Witch Trials, Hysterical Nuns And Not Haunted Houses: Horror Nonfiction Bizarre Book Club

Good morning my little cups of fiery chai, I’ve been reading some very interesting books lately.

I’m drawn to the myths of ghosts, black magic, the Devil and other spooky things, but what I really love is clearing the fog of legend and finding what’s really underneath. To me the truth behind a haunting is infinitely more interesting than the initial stories, though I respect believers of the paranormal and would never make fun of them. Each to their own.

All three of these books take incidents or places that have been imbued with supernatural meaning and show us the ‘truth.’

1. Witchfinders by Malcolm Gaskill

The story of Matthew Hopkins, the self-titled ‘Witchfinder General,’ is quite close to my heart as I live in Essex and his numerous victims were held in a castle not far from me. Witchfinders painstakingly recounts the journey he took through Essex and Suffolk, whipping the people into a frenzy of blame and fear, and on through the trials and executions themselves.

The concept of witch-hunting in the magical sense seems alien to us now but Malcolm Gaskill does a great job of explaining the world of magic people lived in and how the uncertainty of the Civil War affected them. The thorough research helped me to better understand what might have been going through the minds of each player, even Matthew Hopkins himself.

2. Ghostland by Colin Dickey

This is a fascinating tour through the most mythologised houses, hotels, hospitals and even cities of America. Drawn to the ghosts, he strips back the stories and locates the factual accounts. If it sounds like he’s made them boring, trust me, he hasn’t.

One example is the famous Winchester Mystery House, long believed to have been created by a widow half mad with loss and guilt over the deaths of her husband and the victims of the gun he created, building endlessly to confuse any spirits seeking revenge. But, fantastically, the tale everyone including myself assumed to be fact isn’t, and this is only one of the little surprises in its pages.

This quote sums it up very well: “More than just simple urban legends and campfire tales, ghost stories reveal the contours of our anxieties, the nature of our collective fears and desires, the things we can’t talk about in any other way. The past we’re most afraid to speak aloud of in the bright light of day is the same past that tends to linger in the ghost stories we whisper in the dark.”

3. The Devils Of Loudun by Aldous Huxley

You might recognise the story of Grandier, the French priest whom women loved, men hated and burned as a witch after nuns became hysterical, from the Ken Russell film The Devils (1971). You may also recognise it’s author as the infamous psychonaut and writer of The Doors of Perception.

Where the two previous books are distantly fascinated and relatively dispassionate, Aldous Huxley’s philosophy and personality runs strongly throughout. Normally I wouldn’t like this, but he’s so well read and intelligent that it doesn’t matter.

It gives the story an air of being told by someone who knew the people personally, who smelled the horrible smells of seventeenth century France and had befriended Grandier, in spite and because of his complexities and contradictions.
Mass hysteria is a fascination of mine and anything that can go some way towards explaining it or recreating it in my mind is a definite winner.
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Believe It Or Not! 6 Scary, Creepy Or Weird Full Online Documentaries For Halloween

Doesn’t the air smell of faded leaves and over excitement?! I for one can barely wait to start digging up bodies and spoon feeding them cake and chocolate. That’s what you do, right?

The evenings are drawing in and what better way to relax than with a few informative, yet suitably weird, documentaries?

The Addams Family

These first three really count as one. I’m not sure what TV channel broadcast them first or if they were DVD extras, but it’s a 2007 look at the TV series and original cartoons of the Addams Family.

The Aswang Phenomenon

If you’ve seen bizarre cult classic Mystics of Bali you may have heard of the witch who separates her head from her body and floats through the air…her lungs and spine dangling beneath. Well, apparently they have a similar creature in the Philippines, the Aswang, who oddly seems to take many other forms according to whoever tells the story.

Ripley Believe it or Not!

Ripley’s Museum of Oddities will always hold a special place in my heart as Bill and I visited for our second date (my choice of course).

This documentary charts Ripley’s beginnings from cartoonist to global weirdo phenomenon, celebrating those who always felt a bit different on the way.

