Halloween road trip: These 10 macabre museums are dedicated to disease and death

Explore the darker side of humanity with exhibits on cults, cannibalism, and medical history

The New Orleans Pharmacy Museum. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan

Before the internet and frantic late night WebMD diagnoses, medical professionals and professors used wax models, graphic artwork, and real life specimens to study and identify medical anomalies. The long, gory history of science and medicine often overlaps with the macabre—nowhere is this more evident than exhibits such as the College of Physicians of Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum’s wall of skulls (the 139 human skulls were collected by anatomist Joseph Hyrtl for teaching purposes—but displayed in long rows in the museum’s upper level, they are both creepy and fascinating). 

Traditional science and art museums seem downright boring when compared to New Orleans’ Museum of Death, featuring exhibits on cults and cannibalism, or Oklahoma City’s Museum of Osteology, which has more than 300 authentic skeletons on display. So whether you’re interested in the history of medicine, a true crime podcast devotee, or just curious about what kind of sweatpants Charles Manson wore—here are 10 museums around the country dedicated to the darker aspects of humanity, including disease, deformities, and death. 

The entrance to the Mütter Museum
The entrance to the Mütter Museum. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan

1. Mütter Museum

Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum began with a donation of more than 1,700 objects from Thomas Dent Mütter, MD, in 1858. It has since grown to include more than 25,000 medical curiosities, including sections of Einstein’s brain, an entire wall of human skulls, the liver of conjoined twins Chang and Eng Bunker, President Grover Cleveland’s jaw tumor, the tallest skeleton on display in North America, and the World’s Largest Colon. Unfortunately photography is not allowed inside the museum, but the gift shop has a nice selection of postcards and other medical-related memorabilia. 

A sign at the entrance to the Mutter Museum
A sign at the entrance to the Mutter Museum. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan
a plaque that says "college of physicians of philadelphia 19 south 22nd street founded 1787 medical library mutter museum f.c. wood institute"
A plaque outside the Mutter Museum. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan

2. National Museum of Health and Medicine

Established during the Civil War, the National Museum of Health and Medicine‘s mission “to preserve and explore the impact of military medicine spans more than 150 years and includes each major U.S. armed conflict.” Located in Silver Spring, Maryland, on the campus of the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the museum’s collection includes 15,000 objects from the history of medicine, dating from the late 1660s to the present day. Access to some of the specimens—including human remains from members of the military and civilians—are available by appointment for research purposes only. 

The Poe Museum is located in Richmond, Virginia.
The Poe Museum is located in Richmond, Virginia. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan

3. The Poe Museum

The entrance (and exit) to the Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia, is through the gift shop, which includes a portrait painted with real human blood, candles scented like skeletal remains, and spices such as “The Masque of the Red Death Sriracha Sea Salt.” The largest museum collection of Poe memorabilia in the world is spread over three historic buildings and organized chronologically. Artifacts include several first editions of famous Poe tales, a Daguerreotype copy of what the museum describes as “both the most famous and perhaps the worst photograph of Poe,” and a fragment of Poe’s coffin. If you see two black cats roaming the property, don’t be spooked—Pluto (whose name was inspired by the Poe story “The Black Cat”) and Edgar are very friendly.

prep table
A vintage funeral prep table set-up. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan

4. Peoples Mortuary Museum

Located behind Cawley & Peoples Funeral Home in Marietta, Ohio, is a garage housing the collection of current owner and funeral director William “Bill” Peoples. He started Peoples Mortuary Museum as a place to store and display his collection of antique cars—in particular, hearses—and the museum has grown over the years to include clothing, caskets, and other grisly tools from the history of the funeral industry. The star of the museum is a fully-restored 1927 Henney hearse, dubbed “Miss Henney,” which was featured in the 2009 film Get Low, where it starred alongside Bill Murray, Robert Duvall, and Sissy Spacek. 

museum of death sign
The Museum of Death has locations in California and New Orleans. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan

