Local Hauntings

In my on-going research (as I think of it), I watched The Haunting in Connecticut.  I recently wrote about A Haunting in Connecticut, distinguished from the theatrical version by an indefinite article.  Both claim to be based on a true story and the story itself is disputed because it doesn’t fit into a materialist paradigm.  Ah, but that’s another can of worms.  Regarding the movie, it abandons the base story to add an entirely fictional subplot that drives the horror.  Or so the writers and director think.  The tale ends up jumbled and the confusion it generates is not the kind borne of intelligent planning.  The Campbell family, struggling to pay the bills against a case of childhood cancer is real horror.  In our healthcare system that is a true story.

According to the diegesis of the movie, Matt Campbell can see the dead because he’s close to death.  In case you don’t know the story—the family has to move to be closer to the hospital where Matt is receiving his treatment.  Once ensconced in their new house they learn it used to be a funeral home and hauntings ensue.  The writer of the original book claims to have made much of it up, while interviews with witnesses make the claim that much of it actually happened.  Matt ends up in a mental hospital.  In the movie a subplot of necromancy and a young boy medium are added.  Souls whose bodies have been bound are trapped in the house until Matt figures out how to break the spell with the help of the medium’s ghost.  Instead of Ed and Lorraine Warren investigating, a local minister is added.  Also suffering from cancer, he figures it out too, but too late to help the Campbell family.

In Holy Horror and Nightmares with the Bible I do not treat made-for-television movies.  A large part of the reason is that they often lack the cultural impact of a theatrical release.  (Although Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead may have reached a point of familiarity with numbers to rival big screen efforts.)  In the case of the cinematic treatment of the Snedeker (“Campbell”) family, however, the television treatment might well have been scarier than the big-budget studio effort.  Whether fictionalized or not, the Discovery Channel show stays closer to the book (In a Dark Place, by Ray Garton).  Using the Usher-like ending of destroying the house doesn’t seem to offer any release in the big-screen version.  Sometimes reality is scarier than the tales we tell after dark.

Seasonal Music

Music is deeply, deeply personal.  That’s why I don’t write much about it.  There are pieces, I swear, if someone walked in to shoot me when I was listening to them I wouldn’t even notice.  This effect is amplified in autumn.  I don’t listen to music all the time.  In fact, I rarely do.  The reason is, counterintuitively, I fear that music may cease being meaningful to me.  Good things have a way of running out.  The music I like is only very slowly supplemented.  So as the clouds encroached this month, I put on some tunes and I began thinking of appropriate songs of the season.  I’ve heard attempts of more recent artists to sound spooky, but their lyrics don’t match the mood I’m seeking—remember, it’s deeply personal.  So what is autumnal music?

Despite being a fundamentalist, I was raised on rock-n-roll.  My favorite artist growing up was Alice Cooper; in fact, to this day Alice is the only secular rock artist I’ve seen in concert.  Two tracks on Welcome to My Nightmare are among those eerie autumn songs: “Years Ago,” and “Steven.”  This album was profoundly sunk in my psyche before I discovered others.  While not scary in the same way, “Brilliant Disguise” from Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love hits a similar chord.  The melancholy of autumn must be appeased and this song begs to bring it on.  Many of Leonard Cohen’s songs are like the angst of this season bottled up for a restorative tincture, but I was quite a bit older when I discovered Nick Cave.

The Boatman’s Call with its willowy sound and occasionally explicit lyrics, walks that line between a deep-seated spirituality and fear.  There are others, of course, some even fairly recent.  Imagine Dragons’ “Demons” from Night Vision certainly qualifies, as do the first two tracks on Muse’s The Resistance.  But this is my list, and I fear to reveal too much.  Someone who knows your music knows very much about you.  I hear some people discuss music as if it’s a throw-away commodity.  For others of us it has become part of our souls and we’re reluctant to reveal too much.  New members of this autumn music club are added only very slowly, and I reacquaint myself with the long-term members not frequently enough to rob me of their impact.  So it was as the clouds thickened and the cold wind began to blow as the leaves were beginning to turn that I put on my personal songs of the season.  And there was transcendence, but it was, as transcendence tends to be, deeply personal.

Trolls and Tolls

Fall creeps up on me every year.  I like to have an array of seasonal books to read so that when it arrives I’ll be ready.  With house repair costs this year I’ve had to curtail book buying.  That, and most of the titles on my to-read list are used books that seem to have become extortionately expensive since the 1970s.  In any case Cherie Priest’s The Toll stood face out on the shelves of Buffalo Street Books in Ithaca and it caught my attention.  Set in the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia, this unsettling novel brings the reader into the liminal space of the dying small town.  There’s a bit of magic in Staywater, although everyone who lives there knows it hasn’t got long before it goes altogether.  And every thirteen years a monster comes.

