AMERICAN TIMES: HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA: The doyenne of death heads for Tinseltown

CATHEE SHULTZ does not have a normal healthy interest in death. She is, you might say, a little obsessed. She corresponds with serial killers. She collects autopsy photographs of car-crash victims. She has a dead Afghan for a pet dog (stuffed, of course).

For the past three years, death has also - if you will pardon the expression - been her livelihood. With her artist husband, J D Healy, she has run a creepy little outfit called the Museum of Death, a showcase for such spoils as antique morticians' tools, Charles Manson's baseball bat, an electric chair built for a cover photo on Death Row Magazine and a montage of body bags in every colour of the rainbow.

"The overall thing is to make people happy to be alive," Ms Shultz likes to say.

Until Hallowe'en this year, the museum was in a former mortuary in downtown San Diego - an offbeat attraction among the trendy bars and restaurants of the city's heavily renovated Gaslamp Quarter. It was a particularly creepy mortuary, one that coexisted for a long time with a brothel up on the next floor, and one where a former employee, still believed to haunt the premises, committed suicide by shooting himself in the head, the bullet popping out of an eye and lodging in the roof beams.

Until Hallowe'en, Ms Shultz and Mr Healy went about their business as only they knew how. They were in negotiations to buy a Bible belonging to Andrew Cunanan, the gay serial killer best known for bumping off Gianni Versace in July 1997. They kept an eye out for possible additions to their Freak Farm, a display of deformed animals, living and dead, including an eight-legged piglet and a two-headed turtle that they call Heckle and Jeckle.

Then something a little unexpected happened. Not quite a bump in the night, although there certainly were a few knocks on the door. Something that some of the more uneasy members of the San Diego community might have said they had coming to them. Or maybe it was sheer bad luck.

For much of the autumn, Ms Shultz had been looking forward to an auction of items from the Heaven's Gate suicide cult, the 39 people who became convinced that the Hale-Bopp comet, when it appeared a couple of years ago, was calling them to heaven and promptly did away with themselves in a large house in the San Diego suburbs by overdosing on barbiturates sweetened with vodka and apple sauce.

Ms Shultz and Mr Healy already owned a few choice items from the cult - Nike training shoes, a collection of purple shrouds, a bottle of phenobarbital and a small container of apple sauce. They wanted to bid for one of the 19 bunk beds in which the cult members died - they eventually bought a white one for $130 (pounds 80).

In her enthusiasm, Ms Shultz talked to journalists about her plans for a Heaven's Gate exhibit complete with male and female mannequins wearing the cult's black uniforms and "Away Team" patches. That was where the problem began.

The publicity reached the ears of the museum building's proprietors just as they were contemplating selling to capitalise on the Gaslamp Quarter's rising prices. They were not at all sure whether a Museum of Death generated the right kind of publicity.

John Day, a partner in the company that owns the building, said: "I've had a number of comments from various different people that this occupancy in the building was detracting from its value."

Ms Shultz and Mr Healy were evicted. But they are positive, forward-thinking people, and it was not long before they had an alternative plan. To where could a self-respecting Museum of Death move? There was, of course, only one answer: Hollywood.

And so, on 1 January, in a defunct Mexican restaurant on Hollywood Boulevard, the museum will be resurrected. Being in Hollywood, it will naturally be bigger and better than ever. Ms Shultz is friends with Kenneth Anger, author of the definitive scandal catalogue Hollywood Babylon, and she hopes to raise the celebrity death element considerably.

Whatever one may think of the taste of it all, the ghoulish couple cannot be accused of lacking a sense of humour. Although still in their mid-thirties, they have plans for their own demise. Ms Shultz wants to be mummified and displayed in her own museum. Mr Healy wants to be pickled in a jar of formaldehyde.

As Ms Shultz said: "You need to shock people to get their attention in our society. Death isn't bad. We all do it."

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