On the morning of July 15, 1997, Gianni Versace left his mansion on Miami’s Ocean Drive and walked to a nearby cafe to buy a coffee and magazines. Upon returning, he climbed the marble steps in front of his house and started to unlock the front gate when a serial killer named Andrew Cunanan shot him twice in the head, execution style. Versace died immediately.
Versace’s murder ― and the mystery surrounding the killer’s motive ― is the subject of the next installment in FX’s anthology series, “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story,” which premieres on Wednesday.
The show was filmed at the actual site of Versace’s killing ― Casa Casuarina, aka the Versace Mansion, the fashion designer’s home from 1992 until his death. The house is now The Villa Casa Casuarina, a luxury boutique hotel with 10 suites, a handful of event spaces and a restaurant called Gianni’s.
“The design of the villa has remained from when Gianni Versace had it as his personal home,” the hotel’s general manager, Chauncey Copeland, told HuffPost, noting that they’d only made minor additions in the suites to give guests some of the modern conveniences people expect at a hotel.
The history of the hotel is a major draw for guests. “Some guests are really Versace-philes wearing Versace head to toe,” Copeland said, adding that notable visitors have included a man who knew Versace and stayed at his house in the ’90s, and a famous football player who is “enamored with Versace” and drove a car designed by Versace.
For most who stay at The Villa Casa Casuarina, it’s an opportunity to experience the place where Versace lived. But it’s also a chance to visit the place where he died. Indeed, hundreds of people stop by daily to take photos outside the gates and sometimes place flowers on the infamous front steps.
For many tourists, famous death sites are major attractions. When Whitney Houston died at the Beverly Hilton in 2012, fans flocked to the hotel in search of her room. The hotel rooms where Janis Joplin and Gram Parsons died still draw tourists from around the world. While it might seem morbid to some, it’s a dream vacation for others.
Scott Michaels is someone who’s drawn to these types of spots. Michaels is the owner of Dearly Departed Tours, a Los Angeles-based company that offers tours focused on “Hollywood’s most notorious deaths and scandals.” He previously ran a similar company called Grave Line Tours, which carted tourists around LA in Cadillac hearses. In 1996, he left the company to live in England with his then-boyfriend, Irish comedian and TV personality Graham Norton, before returning to LA in 2002.
Michaels is also the creator of FindADeath.com, a website he started in 1999 to document the stories of notable deaths, beginning with Princess Diana’s.
“I’ve always gravitated toward the things that most people have aversions to,” Michaels told HuffPost. He said he became “desensitized” to morbid realities growing up in Detroit, where he lived near a common car crash site and also “knew a few people that had been murdered.”
Michaels is clearly not alone in his interests. FindADeath.com’s forum has more than 10,000 registered users. Dearly Departed Tours, which now boasts seven employees, offers one daily 15-person tour on weekdays and five to seven tours on Saturdays and Sundays.
“People who don’t understand it just assume what we do is rather ghoulish, and that’s all fine. I’m not trying to win them over.”
The main tour, called “The Tragical History Tour,” covers about 70 different locations across 25 miles. Attractions include the houses of old Hollywood icons like Mae West and Bela Lugosi, hotels where modern celebrities like John Belushi and Whitney Houston died and places associated with famous scandals like Hugh Grant’s 1995 arrest with a sex worker.
“We’re sort of just taking people to the news,” said Michaels, who also leads the weekend “Helter Skelter Tour” dedicated to the Tate-LaBianca murders and an annual February tour on the anniversary of Karen Carpenter’s death ― “The CarpenTour.”
“It’s all done really with love. People come because they’re big fans. We’ll go for a cheap joke, but we do love these people,” Michaels explained. “People who don’t understand it just assume what we do is rather ghoulish, and that’s all fine. I’m not trying to win them over.”
In addition to the tours, Dearly Departed also has an artifacts museum with items such as Mae West’s dentures, a tile from the pool where Brian Jones drowned, a piece of fireplace from Sharon Tate’s house and the car Jayne Mansfield was killed in. It’s all part of the phenomenon some people call “dark tourism” or “necro-tourism.”
Dearly Departed Tours attracts a mostly American, British and Australian demographic. “I would say it’s mostly women between 30 and 50 and gay men,” said Michaels. “Of course, there are exceptions. I’ve had 80th birthday parties. Teenagers who are terminally ill and people who’ve come back from cancer or have cancer and only have a few months to live ― they’ve taken my tour. It’s interesting, I’ve found that people who’ve had experiences with death don’t mind this stuff. It’s the people who are freaked out by it that do.”
What’s The Attraction?
Michaels believes the fascination with famous people’s deaths and the locations where they died is part of the general interest in their lives and careers. “These people were celebrities, and it’s just another facet of their life,” he said. “With regards to Versace, if I went to Miami, I’d go to the coffee shop and buy a newspaper and walk to his steps just like he did. It’s sort of like walking in the steps of these people but also giving you a perspective on them that people don’t generally have. It becomes part of the weird tapestry of their careers.”
