Murder & Mayhem in Rockford a Macabre Look at Local History

Murder and Mayhem in RockfordMurder & Mayhem in Rockford by Kathi Kresol was published by the History Press (Arcadia Publishing) in November 2015. As a librarian and proprietor of Haunted Rockford Tours, Kresol is intimately familiar with the darker side of her city’s history. Now she has compiled some of those stories, both infamous and lesser-known, into a beautifully designed book sure to be enjoyed by readers interested in both history and true crime.

Murder & Mayhem in Rockford is divided into two parts, aptly named Murder and Mayhem. In part 1, Kresol examines nine murder cases, ranging from the death of a county sheriff to a man who murdered his own sisters. In part 2, she recounts five disasters, accidents, and fires, and ends with three chapters on Prohibition and the Mafia in Rockford from 1920 to 1933.

The events in the book take place in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with a few from the 1960s and ’70s. Kresol shows that Rockford has always been an immigrant melting pot, and despite its early industrial prosperity, has always been a violent place. The participants, victims and perpetrators alike, come to life on the pages.

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The ‘Burbs: An American Gothic Tale

A cul-de-sac in an unassuming Midwestern suburb is the setting for this classic dark comedy from the ’80s. Though underappreciated, The ‘Burbs (1989) is one of my favorite movies and helped spark my interest in the unusual. 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.

Though on the surface a lighthearted satire of ’80s horror, The ‘Burbs delves deep into the American gothic and the double-sided nature of modern American society, a society that consumes true crime, horror, and paranormal books, movies, and television behind picket fences and manicured lawns.

On Mayfield Place in the fictional suburban town of Hinkley Hills, Art Weingartner (Rick Ducommun) and retired Lieutenant Mark Rumsfield (Bruce Dern) suspect a family named Klopek, who live in a dilapidated house next door to Ray Peterson (Tom Hanks), are really satanists responsible for the disappearance of the house’s previous occupants, and later, an old man named Walter Seznick.

Ray Peterson is skeptical, simply wanting to enjoy a quiet weeklong vacation at home with his wife (Carrie Fisher) and son. Strange events gradually convince Ray his friends are right, and they break into the Klopeks’ home seeking evidence of their crimes.

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Mapping the Invisible Landscape: Folklore, Writing, and the Sense of Place

Mapping the Invisible Landscape by Kent C. RydenFirst published in 1993 by the University of Iowa Press, the importance of Mapping the Invisible Landscape: Folklore, Writing, and the Sense of Place by Kent C. Ryden cannot be understated. Alongside The Last Laugh by Raymond Moody, it is one of the few books that has fundamentally changed my perception of the study of folklore and ghost stories. Over the years, I’ve had a number of scattered thoughts on the subject that this book suddenly arranged into a clear picture. Just like that, a light bulb turned on and put everything into perspective. The idea that folklore is fundamental to how we understand and experience the places in which we live is simple, but often overlooked. The author, Kent Ryden, holds a Ph.D. in American Civilization from Brown University. He was awarded the American Studies Association’s Ralph Henry Gabriel Dissertation Prize in 1991 for an earlier version of the book.

Mapping the Invisible Landscape is divided into five essays. The first, “Of Maps and Minds: The Invisible Landscape,” the second, “Folklore and the Sense of Place,” and the fifth, “The Essay of Place: Themes in the Cartography of the Invisible Landscape,” are the three most important. The remaining two essays are just detailed examples of the theories developed elsewhere in the book using history, geography, and literature. If Mapping the Invisible Landscape has a flaw, it’s that it tends to get bogged down in rich, detailed descriptions that start to meander away from the central theme. Though interesting, the third and fourth essays can be skipped in their entirety without taking anything away from the book.

Ryden’s fundamental insight is that places hold meaning for us, and that folklore is an important vehicle for expressing that meaning. Maps only convey a limited amount of information about a place. Physical geography is limited to a stark, black and white description of the landscape and says nothing about the wealth of human experience there. Ryden calls this collection of stories, recollections, feelings, and history the “Invisible Landscape.” It is the meaning we impose on the physical world, a meaning that is exclusive to human experience.

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Power and Force in ‘Crash’

On the surface, the Academy Award-winning film Crash (2004) purports to be an emotional portrayal of race and prejudice in America. Through a series of interwoven vignettes, the filmmakers portray characters of several different races and ethnic backgrounds as they interact over the course of two or three days on the streets of Los Angeles. At every point in the film, the main characters express prejudice in one form or another. Some are seemingly redeemed after dramatic moments, and others never change.

The message of Crash is, perhaps, that everyone harbors some form of prejudice. However, social critics like Bell Hooks have maintained that Crash utterly fails in its attempts to discuss race or class, and instead actually confirms and reinforces typical Hollywood stereotypes.

If Crash was solely a film about race or class, Bell Hooks may have a point. When viewed through the lens of race, Crash is, of course, a cynical portrayal of race relations in which all Americans are trapped in a never-ending cycle of hatred, remorse, and self-loathing (aside from a few moments of catharsis). But Crash falls flat in its attempts to discuss those issues, partially because those issues are not what the film is really about. Looking a little deeper past issues of race or class, Crash is a film about power and force (the raw exercise of power).

