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Death Takes a Holiday

There are many ways to wind up in a hearse. Here are a few.

So there he was, Eric Pabst, sitting behind the wheel of his hearse in a cemetery, wearing black jeans, black shirt and black boots, when a black bird flew in the window.

"It came in the passenger side, bounced off the windshield, flew in front of me and my friend a while, then flew out my side," he says.

"Really?"

Dressed to kill: Zach Helm and his hearse.
John Johnston
Dressed to kill: Zach Helm and his hearse.

"Yeah."

"That's too weird."

Everyone nods.

When you wear black jeans, black shirts and black boots and drive a hearse -- as these guys do -- weird shit happens.

"I've got one," says Jason.

A while back, he was leaving Toys 'R' Us when he saw a flock of ravens perched on the top of his hearse.

"As I walked up, I counted them," he says. "Thirteen. And as I approached, they just sort of flew away..."

"Whoa."

Another time, Eric was driving down the highway when a black bird swooped out of nowhere and headed straight for him. He braced for the impact, but nothing happened. The bird didn't hit the grill. It didn't hit the road. It didn't fly into the sky.

"It just...like...disappeared..."


Zachary Byron Helm is a skinny, articulate DJ from Englewood who collects Halloween toys, wears lipstick, combs his hair into a Mohawk, works part-time tech-support jobs and in his spare time makes novelty cakes, such as the chocolate litterbox Tootsie Roll surprise.

He's also president and founder of the Denver Hearse Association. Despite a few detours here and there, the course of his love affair with the casket coach has been has been fairly true, and it's representative of the relationship the other 35 members have with their rides.

"I like attention," says Zach, sitting back with Eric and Jason in a living room decorated with black velvet drapes, blue Christmas lights, a toy skull and a wooden coffin. "I don't like to think of myself as an egomaniac, but attention is definitely the one thing these cars get. They are pretty much up there on the attention scale."

In 1994, Zach was eighteen. He was also pale, imaginative and slightly warped. After such life-altering discoveries such as the Cure, Ghostbusters and Doc Martens, he would sit in his bedroom listening to industrial metal and "thinking about ways to be goth."

"And I thought, 'Man, wouldn't it be cool to drive a hearse?'" he recalls.

So he spent the next month calling every mortuary in Colorado. But everywhere he looked, he ran into "a dead end." He even called mortuaries in Illinois and Michigan. He was beginning to get really depressed the night he headed home along Highway 36.

"Then I saw it," he says. "At first I thought it was this big-ass station wagon, but as I got closer, I thought, 'Wow!' This was the first time I had ever seen a hearse up close. So I followed the guy for miles. I circled him, I stared at him, and I probably freaked him out, because it was three in the morning and I was the only car on the road. I went berserk after that."

Eventually, Zach tracked down a 1973 Cadillac Superior in Evergreen for $1,600. His parents didn't mind. His dad was morbid in his own way ("guns and true-crime stuff"), and his mom was used to it. His dad had even considered buying a hearse to relocate the family from Florida to Colorado ("because of the storage space"), but his mom had nixed the idea in favor of a station wagon. And after a few months behind the wheel of his own two-ton, 22-foot-long deathmobile, Zach began to see her reasoning.

"It was like driving a normal car with three or four cars welded on behind it," he says. "It took too much gas, there were too many mechanical problems, and there was too much washing involved. It was just too overwhelming."

So he sold the Caddy to a fellow goth named Jeff Brown (who later helped form the Denver Hearse Association). But after a few weeks, Zach longed for the days of velvet, chrome and formaldehyde. He would own another hearse if it killed him.

On Halloween night in 1996, he got his chance.

A rap station had inherited a '64 Oldsmobile hearse from its punk-rock predecessor and decided to raffle off the coach at Elitch Gardens. Zach raced over but missed the raffle by minutes. So he left a note on the windshield of the hearse asking the new owners if they wanted to sell it.

Three days later he got a call from a woman who had been entered in the contest by a cousin. And she said: "$3,500."

The Olds was shorter, lighter and more maneuverable than its Cadillac cousins, and it had a V-8 muscle engine that scored big points with Zach. But the interior was also trashed, the engine rattled, and the car had a mysterious habit of dying when it slowed under 30 mph. (Zach later learned from an Erie cop that the problem was a misfiring kill switch.)

Zach was intrigued, but broke, and said, "No thanks."

Several days later, and for a week after that, the woman's son -- Jesus -- kept pestering Zach to have a look. Finally, the woman herself called and begged, "Just come down and take it for a test drive." So Zach pocketed his $1,000 tax refund check and drove to a traditionally Catholic and traditionally Hispanic neighborhood in north Denver.

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