Paul Koudounaris is an author and a photographer known for his compelling explorations of the macabre. His acclaimed tomes Empire of Death, Heavenly Bodies and Memento Mori serve as my scripture for the ever changing human relationship to death and the dead.

His jaw dropping depictions of bejewelled skeletons, catacombs, alternative burial sites and mummies allow dark minded individuals to vicariously travel into many corners of the underworld. I’ve attended several of his speaking appearances, including a memorable tour of my all time favorite museum exhibition, Mummies of the World.

Paul is an avid world traveller and he has recently relocated from his hometown of Los Angeles to Joshua Tree, California. I reached out to Paul to find out how his life has changed since the spread of Covid 19 and to get some perspective on death in the time of a pandemic.

Catholic altar financed by General George Patton in 1941 to serve the spiritual needs of troops who were training in the Mojave Desert to fight the Nazis in the Sahara. The altar is the last evidence of a camp where 25,000 men once lived.
Photo by Paul Koudounaris January 2020

Living in a remote desert community in Southern California, how has your daily life changed since the spread of Covid-19?

To be honest my life hasn’t changed much, not in comparison to city people. I inadvertently got out of Los Angeles at the right time. I would hate to be there at this time.

There are very few cases of the virus in the desert, and social distancing (I hate that term, can we call it what it actually is, antisocial distancing?) is kind of the norm out here anyway. Naturally, many things are closed because of county and state restrictions, but things here are otherwise unchanged.

What has changed I guess is my own perception. It really feels like I live on an island now. Things are mostly normal here, there is no panic, no hoarding. I can still do most of what I had been doing, but at the same time I can’t leave this area. I can’t go into LA for sure or Las Vegas, I can’t even really go into Palm Springs, these places are all completely shut down. But here, I’ve been doing a lot of exploring. I’ll go off road during the day and explore, photographing ghost towns, abandoned mines, animals.

And to those people who don’t get it (people in LA or NY who are furious that I’m not locked inside like they are) I just have to explain, look, you don’t understand, I’m in places where there might literally not be another person within 50 miles. Even if I had the virus, I wouldn’t be spreading it to anyone other than whatever ghosts inhabit the places I’m visiting. Well, all things considered I’m a lot luckier than most people I know.

But, your question was what has changed–this feeling like I live on an island, I’m safe out here, I have freedom out here, but I’m also confined. It’s an easy feeling. I’m lucky and I know it, but I’m also trapped.

Skulls in the Trunyan Cemetery in Indonesia where indigenous, pre Hindu natural burial rites are still practiced. Bodies decay under a sacred Banyan Tree, nourishing the earth that once nourished them
Photo by Paul Koudounaris January, 2020

You’ve written extensively about end of life practices and traditions in cultures around the world. Many contemporary Americans view death as taboo and offensive in the best of times. Are you observing any shifting attitudes now that there is enhanced fear of infection and contamination?

Major traumatic events always shift societal attitudes to some degree. It’s obviously too early to say to what extent the virus will change our perceptions of death and dying, but there is one notable aspect I can point out at this time. Part of the reason death had become so taboo in Western Culture is that it had become this sort of bogeyman. Society in the twentieth century had become focused on win-win-win, accumulate-accumulate, but whatever you achieved, death was always there at the end to make sure you lose and whatever you accumulate is for naught.

Well of course, it had always been that way, that’s the basis of memento mori, but the psychological effect had become more profound during the twentieth century, as we shifted further into a nearly completely secularized society, and as we continually counted on medical science to prolong us. Death became increasingly a kind of failure, a failure of the body to continue and the physicians to keep us alive. It really was the bogeyman, this force that haunted us from the shadows to foil us in the end.

One thing I have noticed about the panic over the coronavirus is that it’s the virus itself that has become the new bogeyman. People’s fear isn’t of death as a monster, but the virus as a monster. Death from coronavirus as far as I can tell is being perceived of as a natural outcome of the what the monster does. So the virus has kind of supplanted the bogeyman role that death has traditionally held. Of course, this is an observation on the moment. What impact, if any, it ultimately has, we will have to wait and see.

With social distancing in place traditional funerals cannot happen. What, if anything do we lose when we lose the funeral?

We lose the sense of ritual, and it was the ritual that provided the feeling of closure. And of course, this is sad because it will leave many people feeling at a loss. At the same time, though, maybe in the end there is a positive outcome to it. The funeral as we practice it is pretty archaic and, to speak frankly, has kind of been burned into out consciousness as a necessary step by forces whose motives I find suspect. Err, to explain what I mean, I’m talking about these big cemeteries companies, the Forest Lawns, that dominate that industry. Obviously they have a financial interest in ensuring that we never move on from the traditional funeral as a final rite and means of closure. But maybe, deprived of them, we will start to envision more modern ways of doing the same–ways that perhaps can prove just as effective emotionally, but without costing massive amounts of money. It’s possible, and maybe this will be a stimulus for us to re-imagine. But in the short term, yeah, it will be unfortunate and painful for many people.