But there’s more to it, he added. “People feel like they have an emotional connection to these people, their celebrities,” said Michaels. “I’ve stayed in room 105 at Highland Gardens Hotel where Janis Joplin died. For me, going to her hotel room and sitting where she died and listening to her music, there’s a real emotional trigger in there. That’s one of the things I like.”
“I live across the street from Paramount Studios, and sometimes I’ll take my portable DVD player and watch ‘Sunset Boulevard’ standing right where it happened,” said Michaels. “It’s a matter of immersing yourself into these locations in a weird way. These things have something you’ve always read about or have seen on television, but seeing them in real life, you get to become part of the story in a weird way.”
Michaels has visited the Chateau Marmont bungalow where John Belushi died and stayed in the room at the Cecil Hotel that housed Elisa Lam, the Canadian student who was found dead in the hotel’s water tower in 2013.
“There’s certainly a haunting feeling in those places,” Michaels said, adding that he’s never had any supernatural experiences in hotel rooms where people have died. “You’re there kind of just taking it in.”
The case of Lam’s hotel room represents another facet of so-called dark tourism, in which people visit places where noncelebrities have died or suffered. This can include one-off crime scenes and sites of massacres, wars and genocides.
What Psychologists Say
Psychologists have multiple explanations for the fascination with celebrity deaths and famous death sites.
“One motivation is to get a sort of intimate feeling of being close to the place where this person was probably at the rawest edges of experience,” Katherine Ramsland, a professor of forensic psychology at DeSales University, told HuffPost. “The sense is that something lingers there, not necessarily a ghost but some aura of the person is imprinted in the space. So if you go there to imbibe that, it’s because you’re trying to get this really intimate sense of a person that you admire and appreciate or want to be close with.”
“Celebrities are already larger than life types of people, so there’s a sense that their deaths are more significant in a way than an ordinary person’s.”
The other aspect is simply getting close to death, said Ramsland.
“Celebrities are already larger-than-life types of people, so there’s a sense that their deaths are more significant in a way than an ordinary person’s,” she explained. “They might think that the death of the celebrity in that place will linger enough for the fan to access the spirit or aura of that person and the feeling of what’s on the other side. It’s almost a primitive belief, a superstition, that if you go to one of these places, that somehow you’ll gain more knowledge or a deepening of your own experience of death.“
Ramsland has herself visited notorious murder sites, including the Lizzie Borden House and the Chelsea Hotel, where Sid Vicious was suspected to have murdered his girlfriend Nancy Spungen.
“It doesn’t matter what you believe or don’t believe, there is a sense that this is a significant place; I remember with the Sid Vicious one, there were a lot of rooms in the hotel, but there was distinctly something about it,” she recalled. “It’s all about perception. Obviously, there’s nothing objectively different once the rooms are cleaned out and celebrities’ bodies are removed. But there’s something different in the way we perceive it.”
This applies to the Versace villa as well, Ramsland said. “I’ve been down there and seen the steps. And they’re just ordinary steps, nothing unusual. The blood’s not there anymore. But there’s this sense that somehow I’ll be able to envision the blood still there, that it left an imprint. That was a violent horrible death that lingers for us, and even this many years later, they’re making a miniseries about it.”
Ramsland noted that the interest in the Versace story stems in part from the lack of understanding as to why Cunanan shot him. “But partly it’s also that a person who had it all could be taken down so fast,” she said. “People really resist the idea that a celebrity can so easily succumb to ordinary things like being shot or overdosing on drugs or dying by suicide. I think we really resist that because we’ve made celebrities into immortals or gods in a way.”
For obsessed superfans, there’s also a sense that they have an ownership stake in celebrities’ lives and deaths, Ramsland added.
“Celebrities can be kind of a higher power to some people. And what’s more intimate than a person’s death? Being part of that in some way makes people feel special.”
Toronto-based psychologist Oren Amitay believes that the motivation to stay in a place where a celebrity died stems from humans’ natural fascination with death and need to feel connected to something greater than ourselves. “Celebrities can be kind of a higher power to some people,” he told HuffPost. “And what’s more intimate than a person’s death? Being part of that in some way makes people feel special.”
It’s all an illusion, however, Amitay said. “To put that much stock into someone you don’t even know, to feel that you can be touched or made greater just by connecting to them on this illusory level, that’s somewhat sad,” he remarked.
Amitay said there are similarities and differences in the process of mourning or honoring a celebrity versus an actual friend or family member.
“When it’s someone you know, you’re honoring the shared memory and the face-to-face impact they had on you,” Amitay explained. “However, when you think of celebrities, Michael Jackson, for example, had an impact on people by singing the soundtrack to their teenager years and things like that. It’s a different sort of impact but an impact nonetheless. Paying tribute is almost like saying thank you.”
Still, mourning ― whether it’s a loved one or a stranger ― is a self-interested process, Amitay, added. “People are doing it for their own healing. They’re certainly not helping the person who’s passed. They’re finding a way to process their own grief, which might mean going to the place where they passed or playing their famous song 302 times because that was their favorite number.”
