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Thursday, May 31, 2018

Horror Histories Vol. 4 - A Clever Murder Inspires Rear Window

Rear Window.  It’s one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous films.  For those who don’t know, it’s a story of a man confined to his room with a broken leg.  He’s a photographer and to pass the time, he begins using his camera to follow the lives of his neighbors.  Pretty soon, he becomes convinced that one is a murderer.  The movie is masterful at ramping up tension, especially with our protagonist trapped in his room.

What many people don’t know is that the plot is actually inspired by a London case from 1924.  It started with a police stop at a train station.  The suspect was Patrick Mahon and police pulled him aside to question him because of his suitcase.  Once opened, it contained a knife and bloody clothing.  Mahon tried to pass it off as having come from scraps for his dogs but when they pressed him, he cracked. 

It turns out that he’d killed a woman named Emily Kaye.  In order to cover his tracks, he’d dismembered the body and would take pieces of it with him to the train station.  Then as the train made its way to the next stop, he would discard them along the way, ensuring that there would never be enough of one thing to identify her if they were ever found. 

Hitchcock became fascinated by the thought of carrying out body parts clandestinely.  It was only a few creative jumps before he’d combined that idea with the thought of a helpless protagonist and Rear Window was born.

If you’d never seen it, what the hell is wrong with you?  You should be watching it now instead of reading this blog.  

If you have seen it and want to do a deep dive into Hitchcock, I suggest you check out two excellent books by two good friends of mine.  Eric San Juan and Jim McDevitt have been a huge inspiration in my own writing career and together, they immersed themselves in Hitchcock films to produce A Year of Hitchcock:  52 Weeks with the Master of Suspense and Hitchcock’s Villains:  Murderers, Maniacs and Mother Issues.  You should definitely check both of those out.

See you next week!

Monday, May 28, 2018

Southern California Vol. 24 - Bigfoot Discovery Museum

Last week, I showed you a really cool museum of antique penny arcade machines in San Francisco (Musée Mécanique).  If you’re going to be up that way and are really into the unusual stuff or even just want to pretend you’re in the movie The Lost Boys, you may find yourself visiting Santa Cruz.  

There, you can visit the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk featured at the beginning of that film.  Who knows? Maybe you'll even see some muscle dude playing a saxophone to that song by The Call.  If that's you're plan, do it on Saturday and on Sunday, take a relaxing drive and check out the Bigfoot Discovery Museum.

Look, I’m not about to argue with anyone about whether Bigfoot is real or not.  Whether you think it’s been debunked by all the Finding Bigfoot shows or not, I can tell you that plenty of people have seen something they can’t identify.  For just one afternoon, pretend there’s still a possibility that a large mysterious animal is roaming the Northern California wilderness.

The museum is only two rooms but it’s arranged into three different “areas”.  The first deals with the bigfoot from myths and legends going back centuries.  Here you'll find native american accounts and early sightings.  The second area focuses on more modern eyewitness accounts and physical evidence.  You'll see plaster casts and photos as well as that famous piece of film footage by Patterson and Gimlin.

The final area will please all of you Six-Million Dollar Man fans out there as it focuses on the Paranormal Bigfoot.  That area features displays about the possibility that Bigfoot is an alien, possesses supernatural powers and/or can move between dimensions.  That’s some pretty wild stuff compared to just figuring we’ve got a cryptid animal running around our forests.

As I mentioned above, the museum is pretty small and if you’re not going to actually read the accounts posted along with the casts of footprints, then you can easily do it in a half hour.  Still, it’s worth seeing just to get that sense that there may be something out there.  The owner is famously friendly and approachable and will be glad to tell you about his own experience seeing a sasquatch at the age of five. 

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Horror Histories Vol. 3 - JAWS and The Twelve Days of Terror

Jaws.  It’s one of the most iconic movies in the history of cinema.  Steven Spielberg’s film is a master class in building terror and suspense by keeping the killer shark off camera for much of the movie.  It was the thought of what could be out there rather than the giant shark itself that made people avoid the water.  

The movie is famously based on Peter Benchley’s novel of the same name and Benchley took his inspiration from real life events.  In particular, the twelve days in 1916 where five people along the Jersey shore were attacked by a shark or sharks, four of them dying horrible deaths.

Things started on July 1, when Charles Epting Vansant was taking a quick swim at the beach next to his hotel.  He quickly started shouting for help but bystanders thought he was shouting at the dog who had gone out to swim with him.  A lifeguard eventually pulled him in to shore but Vansant’s legs were mutilated.  He bled to death while awaiting emergency services and the lifeguard reported that the shark actually followed them into the shallows.

