Tag Archives: poltergeist

160 – Texas Chainsaws, Space Vampires, and The Poltergeist Curse: Remembering Tobe Hooper

Filmmaker Tobe Hooper passed away on August 26th, 2017 at the age of 74. Hooper was most famous for being the director on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Poltergeist, but he also set his indelible mark on great films like Salem’s Lot and (the extremely under appreciated, in my opinion) Lifeforce. While he’ll always be remembered for having a massive impact on the the horror genre with his first big film, his other works have had real life paranormal urban legends and inspirations behind them. Allison from Milwaukee Ghosts, Wendy, and I talk about they recent Mothman investigations (Allison in Chicago and Wendy just went to Point Pleasant, West Virginia) and then we get right into our favorite Tobe Hooper movies.

First of all, we discuss the marketing behind The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, because the original tagline said that it was based on true events – which is completely not true! Of course, that kind of marketing helps sell tickets and makes something even scarier (just think about The Conjuring as a modern example). That little bit of brilliance helped Tobe Hooper turn his $300,000 independent Austin, Texas movie turn into a 146 million dollar (adjusted for inflation) horror juggernaut that inspired sequels, remakes, and even launched the careers of Matthew McConaughey and Renee Zellweger.

But Leatherface was inspired by our own America’s Dairlyand homegrown Psycho, Ed Gein, who created his own masks of human skin from corpses he’d dig up in the Plainfield, Wisconsin graveyard. Ed died in Wendy and my town of Madison, but Allison has a fun story about her college poetry professor who used to volunteer at socials at the Mendota Mental Health Institute here and even got to dance with Ed himself (who was prone to dementia and considered good natured in his old age.) That was about as far as the “Based on a true story”, Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre got. Silence of the Lambs, Psycho, and a little known Roddy McDowell film called It! were also inspired by Ed Gein.

Tobe Hooper made a huge impact on the cultural zeitgeist with his adaptation of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot for television and 11 years before kids were traumatized by IT, it was vampires in Maine that gave them nightmares.

Tobe Hooper
Hooper and Spielberg on the set of Poltergeist

But then Tobe Hooper hit Hollywood pay dirt by scoring the directing gig for Poltergeist. While there was a controversy that Steven Spielberg might have been the real director, our interest comes from the curse that supposedly followed the actors involved with the production.

The story of the Poltergeist curse has been around for at least 20 years and it involves the fact that the two of the actresses died very young, Dominique Dunne was murdered by her boyfriend and Heather O’Rourke (the girl that says “They’re here”) died of bowel obstruction complications during the filming of Poltergeist III. 

Plenty of stories on the Internet and on reality TV try to make it seem like there’s something to the curse, and the actress who payed the mother in the first two films, JoBeth Williams, even added fuel to the fire by claiming that real skeletons were used during the making of the film (that part might be true!). But beyond the coincidental tragedies of the two young actresses dying young, there really is no other evidence of any Poltergeist curse.

Hooper followed up Poltergeist with the awesome Lifeforce, written by Alien‘s Dan O’Bannon, but also based on Colin Wilson’s work The Space Vampires. Wilson was a fiction and nonfiction writer who would often deal with the paranormal and metaphysical and what makes The Space Vampires extra fun is that Wilson wrote the book on a challenge from Wisconsin author, August Derleth. Derleth is the one who kept H.P. Lovecraft’s world and mythology alive after his death, and he challenged Wilson to write a book in the Lovecraft vein. The Space Vampires was the book, and Tobe Hooper made it come alive (or undead!) with his adaption in Lifeforce. It wasn’t a big box office hit, but it’s been critically reevaluated in recent years for the terror-filled science fiction extravaganza that it was.

tobe hooper the saw is family
Tobe Hooper helping out one of Leatherface’s family onset

After the mid-80s and Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 not lighting the box office on fire, Hooper did mostly television work and one of his coolest shows was a 1991 TV show (hosted by Leonard Nimoy!) called Haunted Lives: True Ghost Stories where he dramatized the events of the haunted Toys R’ Us in Sunnyvale, California. Now, that story means a lot to me since I saw it on That’s Incredible! when I was tiny. It probably was the first “real” ghost story that I can remember.

tobe hooper haunted toys r us
The image captured during the seance

The ghost story of the haunted Toys R’ Us in Sunnyvale, California involves a farm hand in the Nineteenth Century named Yohnny Yohanson who was in love with the owner of the farm’s daughter named Elizabeth. He loves her, she doesn’t love him, he dies in a tragic accident. One hundred years later, there’s a Toys R’ Us built on the site and strange things start occurring. Famous psychic Sylvia Browne shows up, has a seance, tells everyone the story, and they capture a photo during the seance of a “ghost”. It’s a classic ghost story made for TV and it had a huge impact on me as a kid. The fact that Tobe Hooper made a dramatized version of the events (that had way more inventive camera work and effects for a time than these shows usually had!) blew my mind!

