The Not-So-Haunted Museum of Zak Bagans
December 19, 2018
On the eve of CSIcon 2018, my wife, Donna, and I arrived in Las Vegas excited to begin a week of learning, networking, and the pure enjoyment of hanging out with friends—both old and new. After checking into our hotel, we joined Susan Gerbic and Mark Edward for a quick lunch before the four of us headed out for our first adventure: touring Zak Bagans’s The Haunted Museum.
The museum came to my attention last year during CSIcon 2017, but I was unable to make it over there due to an already packed schedule. I had heard from several of my paranormal enthusiast friends that it was a “must-see” attraction. The website boasts that guests “will venture down creepy winding hallways and secret passages into more than 30 rooms that rival scenes from Hollywood horror films, setting the stage for frightening facts about each paranormal piece” (Bagans 2017), which included the Dybbuk Box (which inspired the film The Possession), Dr. Kevorkian’s “Death Van,” the basement staircase from the Demon House (a film by Bagans), and many more.
The four of us arrived at the museum early that afternoon and got in line. While waiting for well over an hour to enter, we were given waivers to sign. When reading the waiver, one can certainly see the tone being set for the tour; listing first and foremost that the tour may include “spirit detection activity, interaction with spiritual and/or unexplainable phenomenon, and/or other unexplainable, unusual or paranormal activities or interactions which necessarily include certain risks which may or may not be foreseeable.” The rest of the waiver basically had you sign away any rights in case one would trip or otherwise injure him- or herself inside the extremely dark interior.
The waiver also allows the staff to take photos of guests to be used in “any or all publications and websites.” However, they were sure to repeat ad nauseam about their strict policy of “No Video/Audio Recording or Photography.” We were told several times while waiting in line, it’s printed on the back of the ticket, there were signs up in multiple locations, and the first of too many guides reminded us of this as her cheerful smile turned into a serious and stern look of “You Better Listen or Else.” Also, no ghost hunting was allowed—sorry, ghost hunters. You’re out of luck. We were also informed that no phone calls or texting was permitted during the tour.
After an hour of waiting outside, we were finally admitted into the museum. We handed in our waivers, received our tickets, and then … waited some more. After another fifteen minutes of waiting, our guide got the “all clear’” to get us started. The guide gathered us all on one side of the waiting room and asked if we had read the big warning sign on the wall. We were told we were going to read it again because it was a “Zak requirement.” The guide had everyone raise their right hand (mimicking a sworn oath) and repeat after her as she read the sign aloud: “This building is known to contain ghosts/spirits and cursed objects. By entering you agree that management will not be liable for any actions by these unseen forces.” Bagans was really taking the “cover your ass” advice to the max, though I’d eagerly follow the trial if someone sued the museum for damage done by an evil spirit that followed them home. Rest assured that my three skeptical companions and I fearlessly disregarded the dire warnings about the paranormal threat to our sanity, health—and our very lives!
The guide informed us of four optional rooms with the most allegedly haunted/cursed objects of all and if anyone felt uneasy or feared them, we could opt out from going into that room without fear of shame. The four items mentioned were Bela Lugosi’s mirror, the Dybbuk Box, Peggy the Doll, and the Demon House room. These rooms were the only reason I was here, so I can guarantee you, my dear reader, I was not “opting out.” No fainting couch would be needed for our team. Steeling my nerves in the face of unspeakable horrors that had apparently terrified countless ghost hunters, we were finally off!
... And then we went back outside. The tour took us around to a door on the opposite side of the building where we were greeted by our second guide. He brought us into two rooms. The first contained dozens of objects: human skulls, a huge doll house (with various photos of Bagans inside), dolls, a collection of Anton LaVey memorabilia, and a Zak Bagans Zoltar fortune telling machine, in which Zoltar was not Zoltar but Zak Bagans…complete with glowing eyes (this was the only thing I was jealous of). The second room contained various gambling items, including a large (and rigged) roulette table.