Frankenstein and the Vampyre, a Dark and Stormy Night

Two legendary horror monsters were created during the same holiday in Geneva, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley and the modern, aristocratic vampire by John Polidori. Also with them were poets Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont.

Their trip isn’t just famous for their creative output, however, there were also drugs, sexual confusion and scandal. Exciting!

If you’d like to see more documentaries on romantic gothic literature, including the Brontes and Edgar Allen Poe, toddle off to this link here.

Urban Legends

An atmospheric wander through urban legends that turned out to have some basis in fact, whether before or after the telling. Remember, Halloween wouldn’t be the same if we didn’t all think nice old ladies were trying to kill us with sweets (candy).

Sacred Weeds: Henbane the Witch’s Brew

This was one of the oddest documentaries I remember from the 90s. It seemed to me that during that period everything went very sun and moon and incense, and to be honest I still secretly love it. There were four episodes in the series; Blue Lily, Henbane, Salvia Divinorum and Fly Agaric, but Henbane deals with Gothic folklore and witch trials.

The premise is what makes it so strange, two people turn up to a castle in the middle of nowhere so scientists in suits can watch them trip out of their tiny minds. The scientists argue before the trial and after, not a single one agreeing or changing their mind in the least. To be honest, though, fair enough if you’ve done the research and others clearly haven’t.

Watch out for the man who seems to have wandered in from some fetish dream, declaring with little to no evidence that witches definitely rubbed ointment on their vaginas and held naked sabbats.

Drugs, Murder and The Occult: My Top 6 Books on Silent Movie Scandals

Some people think silent films are boring, but those people are wrong and probably live in a cupboard only emerging to feed on squirrels. That’s my hunch, anyway.

There was as much artistry back then as now with possibly even more freedom to tell the strangest stories (think of German Expressionism or A Page of Madness). Then of course there was Hollywood and it’s beautiful stars with fabricated back stories (Theda Bara was “born in the shadow of the Sphinx,” otherwise known as Cincinnati).

Theda Bara, the exotic beauty from Cinci...uh, Egypt
Theda Bara, the exotic beauty from Cinci…uh, Egypt

Flush with newfound wealth and stardom they partied hard – to the chagrin of studio moguls keen to raise movies from a penny arcade novelty into a viable business. In the late twenties the onset of sound was used against performers if there was so much as a whisper of bad press. “Her voice wasn’t right,” was the general excuse for firings, “people would have laughed.”

These books pick through that era of dread and anxiety, beauty and art. It’s my top 6 books on silent movie scandals!

1.Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood by William J Mann is a trip into the darkest guts of silent Hollywood. This book deals with the murder of director and anti censorship spokesperson William Desmond Taylor and the cast of suspects, mainly eccentric women, surrounding him.

Each character and the part they played in both the murder and Hollywood at large is vividly explored from a low down blackmailer to madly ambitious mogul Adolph Zukor, and we really get into their heads without straying too far into fiction. Recovering cocaine addict and scandal magnet Mabel Normand is entertaining to read all by herself, as is Taylor’s manservant Henry Peavey. What he suffered at the hands of the press because of his skin colour is appalling, though sadly not surprising.

William Desmond Taylor
William Desmond Taylor
Mabel being all metaphorical
Mabel being all metaphorical

All in all, if I did a rating system (probably using kittens), this would be high up there. If you’re after further reading the author cited the Taylorology site as a useful resource.

Here’s a brief overview of the case and those involved:

2. Lulu in Hollywood by Louise Brooks. Lousie Brooks was an actress and dancer with a keen observational eye. In this collection of articles she wrote for film magazines she takes us on a sparkling tour of the twenties, a world where producers were offended if an actress wouldn’t sleep with them for a part (which I’m sure still happens) and talking pictures were an impending boogyman.

Hollywood had a low opinion of starlets and you can imagine the egos shattered by a conversation with straight-talking Louise. She wasn’t a girl to fawn over someone just because they could advance her career, which proved her downfall. Her story highlights how unfair a closed rank system can be.