For instance, in the second scene, a Persian man and his daughter walk into a gun store to buy a pistol and they begin to chat in Farsi. The store clerk, whose persona is reminiscent of Archie Bunker, mistakes the pair for Arabs, insults the man, and they argue. The store clerk instructs his security guard (who apparently has been standing off camera) to remove him. At this point, the store clerk has exercised force to remove a perceived threat. He could have thrown the man’s daughter out as well, but chose not to. He then bombards her with sexual innuendos as she attempts to complete the purchase.

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Goatman: A Refreshing Look at a Strange Legend

Goatman: Flesh or Folklore? by J. Nathan Couch
Goatman: Flesh or Folklore? by J. Nathan Couch

What do we make of the hundreds of legends and sightings of alleged half-man, half-goat creatures across America? This is the question J. Nathan Couch attempts to answer in his new book Goatman: Flesh or Folklore? Published by the author in 2014, Goatman is 152 pages and is available in both print and digital formats. Its cover, a dark, haunting image of a cloven hoofed creature with thick horns and an eerily human face, was illustrated by Amber Michelle Russell.

Before reading this book, I was only peripherally aware of the goatman legend. I vaguely recalled that I had heard something about a goatman once, but never took the idea seriously. One of the many redeeming qualities of Goatman is the author’s awareness that yes, most people find the notion of a half-man, half-goat to be absurd. Yet he demonstrates that this creature has been a persistent (albeit obscure) part of American folklore since at least the 1960s. Always straddling the line between skepticism and belief, Couch examines every possibility, from the mundane to the magical.

Couch begins his exploration in his own backyard, Washington County in southeastern Wisconsin. Washington County is home to several locations believed to be visited by a creature known as “Goatman.” Fascinated by the tale, Couch soon discovered other goatman legends in Missouri, Maryland, Texas, California, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Indiana. The tales varied. In some, the goatman stalked lover’s lanes in search of amorous teenagers to kill. In others, the goatman was the result of a cruel genetic experiment gone wrong. In still others, he was a wild recluse or an escapee from a carnival freak show.

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Snowden: A Masterfully-Crafted Fairytale

Last night, a handful of people and I watched the premier of Oliver Stone’s latest film, Snowden, a biopic about NSA whistle blower Edward Snowden. Oliver Stone, who turned 70 today, has written and directed over two dozen films, many of which are considered masterpieces. Alexander, Natural Born Killers, JFK, and Platoon are among my personal favorites. A live interview with Oliver Stone, Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who played Snowden), Shailene Woodley (who played Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay Mills), and Edward Snowden himself followed the premier.

Oliver Stone is known for his politically-charged movies, and he doesn’t try to hide his biases. Snowden is an effective piece of propaganda. It’s nearly flawless as a film in terms of acting, editing, pacing, and dialog, but lacks the depth usually given to such a controversial subject.

First, here’s what Snowden gets right. Every actor and actress in this movie is on point. Every character feels genuine. Nicolas Cage, in top form, even makes a cameo as Hank Forrester, a (fictional) disillusioned CIA instructor. Shailene Woodley is perfect as Lindsay Mills, a free spirited, liberal photographer Snowden falls in love with.

One of the advantages of portraying a living person is you are able to study their mannerisms, tone, and expressions. Joseph Gordon-Levitt studied his subject well. Levitt, as Snowden, narrates throughout the entire film, as he is telling his story to a group of journalists, but the dialog is tight and the narration never gets bogged down in needless exposition.

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Carbondale After Dark: An Underground History of SIU

The following is not a fable — it all really happened and it has no morals.”

Carbondale After Dark by HB Koplowitz
Carbondale After Dark by HB Koplowitz

I first became aware of H.B. Koplowitz’s Carbondale After Dark and Other Stories while I was doing research on Southern Illinois University for a book on the legends and lore of Illinois colleges. Carbondale After Dark was first published by the author in 1982. A 25th anniversary limited edition was released in 2007. The new edition contains a foreword by actor Dennis Franz, a Backword by humorist P.S. Mueller, and of course a new acknowledgements by the author himself. At 132 pages, Carbondale After Dark can almost be read in one sitting, but you will want to pick it apart piece by piece. The book contains standalone articles (as opposed to one linear narrative) so there is no need to read it from cover to cover.

During the 1960s and ‘70s, SIU-C went from a small rural teacher’s college to a major university in just a few short years. That shift permanently altered the landscape of Carbondale, Illinois, creating what became known as “the Strip.” Since then, the Strip has been the scene of mass parties, riots, and a lot of fond memories. H.B. Koplowitz was right in the middle, writing for alternative publications and documenting these changes as they happened.

Carbondale After Dark is divided into three sections: The Strip, Pontifications, and A Koplowitz Now. The highlight of the book is the section devoted to Carbondale’s Strip, which also takes up the most amount of pages. What particularly stands out is a year-by-year history of the strip, from its inception to the early 1980s. Student parties and protests are mentioned, but the author also documents the origin of SIU’s massive annual Halloween party, which was a fixture of campus life until a particularly devastating riot in 2000.

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