Zak Bagans Opens James Dean Exhibit
The Discovery+ star uses more than a little fakery to fabricate a disappointing exhibit on the cheap after spending $382,000 for its star attraction.
This week, Zak Bagans officially opened his James Dean exhibit at the Haunted Museum in Las Vegas, four months after it opened for previews. Bagans timed the opening to coincide with Dean’s 91st birthday, just as the preview had been timed to the anniversary of Dean’s death. As part of the publicity rollout, the San Francisco Chronicle’s website, SFGate.com, ran a major feature on Dean’s death that, by sheer coincidence, also promoted Bagans’s Haunted Museum and his purchase of the surviving transaxle assembly from the Porsche in which Dean died for $382,000 last year.
As part of the feature story, SFGate published a photograph of the exhibit. It was … something.
Given how much money Bagans, the host of scripted and unscripted ghost shoes on the various Discovery platforms, paid for the transaxle assembly, I would have expected something more. Given that Bagans promised that the exhibit would celebrate Dean’s life, not just linger on his death, the grotesque fixation on his demise is a disappointment.
As we look around the “exhibit”—rather, the transaxle assembly, a terrible bust, and a collage—we note the life-sized photo of the crashed Porsche, but also the lack of any obvious narrative or context. It’s just a picture of car crash and a chunk of wreckage, mounted like some type of automotive crucifix. The adjacent wall is still worse. It contains what at first glance seem to be news clippings about Dean’s death. But on closer inspection, they are not. The New York Times front page with the banner headline about Dean’s death is a fake. The real Times ran a spall interior piece on the actor’s death the day after. Another clipping is the cover of W. Scott Poole’s book on Maila Nurmi, TV’s Vampira, which has only a tangential connection to Dean. A bit of the 1956 tabloid story alleging Vampira had witchy powers she used to curse Dean appears, as does an alleged newspaper story claiming that Little Bastard killed “more” people. Since the car’s parts allegedly killed just two others besides Dean, it’s not clear who the “more” are. The text appearing in the article on the wall is word-for-word copied from a blog post last updated in 2020. Bagans’s unconvincing mockup is an obvious fake.
All of the clippings, arranged to look shredded and burned, appear superimposed over broken pavement bearing skid marks, with Vampira’s visage presiding over the whole. It’s a grotesque collage, both promoting a sexist bit of 1950s rumormongering and all but celebrating Dean’s death.
It’s also terrible both as a museum exhibit and an alleged accounting of the paranormal. The lack of context for the display—or any explanation—is disturbing, but likely due to the museum’s preference to have live guides relate spooky stories for context-free curiosities. As a supernatural exhibition, it lacks imagination. Many supernatural stories have been told about James Dean, so why choose the most obviously fake one, except that it’s the first thing Bagans found in a Google search? A richer exhibit might have presented a range of supernatural stories about Dean, from alleged posthumous psychic contact to, ghostly apparitions, to, yes, supposedly haunted car parts, and asked a serious question about why so many people—thousands, by one count—think they have had supernatural experiences with the dead star. The only real competition is the rash of 1980s sightings of Elvis in 7-Elevens.
But of course Zak Bagans doesn’t have a serious interest in the many uses of the supernatural in society, nor in James Dean. I’d call him a carnival barker, but in the old days the people that ran the freak shows put more effort into their exhibitions. P. T. Barnum would roll over in the Cardiff Giant’s grave.