This caused a sensation in the papers, but just like in the book and film, authorities did not close the beaches.  Instead, they figured it was an isolated incident and despite the fact that local boat captains were reporting large sharks in the area, no warnings were issued.  Five days later, the bell captain of a local hotel went for a swim and was killed.  The shark bit his legs completely off and he bled to death as lifeguards pulled him to shore.   The papers had a field day with reports of local women fainting as the body was brought to shore.  Now people were officially staying out of the water, worried that they may be the next headline. 

That’s what makes the next three attacks so strange.  They happened on July 12 in Matawan Creek near the town of Keyport.  Even with the attacks along the shore making headlines, people living along the creek figured they had nothing to worry about.  After all, when does a shark swim up a creek for food?  Right?

That explains why when a local sea captain named Thomas Cottrell said he spotted an 8-foot-long shark in the creek, no one really paid him any attention. It was a hot day and some of the local boys decided to go for a swim.  As they got in the water, one of them spotted what he thought was a log.  By the time they realized it was a shark, it had already grabbed Lester Stilwell, age 11, and pulled him under.  The boys ran for help and a local businessman, Watson Fisher responded.  He dove in and grabbed Stilwell’s body but before he could bring it to shore, he was also attacked.  Both of them died.

The final attack happened a mere thirty minutes after Fisher and Stilwell were bitten.  It was a half mile from where those attacks happened but this time the victim, Joseph Dunn, was rescued by his brother and a friend who literally pulled him from the mouth of the shark.  He was rushed to a local hospital and recovered from the attack.

All of this made for anxious times along the Jersey shore.  Resorts needed tourists but tourists needed protection.  Some of the local businesses eventually put in mesh nets to protect bathers, but prior to that, a small armada of boats went out to try to catch the maneater that was terrorizing the beach.  On July 14, Michael Schleisser caught a 7.5 foot shark while fishing in Raritan Bay, very near the mouth of Matawan Creek.  The shark was so aggressive, it almost sank his boat.  Once brought in to shore, it was opened up and determined to have human remains in its stomach.

As a side note, Schleisser had a hell of a resume and was just the kind of man who would wrestle in a great white.  He was actually both a taxidermist and a lion tamer for Barnum and Bailey.  He mounted the fish and put it on display.  After it was caught, the attacks ended.

All of this captured the imagination of Peter Benchley who released his novel thinking that he may make a few bucks from it but never expected the cultural phenomenon he was ultimately responsible for.  

When the movie hit theaters and became the very first summer blockbuster, interest in sharks and particularly great whites soared.  Hell, I wasn't even allowed to see the film until the rerelease in 1979, but even I became shark obsessed during the original run.  Sharks were all over the news and featured on TV movies.  It was that kind of phenomenon. 

As a result, great whites became highly prized by sport fishermen and soon their populations were plummeting.  Benchley had always been a waterman and an avid scuba diver.  While he loved the money and fame he received from JAWS, he detested the impact it had on shark populations.  He became a tireless advocate of shark conservation and lobbied for protections on certain species all the way up until his death.

One final note about this.  When it’s all said and done, that great white that Schleisser caught was probably not the same shark that attacked the three people in Matawan Creek.  Yes, I said that human remains were found in the stomach, but that’s according to the scientists at the time.   The material they recovered was said to be “suspicious fleshy material and bones”.  It could easily have been seal flesh.

The problem with the great white theory is that one would be pretty unlikely to swim as far upriver as the shark that attacked the people in Matawan Creek.  A more notorious culprit would be a bull shark and while they’re not common in the Jersey area, they’re actually more common than Great Whites. 

Monday, May 21, 2018

Southern California Vol. 23 - Musée Mécanique

This week I want to talk about a museum that’s further north than L.A.  I haven’t even touched what all there is to do in San Francisco because to be fair, I’ve only been there twice and both times for only a couple of days.  However, since we’ve been talking about museums over the last two weeks, I have to give a shout out to one of my favorite museums on the planet.  

I’m talking about the Musée Mécanique located down near Fisherman’s Wharf.  I’ve only been there once and I only got to stay a fraction of the time I wanted to, however I’ve made it a bucket list item to go back and spend at least an afternoon exploring everything on display.

The Musée Mécanique is basically exactly what its title suggests.  It’s a collection of over 300 antique (and not so antique) coin operated machines.  There are games, puppet shows, film loops and music boxes.  The building they’re in can only house a portion of the machines they’ve collected over the years, but you’ll get to experience at least 200 while visiting. 