Of course, celebrities who have died have also left behind loved ones. Shortly after Whitney Houston’s death, her mother reportedly wanted to visit the hotel room where she died as a way to find closure and make a spiritual connection with her daughter. Later reports, however, suggested she did not want to sleep at the Beverly Hilton.
Is It Healthy?
Amitay said the interest in staying in a place where a famous person died isn’t necessarily unhealthy.
“Most things in life exist on a spectrum. It’s about moderation,” said Amitay. “If you’re on the extremes and feel your life is empty and lacking purpose without that, then you’ve got a problem,” he said. “But if you just have a passing interest or think, ‘Hey, this is kind of cool,’ there’s nothing wrong with it.”
Ramsland said that harboring a strong obsession is always unhealthy, but having so-called ‘morbid curiosity’ is not necessarily so. In fact, she takes issue with calling interest in darker things “morbid.”
“I don’t think it’s really necessary morbid to be curious about death. It’s something we all have to face. I think it’s just curiosity with the unknown,” she said.
“I’ve found that people who’ve had experiences with death don’t mind this stuff. It’s the people who are freaked out by it that do.””
Michaels told HuffPost many people have accused him of being “sick.” He has an email file called his “Vile File,” where he archives the death threats and calls for him to be investigated. “People who understand understand,” he said. “People that don’t never will.”
In response to these messages, Michaels often points to his company’s more philanthropic deeds, like raising money to mark graves for famous people who were placed in unmarked plots, sometimes because their loved ones didn’t have the means to buy gravestones.
“I like to say to these people, ‘How much money have you donated to Justice for Homicide Victims, or how many graves have you marked?’ That’ll shut them up. I like to think we’re making it good karmically by doing these other things. We’re not doing it because we feel like we should. I feel like it’s just a nice thing to do.”
“When I was doing Grave Line back in the ’90s, we’d pass Jimmy Stewart’s house, and he came out and poked his head in the hearse more than once and said hello to people,” Michaels recalled. “The day Jimmy Stewart died, we were passing his house like we did every day. But the press was there this time, and we got labeled these evil sickos. But Mr. Stewart used to really like us.”
“Now the world has sort of jumped on the bandwagon,” he added. “There’s not a single tour company that doesn’t pass Michael Jackson’s house where he died.”
The Hotelier’s Perspective
While some hotels where celebrities have died embrace interested fans like Michaels, others reject being associated with famous deaths.
“The hotel where Janis Joplin died is not a dive. It’s a cool little hotel. If you say ‘I want Janis’ room,’ they’ll be happy to rent it to you and talk about her,” said Michaels. “If you go to the Chateau Marmont and say you want John Belushi’s bungalow, they might quiz you, but if you’ve got the money, they’ll rent it to you.”
“Some people are a bit more precious about it, but it’s down to money more than anything else,” he continued. “If you go to the Beverly Hilton where Whitney Houston died, they’ll brush you off. They don’t want that kind of stigma.”
A spokeswoman for the Beverly Hilton told HuffPost that “out of respect for the family and fans of Whitney,” all original contents and furnishings of the room where she stayed have been removed and the space “thoroughly refreshed.”
“The Beverly Hilton will remember Whitney Houston for the joy she brought to her many fans,” she added. The room is reportedly back in circulation with a different number.
Still, Michaels said it’s easy to figure out which room was Houston’s, based on the other hotel floors. “Same with Chris Cornell when he died in a casino in Detroit,” he said. “It’s really easy to find it, but they don’t want to be associated with that.”
In the case of the Versace villa, Copeland told HuffPost that people are generally aware that it’s the location of Versace’s death. “We do get people who make inquiries, but that’s not as often. People are more interested in his legacy as a designer and his home,” he said. “We don’t get too many people who are focused on it being a place where he was killed.”
The most popular room requests are Gianni Versace’s suite and his sister Donatella Versace’s preferred suite, the Venus suite. Copeland said one or two people have suggested the property might be haunted, but the hotel has received no reports of fantastic phenomena.
“I know there’s that whole subculture where people like to go to places of famous murders, but we really haven’t seen that. If we’ve had someone like that, they’ve really kept it to themselves for the most part,” he said. “Maybe after the show, we will.”
Michaels believes more people have felt comfortable embracing the weird and morbid parts of popular culture over time, thanks in part to the internet.
“Thirty years ago, people were buying these True Detective magazines and slipping them into their grocery carts because they didn’t want anyone to see that they were interested. When Elvis’ dead body was on the National Enquirer in 1977, people would buy it, but they’d hide it,” he said. “Nowadays there are TV networks and primetime movies devoted to deaths and murders. It’s become really mainstream.”
He also hopes that people will continue to change their attitudes toward those who are interested in the darker side of tourism and celebrity culture.
“We’re not ghouls. I won’t say there’s not a ghoulish element to it ― there can be. But we’re not goths; at least I’m not. The people who take my tour aren’t doing it to say, ’Ooh, aren’t I dangerous” or impress anybody. They’re doing it because it’s their own interest.”
Michaels added, “I don’t understand stamp collecting. This is my thing. I don’t get what makes other people nerdy. But this is what makes me nerdy.”