The Mystery of all Mysteries

How the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses influenced a generation of occult beliefs in Illinois.

Successive waves of European immigration left their imprint on the Prairie State, from the French and their Afro-Caribbean slaves in the 1700s, to the Scotch-Irish and Anglo-American Southerners in the early 1800s, Germans in the 1840s and ‘50s, and the great urban flood of southern and eastern Europeans in the 1880s and ‘90s. These immigrants brought their folk beliefs with them, including beliefs in witchcraft and the occult.

Anglo-American settlement first came to Illinois after George Rogers Clark claimed the Illinois Country for Virginia during the Revolutionary War. The earliest American settlers were Southerners who came up from Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and the Carolinas. Yankees and German immigrants followed close behind.

These Germans were known as “Forty-Eighters,” having fled central Europe after the failed liberal revolutions of 1848. In 1850, 81.1 percent of Illinois’ foreign born males came from Germany, Ireland, and England. Immigrants also continued to arrive from the east coast. In 1850, 67,180 New Yorkers and 24,756 Virginians moved into Illinois. Yankees from New England spread out across the Midwest, settling Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois. These immigrants tended to settle land passed over by earlier pioneers, particularly western and northeastern Illinois.[1]

As these nineteenth century migrations occurred, occult beliefs and literature from the “Old World” continued to have an impact on the United States. In Stuttgart, Germany in 1849, Johann Scheible published a multivolume set of magical and occult texts from around the world called Geheimniß- und Offenbarungs-Bücher und der Wunder-Hausschatz-Literatur aller Nationen in allen ihren Raritäten und Kuriositäten (1849), or Secret and Revelatory Books and the Wonder-House Treasure Literature of all Nations in its Rarities and Curiosities.

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Child’s Play: Are You My Best Friend?

A murderous doll with the ability to control smart devices runs amok in this fresh reboot.

Written by Tyler Burton Smith and directed by Lars Klevberg, Child’s Play (2019) is a remake of the 1988 horror film of the same name. In this version, Chucky is a sabotaged smart-toy who learns violence is cool by watching human behavior. As such, the supernatural elements of the original have been removed. What remains is a contemporary morality play about the dangers of smart technology and our addiction to electronic devices.

Karen Barclay (Aubrey Plaza) is a single mother living in a distressed urban neighborhood with her son, Andy (Gabriel Bateman). Andy’s loneliness leads Karen to give him a Buddi doll (voiced by Mark Hamill) for his birthday. Though visibly dysfunctional, the doll (which calls itself Chucky because it has to, I guess?) imprints on Andy and quickly becomes overprotective.

Andy soon meets two other kids in the apartment building, Falyn (Beatrice Kitsos) and Pugg (Ty Consiglio), and the trio play pranks on Karen’s jerkish boyfriend, Shane (David Lewis). Detective Mike Norris (Brian Tyree Henry) suspects something is amiss. Can Shane and friends rein in Chucky’s violent tendencies before it’s too late?

Child’s Play is the latest horror-franchise reboot, and it was only a matter of time. In the horror pantheon, I would put Child’s Play on a second or third tier behind obvious powerhouses like Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, or Friday the 13th. Its premise of a killer doll is just a little too campy, and the original films do play up the humorous element. Still, Child’s Play has a reliable fan base.

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Devils Lake in Baraboo, Wisconsin

I have fond memories of Devil’s Lake near Baraboo in Sauk County, Wisconsin. My family vacationed there when I was a kid in the late ’80s, early ’90s. You could say it’s a family tradition. I’ve seen photos of my grandparents and great grandparents climbing the boulders. It’s a great spot for family vacationers looking for something more low key than nearby Wisconsin Dells.

Formed millennia ago by a glacier that cut off part of the Wisconsin River, it was originally called Ta-wah-cun-chunk-dah by the Ho-Chunk, meaning “Sacred Lake”. According to legend, a Winnebago Indian fasted and prayed at the shore for twenty days, after which a water spirit called the Wock-cheth-thwe-dah (or Wakjexi) arose and told him he would live a long and happy life.

Another Indian legend tells of a green water spirit with seven heads that demanded an annual sacrifice of a maiden. River Child spoke with a sturgeon, who told him the water spirit had a vulnerability. A well-aimed thrust behind its center head’s left eye would pierce its brain.

On the day the maiden was to be sacrificed, River Child spread walnut husks in the water, causing the spirit distress and forcing it into his net. After a long struggle, he stabbed it in the left eye with his knife, killing it. River Child married the maiden and they started a village along the shore, but the ghostly screams of the water spirit arose with every storm, so they were forced to move away.

Today, Devil’s Lake State Park is a popular destination for camping, swimming, boating, rock-climbing, and hiking.

Illinois’ Decade of Lost Legends

Over the past ten to fifteen years, Illinois has lost nearly a dozen historic (and allegedly haunted) places to development and disaster. Some, like Alonzi’s Villa in Brookfield, the Lindbergh School on Shoe Factory Road in Hoffman Estates, and Sacred Heart Chapel at Barat College in Lake Forest, were destroyed to make way for real estate development. Others, like Sunset Haven outside Carbondale, were destroyed to erase the building (and its notorious reputation) from public memory.

The Lindbergh School on Shoe Factory Road in Hoffman Estates was genuinely a historic landmark known for its unique architecture and its significance to local history, regardless of its ghost stories. For years, preservationists tried desperately to save the building from the chopping block. Unfortunately, in 2007, bulldozers knocked it down to make way for yet another subdivision, just before the housing bubble burst and real estate values plummeted.

