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We asked death obsessives to tell us all about their morbid curiosity

Enough to make The Addams Family look normal

We asked death obsessives to tell us all about their morbid curiosity

Death is such a paradox. We all fear it, but we just can't stop thinking about it. Whether it's skulls in fashion, gruesome TV shows, or just laying in bed at 3AM contemplating your own existence, we're all obsessed with the grizzly inevitability of the end on some level.

However, some people are more interested in it than others...

Morbid Curiosities is a new book from Paul Gambino, who visits the bizarre homes of collectors with unique tastes. No, not stamps, we're talking skeletons, graves, murder weapons and pickled fetuses.

You'd think these locations would be unlivable upon hearing the descriptions of some of the items that they house, but it's all weirdly fascinating and beautiful in a macabre sort of way. It's more art gallery than haunted mansion.

We spoke to some of these intriguing collectors of death to find out how they got into it, what's their pride and joy, and what they'd like to happen to their bodies when their time comes.

The art of morbid decor: Paul Booth, tattooist

Would you say you have an obsession with death? If so, at what point did you realise you did?

I still find it kind of odd but it seems I've always been this way. My mother told me that from the time I was in a highchair and could first pick up a crayon, I always went for the black one. I used to get into trouble at school because I was the one always drawing the disturbing pictures. I was always the outcast as a child so I inevitably spent a lot of time alone and contemplating things like death and misery. I still find myself obsessed with such things but I honestly really don't know why.

How did your collection first start?

Well I always collected weird things especially as a child, but my first real morbid acquisition was a fetus in a jar bottled in 1894. I named her Abby. It was probably a scene right out of a movie, but I was in a curio shop looking around and I guess the owner took a liking to me and said "You want to see something weird kid?"… I said, I sure do, Sir! He brought his jar out from the back room to show me and the next thing I knew I was trading it for a tattoo! At that point, things started to get crazy.

Has anything been offered to you that you thought was too dark to purchase?

No. I have yet to find that which is too dark. There was this one time, I was offered something you might consider pretty dark. A couple of metalhead kids came to me one night and offered me a human head they found unearthed while partying in a cemetery. Honestly, I would have gladly accepted it, but it was too far gone and really was not salvageable. You have to think about disease as well in such situations. I wonder whatever happened to that head.

An exhumed coffin bench, a chair made by a client, and a hand-traced drawing of the serial killer known as Night Stalker

When you do die, would you want to be part of someone’s collection?

Actually, I fully intend to be the crowning jewel of my own collection. In a perfect world, I would like to be taxidermy and placed in a display of my own design. Kind of like Zoltán the fortune teller... but giving out the worst possible fortunes one could think of. I have actually already started designing the fortune telling booth so I can move right in when I die. I certainly have enough of a collection to constitute a small museum and being a part of that and carried with it beyond my years would be the ultimate for me.

A child's skeleton adorned with the head of a bull

A masterpiece of the macabre: Ryan Matthew Cohn, professional collector

How did your collection first start?

As a child, I was always obsessed with nature. It might be a rarity now, but when my siblings and I were children, we went outside and played outside all day. I was exposed to things that many children won’t be exposed to today, like the natural deterioration of a deer’s carcass after a bear has finished feeding on it. I would find bones, skulls and minerals, and could easily spend an entire day in hot pursuit of yellow spotted salamanders, which were very common in upstate New York. I would always let them go after capturing them, but there was that satisfaction with catching them in the first place.

Do you think it’s healthy to be fascinated with death?

I think it is healthy. I believe that if you have a good understanding of death then you will have a better understand of life. Understanding death takes away the fear of it and enriches the beauty of these very short lives we have.

What is the crown jewel in your collection?

Hard to say. As of this year though, it would be my wax anatomical adult male in its original splayed-out position. It is dated back to 1856 and was purchased in Munich, and is signed by the artist who had huge provenance in the anatomical world at the time. 

Anatomical wax preparations crafted by the artist Paul Zeiller, mid-19th century, Berlin.

When you do die, would you want to be part of someone’s collection?

I would love to be skeletally articulated holding hands or lying with my wife if I were to be part of someone’s collections. But in terms of what happens to be after death, I think the best thing that could happen is my collection gets taken into a museum and not separated and sold off, object by object.

Your wife is also an avid collector. Was it hard to meet someone who understood your enthusiasm for your work?

Well, it took up until this moment in my life to find her! It takes a very special woman to come into this world, a world that is not easy for a human to move into, and accept it, and she’s done just that. She understands collecting – we keep an eye out for each other at markets and auctions, and she continually inspires and promotes my collection and work.

What would your advice be to someone who wants to raise their tolerance to blood, guts and bones?

My museum and bar is opening up this week to the public, who may not be so in tune with the anatomy of the body, and I’d advise them get educated about their own bodies. It’s important to know your anatomy - remember you have a skull in your head and blood in your veins too.

Two human skeletons and a rhea skeleton. In the glass case, a dissected human skull prepared by Ryan. On the wall, memento mori hair wreaths.

The author of Morbid Curiosities: Paul Gambino, writer

Would you say you have an obsession with death? If so, at what point did you realise you did?

I would say I have an appreciation of life and a fear of death. As a child I had someone very close to me almost die, however the threat of death lingered until the person died many years later.

How did your collection first start?

As most collectors, my collecting started young and evolved as I got older. However, I never collected the normal kid stuff; you know, baseball cards, marbles, action figures. I collected anything that was old. Not necessarily creepy, but old. Vintage presidential buttons, matchbooks from NYC nightclubs from the Thirties and Forties. Then I became fascinated with early twentieth century communion photos, which led into my most serious phase of collecting, which revolves around Victorian era post-mortem photographs and last rites kits.

What is the crown jewel in your collection?

A full size wooden French grave marker circa late 1800s that somehow made its way over from a countryside cemetery in France and made its way into a flea market in NYC in the Nineties.

A lot of people wouldn’t collect what you do for fear of inviting a ghost into their home. Do you believe items such as yours could be haunted?

I never encountered a truly haunted piece, but I have come across items that give off a bad vibe. If you are ever given the opportunity to hold in your hands an item that was used in a murder then you will know what I mean.

John Robinson murdered at least eight women in Kansas and Missouri over a period of 15 years, beginning in 1985. All of his victims were killed by blows to the head with a hammer or other blunt instrument. Two hammers were found in Robinson’s truck. This is one of them.

How do you go about retrieving pieces for your collection?

It used to be solely from flea markets, estate sales and private showings. Now I have to admit, a lot comes via the web.

Surely there must be a darker side to how collectors acquire some items. Have you heard any stories of stealing or grave digging?

That is an entirely different side to macabre collecting and like any high-end collecting, like fine art, there is a black market. It’s just a lot creepier when someone is trying to sell you something they lifted from a morgue rather than from a posh art gallery.

What would your advice be to someone who wants to raise their tolerance to blood, guts and bones?

Observe and appreciate these items for what they are, pieces of history that are being preserved and presented.

With Halloween coming up, what’s the most frightening thing that’s ever happened to you?

Since I surround yourself with so many items, imagery and photos about people that have truly encountered something truly horrifying it makes me believe that I have not really been in any situation that is as frightening as the ones documented around me.

Morbid Curiosities: Collections of the Uncommon and the Bizarre by Paul Gambino (Laurence King £19.95) available now on Amazon