It all began with Ed Zelinsky who collected his first penny arcade machine at the age of 11.  He first put his collection on display at Playland in the 1920’s.  Eventually, it became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and finally moved to its current location in 2002.  It’s still owned and operated by the Zelinsky family.

So what’s so great about a building full of old arcade machines?  Well, they all work.  That’s right.  They all actually work.  In fact, the museum is free to get into but you’ll need coins to operate the machines themselves. 

Among my favorite things during my short visit was a puppet show.  It’s called The Opium Den and once you deposit your coin, you’ll see the horrors of opium addiction in the form of death’s heads and ghosts visiting the Den’s customers.

Check out the picture above.  That’s my friend Will Mason holding my four-year-old daughter up so she can see the “adults only” show.  Don’t worry.  The film loop was a bunch of ladies showing their ankle-length bloomers.  Oh the scandal!  

So seriously, if you find yourself in San Francisco and all of your friends and relatives want to go to the most touristy place around, then you’ll end up at Fisherman’s Wharf.  Let them wander over to the chain stores on the pier.  Tell them you’ll meet up with them in an hour or so and go check out the Musée Mécanique.   It’s a truly great time and a pretty rare experience.

Thanks and see you next week!

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Horror History Vol. 2 - Fritz Lang's "M" and The Vampire of Düsseldorf

So last week we talked about the movie Freaks and how it was based on Writer/Director Tod Browning’s real experiences in the carnival.  This week, I want to stay in that era but discuss a very different film.   Instead of being reviled like Freaks, this movie was instantly seen as a classic.  I’m talking about Fritz Lang’s superb film M (1931). 

If you’re unfamiliar with it, Peter Lorre stars as a serial killer who preys on children.  He is unable to control his compulsions and eventually becomes hunted by both the authorities and the underworld.  It’s a fantastic film and Lorre gives a truly creepy performance.  Fritz Lang declared it to be his finest work, which is saying something when you consider that this guy also gave us Metropolis (1927), The Big Heat (1953) and the Dr. Mabuse films. 

Even those who are familiar with it may not realize that Lang was influenced by a real life killer who preyed upon Düsseldorf, Germany from February to November of 1929.  I’m talking about Peter Kürten A.K.A. The Vampire of Düsseldorf.   This is one of the more disturbing stories I’ve come across, just because of the ferocity and frequency with which Kürten struck.  It’s even more horrible when you realize how many times Kürten was released from custody and allowed to kill again.  In fact, let’s play a game and count all the times they put him away.

Kürten left school in 1897 and became an apprentice to a molder.  Eventually, he stole everything he could from his employer and disappeared to start a life of petty crime in Koblenz.  It didn’t take long for the police to catch up with him and send him to prison for the theft. 

Custody Count: 1

However, he didn’t stay in long.  By August of 1899, he was out and it was only a few months later that he committed his first murder.  At the time, he got away with it (he confessed years later), but he was picked up by police in 1900 for fraud.  Since it was a second offense and there were some other charges against him including attempted murder of another girl, he got four years in prison. 

Custody Count: 2

In summer of 1904, Kürten was released and drafted into the army.  As soon as he got a chance, he deserted.  This was when he began a string of arsons (he later confessed to 24).  Again, he was captured but this time since he’d deserted, he got more time added to his sentence.  From 1905 – 1913, Kürten was imprisoned and during this stint, his madness really took hold. 

Custody Count: 3

If there was ever a time for the government to say to themselves, “This guy may be a serial criminal” you’d think it would be now.  Unfortunately, no one bothered with that and instead they released him again.  This time though, he was definitely a different animal than when he’d gone in.  During his incarceration, he’d fully embraced the part of him who found sexual pleasure in committing murder. Once back on the street, he didn’t waste any time getting to work.  By May, he’d killed a 9-year-old child while she slept.   The day after the murder, he returned to the area and sat in a tavern listening to the locals gossip about the killing.  Later, he would visit her grave and think fondly of what he’d done.

Two months after that, he killed another girl during the course of a burglary.  He got away yet again, but was later picked up on a separate count of arson and burglary.  He would go to prison yet again and this time would stay there until 1921. 

Custody Count: 4

When he was released this time,he was still twisted but somehow decided to try leading a normal life.  He met a woman, married and took a job as a union official.  In 1925, he and his wife moved to Düsseldorf and during this time, Kürten began having affairs with two different women.  He got away with it for a while, but eventually his wife found out and when she confronted the two women both said Kürten seduced them.  One even claimed he’d raped her.  That charge was dropped but once again Kürten  found himself going to prison.  This time it was for the seduction charge and the fact that he threatened both women when all of this came out.    

