The Twin Sisters Bonded by Their Death Obsession

An interview with Tonya Hurley and Tracy Martin, founders of the Morbid Anatomy Museum.

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I am an only child. As a kid, I constantly daydreamed about having a twin like Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen (who I was obsessed with because we all share the same birthday). Sure, I was a Gemini, but without a twin, it just wasn't enough. I yearned for the kinship I imagined only sisterhood could offer.

Tonya Hurley and Tracy Martin, the founders of Brooklyn's Morbid Anatomy Museum, are the living embodiment of my childhood dreams. Tonya and Tracy's relationship is one forged by creativity, collaboration, and all things macabre. The first time that I met them was during my first month working at Morbid Anatomy, and within seconds I could tell that they were a singular team. Together they've made their aspirations into a reality: they moved to New York City from small-town Pennsylvania, landed jobs working for one of their favorite record labels, collaborated on short films (that would later inspire Tonya's book series Ghostgirl), and have cultivated a life fueled by their drive to connect with others through narrative.  

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A few weeks ago, I got the chance to talk with Tonya and Tracy in Tracy's home. Walking through the doorway of her 19th-century brownstone, I felt transported in time. From the winding ivy clinging to its exterior to the antique anatomical charts that hung on the walls of her living room, her home is a total Victorian paradise. We discussed their obsession with death and darkness and some of the most memorable moments of their relationship. Their bond is a testament to the transformative power of sisterhood and friendship.

Dianca Potts: Was there anything that the two of you shared while you were growing up that you didn't share with anyone else?

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Tonya Hurley: In high school, we did everything that we could in our power not to fit in. We were in a punk band. She played bass and I played drums. I had a Mohawk, and we colored our hair, and we did everything that we could to be on the outside, and I think that at that point we realized that together that was OK, because we had each other …

Tracy Martin: It gave us a lot more courage.

TH: I think that when we were young, it was a struggle because we were "The Hurley Twins"; we weren't Tonya and Tracy and finding our own identities. As we've grown older — strangely enough — we have merged in our art and what we do, but when we were young it was pretty strange. We were seen as freaks because we were the only twins in our town.

DP: I'm from Pennsylvania too, and as one of the few black girls at my school, I relate to being an outsider. What was being different in Pennsylvania like for you?

TH: I think that both of us woke up one day — it was literally an overnight thing when we were 15 — and said, This is bullshit, the way that people are treated in this town, it's bullshit. We mixed with every crowd but we were just like, This is so shitty, so we just went to school the next day with our hair colored and kind of protested [homogeneity]. It was not a popular thing and we were ridiculed and mistreated for it.

TM: [We were] called drug addicts.

TH: All we really wanted to do was listen to music and make a point and fight that whole idea of this is how you're supposed to be, that if you're not a cheerleader then you're not worthy of anything.

DP: Moments like that are so vital in shaping who we become. Was there ever a moment where you've felt like an outsider as an adult?

TH: When I was writing for the television show So Little Time, I would get locked out of the writers' room with all the men in there, so I would take my golf cart up to the Grinch set. They had just wrapped, and I would cry there. At the happiest place, the magical Grinch set. It was at that point we decided: Let's do our own thing. It was time to take what we had learned at our day jobs and all the horror we had endured and that's when we really started producing stuff and bringing the macabre to life.

DP: Those seem to be persistent themes in everything that the both of you do. Why do death and darkness resonate with you so much?

TM: It's fear-based interest and obsession.

TH: We've always been obsessed with death really, since we were young, because it's horrifying but also because you have to do it alone and I don't think that we've ever been alone. We've always had each other.

DP: Your great-uncle owned a funeral parlor, right?

TH: And our grandmother loved funerals. She was like Maude from Harold and Maude, and our great-uncle ran a [funeral] parlor.

TM: How weird is that [laughs]?

DP: What was that like, having so many family members in the death business?

TH: It was something that hovered, something that was always there. We didn't frequent the house, but we did frequent other funeral homes because our grandmother was a funeral fly and because we were from a small town. It was all about showing up.

TM: Showing up for death.

TH: Because our mom worked three jobs and was a single mom, our grandparents really raised us. So we went to a lot of funeral homes. We were two more bodies that would be taken to the funeral.

DP: That sounds like a scene from something by Edward Gorey.

TH: We kind of lived that life in a real way.

DP: It's really awesome that the two of you are able to explore your interests together. It sounds incredibly supportive.

TH: She's always supported my stuff, and I've always supported hers, and we've always worked together as a team.

TM: I'm her biggest fan.

TH: And I likewise.

TM: I picked up a notebook one night, and I saw that Tonya had started a story and I loved it so much. This was when indie film in NYC was just starting [in the '90s], and I was like, "Oh! There's this place called Sundance and it's in Utah and if they like what you write you can go there," and she's like, "OK," so we looked it up and it turned out the submission deadline was the next day, so I made her pull an all-nighter. I kept going to the deli, getting her coffee, and slapping her. Saying, "Wake up, you gotta do this."

TH: I literally wrote a movie in one night.

TH: I'm [returning to] the script this year to get it made. It's called Good Mourning.

DP: So how did things get started with Morbid Anatomy?

TM: We were considering opening a death café. My sister and I love Mexico almost as much as New York, and we wanted to have a very Mexican-inspired death café like what we do at the museum. But then I met Joanna Ebenstein.

TH: And we were like, "Let's scratch this death-café idea and make it more academic and a place where people could really go and find their tribe, and it feels like it's sort of, like, punk. We're fighting to keep the museum alive, and it's a constant battle to fight against the homogenized society we're moving toward, but we'll do it until we die.

DP: I'm so grateful for spaces like Morbid Anatomy. It's like a home away from home.

TH: It's Mecca! Looking around when you're at a lecture and seeing people like you interested in the exact same thing as you are on the outskirts of what's acceptable or common knowledge. I hate to sound sappy, but sometimes I have to leave the museum because I'm so overwhelmed [with emotion].

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Dianca London is an assistant at Lenny Letter and an astrological twin. 

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