Nightmare on Main Street

For someone who begins by insulting horror fans as “losers,” Mark Edmundson has produced a work that is surprisingly as insightful as it is presumptive. Nightmare on Main Street: Angels, Sadomasochism, and the Culture of Gothic (1999) is essentially a long essay, broken into three related sections. His premise is bold: that we live in a culture saturated by the Gothic. The problem with his argument is glaring: his definition of “Gothic” is extremely broad.

“America is a nation of extremes,” he wrote, where the pessimistic and the optimistic, in equally unrealistic forms, constantly battle over the hearts and minds of the American public. On one hand stands A Nightmare on Elm Street and Oprah, and on the other side stands Forrest Gump.

It might surprise you to find Oprah Winfrey and Freddy Krueger in the same category. According to Edmundson, the single most important aspect of the Gothic is the hero-villain who does wrong, but is, in the end, internally conflicted. Since the guests on the Oprah Winfrey Show often satisfy that description, Oprah joins the ranks of the Gothic. So did news stories about the O.J. Simpson case, for that matter.

Therein lies the problem with Nightmare on Main Street. Edmundson considers any portrayal of a duel nature in humanity to be Gothic. Never mind the elements of setting, mood, or the supernatural that make Gothic literature and film so unique. Those are all pushed aside in favor of the broadest possible characterization.

This problem seems so glaring I’m surprised that neither Richard Rorty nor Michael Pollan, two scholars who Edmundson credited for helping to shape his argument, didn’t catch it right away. Just because something shares an aspect with Gothic literature and film doesn’t make it Gothic as well. If you made a Venn diagram, and on one side you had the Oprah Winfrey Show and on the other you had Gothic novels, the overlapping part would be comically small.

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Chicago Haunted Handbook Features a Few Surprises

You would be wrong if you thought nothing more could be written about Chicago ghostlore. Chicago Haunted Handbook: 99 Ghostly Places You Can Visit in and Around the Windy City (2013) by Jeff Morris and Vince Sheilds discovered new gems among well-worn territory. Though a little dated at this point, it still offers enough tales to delight readers.

Published by Clerisy Press, Chicago Haunted Handbook is part of the “America’s Haunted Road Trip” series. At 226 pages and with a retail price of $15.95, this book invites you to, “Join in Chicago’s Grandest Ghost Hunt.” It features 99 haunted places, along with four “places that didn’t quite make the book.” The locations are divided into five sections: Cemeteries; Bars and Restaurants; Roads and Bridges; Parks; and Museums, Theaters, Hotels, and other Buildings.

The authors are an unlikely pair. Jeff Morris, from Cincinnati, Ohio, is an experienced author with several titles under his belt. Vince Sheilds was born in Elgin in 1984 and moved to Chicago in 2006, where he formed the Chicago Paranormal Investigators.

I’ve read just about every book on Illinois ghostlore, so I look at them with a discerning eye. Chicago Haunted Handbook has several good qualities that make it worth owning. First, it features several locations seldom covered by other books. The old Huntley Grease Factory is my favorite, but the Polish Museum of America, Joliet Potter’s Field, Tyrell Road Cemetery, and The Drinkingbird, are all relatively new.

Second, the book contains an appendix of day tripping “mini tours.” Each features a couple of different stops (or days), with a different location for each stop. There is even a haunted pub crawl and a gangster tour. I enjoy extras like this, especially since it allows you to explore these places at your own pace (as opposed to going on a bus tour).

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Paranormal Obsession: America’s Fascination with Ghosts & Hauntings

Paranormal Obsession: America’s Fascination with Ghosts & Hauntings, Spooks & Spirits by Deonna Kelli Sayed is a book I really wanted to enjoy. Despite its redeeming qualities, however, it feels too much like a first draft. The book promises to be a fresh look at the paranormal in American pop culture, with an insider’s view of paranormal reality TV shows like Ghost Hunters.

The interesting tidbits it delivers, however, are too often undermined by the author’s undeveloped writing style. Even as an introductory work, it fails to summarize the history of interest in the paranormal as succinctly or as accurately as other books on the subject.

Paranormal Obsession was published in 2011 by Llewellyn Publications. The author, Deonna Kelli Sayed, has lived in and traveled throughout Central Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and Africa (she describes herself as a “Global Citizen”). She was a paranormal investigator with Haunted North Carolina from 2008 to 2011. She has an academic background in social theory and postmodern thought, and this was her first book.

I found the chapter on SyFy Channel’s Ghost Hunters to be its most interesting section. As a skeptic of paranormal reality TV, I was eager to glimpse behind the curtain at The Atlantic Paranormal Society (TAPS) and its founders, Grant Wilson and Jason Hawes. Like many viewers, I assumed the show was fake, and like many others, I have frequently blamed Ghost Hunters for spawning hundreds of wannabe paranormal investigators whose knowledge of the subject goes no deeper than what they see on TV. Sayed acknowledges these criticisms while letting Jason Hawes tell his side of the story.

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Wisconsin Road Guide to Mysterious Creatures: a Fantastic Window to the Unknown

Chad Lewis and Terry Fisk are known for their “Road Guide” series on haunted places in Illinois, Iowa, Florida, Minnesota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin, which I consider to be excellent resources. Published by On the Road Publications in 2011, The Wisconsin Road Guide to Mysterious Creatures is a solo project by Chad Lewis.

It shares many of the same features as previous Road Guides, but focuses entirely on crypto and mythological creatures. This makes the book particularly interesting, since the prospects for running into an unknown creature are slightly better than an ethereal specter.

Although organized by case number and not in any explicit order, the chapters in The Wisconsin Road Guide to Mysterious Creatures do seem to be arranged by type of creature. The first three chapters are devoted to evil beings, the next seven to aquatic monsters, then aliens, werewolves, gnomes and halflings, bigfoot, and finally, a vampire.