Louise Brooks
Louise Brooks

However, luckily for us, she made a clutch of dark European movies. Pandora’s Box by GW Pabst was one of them, a film deemed so scandalous that, after cutting, only ten minutes was shown in some American cinemas. It’s the story of her own life, she says, from carefree nymph to lonely derelict.

After a few years attempting a comeback and wandering the earth as a regular person, she found her voice as a really wonderful writer who makes you feel as if she’s popped round with some bathtub gin for a chat. Her wit and humour lightens this sort-of autobiography in which she candidly shares Pabst’s frustrations at her flightly nature as well as thoughts on the stars and moguls of the day, including Charlie Chaplin and Clara Bow.

Clip of a Louise Brooks documentary:

3. Witchcraft Through The Ages: The Story of Haxan, The World’s Strangest Film, And The Man Who Made It by Jack Stevenson. This is a very interesting background into the making of the Swedish/Danish film Haxan, a film sharing strange similarites with Pre-code oddity Freaks. Both were said to have been too ‘perverse’ for audiences of the day and hastened the end of their maker’s careers.

However the book is a little unclear when remarking on creator Benjamin Christensen’s personality. Here’s a little example: “Christensen had always believed that actors must immerse themselves in their roles. What then might the Devil demand of young, attractive witches in exchange for Supernatural favours? …They would do anything for a pile of gold. What would they do in real life for the pile of gold of becoming famous movie stars?”

He may well have exploited young women but with evidence like that who knows? There’s no quotes from actresses or anybody else. You could as easily say that anyone working in a cake shop will definitely store cakes around the back and stuff them into their mouths late at night whilst weeping (that’s in no way autobiographical).

Erm, can I help you?

Despite this there are some amusing stories, such as the old lady (Maron Pederson) almost fainting when entering Christensen’s office and finding him painted as the Devil for his role in the film. Maron Pederson was a ‘real’ superstitious woman Christensen had met selling flowers and brought in for authenticity. When I watched the torture scene I felt sad and upset for her and perhaps now I know why. Actor Ib Schonberg said on witnessing the scene being filmed that the director had fastened a leash onto the woman’s leg which “he pulled in order to get her to move toward or away from the camera.”

The entirety of filming seems to have been an extreme and hallucinatory experience. Actress Alice O’Fredericks said “I was 17 years old and involved in that shocking scene in which thirty or forty nuns went amok…Afterwards, when we were all level-headed again, we found it all to be extremely upsetting. We were really bizarre.”

The polarised reactions are also examined, from accusations of “Satanic perversity and gruesomness” to simply being “gloomy.” No-one had ever seen anything like it. Academics and the later Surrealists, however, praised it and a version was released in the 60s with William Burroughs providing commentary. The general opinion now is that it’s the high point of his career.

Haxan trailer:

4. Room 1219: The Life of Fatty Arbuckle, the Mysterious Death of Virginia Rappe, and the Scandal That Changed Hollywood by Greg Merritt. Before you go thinking you know all about this case from either angle I’d suggest having a read of this fantastically researched book. It contains the most plausible explanation of what happened that I’ve read so far.

The writer clearly loves silent film and it shows, with many chapters serving as a background to the burgeoning industry and the careers of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Buster Keaton.

Buster Keaton in 'The Navigator'
Buster Keaton in ‘The Navigator’

Both Roscoe and Virginia Rappe quite probably (nobody can ever really know what happened for certain) wound up as victims when an unfortunate night turned scandal of the decade because of those with their own agendas. First were the would-be blackmailers who arrived at Roscoe’s hotel room for a party, and secondly was the Temperence Society determined to clean up the ‘sinful’ moving pictures using the incident as an example. The reputations of Roscoe and Virginia have suffered unfairly, from Virginia’s denouncement as a ‘carrier of venereal disease who died of a botched abortion’ to ‘Fatty the Destroyer of Women.’ Room 1219 is sensitively written and cuts through both both myths.

