Confessions of a Death Hag

Ever since I was a child, I’ve been fascinated by accounts of death and murder. For me, it went beyond my love of horror films and the macabre and onto the deaths and murders of real, living people. With the advent of Wikipedia and the easy access I have to the internet, I was surprised but pleased to find out there are other people out there like me, so-called “death hags” who are interested in things like…

Celebrity Deaths

Arguably, the website and celebrity death account repository Find a Death coined the term “death hag.” Here, you can find a treasure trove of information about the lives and deaths of some of your favorite celebrities. Many of these accounts are complete with autopsy and coroner reports, post-mortem photographs, and pictures of the spots where these celebrities met their various makers. I admit to spending hours on the site reading through the various stories of everyone from Elvis Presley’s to Janis Joplin’s demises, carefully scanning autopsy reports and, yes, viewing pictures of these celebrities after death. I’ve also taken to the forums to discuss the deaths of celebrities not yet featured on the main site.

Besides the internet, television shows like Final 24 that detail the last 24 hours of the life of a given celebrity have made it even easier to satisfy my curiosity about the circumstances of the deaths of those featured.

Image via Tooth + Nail
Image via Tooth + Nail

There’s a measure of immortality given these celebrities versus “private” personalities because of their claim to fame (e.g., film, music, and television), and this attracts my interest in addition to them being, partially, “public” personalities. You could pop in a DVD or turn on a song, and there they are just as they lived but with a slight edge of unreality given that their performances are just that, performances. Whatever draws us to watch award shows, read behind the scenes accounts, and otherwise follow celebrities in life, for me, extends to their deaths.

Serial Killers & Murderers

My interest in serial killers and other murders most definitely began at a young age because of my parents. I don’t mean that in a “my parents screwed me up” kind of way (that’s for another day), but rather that my parents very closely watched the events around the arrest, conviction, and eventual murder of infamous serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, the Milwaukee Monster.

My parents had not only both grown up and lived in Milwaukee, but they lived in the same apartment building as Dahmer as a young couple. Fortunately for my parents and their friends, the building’s owner decided that they no longer wanted to rent to people living there from a prison to housing program, and all of them were eventually evicted about a year before Dahmer moved in and began his killing spree. My dad often joked that, had they still lived there, he would’ve been right up in Dahmer’s apartment since he was known for luring people with promises of free alcohol and cigarettes. It’s not out of the realm of possibility as my parent’s stayed in apartment 205, just down the hall from Dahmer in 213.

The Oxford Apartments in Milwaukee – via Murderpedia
The Oxford Apartments in Milwaukee – via Murderpedia

Dahmer tended to murder young men of color, and one of those unfortunate victims, Ernest Miller, was the grandson of the preacher that married my parents. Moreover, my mother attended school with Miller and remembered him as “a good, A student” who “always dressed nice.” So, naturally, I grew up hearing a lot about it, and it spurred my interest in the heinous crimes of Dahmer and other serial killers and murderers. I’ve wondered about the lives and motivations of these seemingly ordinary people who became monsters.

Post Mortem Photography

Post Mortem photography (warning for photos of the deceased), particularly that of the Victorian era in which the dead are made to appear as if they still live, captured my attention a few years ago. In the late 1800s, having photographs taken was a rare and, for many, expensive occasion, and many went their entire lives without ever being photographed. When loved ones passed on, seeing as it was likely to be the last chance to photograph that person, sometimes their families would prop them up in what passed for living poses and have their portraits taken. In some instances, they were posed with the entire family surrounding them. It sounds morbid to some, but I can easily see how it would’ve seemed of utmost importance and especially when you’ll have nothing else to remember these loved ones as they lived.