Check out this great in-depth article about the Yohnny, Elizabeth, and the haunted Toys R’ Us that is well worth the read! 

1991 Haunted Lives True Ghost Stories – Episode 1 (Real Ghosts) from Jonathan Moser on Vimeo.

And it’s the Toys R’ Us story that helped us decide on this week’s Sunspot song. “Broken Toy” is a track full of 1980s’ nostalgia, when Tobe Hooper was in his directing prime. In the Texas Chainsaw Massacre it’s Sally Hardesty’s “innocence” that saves her, which is  one of the most common tropes of slasher films that followed (deftly parodied in the third act of the first Scream film), but still relatively novel back in 1974. The main thrust of this track is how once youthful innocence is lost, nothing is eve quite the same.

I opened a box of toys I broke,
and the ones that have broken me.Cruising in my lego car,
and Jem was my favorite star,
But I fell in love with a girl,
from a galaxy far, far away.
Hey boy, where did you go?
Life ain’t that simple, don’t you know?
And the Duke boys couldn’t get away,
when I painted in shades of grey.Don’t look me in the eye,
I can’t take what it makes me see.
It opens a box of toys I broke,
and the ones that have broken me.
It reminds me too much,
of the way things used to be.
I can’t play with a broken toy,
I can’t live on a memory.

Ronnie’s got a million guns,
Protecting us from Mao Tse Tsung,
but I don’t want to think about,
”The Day After” today.
Hey boy, what did you say?
Can Voltron make it all okay?
Or will my faith that ran away,
bump into me someday?

Don’t look me in the eye,
I can’t take what it makes me see.
It opens a box of toys I broke,
and the ones that have broken me.
It reminds me too much,
of the way things used to be.
I can’t play with a broken toy,
I can’t live on a memory.


156 – The Unseen Hand: Jenny Ashford and Poltergeists

Jenny Ashford wasn’t a believer. She was always into horror movies, books, and goth culture, but had never had a paranormal experience herself. Interested in fiction and fashion, but never seeing the real thing, that all changed when she met Tom Ross, who was the focus of a poltergeist in his teens. While already a successful author and graphic designer, Jenny seized on the opportunity to start researching and writing paranormal non-fiction. She started with the story of her boyfriend Tom and what his family went through in the 80s, and together they co-wroteThe Mammoth Mountain Poltergeist. Since then she’s written several more books on poltergeist phenomena, The Rochdale Poltergeist and House of Fire and Whispers: Investigating the Seattle Demon House, both with British parapsychologist Steve Mera. Jenny has now compiled well over hundred poltergeist phenomena spanning centuries with her latest work, The Unseen Hand: A New Exploration of Poltergeist Phenomena.

Jenny Ashford
Jenny Ashford

Jenny is a believer in the classic theory of poltergeists having a human agent as its focus (which I also was an adherent to up until our discussion with Geoff Holder.) Allison Jornlin from Milwaukee Ghosts joins us in the conversation as Jenny goes into detail about her own experiences, several of her favorite poltergeist stories, possible hoaxes, possible explanations, the horror that really scares her, and what she and Steve Mera found in the Keith Linder poltergeist case in Seattle that the crew of Ghost Adventures missed.

Check out Jenny’s website right here for more information on her paranormal books, scary horror fiction, and graphic design work. She also blogs horror reviews at Goddess of Hellfire and podcasts with Tom Ross at their show, 13 O’Clock.

For this week’s song, we decided to go into one of the dozens of poltergeist stories that Jenny writes about in the Unseen Hand, the famous story of the Bell Witch, made into a film as An American Haunting and deserving of an episode in its own right, because there is much more than meets the initial eye to it. We take the poem “Queen of the Haunted Dell” from M.V. Ingram’s work, Authenticated History of the Bell Witch from 1894. Ingram knew the Bell family and compiled as much information as he could about it including their own journals and released them after the last of the family who this happened to passed away. He was a journalist and not a poet, but he was inspired to add a poem to his book, and we used that poem as lyrics for this episode’s track, “Queen of the Haunted Dell”.

