NOVEMBER 18, 2015
ON JANUARY 15, 1947, the naked body of 22-year-old Elizabeth Short was found in a vacant lot in Leimert Park. Nearly 70 years later the case remains unsolved, leaving an indelible mark on Los Angeles history. Short’s bisected corpse was posed toward the Hollywood Hills, a symbolic reordering of glamour-myth-making at the beginning of the postwar years. Colloquially known as “The Black Dahlia,” she is a symbol that has lived on in countless books, a movie, and conspiracy theories regarding her death.
Short’s story can also be explored by traversing the city streets she walked in life and lay in death. The body dump site is now located on a manicured lawn where tourists and macabre enthusiasts alike make their pilgrimage to one of Los Angeles’s most infamous sites of tragedy. This experience is even curated: as demonstrated by Esotouric tour founders Kim Cooper and Richard Schave’s The Real Black Dahlia Tour, which takes participants on a journey throughout Los Angeles whilst providing an oral history of Elizabeth Short and the city. The bus tour navigates through LA, from the Biltmore Hotel in Downtown (one of the last places Short was seen alive), to the bus depot where her suitcase was found containing un-mailed love letters among other personal effects, to the body dump site in South LA.
Drawn to the history and deathly offerings of the city I grew up in, I had the opportunity to participate in The Real Black Dahlia Tour. Seeing Short’s macabre tale through the prism of dark tourism, tourism aimed at places where death and tragedy have taken place, exposes a present-day culture seeped in death denial but not without a yearning to connect with our own mortality. This is especially true in Los Angeles.
Los Angeles is a city built on the ideals of defeating disease and old age. In the 19th century, people came from all over the country to cure themselves of various maladies in the sunny Mediterranean climate and clean air. As recorded by R.W.C. Farnsworth in his 1883 account, A Southern California Paradise, health resorts advertised cures for asthma, malaria, chronic rheumatism, and consumption among other ailments. At the same time, a budding fruit culture began to emerge, a symbolic representation of regeneration and rebirth. Cinema would soon come to dominate the cultural landscape, exploiting youth and beauty worship, and these ideals continue to live on in the 21st century. Plastic surgery has become readily available to those hoping to conceal aging or fix imperfections, and organic markets advertise the latest food craze that purports to stave off disease. But like any large city, Los Angeles is home to plenty decay, poverty, and death. One need only open the morning paper to read about crises with homelessness or skim the obituaries of the city’s recently deceased.
We all live with the inevitability of our own mortality, and yet death remains largely hidden. Our relationship to death, which once took on the forms of communal mourning and engagement with the corpse, has been, with few exceptions, dismantled from our culture. The rituals of visiting the corpse and participation in funerary practices have existed for thousands of years. But during the second half of the 19th century, as historian Philippe Ariès writes in The Hour of Our Death, death has become “improper, like the biological acts of man.” He goes on to write “a new image of death is forming: the ugly and hidden death.” This view has led to physical disengagement with the dead and with each other. The dead and dying, traditionally taken care of by family members and visited upon by the community, have now been taken out of the home and put into hospitals and mortuaries.
In present-day Los Angeles, death denial affects the very spaces we inhabit. Mike Davis’s largely prophetic book, City of Quartz, written over a quarter century ago, exposes the destruction and mass privatization of public space in Los Angeles. “The city is engaged in a merciless struggle to make public facilities and spaces ‘unlivable’ as possible for the homeless and the poor.” Outdoor sprinklers, and so-called ‘bum proof’ benches, are seen throughout the city to prohibit loitering. Concurrently, gentrification has enveloped much of Los Angeles with the construction of condos and commercial spaces. Open-air malls such as The Americana and The Grove are clean and largely free of litter, and the poor and homeless are rarely seen nor are they welcomed in these heavily surveillance spaces. Though Davis’s thesis is largely an indictment of privatization, it is also possible to read these spaces as the whitewashing of signs of death and decay. Dehumanized, the homeless symbolize ill health and aging, impurities that need to be weeded out of sanitized spaces. These bodies are to be hidden, which translates into spatial segregation for both the living and the dying.
