from The Crow. Some were inexplicable: a costume from the largely-forgotten Robin Williams dramatic vehicle What Dreams May Come? The clothes Truman Capote wore the day he died? Patrick Swayze’s tooth and pewter wizard joint holder?
But there was one thing in the Hallway of Pop Culture Ephemera that made my eyes light up like a cherubic German child when Father says he can visit ein Shockoladenwürstparteihaus. There, tucked into the corner, was a costume from The Day the Clown Cried. If you aren’t in the know, The Day the Clown Cried is a sort of El Dorado of cinephiles and trash connoisseurs, both of which I happen to be. It’s a film that starred and was directed by Jerry Lewis, about a clown who leads a group of Jewish children into a gas chamber. Yikes.
Very few people have seen this film, since Jerry Lewis eventually came out of his Percodan-fugue long enough to realize this movie was the worst idea of all time. The Library of Congress has a copy, but a caveat in Lewis’ donation stated that it can’t be screened until at least 2024. Which seems like a weird number, but I’m guessing Lewis figured that both he and all the Holocaust survivors would be dead by then. So look forward to me writing that article in a few years!
There’s Some Tonal Inconsistency
Zak Bagans’ The Haunted Museum presents itself as a Very Serious Institution dedicated to proving the truth of paranormal activity. But after some room where we saw Lon Chaney’s haunted dentures or whatever, we were herded into a narrow hallway. There was a big rotating thing on the wall that I can only describe as a Jumbo Hypnotism Disk ... with clown dolls attached to it. The next several rooms switched from a haunted house (as in a house that is haunted) to a Haunted House (as in where carnies smoke Pyramids and occasionally shriek at a passing child).
It was clown-themed. Room after room of blaring Halloween Sound FX Vol. MXCI with strobe lights flashing and people in Spirit Halloween-quality clown costumes leaping out at you. Kinda undercuts the seriousness of a “museum.” There’s a reason why the Alamo Visitor Center and Museum doesn’t have a rollercoaster, you know?
At the end of the tour we came, inexorably, to the gift shop. Which kinda sucked. It reminded me of a novelty shop in a mall, one of the katana-and-bong stores of yore. The idea of profiting off of brushing up against the Unknowable Horror of the Unknown strikes me as both a little off-putting and funny on its own, but the fact that it’s not even a good gift shop ratchets it up to hilarious. People literally died to make these exhibits possible, and you can’t do them the kindness of stocking some tasteful art prints and fridge magnets? Is eternal damnation not enough?
At the end of the day, Zak Bagans’ Haunted Museum was a lot of fun. I had a good time, even if I rolled my eyes at the somewhat-too-desperate sounding avowals of “proof.” Maybe focusing the beam would result in less tonal incongruity, but then again, it would also be less hilarious. Thanks, Zak!
Top image: FOX5