Fiber Optic Whip Light Painting in Ord Belt Mine, Lucerne Valley, California
Photographed by Paul Koudounaris March, 2020

Though you don’t encourage people to flee into the outskirts of civilization, you have been spending a lot of time recently photographing abandoned mines. What drives you to visit and document these desolate locations?

It’s history. It’s the unique history of the area in which I live and in the state in which I was born. And these are places that few people go to, so there is a certain feeling, a certain bond, reaching out to the past and acknowledging something that has been abandoned and forgotten. In addition, it’s a challenge. You have to figure out where these places are and get to them. And problem solving, since you never know what you’re going to encounter en route–but trust me, there’s always something you didn’t expect. It’s also dangerous, which let’s face it, can be thrilling. And the photos aren’t really just documentation, they’re meant to be record of my own response to these places. So for the right person, it’s very compelling, and no, I definitely don’t recommend (see above, filed under “dangerous”).

What else are you working on right now? Have any of your projects been interrupted by your inability to travel?

My cat book is scheduled for the fall, no idea now if that will be delayed. I’ve been working on this much longer project, a book about the history of pet cemeteries, but since it still hasn’t been pitched and contracted the thing that delays it is my own sloth, not the virus. I’ve had a lot of lectures and so forth disrupted. And I had already decided that for the cat book, when it comes out, no gallery show of the images like for the other books. That decision was directly related to the spread of the virus, since it made coordinating something like that very difficult (it’s not just a photo show, the opening has to be timed to the book’s arrival).

Do you think people in remote and less populated places are experiencing the pandemic differently than people in urban environments? For example does social distancing come more naturally? Is there animosity towards outsiders? Are area stores stocked?

I’ve already covered much of this in my first answer, as I said, out here, distancing is the norm. Six feet? Out in the desert is someone is within 20 feet they’re invading your space.

But I’ll address the part of the question about hostility to outsiders. First of all, there always is some. You have to figure if you’re in an area that’s remote, people have come there to get away from people, so there will always be resistance to new ones coming around. But it took a particularly ugly turn recently. There was some hashtag and a logo some of the locals devised had telling people to get lost and not come here. I didn’t like it. OK yes, if someone has any potential symptom or if there is any reason to think a person might be exposed, they should not come here, and in fact they should not go anywhere, so it’s not just a desert thing. But if people are legitimately free from the virus, and they want to escape out here to wait it out, like a lot of people from LA were trying to do, they should not be met with hostility. They are basically refugees. They should be welcomed.

We’re all in this together as a society and a world, and the desert is far, far, far big enough to accomodate. Well, that’s my opinion. But it definitely isn’t the norm.

What role (if any) does art and the artist have at a time of crisis?

I don’t like the term art, it’s a loaded term and very slippery. But I’ll answer your question with something my friend Lindsey Fitzharris (medical historian, author of The Butchering Art) said to me. She said that she thinks at a time like this, it’s important for content creators to continue to create and continue to make what they do accessible. Because it helps, especially in the age of social media, to give the impression of normalcy. And also to help divert people’s attention away from panicked behavior. Anyway, I think she was wise in the opinion, and I think it might give a fair answer to your question.

I will say that, now that most of days involve going out and exploring, I’ve had a lot of people say they really appreciate the snippets of video that I put up on Instagram Stories, they appreciate being able feel like they’re along for the ride at least virtually.

What kind of art have you been consuming and why? Is this different than what you typically consume?

I had an answer I was about to type out and then I just nixed it. Because I realized I have in fact been drawn to a particular medium that I hadn’t in years. Now, whether it can be classified as a medium of “art” or not is up to you, I’ve already stated my general aversion to the term, but it’s . . . drive in movie theaters!

I hadn’t been to a drive in since I was a child. But they exist still and many are open even during the pandemic! Because, of course, you’re not actually interacting with people, you’re sitting in your own car, and the concession stands are all closed, etc., so it’s actually completely safe, you’re just driving in your own glass and steal cube, watching movies locked inside it, and then driving home.

I’ve been going to a bunch of drive in movies and really enjoying it. For those who are interested, in the Southern California, drive ins are currently operating in Riverside, Montclair, and San Diego. There’s also one still open in Glendale, Arizona (the one in Vegas is closed). Anyway, if anyone is stir crazy, give it a try. Bring a pizza.

Has your financial situation been affected by the spread of Covid-19?

Financial situation–I don’t think this has had any impact on it. Now, we’ll see upcoming. Does the book get delayed? Does it sell less than projected if people find themselves broke coming out of this? To be determined.

What can we do to support your work at this time?

No one needs to support me. Support yourselves, you deserve it.

Thank you to Paul for graciously doing this interview. Look for A Cat’s Tale by Paul Koudounaris and Baba the Cat on November 10, 2020. Follow him on Instagram @hexenkult.

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Dahlia Jane

Dahlia Jane is a wicked writer living in Los Angeles.  She writes about the dark arts scene, goth life and fascinations with the macabre.  Dahlia spends her free time obsessing about skulls, devouring true crime and occult books, sewing and making messes.

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