As we were ushered from dark room to dark room, it became clear that this “museum” was really more of a warehouse collection of Bagans’s stuff than a museum dedicated to haunted or cursed objects. We had been in four rooms already with only one allegedly haunted object—one out of hundreds so far. One room was set up like a wake, complete with an open coffin (with skeleton) at the front of a seating area. Our third guide popped out of a slightly hidden door beside the casket and spoke in such a dramatic and heavy accent that none of us understood anything he said. Another room was set up as a puppet theater with a few dozen puppets hanging around the room; it contained no haunted items. Although this particular guide was the highlight of the tour, the overall content was boring and felt like filler to make the tour longer and enhance the waiting experience.
As we were ushered from room to room, there was a clear sense we were being rushed through. I like to read everything, and many of the rooms contained multiple items with written descriptions alongside of them, which I and my fellow guests wanted to read. The problem was that when we tried, we were often pressured out of the room with a “come on, let’s go” look from the guide. I had the distinct impression that “quantity of guests” was much important than the “quality of experience.” Honestly, if I hadn’t been taking detailed notes, most of the experience would have been lost.
My overall impression of the museum was one of dissatisfaction. I went in expecting to see a museum showcasing a bunch of allegedly haunted objects (“cursed” sounds scarier) with interesting background stories. Instead, only a few “haunted” items were pointed out, and they turned out to have less-than-interesting (or factual) backgrounds than I was led to believe. Many areas/rooms were sideshow attractions: two hallways of mannequins in clown costumes, a guy putting a drill bit up his nose, and a diorama of a circus—nothing haunted, cursed, or even particularly interesting about these. I think the museum relies heavily on fans that are already convinced that the word of Zak Bagans is law, thus anything deemed “haunted” no doubt is—at least to them.
I expected to have time to view all the objects, read any descriptions posted alongside them, and to have better lighting in order to see what I was looking at. Instead, it was too dark (several guests tripped throughout the tour), and the guides actively discouraged any real examination of the featured items. The guides relied on a well-rehearsed script and seemed to just repeat paranormal claims that were introduced on Bagans’s television series Deadly Possessions. This series showcased many of the “haunted” items donated to the museum and their former owners. When asking questions that deviated from the script, the guides found themselves in uncharted territory (see my upcoming article on the Bela Lugsoi mirror).
Was it worth the $44 per person ticket price? Nope. It was a novelty that relied too heavily on the die-hard beliefs of fans and much less on the museum atmosphere of allowing the visitor to see and experience as much as possible. This was a disappointment, even from a geeky skeptic like me. I love visiting movie/film locations, seeing/touching screen-used props, and being able to visit objects and locations I’ve either investigated or read about in paranormal literature. But the overall experience here killed that excitement. Granted, Bagans does have a lot of very cool, very freaky furniture and Dime Museum props that I admired, but the overall quality of the experience was a disappointment.
I did miss an opportunity to meet Bagans and perhaps speak to him face-to-face. My wife noticed him standing behind a “secret” door we were ushered through. In a miscommunication, I didn’t realize she was trying to point him out to me (I thought she was referring to a guy hiding in an alcove waiting to jump out and scare guests). I regret the misunderstanding and the missed opportunity to speak to Bagans personally. It would have been interesting to get his opinion directly from him. Perhaps next time.
At this point I’m going to step aside and allow my friends, Susan Gerbic and Mark Edward, to give their own impressions of the museum. In addition, I will be following up this review with a few installments focusing on specific objects in the museum, specifically the Big Four items we were warned about. I’ll be taking a much closer look at a few of them.
Susan’s Impression - I’d not heard of the Haunted Museum before Kenny suggested a visit, but I’m always up for a good ghost story. We found the tour to be very expensive, $44 a person, and there was a long line. I think we waited ninety minutes to get inside where we could buy our tickets and wait for the tour to start. The tour guides were pleasant enough, trying not to show that they were rushing us along—while still rushing us along. The banter was very scripted; Mark leaned over a few times to whisper that we were being primed to experience something we weren’t actually going to see or feel in the museum. I was having a difficult time deciding if this was a “wink, wink, nod, nod” all-in-fun ghost tour. Or did they really believe they were bringing us through a building that had dead people trying to communicate?