Contradicting our death denial is the phenomenon of dark tourism. The term was first coined in the mid-1990s by British scholars John Lennon and Malcolm Foley, and in recent years, it has garnered much attention and study. Humans have been visiting places of the dead as long as we’ve been able to travel, such as making pilgrimages to former war sites, attending public executions, or visiting the morgue in 19th-century Paris. In the present day, tourists can visit sites of tragedy around the world such as former Nazi death camps, the Killing Fields in Cambodia, or the 9/11 memorial in New York, at times leading to profitable businesses. It can be controversial, as captured by the popular Tumblr Selfies at Serious Places, which collects selfies, posted elsewhere, taken at locations such as Holocaust Memorial sites and funerals, or it can be exploitative; bus tours to the Lower Ninth Ward take tourists around the New Orleans neighborhood decimated by Hurricane Katrina.
Though dark tourism can be criticized and mocked, it also has the potential to act as a mediator between the living and the dead. Caitlin Doughty, an LA-based mortician, a New York Times bestselling author, and the host of Youtube’s Ask a Mortician web series, advocates death acceptance and a reform to Western funerary practices, specifically a re-engagement with the corpse that has been relegated to funeral homes. “We’re all curious about our death … but we don’t actually have much access to see that through.” We have a “denial of the corpse,” Doughty believes, that has greatly led to a culture of death denial. Exploring death through dark tourism, Doughty asserts, is a stand-in for real death. “We want to go on these tours because it brings us closer to something that’s kept behind the scenes.” It also allows for a dialectic exchange regarding death that is largely absent from our culture. Doughty adds, the “language that we’ve lost in our culture is the confidence around death and the feeling that death is an important and valid discussion to have.”
Los Angeles’s vast and eclectic landscape offers opportunities to engage in discussions and stories of the dead. From tours taking participants to Manson murder sites, to visiting dead celebrities at Forrest Lawn, Los Angeles provides mediation between the living and the dead. This type of engagement brings death out of hiding as it allows, from a safe distance, a confrontation with our own mortality on both the personal and communal level. The tours provided by Esotouric are but one example. The aim of The Real Black Dahlia Tour, Kim Cooper explains, “is to humanize the victim, who is so often forgotten or misrepresented in the various books suggesting implausible solutions to the crime. She is a very compelling personality, and in traveling along her path, our passengers are able to vividly experience a moment in L.A. history, while at the same time honoring a lost soul.”
Elizabeth Short’s life is pieced together by bits of information found in newspaper clippings, census surveys, and police reports. Her life is interpreted by the specter of her murder, a foreboding with every fact uncovered. She looked appropriately enough like a Hollywood starlet with dark hair and pale skin. A transplant from Medford, Massachusetts, Short was described as secretive, never staying in one place too long. And although wrongly referred to as a prostitute, Short was described as a flirt and having multiple suitors. Theories abound about whether or not one of these men killed Short, but they remain just that — theories.
There has never been closure on Short’s murder, and perhaps the continuing fascination with her story can be read as both a personal as well as communal memento mori. The mystery surrounding Short’s tragic tale exposes a yearning to explore our own death but also the death of a member of our community, a ritual that has been largely lost. It is the drive to find meaning in life and death, not only in Short’s but our own.
Participating in the social rituals of remembrance, even by touring city streets, can act as an acknowledgment of not only our own mortality, but also our impact on each other and the community around us. “If you look at the city as a collection of souls,” Richard Schave asserts, “the city reincarnates every twenty, thirty, forty years. And every thirty, forty years a different group of people ostensibly, but I believe the same souls, come back to the same problems. And I think coming back to these old crimes, many unsolved, I think people sense a familiarity.”
Exploring Elizabeth Short’s tragedy across Los Angeles inhabits the realm of horror-scapes, exposing death and decay underneath sanitized spaces. Her body, which had been washed and drained of blood, and the grotesque smile that had been carved from the corners of her mouth to her ears, exposed a duplicity surrounding a culture of beauty and age worship that has only intensified in the decades following her death.
Visiting places of tragedy such as Short’s has the ability to act as both a communal catharsis whilst attempting to find meaning in death in the city around us.
“It’s a “return to impressions,” Schave states. “It’s how we evolve spiritually.”
All references to the life of Elizabeth Short are based on the Los Angeles Times article, “A Slaying Cloaked in Mystery and Myths,” written by Larry Harnisch in 1997.