People Don’t Know What True Horror Is: An interview with Joseph Scott Morgan

By Wesley Stokes

Joseph Scott Morgan worked for 17 years as a forensic death investigator for law enforcement agencies in New Orleans and Atlanta. In his new book, Blood Beneath My Feet: The Journey of a Southern Death Investigator, Morgan relates gruesome tales of true crime scene experiences while weaving in parallels from his own (often dark) adolescence in Louisiana. After so many years of performing autopsies and doing one of the most horrific and traumatic—and generally unrecognized—jobs, Morgan was diagnosed with severe PTSD and forced into retirement from fieldwork. Since then, he has gained a tenured position as an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice and Forensics at North Georgia College and State University. He is considered one of the leading experts on coroner training and investigative forensics in America.

Blood Beneath My Feet serves the reader similarly as a trashy checkout-line gazette would—that is, to mystify and shock with unbelievable stories while drawing one in even further with a desire for more. The difference is that these stories are true, and no sensationalism could compare. It’s a wonder more people in his field haven’t written tell-all books either as therapy or talk show material. Regardless, it is a great book utilizing traditions in Southern storytelling to appall and amaze. It is contemporary Southern gothic at it’s best.

Morgan will present his book and tell tales as part of the Room 220 LIVE PROSE reading series at 7 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 22, at 725 St. Ferdinand St. (a private residence). He will be joined by Adam Parfrey, publisher of the venerable Feral House press and author of the recently released book Ritual America: Secret Brotherhoods and their Influence on American Society. As usual, the event is free and complimentary libations will be on hand.

Room 220: There’s the saying, “I’ve seen it all,” and I think in your case that very well could be true. Early on, when you had to deliver the news of a death to someone’s loved ones, for instance, what stopped you from quitting and doing something—anything—else?

Joseph Scott Morgan: This harkens back to my Southernness. I think Southern males have this ideal that goes back generations. We are the ones that are going to trudge on into the maelstrom. We are the ones that are going to go up against incalculable odds. It’s born into us. We view ourselves as saviors in a kind of queer way. We’re willing to take on the tasks that others aren’t willing to take on. This inhibited my exit for so long. The rebel in me had nailed my feet to the floor.

I would sit outside of folk’s houses and think, “I’ve got to go do this … again.” It never changed, from the first time I did it to the last time I did it. You would rather eat a bowl of your own vomit than tell folks that their loved ones are dead. Doctors tell people in a hospital, but I was going into their homes. That’s the place where you feel most safe and at ease, and the last thing you expect is someone to show up at your door and destroy your world.

Rm220: You tell a few stories in the book where cops on the scene make light of deaths. It’s a way to cope with seeing this kind of thing so regularly. Several times, you mention how other death investigators are hardened because they have to be. Is it common in your field for people to have PTSD like you did?

JSM: I think that it’s more common than not. But there is a big delineation between cops and people that do what I did. Cops are going to see things where levity can be found and some joy can come out of it. When I recovered long-dead skeletal remains in Texas and had to tell a family, “I found your daughter,” there was no joy in that. For us, as death investigators, it’s a different animal from any other profession, even cops. Nobody else walks the road that we do. You know that you’re working with drug addicts. You know that you’re working with guys that are sexually addicted just to numb themselves. You’re working with alcoholics, people that have tried to commit suicide, and people that at any moment could walk in and blow everyone in the office away because they’re so damaged. No one takes care of us. No one has ever taken care of us or offered to take care of us, and we do one of the most critical jobs that there is, and that the public is unaware of. You reflect to Monty Python and the scene where they walk through town and say, “Bring out your dead!” Think if that’s how life really was. Imagine the screams from the general public asking why we just let dead bodies lay in the street. People don’t think about where the dead bodies go—except showing up at the funeral home and saying, “Oh she looks so good!”

Portrait of the artist as a young death investigator (from “Blood Beneath My Feet”)

Rm220: I think the idea of horror for a lot of people is very shallow. Popular movies instill the idea that it’s always the most over-the-top, absurd things that threaten us, like dolls coming to life, masked killers that can’t be stopped, and invisible demons. But in your book it’s the uncanniness that’s much scarier than any of that. You tell a story about a man who’d died in a bathtub and was found long enough after that he’d more or less been melting in the water. While that’s both frightening and disgusting, I think the horror was in going to the apartment below and finding a stream of it leaking from the ceiling above into a boiling pot of red beans and rice.

JSM: People don’t know what true horror is. I think back on cases I worked, and I think about the crack-addicted couple in New Orleans that had two kids, a two year old and a five year old. The two year old weighed twelve pounds and the five year old was attempting to keep them both alive. They were eating mop strings and dirty diapers. We actually found diaper remnants in the dead baby’s belly. That’s horror, man. That’s true horror. People numb themselves to that sort of thing. No one remembers those two kids other than people like me, or someone who worked that case with me.

I meet people that come to me and they want to be horror fiction writers. They want to pick my brain and they want to know what true horror is like. The horror for me was always very boring if you compared it to the red carpet crowd. Horror, for me, was always the kind of solitary abandonment that death leaves behind. There’s kind of a void.

