Wax museums are prime examples of retro roadside kitsch, the kind of place that families have been visiting on vacations for generations. But, there's something a little darker and weirder about wax museums than your average tourist attraction. Maybe it's that the tradition of wax figures of famous figures grew out of the tradition of dressing effigies of deceased royals for funeral parades in 17th century Europe; after the burial, the wax figure would be displayed near the tomb, and you could view it (for a small fee, of course). Or maybe it's that Madame Toussad, the most famous name in wax museums, got her start making wax death masks of executed royalty during the French Revolution.
Even the very idea of a wax figure is pretty disturbing, in a way; you can get eerily close to making it look like a person, but it'll always be a stiff and lifeless representation. The fact that wax museums have a reputation for including a "Chamber of Horrors" section, dedicated to disturbing and gruesome displays, certainly doesn't help. Wax museums are definitely a dying breed, but there are still some great ones dotted across the country, each with a varying degree of general weirdness. Here are a few of our favorites that the iron-willed might want to check out!
When Vice writes an article called "An Open Letter to the Worst Wax Museum in America", you kinda have to take that into consideration when making a list of grotesque (but fun!) wax museums. The subject of that article was the Hollywood Wax Museum, which the author lambastes for its poor choice of actors, questionable choices on the movie characters those figures portray, and all-around shoddy quality of the often barely recognizable celeb representations. But, despite all of this, its primo location on Hollywood's Sunset Boulevard means that it's regularly pretty crowded. Whether or not the photos you take here make the $20 ticket worth it is up for you to decide.
The Jesse James Wax Museum is a classic Route 66 roadside attraction. Near Meramec Caverns, reportedly a hideout for famed Missouri outlaw Jesse James, is the Jesse James Wax Museum. Explore his life, from his time in a Confederate guerilla gang to his train and bank robberies to his death at the hands of Robert Ford, a friend (well, frenemy, I guess) of James. The best part of the wax museum isn't actually the wax figures... it's the fact that the museum takes the (admittedly controversial) stance that James wasn't actually murdered by Ford. They offer evidence supporting the claim that James's death was a hoax that allowed him to escape the law and live under an assumed name until he died in the 1950s at the age of about 100. Is it likely to be true? Probably not, but it's definitely an interesting look at the life and death (when and however it occurred) of one of the country's most notorious outlaws.
The next time you find yourself sauntering through the Biblewalk Bible Museum in Mansfield, Ohio, take a good, long look at the life-size wax figure of Jesus. If you think you recognize him, you'd be correct. You're actually looking at a wax figure of Tom Cruise. The wax museum houses over 300 life-size sculptures that depict 70 biblical vignettes of the life of Jesus Christ. But, what makes this museum a little different than your run-of-the-mill, non-denominational, Christian-themed wax museums, is that many of the Biblical characters are actually famous actors, celebrities and political figures, from John Travolta to the Duke of Edinburgh. Why? Because these were cast-off wax figures that didn't make the cut for celebrity wax museums like Madame Tussauds. They were scooped up by BibleWalk, for relatively cheap.
The museum was built by Diamond Hill Cathedral. Back in the 1970s Paster Richard Diamond was inspired after a visit to a historical wax museum. Ten years later, guided by what I can only imagine to be divine intervention, Diamond began acquiring wax figures; some donated, some purchased from rejected figures at celebrity wax museums.
Every year between 30,000 and 40,000 people visit the museum. Today there are two 60 minute tours you can take, “Miracles of the Old Testament" and “Life of Christ." Or, if you're pressed for time, you can take one of the 30 minute tours, “Museum of Christian Martyrs” or “Heart of the Reformation."
But, before you head to the museum to gawk at a King Solomon John Travolta, be warned, the museum really doesn't like to talk about the celebrity figures. They often deny it altogether. So, if you visit, please gawk in silence and respect the mission of the museum, which is to pay tribute to Christianity. But, feel free to silently worship at the feet of Tom Cruise Jesus.
Harpers Ferry is a tiny little town that's also a National Historic Park. It's a quaint and charming little representation of life in the 19th century in this scenic little hamlet. Of course, it's not all beautiful hikes, historic sites, cute museums, unique shops, and costumed interpreters here; at the center of town is the John Brown Wax Museum, dedicated to the bloody event that made the lovely town infamous. John Brown was a diehard abolitionist in the turbulent years before the Civil War, and he traveled the country stirring up trouble for slaveholders and spreading his mission. His staunch, and violent belief in abolitionism led him to gather a small group of men, both escaped slaves and white abolitionists alike, to lead a raid on the arsenal at Harpers Ferry. His hope was to capture the arsenal and incite a rebellion, using the armory to protect and arm slaves who would escape and flock to him. Instead, the raid was an unmitigated disaster; several of his men, including a son, died, and he was captured and hanged for his role. The John Brown Wax Museum pulls no punches when detailing the brutal life and death of John Brown... or maybe it's the eerie wax figures that make the displays all the more bone-chilling.
Why bother with Cooperstown's extensive Baseball Hall of Fame when you can (kind of) see the real deal for yourself at the Heroes of Baseball Wax Museum. There are about 30 baseball greats, from Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, and Babe Ruth to Kevin Costner from "Field of Dreams", Yankees-era George Costanza from "Seinfeld", and the ladies from "A League Of Their Own", all immortalized in wax. It's a kitschier version of the Hall of Fame, and is a lighter addition to a trip to Cooperstown.
Occupying a niche somewhere between old-school silly and kind of scary, the House of Frankenstein Wax Museum is great for horror fans. The monster-themed dioramas are made all the creepier by the fact that they're done in wax, and you can see all of your favorites here: the Grim Reaper, a mummy, Dracula, Frankenstein's monster, Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger, skeletons, and a mishmash of kind of disturbing scenes involving medieval torture, executions, and, for some reason, a man being mauled by rats. This place doesn't really do jump-scares... they're more about the slow-burn horror that really sticks with you.
Another wax museum adding some scares to the experience is the Salem Wax Museum... but I mean, it's Salem, so that's to be expected with anything you'd find in the famously witchy town. You'll see vignettes from history, including the town's 1626 founding, a look into the shipping industry, the town's mercantile trade, and, of course, scenes from the 1692 witch hysteria. You can also learn to tie nautical knots, and can experience what it was like to be imprisoned for alleged witchcraft. The lower dungeon also has a Frankenstein horror-themed exhibit as well, as if pretending to be locked in a cell for being a witch isn't creepy enough.