Priest knows not to describe the nameless creature too clearly.  The monster seen in broad daylight can quickly lose its patina of fear.  This is some kind of supernatural swamp beast and everyone local seems to know it’s picking them off.  The outside authorities, however, pay no attention to small towns that have “nothing to offer” to the greater economy.  That aspect resonated with me as the erstwhile denizen of a community of less than a thousand.  I watched the dissolving of my adoptive hometown as the tax-base shrank to the point that they could no longer afford to pave the streets and decided to go back to gravel.  Once the oil refinery—what gave the town “value”—closed, outside interest disappeared.  Ah, but I digress from fiction.

The Tool is a moody novel that doesn’t take itself too seriously.  There’s backstory here that remains untold.  Two of the protagonists are elderly female cousins who are comfortable with the spiritual world.  They are the past saviors of this little town in the swamp.  The other characters have all come to an uneasy peace with their periodic tormentor and they have nowhere else to go.  When the monster strikes against unwary outsiders the locals don’t welcome outside attention.  Those acquainted with small communities know that’s what life is like.  Attention brings cash, but often unwelcome change as well.  One of the more haunting aspects of this novel is the number of threads left dangling in the wind.  Not everything is resolved, and life goes on much as it always has, without or without the monster.  A moody read, this ghost story has, it is clear, a deeper message.

Haunted State

Some few years back, when FYE was still a thing, I’d hunt for bargains at our local.  I came across a two-for-one DVD that seemed promising, but when I got it home I discovered it was a made-for-television combo, and movies of that ilk often fudge on many angles.  I watched them nevertheless.  These were the Discovery Channel’s first two specials in what would become a series titled “A Haunting.”  I have to admit A Haunting in Connecticut freaked me out so much that I decided to trade the disc back in—something I rarely do.  (The other feature, A Haunting in Georgia, I could barely remember.)  As is usual with things I get rid of, I grew curious once again—this time a decade later.  Fortunately both movies are included in Amazon Prime, so I was all set.  I just needed that rarest commodity of all, time.

You might think that a guy who gets up at 4 a.m. on weekends would have plenty of extra time.  That’s not the case.  Nevertheless, I squeezed the clock to watch these shows again for research purposes.  Neither one was so scary as I recall—I’ve seen quite a few movies since then—but they did get October off to a moody start.  Of the two I recalled far less of the Georgia story.  Perhaps part of the reason is that it left so much unresolved.  The Wyrick family apparently experienced many ghosts and their investigator, William G. Roll, took their claims seriously.  While not an Ed and Lorraine Warren film, like its sibling, it follows the pattern of repeated, reported activity, investigation, and, well, not quite resolution.  The family attends a Pentecostal church, and, interestingly, the documentary treats it respectfully.

Unlike A Haunting in Connecticut, A Haunting in Georgia films some events in real time—notably the church service.  The pastor is interviewed and he, unlike Dr. Roll, believes the entity to be demonic.  The documentary treats him with the same gravitas as it does the Berkeley-trained psychologist.  There’s too much going on here to make a memorable narrative, though.  Stories, at least in the classical fictional sense, have some kind of resolution.  The Georgia narrative has too much complexity and too little sense that anything has been solved.  To me the amazing thing was that I had watched this film before and I remembered maybe only the first fifteen minutes.  Both films went on the bigger things, getting remade into theatrical features that I’ve never seen.  But then again, I barely have time for my own unresolved story.  Maybe FYE offers its own brand of local haunting.

Ambling through Amityville

I may be a week too late for Friday the 13th, but I just finished rereading The Amityville Horror.  One of my current projects required my paying close attention to what was and was not claimed, and although it doesn’t count towards my Goodreads goal, I just had to do it.  I noticed, as also occurred to me when rereading Gerald Brittle’s The Demonologist earlier, that the second time through raises more questions than the first.  The book has been demoted from nonfiction to novel over the years, but it seems pretty clear that Jay Anson believed it to be based on actual events.  He could’ve been wrong, of course, but with a long list of documentary writing credits to his name one does have to wonder.  Anson died just a year after the film came out.

When the movie was released I was still in high school and what everyone was saying about how scary it was kept me out of theaters.  (That, and lack of funds.)  It’s hard to imagine now, but there weren’t even VHS options in those days, especially for those of humble circumstances.  As a result, I was well into adulthood before I saw the cinematic version.  Reading the book, however, is an attempt to pry open the question of what might’ve happened at one of the most famous “haunted houses” this side of the Atlantic.  I’d just read a headline that the house had been sold again, and such was the impact of this story that a simple property transaction is now considered news in some circles.

