Abigail Goldman was wandering the Internet when she came across the model train website that changed her life. She noticed all the miniature figures were engaged in wholesome activities — waving to strangers, helping neighbors.
Then she had a dark thought: Maybe those characters could be made to do violent, unspeakable things. They could populate tiny, twisted dioramas of her own design, snow-globe-sized worlds of murder and mayhem.
"I said, 'Oh, look at all the little people! Wouldn't it be fun to have them hacking each other in half?'" said Goldman, 30, a former Las Vegas Sun crime reporter.
She calls them "die-o-ramas" — creations that ooze with the offbeat horror of the wood chipper scene in the movie "Fargo," with a dash of Quentin Tarantino-like gratuitous violence. They feature corpses, shallow graves and improbable characters, like the gunman in a pope costume, the decapitated man sitting next to his severed head and a guy dispatching his victim with a lawn mower.
Much of the madness involves gardening tools.
"You can do so many things with a pair of hedge trimmers," said Goldman, whose blond librarian-like braids belie a worldview that's Goth teenager. "Lawn and garden tools are ghastly and horrifying and fraught with danger. They're all horrible and they're in your house, waiting to decapitate someone."
But what started years ago as a pet project is now creating a stir on the Internet and in the Las Vegas art community. In May, Goldman's husband, Stephen Jackson, posted 13 miniatures on the website Reddit under the heading "My Wife Makes Dioramas." It has since provoked more than 4 millions hits. Within hours the pieces were sold out, except for one — a robbery scene without bloodshed. But that sold too after Goldman added a dead body.
Online reaction to Jackson's post fell into two groups. "One was, 'Dude, sleep with one eye open,' and the other was, 'Dude, I'm in love with your wife,'" Goldman said.
A recent art gallery exhibit titled "Little Lives" that displayed several of Goldman's plexiglass boxes has evoked a waiting list of people who want to own one. She's made 35 miniatures, most 4 inches tall, that have sold for $65 to $500. The queue stands at 22 and a backed-up Goldman has stopped taking orders.
Aficionados say the scenarios express something unique to Las Vegas — going beyond kitschy images of rolling dice and showgirls to feature an excessive and often deranged realm that still doesn't take itself too seriously.
"Patrons at the art show would be drawn to these cute little dioramas," said Marty Walsh, owner of the Trifecta Gallery, where Goldman's work was shown. "Then they'd reel back in horror at all the bloodshed, only to lean back in for a closer look. Anytime art provokes such physical movement, you know there's something there."
One die-o-rama buyer posed a question online: "My question to the audience is 'What makes us want to own the macabre, gore and grisly? (me included; I bought the lumberjacks sawing a woman in half, for God's sake!) Why do I find them humorous and what does that say about me?'"
Another Internet user said more about Goldman: "There is something wrong with this young woman. It scares me to think that I used to sit across from her at work."
Goldman believes she has tapped into a national appetite for carnage fueled by cable TV crime shows. "It's this little dark alley I thought I had all to myself, which I now find is populated by teachers and Realtors and professional people," she said.
As a former crime writer, Goldman has witnessed plenty of death scenes. She met her husband, a former TV cameraman, reporting a still-unsolved double murder in nearby Henderson. But her scenarios come from her imagination, not reality. She'll look at miniatures and say to herself: "I think I'll kill a child in this scene. That's what I'll do."
Such funereal tendencies come from Goldman's childhood in Marin County, where she collected crime scene photography and once made a quilt featuring death row inmates at nearby San Quentin prison. "She's always been interested in the darker side of life," said her father, Robert Goldman. "But she doesn't walk around with a cloud of gloom over her head."
Goldman, now an investigator for the federal public defender's office here, still revels in the absurd. The doormat of her suburban tract home reads "Come Back with a Warrant." Inside, there's a handgun turned flower pot and she lives on Hitchcock Street, "as in Alfred," she says sweetly.
She marvels at her newfound success. "When you do something for yourself, you don't imagine that anyone else would be interested, even your own relatives," she said. "You don't tell your in-laws over dinner, 'I'm really happy with my lumberjack murder diorama. Could you please pass the potatoes?' So it's validating that people actually like them."
Nowadays, Goldman frequents model train stores for her miniature victims and villains and haunts Home Depots for Styrofoam, tiny trees, fake grass and, of course, red paint. She knows she's hit a nerve when her husband cringes with glee, like at the one showing a boy on a swing in front of two girls — one holding a teddy bear, the other having come to a sad end.