I had a lady not too long ago that saw this interview with me on YouTube, where someone asked if I had ever seen a ghost. And I think I said, “No, I don’t believe in ghosts. I’ve seen thousands of dead bodies and I’ve never seen a ghost. I’m only haunted by death.” Of course, then this woman tried to prosthelytize me. She sent me an e-mail that said, “I just want you to know about my lord and savior Jesus Christ that has given me ever-lasting peace, and there is more to this life than death in this world, and I hate that you don’t believe in God.” And I said, “I never said I don’t believe in God!” How did you extrapolate that?

It’s not that I don’t believe in God. I don’t have to have phantoms to haunt my waking day to remind me that there is a God and death. If you want to go on a spiritual journey with me, my sister, come visit the morgue with me. I’ll put you in touch with spirituality real quick! The Christian community is always looking for signs and wonders. Trust me, baby—you’ve got signs and wonders around you all the time. I don’t need someone foaming at the mouth and impaling themselves with a cross—I can go down to the projects and I can show you evil. I can show you the evil in the mother that chose to go off and suck her boyfriend’s dick and left her four kids at home, including an eighteen month old, for almost eight hours. And she didn’t take time to put the backside of the crib on and the baby rolled over and inverted against the wall and the mattress and suffocated to death. That’s a fucking Freddy Kruger to me, bro! We don’t want to have an open conversation about the monsters among us unless it’s someone like Jeffrey Dahmer.

I ask people that I teach in my Introduction to Criminal Justice class, “How many of you have heard of JonBenét Ramsey?” How many books have been written about this little princess? I think it’s something like twenty-six. I say, “Well you know what? I had a lot of little black girls that died in New Orleans and they made it through one news cycle and no one ever gave a shit about them.” Why should I care about JonBenét Ramsey or Laci Peterson? I’m being told that I should care about them by the media daily. But what about the daughter that kept her mother locked up in the basement of the house and occasionally fed her some bread and water and received her mother’s welfare and disability check? Her mother had breast cancer so bad that it had actually eroded through her chest wall and you could see her lung through her ribs. Her mother had been living—not dead—but living with a huge hole in her chest. That’s horror.

People get their teeth filed to look like vampires. They want to warm up to death. A few years ago in Atlanta, we had a girl that came to us through an internship. She was at the top of her class at Tulane, of all places. She walked in and her skin was as white as paper, black mascara on, long black hair, fishnet black gloves, a black miniskirt, and black leather shoes—and she is our intern for the summer. We had only interviewed her on the phone, and had a perfect 4.0 and her professors had recommended her. So we took her aside and told her that, if she planned on working with us that summer, “You will wear your hair pulled back, you will not wear black, and you will wear either blue jeans or chinos and a Polo shirt to work in.” And it was like we had just pissed in her mouth or something. Can you imagine if we had taken her out on a death scene or taken her into a family home? Morticia here? Why would we bring her into a family’s home when they’re going through the worst time in their lives? And then she told us, “I just want you to know that I speak regularly to the dead.” So I said, “Oh really? Well I do too. I do it with maggots crawling all over my hands and families screaming at me. I talk to them a lot.” And I hope that she’s out somewhere as a cultural anthropologist or something. Hopefully she’s not out digging up bones.

Rm220: You mention that, when you started working as a death investigator, Miami Vice was this pop-culture counterpart that you saw people in the field kind of emulate. Now it would be shows like CSI that sort of glorify detective work, with all the trauma and real science involved. Do you think this is a trend that will go on to cause problems in the long run?

JSM: I teach in a forensic program now, and some kids will actually mention CSI when speaking to me. They quickly find that those are the worst three letters to speak to me. Many bring up The First 48 or Autopsy on HBO. So much of that stuff in those shows is stuff that we don’t have access to. And, certainly, if you’re out in east Egypt, you don’t have access to virtual autopsy. You can’t see a simulation of pulling the bowels out like in that Frontline show, “Post Mortem.” That’s not reality. I try to ground my students in reality if they choose to go down that road. I hope that many of them don’t choose to go down that road.

I think that the public has been harmed the most by the evolution of programs in media, what their expectations are of what the police can do. It’s like finding out there’s no Santa Claus. You don’t have these resources and you never will.

Rm220: You cover a spectrum of deaths in your book and, as appalling as they were, I still am intrigued to read more. I was disappointed in reaching the end and knowing that you had a lot more stories to tell. Do you have any plans to write another book?

JSM: I’m on the second chapter right now. The premise of the new book is a follow-up memoir. Grant Jerkins is a New York Times best-selling author who writes really dark fiction. Somehow, we got hooked up, and he did a review of my book and he claimed that I had created a new genre, ‘Mem-Noir.’ He didn’t want to call it a memoir because it’s so Southern gothic that he said only a handful of people have had these kinds of experiences to write it. I’ve got enough material to continue to talk about this in a Southern gothic way. I’m still seeing how Blood Beneath My Feet is going right now.