Sunset Haven, located on the periphery of Carbondale, Illinois and owned by Southern Illinois University, was a longtime destination for legend tripping in southern Illinois. It was originally the Jackson County Poor Farm almshouse became known as Sunset Haven during the 1940s when it was converted into a nursing home. The nursing home closed in 1957 and Southern Illinois University purchased the property to expand its agricultural program. Around October 26, 2013, a crew from SIU demolished Sunset Haven, leaving nothing but a cement foundation.

White Hall at Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul, Illinois was demolished in 2015. Chanute Air Force Base opened in July 1917. After its closure in 1993, much of the base was divided into residential and commercial properties, but most of the core buildings remain abandoned. Inevitably, local kids exploring the abandoned parts of the base began to bring home unusual stories, particularly regarding White Hall. The building was ruled an environmental hazard and too costly to renovate.

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The ‘Burbs Turns 30

This quintessential Suburban Gothic tale lampooned middle class fears in the 1980s, but remains refreshingly relevant.

Yesterday, my favorite comedy horror film from the 1980s, The ‘Burbs, turned 30. It premiered in theaters on February 17, 1989 and grossed $11 million in its opening weekend, ultimately raking in over $36 million. Though panned by clueless critics who couldn’t see past its campy premise, The ‘Burbs has since become something of a cult classic.

This film had a profound effect on me as a kid. While on the surface a lighthearted satire of ’80s horror, The ‘Burbs delved deep into the American psyche. It stars Tom Hanks, Bruce Dern, and Rick Ducommun as three friends who suspect an eccentric and reclusive family is up to no good in their neighborhood. Carrie Fisher and Corey Feldman also play prominent roles.

The ‘Burbs was written by Dana Olsen and directed by Joe Dante. Olsen, who is usually known for sillier comedies like George of the Jungle (1997) and Inspector Gadget (1999), was inspired to write the script after hearing about gruesome crimes in his own hometown. Joe Dante directed Gremlins (1984), Gremlins 2 (1990), and the TV series Eerie, Indiana (1991-1992), Witches of East End (2013-2014), and Salem (2015-2016). Eerie, Indiana was also about the strange and unusual underbelly of a quaint, unassuming town.

Welcome to Mayfield Place

Ray and Carol Peterson (Hanks and Fisher) live in a picturesque home on Mayfield Place, a cul-de-sac in suburban Hinkley Hills with their son, Dave (Cory Danziger) and their dog, Vince. The Petersons live next door to a dilapidated house owned by a reclusive family named the Klopeks. Dr. Werner Klopek (Henry Gibson), his son, Hans (Courtney Gains), and his brother, Reuben (Brother Theodore), quietly moved into the old Victorian home, which used to be owned by Mr. and Mrs. Knapp.

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Five Things You Didn’t Notice in The ‘Burbs

From obscure film references to subliminal messages, this ’80s dark comedy has it all.

The ‘Burbs, my favorite comedy horror film from the 1980s, turns 30 today. It premiered in theaters on February 17, 1989 and grossed $11 million in its opening weekend, though it was panned by critics who couldn’t see past its campy premise. While on the surface a lighthearted satire of ’80s horror, The ‘Burbs delved deep into the American psyche.

This film had a profound effect on me as a kid, and every time I watch it I discover something new. Have you spotted these subtle hints and references?

Breakfast at the Peterson’s

Ray and Carol Peterson (Tom Hanks and Carrie Fisher) live in a quaint home on Mayfield Place in suburban Hinkley Hills with their son, Dave (Cory Danziger) and their dog, Vince. The Petersons live next door to a dilapidated house owned by a reclusive family named the Klopeks. When Ray looks out the kitchen window to comment on the Klopek’s barren yard, you can see a box of Gremlins Cereal sitting on the counter. Joe Dante, director of The ‘Burbs, also directed Gremlins (1984).

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Details Emerge in Camp Napowan Story

I rescued the following post from my old website, Mysterious Heartland, and decided to re-post it here in case I have any readers interested in Wisconsin folklore or who went to Camp Napowan as a Boy Scout. Enjoy!

After posting an edited transcription of the legend of Boot Hill from Napowan Scout Camp in central Wisconsin (read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3), a reader contacted me with his own insight into the story. In addition to more information about how an audio version of the tale became available, he reveals that a tragic accident in the early 2000s may have squelched its retelling. Here are his remarks:

Hi Michael,

I came across your transcription of the Story of Boot Hill on Mysterious Heartland, and I wanted to give you my recollection. I visited Napowan as a Boy Scout from 1993 to 1999. The first year I went, one of the camp staff was invited to our site to tell the story of Boot Hill. I think he was the camp director at the time, or he became camp director several years later, and I want to say his name was Eric. There were a few additional details that were added to the story in future tellings, as well as a few omissions.

I can only remember one omission regarding the event from 1992. A special needs scout from the Little City sponsored troop (which I believe is also out of Des Planes) got lost, wandered off camp property, and recalled seeing black cats with white paws when he was found. The troop is comprised of mentally challenged adults who were still in attendance during the years I visited camp Napowan. I think the lost scout was an African American guy who went by the name Horse.

Eric took a break from staffing, but returned in the late ’90s. Since he was not there to tell the story, another staff member told the story for the entire camp in 1994 or 1995. His name was Brad Shuman, and he was the director of the Nature program area. He was a creepy guy to begin with, but he did a superb job telling the story. It genuinely scarred a lot of scouts who had to later walk back to their campsites, in the dark, through many of the locations mentioned in the story.

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