It seems Wisconsin has its share of nearly every type of mythological creature, some of which are clearly influenced by the heavy concentration of residents with German and Scandinavian heritage. Each chapter includes directions, a summary of the lore, a short history, and an investigation log explaining what the author encountered when he visited. There is eyewitness testimony when available, and even sketches and photos.

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Ghosts: Appearances of the Dead & Cultural Transformation

How have apparitions of the dead appeared in Western culture over the centuries? How has that appearance changed? Why has that appearance changed? These are the questions Ronald C. Finucane, late Distinguished Professor of History at Oakland University in Auburn Hills, Michigan, tackles in his book Ghosts: Appearances of the Dead and Cultural Formation.

The answers he finds may surprise you. Finucane, who died in 2009, was a Medieval historian with a Ph.D. from Stanford University. He was also a Fellow at the Royal Historical Society and author of five books.

Most academics would probably dismiss a study like this, since they do not consider the supernatural to be a “serious subject,” or at least, not one to be taken seriously. Finucane, however, argued that ghosts are a fundamental part of Western culture, and should be open to academic study.

As Finucane explained, “Even though ghosts or apparitions may exist only in the minds of their percipients, the fact of that existence is a social and historical reality: the phenomena represent man’s inner universe just as his art and poetry do.”

Beginning in the Classical Era of Greece and Rome and ending in the twentieth century, Finucane carefully dissected the cultural phenomenon of ghosts. Not surprisingly, he found that ghosts have changed over the millennia. Their appearance, their purpose, and their mode of communication with the living have all undergone important transformations.

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War Flowers: Amateur Effort Makes this History Buff Cringe

A Southern belle waiting for her husband to come home falls for a wounded Union soldier in this silly Civil War drama.

Written and directed by Serge Rodnunsky, War Flowers (2012) is a vanity period film staring a surprising cast, including veteran actors Christina Ricci and Tom Berenger. A few charming performances save this otherwise meandering and strange take on American history from being too unbearable to watch, but history buffs will cringe.

Union general McIntire (Tom Berenger) lost two sons at the Battle of Antietam, so when his army invades an unnamed valley in North Carolina in 1863, he tries to send his third son, Louis (Jason Gedrick), back home before the war ends. Eager to get into the fight, Louis disobeys his father but gets wounded and seeks shelter in a farm house.

The house is owned by Sarabeth Ellis (Christina Ricci) and her daughter Melody (Gabrielle Popa), who are waiting for Sarabeth’s husband, John (Bren Foster), to return from the war. Sarabeth believes John has been killed, but Melody has faith. Short on food, they’re harassed by a local derelict, Rufus (Kurt Yaeger).

As the fortunes of war swirl around their farm, Sarabeth must decide whether to embrace her unwelcome Yankee visitor and perhaps move on with her life, or give up and succumb to the horrors of war. Things look bleak when Louis McIntire is captured by his own men, mistaken for a Confederate, and left in the stockade by his father. Will the two reunite and survive?

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That Time Antonio Banderas Starred in a Movie Romanticizing Benito Mussolini

Spanish-born actor Antonio Banderas was hot in the mid-1990s, starring in Hollywood films like Philadelphia (1993), Interview with the Vampire (1994), Desperado (1995), Evita, (1996), and The Mask of Zorro (1998). Before his career in the United States took off, however, he starred in a little known Italian miniseries later released as a film about a young, handsome and idealistic Italian socialist who became an influential Italian leader. That Italian leader was Benito Mussolini.

Wait… what?

Written by Vincenzo Cerami, et al, and directed by Gianluigi Calderone, Benito (1993) was a 307-minute Italian made-for-TV movie starring then 32-year-old Antonio Banderas in the titular role. It was later released as a film in the U.S. by Lions Gate Entertainment. The movie charts Mussolini’s rise from young laborer to socialist revolutionary leader, ending prior to his creation of the National Fascist Party. The topic of pre-World War I Italian socialism is a little too esoteric for American audiences, so Lions Gate probably released this in the U.S. to capitalize on Antonio Banderas’ popularity.

It seems strange to think of 20th Century Italian Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini as a left-wing political figure, but if it wasn’t for World War I, that may have been his claim to fame. Mussolini’s father, Alessandro Mussolini, was a socialist who named his son Benito Amilcare Andrea after Mexican president Benito Juárez and Italian socialists Andrea Costa and Amilcare Cipriani. As a young man, Mussolini avoided military service by hiding in Switzerland, where he studied Marxist philosophy, became active in labor unions, and wrote for the socialist newspaper L’Avvenire del Lavoratore. Back in Italy, he joined the Socialist Party and became editor of its newspaper, Avanti.

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No Safe Spaces: Powerful but Incomplete

Adam Carolla and Dennis Prager deliver a powerful rebuke to radical campus activism, but fail to explore its root causes.

I watched Adam Carolla and Dennis Prager’s new documentary No Safe Spaces (2019) in a nearly-sold out theater in Alexandria last night. While it was a decent summery of the latest threats to freedom of speech and expression, and the audience loved it, there were some glaring omissions that left the film feeling incomplete.

If you’ve been paying attention over the past several years, you’ve noticed the rise in political activism on both the right and left has led to some alarming developments, including riots, street clashes, and an effort to “de-platform” opposing views on the Internet. No public space has been at the forefront of this conflict more than college campuses.

No Safe Spaces highlights two of the most dramatic episodes of campus activism and political correctness run amok: Bret Weinstein and the 2017 Evergreen State College riots, and the 2016 riots at California State University that targeted conservative political commentator Ben Shapiro.

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