“Where do you find your hats?” I ask Dr Paul Koudounaris, writer, art historian, photographer… or as he’d like me to describe him, bon vivant.
“Oh, you know. Wherever these things are found.” He replies, nonchalantly, his ringed fingers waving the question away as if the answer were blatantly obvious.
No, I don’t actually know, but it hardly matters. Speaking with Dr Paul (as his friends affectionately refer to him as) is like falling down the rabbit hole. Suddenly, you find yourself in a world turned upside down. Nothing makes sense, and yet everything makes sense. I find myself nodding as if I know exactly where he gets his hats now.
(Spoiler Alert: I don’t.)
I first met Dr Paul (pictured below) on a trip to Los Angeles when I attended the inaugural Death Salon. He was wearing a purple corduroy jacket and a grey silk shirt. Atop his head was an enormous feathered hat. He looked like an 18th-century highwayman might if he had been imagined by Tim Burton.
“To be honest, I look like a cross between Prince and Vlad the Impaler,” he says. He’s acutely self-aware for someone who is so lost in his own world. I can’t help but agree with his assessment.
While a chat with Dr Paul is a visual experience (the silk, feathers, and jewellery can be hypnotic at times), it is also a deeply cerebral affair. The author of Empire of Death and Heavenly Bodies has travelled the globe, and photographed some of the most macabre places that it has to offer. Naturally, his perspective on life differs from most.
“[My travels] have made me a more tolerant (and also patient) person,” he tells me. This I can believe. Dr Paul has travelled to over 70 different countries and encountered countless cultures and belief systems along the way. He’s sincere in his feelings about the places he’s visited, and the people he’s met along the way, many of whom are witch doctors, sorcerers, and monks.
“There are a couple sensations I invariably have when I am standing alone in a large charnel house, just me and all these generations upon generations of bone: timelessness and connectivity,” he says. In this instance, I cannot help but imagine him—a flash of bright colour, so animated and alive—standing against the monochromatic background of death.
‘Timelessness,” he continues, “because I stand in the present, stare into the past, and at the same time come face-to-face with my own inevitable future. Time collapses in a charnel house, and I think that is why they made such effective liminal spaces.”
And the other?
“Connectivity because these places really enforced upon me the lesson that no matter who we are and how different we seem to be, we are all part of and subject to a greater cycle—a cycle which in the end ensures that we all end up unified and largely undifferentiated.”
Dr Paul reminds me that no one (not even a medical historian) can ever fully understand the past, having not lived there. In the end, these places teach us more about ourselves than they do about the thousands of souls who make up their walls.
It is not the catacombs, however, that have taught Dr Paul his greatest lesson about the preciousness of life. “Several years back, I was run over by a gasoline truck. It went right into my car on the freeway. Terrible collision. I should have died,” he tells me, much to my horror.
Dr Paul not only survived the crash, but he walked away from it nearly unscathed…physically, that is. “That [crash] affected me much more than the charnel houses or other macabre sites ever did. It changed my life instantly. I forever after stopped taking things for granted. You can learn a lot by studying the dead, but you learn much, much more by almost becoming one of them.”
For a man whose personal and professional life has been shaped significantly by death, Dr Paul is far more interested in life, and the people he meets along the way.
“There was a monk in Italy who handcuffed me and made me go to striptease club with him. And then there was some guy with a Hitler moustache in Guatemala who tried to kill me with magic. I have had some very odd encounters.”
The weirdest story by far, however, involved Dr Paul dressed like a mummy, some Orthodox monks, and Russian President, Vladmir Putin. But that’s a tale for another day.
Of all the characters who pepper his stories, none is as fantastical as Dr Paul himself. Yet, he seems perplexed by the attention he often attracts.
“I got a message from a friend of mine who was travelling in the Czech Republic. She took a trip on a bus tour…and in their brochure, there was a picture of me, with a caption explaining that I was a typical breed of itinerant Czech artists and Bohemian personalities that wander the country.”
“My friend Lauryn has just informed me that my picture is on the back of some guy’s card. No idea where he even got that picture… it’s real weird. Why am I on this guy’s business card?!”
It seems everyone is fascinated with Dr Paul these days, not least of all, myself. And why shouldn’t they be?
His is a world made of witch doctors and curses; catacombs and jeweled skeletons; demonic cats and perverted ghosts. A world guided by a suspension of disbelief, and a willingness to engage with the esoteric.
“These skeletons and the belief systems that surround them are not like anything else I’ve ever come across… and I’ve come across some very interesting stuff. There is an elegant, macabre beauty to it all.”