Clips of Virginia Rappe in His Musical Sneeze 1919

5. Scandals of classic Hollywood: Sex Deviance and Drama From the Golden Age of American Cinema by Anne Helen Petersen. Golly! Gee-whizz! Scandaltastic! My only complaint with this book is that I could have read three times as much. Anne Helen Petersen writes regularly for Buzzfeed and has written an article about Clara Bow for The Hairpin. Also her dissertation was in celebrity gossip, so she’s nothing if not qualified to tell us these stories. Am I the only one who wants to read that dissertation? Have a look at her article on the bonus chapter on Chinese actress Anna May Wong.

It doesn’t only focus on silent films, instead branching out into Marlon Brando’s mumbling and Bogart’s affair with Lauren Bacall among others, but I think we can agree classic Hollywood is classic Hollywood and each tale of misdeeds is as interesting as the next. One of the silent chapters looks at the hapless Clara Bow in greater depth, a woman Petersen describes as “so … MODERN. Like she could be a star today. It’s her movement, her eyes, the way she flirts with the camera.”

Unfortunately her time at the top was hampered by a tendency to be honest about her humble New York beginnings as well as a penchant for men, alcohol and gambling. It shouldn’t have been a problem, really, as long as she was making films people enjoyed, but even today people have a strange demand for abstinence from their stars. Things came to a head after the crash of 1929 and a series of high profile accusations leading to a court case.

Here’s a clip from her 1927 hit It (so named after author Elinor Glyn was asked by publicists to say that Clara had “it,” or sex-appeal, thus making her the first ‘it girl’):

6. Ruan Ling-Yu: The Goddess of Shanghai by Richard J Meyer. I must confess I haven’t read this book on tragic Chinese actress Ruan Ling-Yu, or “The Chinese Garbo” as she was known in Western parts, so I can’t really recommend it. However I will get it when my budget allows. She committed suicide at just 24 after a flood of bad press regarding her extra marital relationship (she was seperated from her gambling husband) and her acting and films were critized. The Goddess is probably her most famous film.

Crucifixion Re-enactment, Girl Whipping and Death Dancing: Odd Easter Customs

Merry almost Easter! Is it me or does the date keep changing? Here we’re used to exchanging eggs and dancing naked whilst weeping (just me?) but other countries have their own ideas of spring tradition.

1. Girl Whipping (and Soaking) in Eastern Europe. Yes, show those Slovak ladies who’s boss! In the Czech Republic you give them a good hiding with a willow stick and then a dousing with freezing water! The water tradition occurs elsewhere in Eastern Europe too. Apparently the voracity of the dousing can vary from “having a teaspoon of warm tap water dribbled over you to a bucket of frigid well water thrown at you.” Likewise the strength of the stick beating can depend on how drunk people are, but it’s not really supposed to hurt. Read more about it here.madeleine-swann-slovak-whipping-easter

2. Semana Santa in Spain and Latin America. An odd spectacle indeed, chosen members of the Christian Order of Penitents wear robes known as capirotes. Read more (and see videos and pictures) here.

semana-santa-madeleine-swann-easter
Semana Santa

3. Crucifixion in the Philippines. Flagellation, genuine crucifixion… these people take the grim part of religion very seriously. Be warned, the video below features some very unpleasant business. Have a read about it here.

4. ‘Halloween’ Easter in Finland. In a kind of reverse trick or treat children dress up as witches and bring gifts door to door. Those gifts might be twigs and crepe paper but it’s the thought that counts, and they still manage to extort chocolate so all is right with the universe.

5. Pot smashing in Greece. Greeks just love breaking stuff! If you’re ever annoyed with a person it’s probably best to get down there and smash up a load of china – just be sure they’re not trying to eat off it at the time.

6. The Dance of Death in Spain. If you go to Verges, Costa Brava, you may find yourself surrounded by a procession of skeletons. Apparently to remind people that ‘death can occur at any time,’ everyone dances to drums and carries something ‘death related’ such as a scythe.

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The Death Dance in Verges
Easter-Dance-Macabre-Death-Verges-Spain-images-188
The Death Dance in Verges