Controversy permeates this tale.  I suspect that’s because it made a lot of money.  The search for the truth is often compromised by lucre—just look at the White House and try to disagree.  The usual rendering is that the Lutz family, in financial trouble, concocted a story that would bring in big bucks.  Such accusations came, of course, once the story did indeed prove valuable.  The second highest grossing film of 1979, The Amityville Horror held records for the highest grossing independent film for a decade.  Add to that the estimated book sales of 10 million copies and you have a nice retirement account laid up.  Those levels of remuneration are enough to corrupt any narrative.  Still, it’s clear that many people wonder what really went on at the house on Ocean Avenue.  I sat down with the book again and I have to admit that I’m no wiser on the question for having read it again.

Unwished Inheritance

When I mentioned my book Holy Horror to someone recently, she asked “Have you seen Hereditary?”  I had to allow as I hadn’t.  I have to struggle to find time to watch movies, and I’m generally a couple of years behind.  Surprisingly, Hereditary was available for free on Amazon Prime, and I finally had the chance to terrify myself with it.  Perhaps it didn’t help that I’d been reading a book on schizophrenia at the time (as will be explained in due course).  Hereditary is one of those movies that is impossibly scary, up until the final moments when it suddenly seems unlikely.  In this respect it reminded me of Lovely Molly and Insidious.  All three also feature demons.  Using a child to accommodate the coming of a demon king brought in Rosemary’s Baby and the Paranormal Activity franchise.  (The genre is notoriously intertextual.)

While demons can make movies scary, what really worked in Hereditary was the sense of mental instability and the lack of a reliable character to believe.  The Graham family is deeply dysfunctional.  Mix in elements of the occult and dream sequences and you’re never certain what, or whom, to believe.  As with many of the films I examine in Holy Horror, the realms of religion and fear are interbred.   While the Bible plays no part in Hereditary, the matriarch’s “rituals” pervade the family following her death.  In a family of females, where a male demon seeks expression through possession, an obviously challenging dynamic is set up.  It works out through a series of disturbing images and manipulations.

Watching the family disintegrate becomes the basis of the horror.  Then possession comes into play.  As in most films concerning possession, deception and misdirection are used.  A demon named Paimon is seeking to take over the one male heir.  This ties the movie to The Last Exorcism, where the same demon under a different name seeks to propagate through Nell Sweetzer.  Unlike many possession movies, the suggestion that possession is actually involved comes late in the script.  This revelation underscores the the misdirection of attention that focuses on Annie Graham’s struggle to cope with reality.  Her sleepwalking and threats to her own children as well as the suggestion that they are but miniatures being manipulated by a larger, more powerful entity, keep the viewer off balance throughout the story.  Intelligent and provocative, Hereditary assures me that tying to analyze such films, while perhaps a fool’s errand, is an enterprise unlikely to be soon exhausted.

Book and Bell

The Bell Witch: An American Haunting, by Brent Monahan, is a book I’ve read before.  The subtitle was used for a cinematic version.  I discovered the book, however, through what might be considered a chance encounter with the author.  He was teaching a course on offering distance education courses at Rutgers University, and, as an adjunct teaching over eight classes per year, I’d been selected for the distance education program.  (As life goes, of course, I was hired by Routledge for a full-time job before I could actually deliver the course.)  By a strange irony, I had watched An American Haunting just the weekend before the course, and I had no idea who would be teaching it.  Neurotically punctual, I was the first one there for the class, and as Dr. Monahan and I talked, I knew I’d need to read the book.  I posted on it back when I did, but this time I decided to pay better attention than one can on a bus.

Of course, when you watch the movie first, which I had, you know “the reveal” well before it comes late in the novel.  In case you’ve done neither, I won’t give it away.  The tale is based on an historical haunting, attested in sources from near the period.  And it is a strange kind of possession story.  The “witch” is actually a demon conjured by a trauma, and although book wraps things up nicely, it leaves a few questions at the end.  I suppose that’s appropriate for a scary book.  One of my current projects involves tracing the accounts behind fictionalized narratives to their originals.  The Bell Witch was well researched, and is a good example of how the line between fiction and fact can be effectively blurred.

The Bell Witch legend is credited with influencing several horror films, including The Blair Witch Project and others which tellingly have “Bell Witch” in their titles.  The story has a fairly incredible longevity, given that it was a localized legend from early in the nineteenth century.  Monahan’s novel is written as a “confession” from the schoolmaster, and historical personage Richard R. P. Powell.  This blurring of the lines makes for the kind of ambiguity that gives horror its particular ability to stand between fact and fiction.  The early versions of the lore, combined with elements intended to offer verisimilitude, leave plenty of queries at the end.  So much so that I’ve occasionally contacted the author for clarification.  What really happened?  It depends which side of the line you prefer.