For many death hags, the fascination with post-mortem photography extends to viewing photographs of crime scenes, especially those of infamous murderers and accident scenes. Personally, I don’t find those as interesting and, if I’m honest, it’s because those victims are not “public” personalities outside of having met their ends under really unfortunate circumstances. That said, I don’t (necessarily) judge fellow hags for whom that type of post-mortem photography holds a certain interest. Many would and do find my viewing of celebrity post-death photos off-putting to downright abhorrent.[sws_divider_line]

When preparing to write this article, I spoke to a friend about my fascination with death. I told her about how surprised I was to learn that one of my brothers is also captivated in the same way by accounts of celebrity deaths. I came home last summer to find several episodes of Final 24 on the DVR, and we revealed to each other our mutual interests. My friend said, yeah, it’s a small world. But, death is a part of life and not in all cultures, and certainly not in all historical moments, did people view death as something necessarily morbid and not to be discussed. She confessed that she might have perused sites like Find a Death herself had she known they existed.

Her words and discussing the topic with my brother reminded me that I’m not a total freak. We’re all going to pass on some day, so it’s not totally out of the ordinary to show interest in the circumstances of death or, even, to be a death hag.

By Marena

Marena recently earned her Master of Arts degree in Social Justice & Human Rights & primarily explores social justice issues in the production & consumption of popular mass media. You may find her creating fanworks, testing her hand-eye coordination with beadweaving, flailing over her fictional faves, reading everything from fanfic to theory texts, or watching low budget sci-fi. You can find her writing on Marena ni yukyats.

8 replies on “Confessions of a Death Hag”

Let’s see, serial killers and postmortem photos I got into while I was still a kid. (Though my fascination started with mummified remains from all over the world, including Otzi and the peat bog mummies. A number of the peat bog mummies had indications of fairly gruesome deaths.)

I’ve loved dead things for a while, and dead people are no exception. My mother actually thinks that if I hadn’t had to drop out of college (financial and disability issue combo! KO~!) I would be a coroner. I thought of myself as more of a museum person but more and more I can see that.

I was an adult before celebrity deaths caught my eye though.

Yay! Finding fellow death hags is exciting. :) I can see how mummies would capture your interest. I’m really interested in how coroner’s feel about their jobs. I think it would be difficult for me to not think of the bodies as when they were alive and then I’d feel sad, lol. But, IDK if that’s true.

For me personally, When I think about dead bodies and studying them it’s the fact that they were alive that makes the work so important. Though I’m not a professional, I believe that the coroner’s work is a honor to the life and vitality of the subject. To find what has felled someone… To be able to bring those fact to light so that the powers that be have the ability to pursue appropriate redress where possible and the possibility of closure to the living? I think it’s something important to do for them.

Ditto preparations of human remains- if a person has donated their body or body part to science, be it for places like the body farm or for preservation in a museum or exhibit (The phallological museum in iceland has some preserved human penises amoungst the non-human ones!) They are gifting a part of themselves to the world, and going through the prep honors that part of their vitality that included whatever their personal motivations were for the donations.

Some of the body farm donations are john/jane does who go too long without id, and are donated to the state though. But knowing that the circumstances of their death, preparation, and resultant impacts give us tools to better ID, timeline, and so on other remains is amazing to me. For all the muck, we can do powerful things because of the remains.

I don’t think I’m a full-blown “death hag” but I have been known to get lost in a WIkipedia wormhole of serial killer history. I just find it horrifyingly interesting. I hate horror movies and slasher films and that sort of thing but trying to find the reason WHY in true crime cases has always fascinated me. – what motivates people to kill? Is there such thing as a truly “evil” person, or can you find a logical reason for these behaviors? Growing up my mom always watched those Real Crime satellite TV networks that featured shows about murders 24/7 and showed autopsies and what not (My dad called them her “death and mayhem” shows), so I think that’s where some of my interest comes from.

My mom loves those kinds of shows too – she’ll watch anything on Investigation Discovery. Currently, I’m mainlining “Deadly Women” on Netflix. It’s a problematic show, but I’ve come to find “true crime” topics interesting. Like you said, it’s a very different animal than horror films and the like. It’s kind of funny that we both seem to get our interests from our parents.

Leave a Reply