Custody Count: 5

It's this fifth stint in the slammer where Kürten snaps completely.  The next time he’s released he wastes no time killing people. His victims ranged from the elderly to the young, men and women.  He did not discriminate and he confessed later that he got a sexual thrill from the murders.  He used scissors, knives and hammers.  He even tried to drink his victim’s blood which is how he earned the "vampire" nickname.  His last victim was found stabbed 34 times. 

Ultimately, Kürten was caught and convicted of nine murders.  He was also found guilty of seven counts of attempted murder.  Apparently in 1930's Germany, the sixth time was the charm.  He was executed by guillotine in July of 1931.

Fritz Lang went on record as saying that Kürten was not an inspiration for his movie, however that's difficult to believe.  For one, Lang was German and was very familiar with Kürten’s case.  He couldn't help but be since it was a sensation in the papers.  Also, the timing is very suspicious because his movie debuted the same year that Lang is finally executed.  This would put Lang writing it not long after the trial and all the press coverage.  

Even if you want to believe Lang was oblivious to all of this, there's no doubt that Peter Lorre’s portrayal of the character was influenced by what he’d read in the papers.  Lorre comes across as the ultimate creeper whose compulsions are overwhelming.  It’s a performance that will still grab you 87 years after its debut.

There’s a morbid side note to all of this.  If you happen to be traveling through Dell, Wisconsin, you have a unique opportunity to actually see Kürten for yourself.  His head rests at the Ripleys! Museum in Dell.  French authorities split the head in half to observe the brain of this twisted killer.  The mummified split head hangs by a chain in a glass case for all to see.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Southern California Vol. 22 - The Museum of Death

This week’s suggested destination is definitely not for everyone.  In fact, I’d say at least two thirds of you reading this would probably detest a visit to this museum but I can’t discuss weird museums in L.A. and not talk about The Museum of Death.  Now, don’t get this mixed up with the famous gift shop at the L.A.County Department of Coroner.  This is entirely different and honestly makes a visit to the Coroner's Gift Shop seem like a visit to Disneyland. 

The Museum of Death literally collects and displays items having to do with… well… death.  Right inside the door, you’ll be confronted with photos of decomposing bodies.  You’ll find, old mortuary equipment, embalming training films (that run on a loop), caskets and other bits and pieces of funerary custom.  

And that’s the tame stuff.

The museum’s owners and staff make it a point to tell people before they buy a ticket that this place is not for the faint at heart.  You’re given a couple of different chances to back out and it’s not just some P.T. Barnum trick to draw you in.  They’re serious. 

Aside from what I mentioned in the paragraph above, you’ll get to see the actual head of Henri Desire Landru a.k.a. The Bluebeard of France.  He was responsible for the deaths of over 200 women and was executed in 1922.  How The Museum of Death got possession of his head is a story I’d love to hear at some point.

There are photos taken by murderers after they’d committed their crimes.  There are  displays about cult suicides like the Heaven’s Gate group.  There are graphic displays on the Manson murders, prison art by John Wayne Gacy and much more.   It’s a sobering exhibit if you let it sink in and there are those out there (myself included) who occasionally like that sort of thing.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Horror History Vol. 1 - Tod Browning's Carnival Tricks

As many of you know, I’m a huge fan of horror movies.  It’s easily my favorite genre and while I’m a little picky about my horror (I prefer monsters over slashers) I’m pretty much open to watching anything.   Last year around Halloween I published a listicle about my favorite movie The Creature From The Black Lagoon.  In that post, I described how the story actually came from a very real Amazonian myth and it gave me the idea for this series.  Over the next ten weeks or so, we’re going to visit some of the true events that launched great horror movies.

If you are a horror movie fan, chances are you are at least familiar with the name Tod Browning.  He's responsible for some of the most famous movies in the history of the genre and also one of the most infamous ones.  What you may not know is that prior to entering the wild west atmosphere of the early film business, he actually made his name in real carnivals and traveling sideshows.  In fact, he was one of the star attractions and it was this experience which led him to his film career.

Browning was born in Louisville, KY and his uncle was the professional baseball player that the original Louisville Slugger was made for.  Browning wasn't interested in sports though.  His calling was always showmanship.  As a kid, he'd been singled out by the church for his amazing voice.  He would perform on Sundays but if people wanted to see him outside of that, they would have to pay (a penny a performance) to see him in a shed in his back yard.  

