An American Crime

A talented cast delivers a boilerplate recitation of horrific events in this movie of the week focusing on the 1965 Sylvia Likens case.

Written and directed by Tommy O’Haver, An American Crime (2007) was based on a case of horrific abuse inflicted on a teenage girl at the hands of Gertrude Baniszewski in her Indiana home during the 1960s. Though released on Showtime and given an R rating by the MPAA, and despite a talented cast, An American Crime never rose above the level of a made-for-TV drama.

Sylvia (Ellen Page) and Jenny (Hayley McFarland) Likens are daughters of carney folk who must go on the road. They leave Sylvia and Jenny in the care of Gertrude Baniszewski (Catherine Keener), a single mother with six children of her own. Baniszewski agrees to care for the girls for $20 a week. She becomes abusive when the payment arrives late, but by then the girls have nowhere to turn. Their attempt to contact their parents backfires when Gertrude finds out and punishes them further.

The abuse escalates when Gertrude’s eldest daughter, Paula (Ari Graynor), becomes pregnant and Sylvia tells the man with whom Paula’s been having an affair, to shield her from his abuse. Paula complains that Sylvia is spreading rumors about her, and Gertrude beats and locks Sylvia in the basement as punishment. In the basement, Gertrude invites her own children to participate in Sylvia’s torture. Can Sylvia and Jenny escape before it’s too late?

When faced with a crime of this magnitude, it’s natural to ask why it happened. What kind of person would do such a thing, and why? Why were the children complicit in the abuse, and what does this say about the nature of evil? Like many true crime dramas, An American Crime takes viewers through a succession of events without getting inside the minds of its characters to address these deeper questions.

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Tippecanoe Place’s Mysterious Woman in White

The majestic Tippecanoe Place Restaurant sits on a small bluff at the southwest corner of West Washington and South Taylor streets in South Bend, Indiana, but it was not always a destination for high class dining. Architect Henry Ives Cobb originally designed this Richardson Romanesque mansion for wagon manufacturer Clement Studebaker for use as a family home.

Cobb also designed the former Historical Society Building in Chicago, which later became the Excalibur Night Club (another famously haunted building).

Shortly after the mansion was completed in February 1889, a fire gutted the interior and it had to be rebuilt. The Studebaker family finally moved in nearly a year later. The 26,000 square-foot mansion had forty rooms and twenty fireplaces. It cost $450,000, including furnishings and the cost to rebuild after the fire. It had no rival in Indiana at the time.

Clement Studebaker named his new home in honor of William Henry Harrison, who won the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811. William Henry was grandfather of President Benjamin Harrison, a close friend of Clem’s.

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‘The Gipper’ Still Roams the University of Notre Dame

The University of Notre Dame was founded in 1842 by Father Edward Sorin, a Catholic priest, and was an all-male institution until 1972. Its motto is, “Vita Dulcedo Spes” or “Life, Sweetness, Hope,” a reference to the Marian hymn Salve Regina. In honor of the Virgin Mary, the university is home to the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes. Built in 1896, is a replica of the original in Lourdes, France. Other famous religious buildings on campus include the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, a neo-gothic church built in 1888.

Notre Dame is famous for its football team, the Fighting Irish. It was this athletic legacy that gave birth to the university’s most enduring legends. In 1920, George “The Gipper” Gipp, from Laurium, Michigan, was selected as Notre Dame’s first All-American football player. Unfortunately, he died of a streptococcal throat infection at the age of 25 on December 14, 1920. Ronald Reagan famously portrayed George Gipp in the 1940 film Knute Rockne, All American.

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Correllianism and the Witch School

The following is an excerpt from my new book Witchcraft in Illinois: A Cultural History. Part of the chapter on contemporary Illinois, the Witch School in Vermillion County had very interesting origins. Order it today on Amazon.com or Barnesandnoble.com

In 1990, a group of Wiccans created the Church of Gaia in Chicago, Illinois, which for many years was home to an Internet-based school called the “Witch School.” Over the next two decades, the Witch School would be influential in the Illinois Wiccan and neo-Pagan community, even after it moved to rural Vermillion County.

Donald Lewis, a cofounder, considers himself to be the inheritor and spiritual leader of the Correllian Nativist Tradition, a neo-pagan sect allegedly founded in the Danville, Illinois area in 1879 by his great grandmother, Caroline High Correll.

