Sleeping with the dead at the Mutter Museum

PHOTOS: STEVEN M. FALK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Adam Cogswell and Jennifer Hagopian's main Mutter oddity was being there in the night, in the dark.
PHOTOS: STEVEN M. FALK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Adam Cogswell and Jennifer Hagopian's main Mutter oddity was being there in the night, in the dark.
Posted: November 13, 2013

EVERY horror movie I've seen has led me to this fateful night, to this dim alcove filled with strangers and stained wood, and to one unavoidable, terrifying fact.

In the movie "Sleepover at the Mutter Museum," I would play the journalist, the skeptic who thinks he's seen it all, cynical until the very moment I'm heading off to the bathroom, alone, and I'm decapitated by some undead skeleton swinging a scythe.

My character wouldn't make it.

My wife, Niki, is by my side and that's reassuring for the moment, but she's more open to the unknown than I am. In the movie, she might try to befriend some malevolent force and become possessed.

The so-called premise of this first-ever sleepover last Friday night at one of America's most peculiar museums of medical history was to offer visitors a unique perspective of the Mutter that few get to see during daylight hours, according to communications director J Nathan Bazzel. And raise a few dollars along the way.

"I'm the sick person who came up with this idea," Bazzel, dressed in pajama pants and a T-shirt, told us campers gathered in Hutchinson Hall.

Our night would begin with a screening of "The Sixth Sense," followed by a seance in the private library of Dr. Samuel L. Gross. He's the famed 19th-century Philadelphia surgeon immortalized in Thomas Eakins' painting "The Gross Clinic."

After contacting the spirit world, Bazzel would lead a flashlight tour of some of the exhibits, casting thin beams of light on walls of skulls and slices of Albert Einstein's brain.

On the second floor, usually off-limits to museum visitors, we'd stroll through Mitchell Hall and the Ashhurst Room, creaky and cavernous spaces decorated with portraits that would be at home in the House of Usher.

Finally, visitors would be led into "the stacks," the creepiest library in a city that's full of them. It's a musty maze of metal and glass that grips the hearts of even the most hardened Mutter employees every now and then.

Then we'd all go back to the exhibit room and try to sleep.

The real story, the one my overactive imagination is sure Bazzel's not telling us, is this horror movie we're all starring in.

It's simple, really: Modern medicine's progress presents a dilemma for the Mutter - a scarcity of new medical oddities to keep people coming through the doors. Bazzel's gone mad, his minions have joined him, and most of us are doomed to become specimens.

Hopefully my skull, somewhat large and alien-shaped, will be paired with clippings of my wife's rare, naturally pink hair. It will make it easier for our children when they come looking for us.

Dusk till dawn

There are about 20 of us spreading sleeping bags on the floor; some having driven from as far as Michigan, Maine and Connecticut to be here. People are introducing themselves and getting comfortable. Me, I'm trying to figure out who gets killed immediately, who fights till the end and who, if anyone, lives till dawn - or the sequel.

We're all watching "Sixth Sense" in our pajamas, and it isn't as scary as I remember, though Toni Collette still kills me as that tough South Philly mom, dabbing her big, weepy eyes with those great, glossy fingernails. She was robbed at the Oscars that year.

After the movie, we find seats around a large mahogany table in the Gross Library as Philadelphia magician Francis Menotti tries to make contact with its namesake, whose portrait hangs above the mantle. I'm on my third beer, the limit we're allowed for the night, and feeling open to the spirits.

Menotti's a true performer, playing up his "doubts" about the success of the seance, building suspense as he feigns surprise at each positive psychic test.

"I've never actually gone this far," he says.

Gross is nearby, Menotti claims as the lights go out. I'm hoping for a reassuring whisper from a friend I've recently lost. My wife knows this and squeezes my hand.

Bazzel is also a showman, a trained actor who's portrayed Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. After our seance, he leads us off into the museum with his flashlight. He's telling stories with a clear agenda to ramp up the terror until it's time to sleep.

He breathes life back into skeletons and skulls, the history and occasional mystery behind each one and how they came to be on display. Scary stuff, but not as frightening as the tale I'm spinning in my head.

It's during the flashlight tour inside the "bone room," where extra specimens are held and preserved, that I learn who will die first.

"You think anyone ever boned in the bone room?" the first victim says aloud to his giggling girlfriend.

In 'the stacks'

It's close to midnight now, and we're upstairs in the library, "the stacks" that house hundreds of thousands of books, some older than Philadelphia itself. Bazzel's talking about the rarity of it all, his flashlight pointed conspicuously behind him, down an endless, narrow corridor.

Then a dark figure walks across the aisle behind him in the distance and my heart jumps. My wife and one other woman see it, too, and the skeptic in me says that it's just an employee brought in to up the ante. But Bazzel won't admit it, no matter how much my wife questions him.

On the floor in the museum, I fall asleep next to the death casts of Chang and Eng Bunker, conjoined twins who fathered 21 kids between them. It's chilly, but I awake to bright lights at 7 a.m., alive, with my head fully intact.

Breakfast is in a room decorated with slaughterhouse blood paintings, but I power through and eat my French toast, thinking I need to get this movie down on paper. Maybe give M. Night Shyamalan a call.

"Well, we didn't lose anybody," security guard Gary Drake says, as guests head out after breakfast. "But I think I saw a ghost last night, heading toward the bathroom."


The Mutter Museum of the College of Physicians is at 19 S. 22nd St. It is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Admission is $15, $13 seniors and military, $10 students, ages 5 and under free. 215-563-3737, collegeofphysicians.org.


On Twitter: @JasonNark

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