by Susannah Clark
After a dinner of gnocchi and brimming red wine, Joe and I were promenading on the cobblestone streets of Firenze. The city night had a warm, honey glow, as leather shops and gelato parlors beckoned. The week was almost over. Between Rome and Florence, I had seen, eaten, and avoided everything the editors of Lonely Planet had told me to.
All of my friends had chosen second semester of junior year to study abroad, leaving me behind in the States to watch “Sex in the City” DVDs in bed on Saturday nights. Poor, deprived little Susannah’s parents were only willing to pay for a summer study abroad program. Three weeks into the spring semester, I couldn’t take it anymore. After scanning countless gloating photo albums on the internet, I spent a third of my savings on plane tickets to Italy.
Joe was more than an acquaintance but not quite a friend. We had had a few classes together, said hi around campus, but I didn’t have his number in my cell phone. Friends had mentioned that he was studying in Florence, so I contacted him over Facebook at an internet café in Rome, asking if he wanted to meet up. It was nice to see a familiar face after three days of solitary train-rides and solo art gallery visits. It wasn’t just a relief to speak to someone in English, it was a relief to speak to anyone at all.
Joe was also Italian, really Italian. I can’t even spell his last name. His extended family lived all over Tuscany, and for his semester abroad, he had managed to snag an internship with the American Consulate in Florence. He got to give Nancy Pelosi a personal tour of the city. Joe was my ticket to authenticity.
He led me to a random side street away from the hallowed Duomo Cathedral I had seen in so many travel brochures. The shops were all the same height, lined up like books on a shelf. We strolled, leisurely. Suddenly, Joe stopped.
“Oh! I’ve always wanted to go in here!”
I looked up at the hanging wooden sign above me.
“Museo Criminale Serial Killer e Pena di morte”
The letters were written in the same font as the Goosebumps horror-story books I read as a preteen. Dripping with gooey blood.
I was immediately skeptical.
“It’s the Serial Killer Museum!” Joe chimed. “I walk by it every day but I’ve never had the time to go—or anyone to go with.”
“Okay, let’s check it out,” I said. It was 8:30 p.m. I was confident the museum would be closed.
But the glass door opened and we were greeted in cheerful English by a portly balding man.
I suppose we didn’t pass for locals. He stood behind a counter with a shelf of Hannibal Lecter masks and Charlize-Theron-in-Monster action figures. The shop was obnoxiously dark. We were the only people inside.
“What time do you close? Can we see the exhibit?” Joe asked.
“You’re in luck! We’re just about to send out our last audio tour,” the man said. I groaned, but silently.
Joe looked at me. This wasn’t my idea of doing as the Italians do, but then again, we were in Florence, not Rome. Admission was 12 euro. Joe had graciously treated me to dinner 20 minutes earlier. I decided my company to a tourist trap was a fair exchange rate.
The clerk led us down a narrow aisle with an uneven ceiling and handed us each a walkman with tangled headphones. We pressed play.
The first display wasa wax likeness of Elizabeth Bathory, the Hungarian Blood Countess. The loud thunderclap on the tape didn’t line up with the lightning flashes in the scene in front of us. A robotic, British male voice told us that Bathory was suspected in the torture and/or murder of more than 600 young girls during the 15th century.
Soon, oddly, I was able to muster some excitement about the exhibit, calling on my brief high school obsession with campy slasher flicks. With the right sound effects, gruesome death can be hilarious. Joe had started his audiotape about 40 seconds before mine, and his face would always warn me when the gross parts were coming.
Each display centered on a life-size wax statue, often in mid-glower. John Wayne Gacy was in full clown attire, standing in the living room of his suburban Chicago home. Below him was the basement crawl-space where he hid 29 of the 33 bodies of the boys and men he sodomized and killed. The skeletons were dissolving. The painted red smile on Gacy’s face faded into his double chin.
Ed Gein, the skinner who inspired the Texas Chainsaw film franchise, was sitting in a rocking chair in his barn, overalls and bare feet. Displaced vaginas and breasts were tacked on the floral wallpaper. He was wearing a belt made out of nipples. I folded my arms across my chest.
Charles Manson wore a brown mink coat, just standing in front of a black backdrop. His arms were outstretched, like a prophet’s. His eyes were humongous, doe-like. He was staring at me, not at Joe.
Ted Bundy was driving a white convertible, hair flowing in the wind. He was kind of hot.
What struck me most about the museum was that I had heard of almost every killer on exhibit in this supposedly international gallery. Apparently, 60 percent of serial killers are American. And that doesn’t count former Presidents.
Not to say Europe wasn’t represented. The display case of Andrei Chikatilo, the Russian cannibal who could only achieve orgasm while stabbing young girls, featured video-footage of the serial killer’s trial and candid confessions.
The exhibit also featured a few displays of different approaches to capital punishment and how crime scene investigators collect evidence. Joe and I fast-forwarded through most of those parts.
Albert Fish, the “Brooklyn Vampire,” was our favorite. As our British narrator informed us that the child-molester/cannibal’s hobbies included sticking cotton-balls soaked in lighter fluid in his rectum and lighting them, Joe and I turned to each other flashing the same shocked expression. Fish also recommended “a young boy or girl’s behind” as the “sweetest” human body part to eat.
The final glass case paid homage to the infamous Monster of Florence with nothing but text and a stretched, nebulous shadow. According to the audio, the same serial killer is suspected to have murdered eight young couples in Florence between 1968 and 1985. Il Mostro’s signature was carving out his female victim’s pubic area and breasts with a notched knife. In 1993, several men were convicted of the homicides, but were later cleared by the Italian Supreme Court. The cases remains unsolved.
After we turned in our audio guides and exited the museum, my arms and thighs were sore from the constant clenching in disgust. The Florentine alleys looked darker and narrower than they had an hour ago. I said yes when Joe offered to walk me back to my hostel.
Strolling back through the cobblestone streets, Joe and I made small talk about classes we were taking next semester and whether it’s worth it to spring for our university’s meal plan. As the street names grew harder to pronounce and the paths narrowed, the shadows from the streetlamps grew ominously personified. Our footsteps boomed. We were both obviously jittery, but neither of us said anything about it. As we approached the door to my hostel, I gave Joe a carefully-distanced hug goodbye.
In Italy, I got very used to viewing the human body. The iconic Michelangelo’s David and Botticelli’s Venus images grace postcards and kitchen aprons in the windows of tourist shops. In Florence, I saw more nipples than cell phones. Rows of glistening white unclothed statues fill entire floors of museums and art galleries. In marble sculptures, every appendage is delicately chiseled. Arms are flexed, toes are pointed and genitals dangle confidently, unaware of how easily they could be broken off.
As I lay in the starchy twin bed that night, in a room ideal for a horror movie setting, I was disturbed, but not because of the gory details from the exhibit. I was disturbed at how undisturbed I was. I had just spent a week celebrating artists who created beautiful likenesses of human bodies hundreds of years ago. Now, men who destroyed so many other people’s bodies got their own immortalized in wax, and I paid 20 American dollars to see it. In some small way, I felt like a cannibal, consuming humanity for thrills.
Rolling to my side, I hugged my knees to my chest, squishing my breasts against my thighs. I flexed my feet. All of me was still there.