Let’s kill LA’s commodification of death

Julia Koh/The Occidental

As someone from Los Angeles, I have spent money on a variety of things that I am not particularly proud of. Whether it’s overpriced coffee from a café in a gentrified neighborhood, a John Lennon prayer candle or anything with avocados in it, I have guiltily pulled out cash and thought (ironically, mind you), “So what, it’s LA!”

Over spring break during my first year of college, I ended up going to the Museum of Death for the first time with a couple of friends. While morbid curiosity has always drawn me to visit the tucked-away tourist trap on Hollywood Boulevard, I dismissed the whole ordeal as nothing more than a fun outing with friends. But the museum had a whole different atmosphere than what my friends and I were initially expecting. Immediately, we saw a souvenir shop display of cemetery posters, serial killer trading cards and T-shirts with Charles Manson’s mugshot printed on the front.

LA has a death problem. It is home to some of America’s most infamous murders and cults, from The Black Dahlia to the Manson Family. However, LA cements these gruesome acts into its own identity and economy by commodifying and romanticizing them. The commodification of death, murder and cults in LA needs to stop. We can’t keep elevating killers to celebrity status — we have enough of those already.

From the Church of Scientology, to the neo-Zoroastrianist self-torturing sun worshippers of Mazdaznan to the communist Jazz Age love cult of Helios, LA has played host to America’s dark underbelly of New Age religions and cults. Richard Schave, cofounder of Esotouric bus tours, said in an interview with Curbed Los Angeles that “Los Angeles is perfect for [cults] because Los Angeles is an economy built on busts and booms and get-rich-quick schemes.” Schave discusses the arcane ideologies that have defined LA’s history since the early 1900s, stating that they are built into the city’s development and identity.

LA sits in the American psyche as a city where the promise of fame and fortune is mixed with California’s countercultural appeal of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. While it isn’t necessarily a bad thing that LA has a history of crime and cults, especially since other American cities are known for similar things, LA’s culture of opportunism elevates those individuals to a status that invites us to idolize them — not scrutinize them.

There is an entire industry profiting off of people’s fascination with the occult. At the Dearly Departed Tours, each Saturday, you can take a three-plus hour bus tour of the Tate-Labianca Murders, considered to be the most infamous murders of the Manson Family. The tour, known as the Helter Skelter Tour in reference to the apocalyptic race war envisioned by Charles Manson, takes tourists and their morbid curiosity around LA, showcasing the lives of the Manson Family and their victims — for the affordable price of $85 per person.

If you’re exhausted from hearing about the Manson Family between their appearances in Quintin Tarantino’s latest film or that one Lana Del Rey music video where she trips acid with a Charles Manson look-alike, you can also take a tour of LA’s other countless infamous deaths and murders. For those visiting LA for a glimpse of celebrities, you can take a tour of the places where Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston died. You can even take a tour called “Blood and Dumplings: A Crime Bus Tour of the San Gabriel Valley” showcasing the most gruesome murders of the San Gabriel Valley, ending with a meal at a dumpling restaurant.

No matter how gruesome, violent or even just distasteful these crimes may be, LA will find a way to make a movie about them, include it in a song or make it into a bus tour. The commodification of death is inevitable because everyone is fascinated by taboo things. It’s human nature to seek out the mysterious, unexplainable or just plain weird.

LA’s problem is not the people who come here in pursuit of the occult, it’s the people who exploit it for profit. It’s totally fine if people want to read about serial killers or go to death museums, the same way it’s fine to go ghost hunting or tell scary stories by the campfire. However, our desire to learn about the taboo should not feed into the idolization of killers, nor should it put money in the hands of those who profit off that idolization through commodification. Our fascination should not be an excuse to hand over 15 dollars for a Charles Manson T-shirt. This Halloween, we can seek out the strange and unusual aura of LA, but we should not do it at a spooky price.

Aerex Narvasa is a sophomore Diplomacy & World Affairs major. He can be reached at anarvasa@oxy.edu.