5. Museum of Death

Founded in 1995, the Museum of Death was originally located in a San Diego mortuary. Now with locations in both Los Angeles and New Orleans (the California museum is currently in the process of relocating), the museum claims to have “the world’s largest collection of serial killer artwork, antique funeral ephemera, mortician and coroners instruments, Manson Family memorabilia, pet death taxidermy, crime scene photographs, and so much more.” The website warns visitors that the museum’s gruesome exhibits may not be for everyone (several visitors have fainted, or given the museum “a falling down ovation”), so enter at your own risk.

two neon signs that say "death" and "museum" with a noose
The Museum of Death. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan
a board sign for the museum of death featuring an hourglass and the words "death is everywhere"
Death is everywhere. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan

6. Glore Psychiatric Museum

When it opened in 1874 with 250 patients, the mission of Missouri’s State Lunatic Asylum No. 2 was dedicated “to the noble work of reviving hope in the human heart and dispelling the portentous clouds that penetrate the intellects of minds diseased.” In the 1960s, hospital employee George Glore created exhibits for the Mental Health Awareness Week open house, which remain a part of the Glore Psychiatric Museum’s collection today. Artifacts from the state hospital’s 145-year history include treatment devices, staff uniforms, furnishings, and paintings, sculptures, and other artwork made by patients (along with a collection of 453 nails swallowed by one person).   

a museum displaying various animal skeletons
The Museum of Osteology. | Photo: Wikimedia Commons

7. Museum of Osteology

This Oklahoma City museum is dedicated to osteology, or the study of bones. With more than 300 skeletons on display from all over the world, the museum’s skeletal specimens range from the minuscule (mice and shrews) to the massive (a 40-foot humpback whale). In the 1970s, Jay Villemarette found a dog skull in the woods and began a lifetime of collecting. He opened his first retail location selling bones, called Skulls Unlimited, in 1990; the Museum of Osteology, billed as “largest privately held collection of osteological specimens in the world” opened in 2010.

Replica of Lincoln's casket.
Replica of Lincoln’s casket. | Photo: Teresa Otto

8. National Museum of Funeral History

The motto of Houston’s National Museum of Funeral History is ​​“Any day above ground is a good one.” The museum’s exhibits include mourning art made from human hair, whimsical carved coffins, hearses, and artifacts once belonging to presidents and popes. Founded by R.L. Waltrip in 1992 (with objects from his family’s funeral business), the museum’s collection of presidential memorabilia continues to grow thanks to chairman Bob Boetticher, a renowned mortician for prominent politicians, including presidents Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, and George H.W. Bush, four first ladies, and Senator John McCain.

window that says "new orleans pharmacy museum"
The New Orleans Pharmacy Museum is located in an old apothecary shop. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan

9. New Orleans Pharmacy Museum

The New Orleans Pharmacy Museum is located in the Vieux Carre Historic District of the French Quarter. In 1804, when Louisiana became the first state to require a licensing examination for pharmacists, Louis J. Dufilho, Jr. became the first licensed pharmacist in the U.S. Dufilho’s 1823 apothecary shop now operates as a small museum packed full of historical medical artifacts including an extensive collection of bottles, boxes, and tins housed in beautiful wooden and glass cabinets. The labels are worth the price of admission alone, touting cures for stomach troubles, bronchitis, and whatever it is that “chocolated worm syrup” was supposed to cure.

a ceramic jar of leeches
Leeches. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan
a bottle of chocolated worm syrup
Chocolated worm syrup. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan

10. Graveface Museum

Opened in February 2020 by Black Moth Super Rainbow guitarist Ryan Graveface, The Graveface Museum is located in a historic row of former cotton warehouses in Savannah, Georgia. The macabre collection includes a human spine belonging to Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey, a two-headed calf, paintings by “killer clown” John Wayne Gacy, and Charles Manson’s sweatpants. The lower level of the museum is full of pinball machines with themes such as Elvira, Mortal Kombat, and Dracula; admission to the nearby Graveface Arcade is also included with a museum ticket, and valid for 2 days.