Death Takes a Holiday
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.
"That's too weird."
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..."
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.
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.
"When I got there, I could just see it," he recalls. "There were no cars parked around it. There were no kids playing around it. No one wanted anything to do with it."
Especially the woman.
"I'll give you $1,000," Zach offered.
"Can you drive it out tonight?"
And so Zach hauled the hearse home and proceeded to dump $8,000 into it over the next four years. He replaced the engine, transmission, electrical system, seats, tires, rims and upholstery. He also added a few personal touches, such as lavender racing stripes, lavender neon, blue police lights, a 500-watt stereo, a siren featuring animal sounds, a glowing purple skull hood ornament and a plastic storage tube resembling a missile launcher.
"I call her Abby," Zach says. "After the singer in KMFDM. I tried other names, but Abby seemed to fit. I love her. I'd like her to take me to the cemetery when I die. That's my ideal plan."
Even so, there are times when he gazes wistfully across the parking lot at his old '73 Caddy, which his buddy now calls "Charlotte."
"I still have issues with that," Zach admits. "Everything has worked out for the best, but there is still heartache involved. If I could get her back, I would. You never love one like you love the first one."
Speaking of love: Freud should have driven a hearse, Zach says.
"I think we all agree that there's some kind of sexual fantasy thing going on here," he explains. "I mean, these are big, huge, wide cars. They're bigger than anyone else's, and everyone knows it. There's definitely some quasi-sexual relationship here. And not exclusively to men, either."
"It's true," Eric says. "To some women, those exhaust pipes start looking really good after a few beers."
"My car attracts more stares than any other car on the road," Zach continues. "I've been next to Ferraris before, and people aren't looking at the Ferrari, they're looking at the black thing next to it."
"My girlfriend always says, 'Can we go for a ride?'" Jason adds.
"My girlfriend and I have parked most places you can park a hearse, and we've done most everything you can do in one," Zach says.
"I've had sex in a hearse, in a casket and in a cemetery," Eric grins. "But not in a casket in a cemetery. We did it in my driveway."
"Actually, caskets aren't that great," adds Jason, who carries a chrome and black coffin in the rear of his car. "They're not very big. It's kind of awkward."
"To be truthful, the front seat probably gets the most action," Zach admits. "Because of the casket rollers."
"Yeah, the casket rollers," Eric groans.
"You have these big chrome-and-rubber rollers in the back to slide the caskets on," Zach explains. "And no matter how many blankets you pile on top of them, you still have casket rollers pinching you in the ass."
"And if you think carpet burn is bad, try a casket roller," Eric says. "A carpet burn has nothing on a casket roller."
"It's really painful, and it pretty much ruins the mood," Zach agrees.
"But the sex is great," Eric says. "It's dark, and it's mysterious, and it's really different. And the fact that you're doing it where a dead body used to be makes it exciting. It's something you have to try at least once."
"Just make sure the windows are tinted," Zach says.
Speaking of women: "Have you seen that Stephen King movie, Christine?" Jason asks.
Owning a hearse is a lot like that. Take his 1975 Cadillac Superior Three-way, for example. "I have to watch what I say around her," explains Jason, who prefers to use only his first name. "If I say anything bad around it, it will get back at me. It won't start. Or if I really want to go somewhere, it will break down just before I go."
Eric's hearse is like that, too.
He recently bought a 1967 Cadillac Superior, which he calls Jezebelle "because she came from Louisiana and because [Jezebel] is supposed to be this real bad lady in the Bible." As soon as Jezebelle arrived, he put her in the garage and moved his other '67 Caddy, which he calls "The Black One," into the driveway. But the next morning, the Black One refused to start.
"It was running fine up to that point, but then it wouldn't work for like a week," Eric says. "It was totally jealous. It was pissed off at me for buying Jezebelle. But I've never given it a decent name, either, so it was pissed off at me for that, too. Now the alignment is going bad."
"These cars are definitely hellish bitch goddesses," Zach concurs. "If I buy a hearse and it's a junker, no problem. But if Abby thinks it's nicer than she is, there's definitely friction: instantaneous mechanical problems."
Which helps explain why most club members have black fingernails: It's not just nail polish.
"We've been screwed into becoming auto mechanics," Zach explains. " If you own a hearse, you work on it. Period."
Before Zach and his buddies wrapped their bony fingers around them, most of the hearses had languished for years in storage yards, alfalfa fields and dusty warehouses. Gasoline distilled in the tanks. Hoses clogged. Seats rotted. Gaskets froze. It took an act of God -- not to mention the cunning of Dr. Frankenstein -- to get many of them started. And since most are custom-made and at least thirty years old, spare parts are practically nonexistent. Even rarer, club members say, is a mechanic with a straight face.