The artifacts were really interesting, with a mix of macabre clowns and dolls. Where they real antiques? We were told they were, but then again, we were told a lot that was unbelievable. The smells were very well done, something that Mark explains is necessary for a great séance. What disturbed me was the rooms exhibiting real death photos, especially the room that contained the bed where many men were tortured and murdered. There was a photo of a man getting injected with Clorox into his neck, so he could not scream. These are real people with real horrors, and they felt out of place in a museum like this. Likewise, with the Jerry Lewis clown costume and the story about how he made a movie about a clown escorting a child to the gas chamber in the Holocaust. The same was true of Kevorkian’s death van, complete with a mannequin representing a named woman who really did end her life in that van.
I think the museum really didn’t know what to focus on. Scaring the guests with people jumping out at them along corridors? Ghost stories about creepy dolls and boxes? But using real crime scene photos and real artifacts of death seemed like it crossed the line into sensationalism and murderabilia. I’ve been to the death museum in Los Angeles, which starts out with a video showing an embalming; at least there I knew what to expect. The people who run this place should decide if they are telling ghost stories with fun, scary effects or telling the stories of real people who did horrible things to living people. In my opinion, those are two very different things.
Mark’s Impression - If you asked me if I enjoyed the overall premise, I didn’t really care for it. For my money, when the term haunted is attached to any venue, it better be full of haunted relics, good storytellers, and an atmosphere that creates wonder as to whether objects might be real artifacts taken from real events or historic sources.
I don’t really see how paintings and other cast offs from serial killers, Manson’s trinkets, and Truman Capote’s ripped pajamas work into their haunted theme, unless there’s a connection related by the curator or tour guide, which wasn’t a part of the deal most of the time.
As customers walking through, we were basically left to make up our own ghost story for most of the tour. The employees were competent, and the individual objects were certainly creepy enough, but there was a clear lack of true interest or real passion for what these folks were presenting that left me feeling a bit conned. I don’t know what I expected, but at the prices we paid and after all being in Las Vegas, a little more showmanship and a little less hustle would have been better. There was one dwarf character used twice in the tour who was a standout and made the whole thing tolerable. Still, this and the other Grand Guignol set pieces were more like a side-show “ten-in-one” circus tent attraction that moves you along from room to room than a true museum. For me, the term museum implies a collection of some integrity or specificity, and having a side-show geek pound a nine-inch nail into his nostril as “The Human Blockhead” can be entertaining but has nothing to do with ghosts or hauntings. Padding like this just pisses me off.
No lingering or photos were allowed, which was major drawback that was nonsensical given the scenery and the out-front pitch. No one was allowed to take a really close look at anything for very long. The tour guides played a tag-team of completely unlinked tableaus, with each room’s separate story rattled off like a tired magician merely going through the motions of their tricks. It’s the “burn ’em and turn ’em” style of delivery common to places such as Disneyland and the Jungle Boat ride when the hippo pops his head out of the water. There’s no real scare here.
That said, I will admit that the general look of all of the set pieces and props is top rate, and I wondered throughout the hour-long tour how a ghost show television guy (Zak Bagans) could possibly have amassed such a huge selection of weirdness all on his own. I asked the gift shop staff how this was accomplished and was told Zak’s mom was an antique dealer. That explained a lot. The furniture, lighting, and design shows a real talent for interior decoration. Unfortunately, it’s like special effects in horror movies: without good actors and a good script, it’s is all just “for show.”I give it a seven out of ten.
- Bagans, Zak. 2017. About – The Haunted Museum. https://thehauntedmuseum.com/about/
- Edward, Mark. 2018. Personal email correspondence
- Gerbic, Susan. 2018. Personal email correspondence