Browning would write, direct and perform in productions that ranged from dramas to musicals and he staged them all in that shed.  There was no doubt that showbiz was the thing that called to him, so it should have come as little surprise to those close to him when he literally ran away at sixteen to join a traveling show.  What probably did surprise them was that he didn't pursue singing.  Instead, Browning was drawn to the dark side (and easy money) of the carnival sideshow.  

His first gig was as a "barker" for a "Wild Man of Borneo" act.  The wild man was really an African-American from Mississippi in costume.  Browning loved that underworld element through and through.  He rubbed elbows with the attractions that most people would have shied away from.  I'm talking about acts like the "geek" who bit the heads off live chickens, the dwarves, the pinheads and others.  He soon learned how to escape from manacles and became an attraction in his own right.  He spent a season as a clown for Ringling Bros. and another as a rider in a horse show.  However, his most lucrative and odd "trick", the one that ended his carnival run, was as a "Living Corpse".  

The way the trick worked was that on the very first day the carnival pulled into town, they would announce one of their most miraculous offerings: an elixir that actually raised the dead.  Of course, that claim needed some proof in order to sell product.  At this point, they would unveil Browning, laying in an actual coffin, his features pale and deathly.

The barker would then instruct his assistants to bury this dead man.  The coffin would actually be placed eight feet down in the ground and all of the dirt placed back on it.  The barker would then tell everyone to come back the next day.  Sometimes, it would be two days!  At the appointed time, everyone would gather round to watch as Browning was exhumed and miraculously brought back to life with the special potion.

How did he do it?  Well, it wasn't easy.  Browning actually had to stay down in the coffin the entire time.  There was a ventilation system built into it to allow for fresh air.  There was also a small hidden panel in the coffin where he could hide malted milk balls so he didn't starve.  Otherwise, there was nothing for him to do but lay there and wait.  He famously said that the only time he was ever scared was the first time when he heard the dirt raining down on the lid.

He performed this trick for two years in a ton of towns as part of a traveling riverboat show until finally a police raid in Madison, Indiana exposed their con.  Browning decided, after losing every cent he had to the imposed fine, it was time to do something slightly more "upscale" and so he went back to singing and dancing as part of vaudeville acts.

How does all this tie into the film industry?  Well, film started out in the sideshow.  It was an attraction, the same as the Wild Man or the Living Corpse.  In 1913, at the age of thirty-one, Browning was offered a part in a film by an associate of his.  Two years later, he directed his first film and the rest, as they say, is history.

Browning is credited with directing 62 films in his lifetime.  His most famous is Dracula (1931), starring Bela Lugosi, however prior to that, he'd already made huge hits with Lon Chaney. 

If you've never seen the silent film, West of Zanzibar (1928), you really should.  It's one of the darkest films of revenge and horror in Chaney's catalog.  Browning also directed Chaney in the famous "lost" film London After Midnight (1927)

After Dracula was such a huge hit, the studio let him direct the film he'd always wanted to make.  It was a film about the sideshow life that he'd fallen so in love with as a young man.  In particular, it was a film about the people he felt most akin to from those days.  The movie is Freaks (1932) and it would prove to be his undoing in Hollywood.  

While Browning treats his titular characters with respect (they are in fact the good guys in the film), the studio's marketing did not.  Instead, they played up the more salacious tidbits as evidenced in the poster image directly above.  

"Do Siamese Twins Make Love?"

"Can a Full Grown Woman Truly Love a Midget?"

"What Sex is the Half Man Half Woman?"

You can see how popular society thought the film was exploiting those "unfortunates" who were the stars.  The film was famously pulled from theaters, disowned by the studio and Browning's reputation was ruined.  He would go on to make a handful of other films, including a reteaming with Bela Lugosi in Mark of the Vampire (1935).  He wouldn't direct another film after Miracles for Sale in 1939.

Browning died in 1962 but not before something amazing had started to happen.  In 1961, Freaks was unearthed and began showing in art house theaters.  Over the next decade, it gained popularity as a midnight film that college kids would flock to on Friday and Saturday nights.  Among a certain breed of horror fan, it's now considered a masterpiece.

I'm definitely part of that breed.  Personally, it's one of my favorite films of all time and part of the reason is because you can see so much of Tod Browning in it.  If you haven't seen it, seek it out and also I highly recommend West of Zanzibar, Dracula and even Mark of the Vampire.  

If you're a connoisseur of horror, I doubt you'll be disappointed.

And if you like those, you should check out my book The Wash.  It's filled with all kinds of fun.

See you next time!