“Caroline was a woman of mixed racial heritage who practiced various forms of magic, herbalism, and spiritualism,” he explained. “With her husband John Correll, Caroline ran a circus during summer months and focused on exhibitions during the winter—described as ‘art lectures’ these exhibitions actually showcased many of the new visual and audio technologies that were emerging at the time.”

She was involved with both the Spiritualist and Universalist movements and was associated with Henry and Lydia Beckett of Galveston, Indiana. Henry C. Beckett, who died in 1953 at the age of 83, was pastor of the Galveston Universalist Church for 15 years. His wife, Lydia, was a painter who, according to her obituary, “was also widely known for her antique collection.”

They were married on August 26, 1888 and moved to Galveston in 1905. According to the Logansport Pharos-Tribune, Lydia Beckett “along with being a leading expert in Druidie amulets, read the Tarot, and prepared herbal cures…”

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Suburbicon: A Suburban Gothic Crime Drama

A disgruntled middle manager’s insurance scheme unravels in an idyllic 1950s suburb in Suburbicon (2017). Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) is a middle-aged man with a disabled wife, Rose (Julianne Moore), and a young son, Nicky (Noah Jupe). Their world is shattered when two thugs (Glenn Fleshler and Michael D. Cohen) seemingly break into their home and murder Rose with an overdose of chloroform.

In the wake of the tragedy, Rose’s sister, Margaret (also played by Julianne Moore), moves in with Gardner and Nicky, over the objections of her brother, Mitch (Gary Basaraba). Meanwhile, an African American family, Mr. and Mrs. Mayers (Leith M. Burke and Karimah Westbrook) and their son Andy (Tony Espinosa), move into the all-white community. This ignites a controversy that forms the backdrop for the film.

Suburbicon was written by the Coen brothers and directed by George Clooney (who revised the screenplay). Joel and Ethan Coen originally wrote the script in 1986. Their effort at finding whatever was laying around for their next film paid off by finishing 9th at the box office on its opening weekend. Suburbicon is Matt Damon’s lowest performing film and it has a current rating of 26 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.

Suburbicon is modeled after Levittown, New York, a planned community built by William Levitt between 1947 and 1951 and the nation’s first modern suburb. Levitt, who was Jewish, believed whites would not want to live in Levittown alongside black neighbors, so the original rental agreement excluded non-Caucasians. Levittown remains 88.9 percent white.

In Suburbicon, white mobs subject the Mayers family to 24-hour harassment, culminating in torching their car and hanging a Confederate battle flag in their broken window. Nicky and Andy, however, form a bond, suggesting a more tolerant future.

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Suburban Gothic in The X-Files and Eerie, Indiana

the-x-files-t-1920x1080_v2Suburban Gothic is a form of Dark Romantic storytelling set in a suburban environment. Traditionally associated with aging Victorian mansions, crypts, and other macabre settings, the neat rows of white picket fences, manicured lawns, and modern tract housing of the suburbs may seem like an unusual home for Gothic tales. The suburbs, however, are a logical place for writers and filmmakers to express American Gothic sentiment, and episodes from two television shows in particular, The X-Files (1993-2002) and Eerie, Indiana (1991-1992), help us understand why.

American Gothic is our unique expression of Dark Romanticism, a broader nineteenth century literary and artistic movement. In early nineteenth century America, Romanticism gave rise to two opposing artistic and intellectual movements: Transcendentalism and Dark Romanticism. Transcendentalists believed in the inherent goodness of both people and nature, and that humanity is perfectible. In contrast, Dark Romantics like Edgar Allen Poe (who described Transcendentalism as a disease) believed humans were inherently fallible and prone to sin and self destruction. The modern Suburban Gothic tale is essentially a Dark Romantic argument against Transcendentalism.

In the nineteenth century, some Transcendentalists tried to put their ideas into practice by building utopian communities away from what they considered to be the corrupting influence of modern society. The idea that a carefully planned community could create a new, happier, and more productive life lived on into the twentieth century. As cities become overcrowded, the growing middle class sought refuge from high crime rates, congestion, and unsanitary conditions in nearby planned communities. These housing developments were designed to alleviate  inner city problems through strict zoning laws and community standards. Economic growth after World War 2 made it possible for millions of people to buy mass-produced homes and seek out the “American dream” in the suburbs.

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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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