"No one takes you seriously," says Zach, who has owned eight hearses in six years. "They don't realize that we drive these cars every day. I used to take my car to the mechanic's once a month. I was writing detailed notes describing what was wrong and taping them to the steering wheel, but it wasn't getting fixed. I was spending $200 to $300 to have someone screw up my car, so I figured I might as well screw it up myself for free."
Which he did.
"Oh, yeah. I'd go in there and just pull things off," Zach recalls. "I'd look for the offending part spraying the offending fluid and then call someone to tell me how to turn the wrench the right way. I've caused an electrical fire. I've dropped a drive train on my hand. I've been hit by the back door several times. I've taken out two Cadillac engines. I've taken out two Oldsmobile engines. I've retrofitted things. I've matched electrical fittings that don't match. And on every repair, I've lost some portion of my flesh. Very seldom have I had a repair that did not involve bleeding."
But don't say that around Jason's hearse.
"Oh, no," Zach says. "She might take that as a cue to quit running."
This has nothing to do with birds, but Zach does have a weird thing with cops. At least once a month, as regular as the full moon, he gets pulled over.
"It's never anything serious," Zach says. "Most aren't sure what to make of me."
One Lakewood cop followed him for miles before Zach finally slowed to the curb and saved the officer the trouble.
"All he kept saying was, 'This is really unnerving. This is really unnerving,'" Zach recalls.
And Zach does his best not to disappoint.
"I make a point of keeping my registration and insurance forms in back so they have to follow me around back and watch me open the rear door," Zach says. "And they always say, 'You're not going to pull out an ax or a machine gun and mow me down, are you?' And I feel like saying, 'If I was, do you think I'd tell you?'"
Cops don't seem to realize that anyone driving a black-and-lavender hearse with flashing blue lights and a glowing purple skull is probably the most law-abiding citizen on the road. "Our cars are not exactly inconspicuous," Zach points out.
But most of the time, the cops are simply curious, bored and looking for a story to tell the boys over a few doughnuts.
"One guy told me, 'You know, this is the most interesting thing I've seen all day,'" Zach recalls. "And he started the morning with a triple homicide."
The members of the Denver Hearse Association know they have a certain reputation to uphold. And so they've detonated the occasional television set now and then. And they've been seen drag racing through the suburbs from time to time. And at least once a year, they unleash the hard candy.
"We call it 'The Pelting of the Innocents,'" Zach explains.
Every Halloween, he and the other men and women in black descend on the nearest Target and clean the shelves of the biggest, cheapest, most aerodynamic candy they can find. Then they head in single-file funerary procession to places like Larimer Square.
"Then we basically throw it at people," Zach says.
"It's like a candy fight," Eric concurs. "A drive-by with candy."
"But we don't do that anymore," Zach backtracks. "We figured it would be bad press."
"And people started throwing them back."
"I got pelted in the head with a Jolly Rancher pretty hard once."
"Now we give them out," Zach concludes. "We just lean out of the window and toss them underhanded. And we use softer candy."
"Like Gummi Bears," Eric adds.
When the club first began in 1996, it was essentially just Zach and Jeff and a few other mischievous goth kids whose idea of recruitment was chasing down other hearses on the highway. But now there's a Web site (Denverhearse.com), hearses of every style and color, and a membership roster featuring retired cops, computer programmers and suburban daddies.
"Most of us are just into the cars," Eric says. "They're shocking. They're unique. They're works of art. They come in really handy when you're moving. And you can take them camping, too. It's just really cool to meet people from different backgrounds who wouldn't normally associate with each other."
Besides the occasional Jolly Rancher firefight, they associate with one another at drive-in horror movies, at the annual Emma Crawford casket race in Manitou Springs (they placed last in the most recent race), and at Easter egg hunts at the Littleton cemetery. And although Jason worships Satan, the rest are basically a bunch of middle-class white dudes from the suburbs.
"We have a couple of women, but that's pretty much it," Zach agrees. "All of the members are off-kilter to a certain degree, but I'd have to say this club has probably among the most well-adjusted people I know. We're just out to have a good time."
Then again, if there were ax-murdering, serial-killing, blood-drinking, flesh-eating people in his club, would he say so publicly?
"No," Zach says.
But you can say this, Eric adds: "We're available for parties."
"If there is free stuff or money involved, you can always count on us," Zach says.
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