’Mid woodland bowers, grassy dell,
By an enchanted murmuring stream,
Dwelt pretty blue-eyed Betsy Bell,
Sweetly thrilled with love’s young dream.

Life was like the magic spell,
That guides a laughing stream,
Sunbeams glimmering on her fell,
Kissed by lunar’s silvery gleam.

But elfin phantomas cursed the dell,
And sylvan witches all unsean,
As our tale will truely tell,
Wielded sceptre o’re the queen.

Life was like the magic spell,
That guides a laughing stream,
Sunbeams glimmering on her fell,
Kissed by lunar’s silvery gleam.

But elfin phantomas cursed the dell,
And sylvan witches all unsean,
As our tale will truely tell,
Wielded sceptre o’re the queen.

122 – They’re Here: Hunting Poltergeists With Geoff Holder

Author and screenwriter Geoff Holder has written thirty-six books on the supernatural from haunted guides of Scottish cities to stone circles and zombies, but its his research into hundreds of poltergeist cases throughout history that we wanted to talk with him about. And Allison from Milwaukee Ghosts joins us again for this episode’s interview!

Poltergeist is just the German term for “noisy ghost”. The movie has nothing to do with any kind of poltergeist phenomena that really happens to people, that was more like a family fighting a supernatural war and it gave regular people (you know, non-weirdos who don’t pay enough attention to this stuff) the completely wrong idea about what poltergeist activity was all about.

A poltergeist is paranormal activity where people don’t see a ghost (usually, although Geoff Holder says that there is some visual element in about 15% of the cases he’s researched) but they hear knocking on doors and walls, objects move when no one is around, lights break, lamps are knocked off tables, etc… Poltergeists are troublemakers, but there’s not usually a haunting (i.e., story about a dead person) that accompanies the scene.

One of my parapsychological idols, Loyd Auerbach, discusses poltergeists at length in his awesome do-it-yourself paranormal investigation book ESP, Hauntings, and PoltergeistsAnd it seemed to me that the idea of a poltergeist being a spirit was a relic of a more superstitious time. After all, those peasants just didn’t understand psychokinesis (moving objects with your mind, think about Luke making the light saber fly to his hand in the Wampa cave).

I always thought that it was not a spirit or intelligent haunting but a manifestation of psychic energy coming from a pubescent girl. Her blossoming into womanhood also involves throwing a lot of plates around with her mind bullets. In fact, this is the explanation used in an episode of the totally sweet 80s show, Shadow Chasers,  and good God I loved that show when I was 8.

Make sure you listen to this awesome theme song, it’s like a paranormal Pointer Sisters.

But come to think about it, Auerbach uses the teenager poltergeist hypothesis in his book and he was a parapsychology adviser to the Shadow Chasers TV show, so of course they’re going to go with that narrative! And it’s been a popular trope in fiction over the years. Just think about how popular Carrie was. It just felt believable.

For some reason, the idea that we have the power in our minds to move objects through some kind of excess psychic force that happens when we’re in our wild hormonal years, seemed to be a much more reasonable explanation than someone coming back from the dead.

Contrary to the movie, if you see this guy, you’re not experiencing a Poltergeist, but you might be part of a pants-soiling contest.

And I didn’t even entertain other theories because they were all too ridiculous. Demons? Gimme a break. Faeries? Now I know you’re crazy. Bulgarian vampires? Get outta here! (Even thought you’re going to want to hear Holder’s great story on that one.)

But psychic teens? I’m with you. In fact, one time when I was on a bus tour of haunted sites, I heard a tour guide tell a woman that the poltergeist activity she was having in her house was a demon and that she should be wary.

I almost punched that guy. Number one, don’t scare the poor woman. Number two, poltergeists aren’t demons. They are manifestations of wild psychic energy. Duh.

Well flash forward a decade later and I’m glad I didn’t punch that guy (he only kinda deserved it), because Geoff Holder has opened my eyes to the idea that the psychic teenager is just the latest in a long line of explanations for these noisy ghosts. 

The first case he discovered was in the 5th century where of course the explanation is demons. Almost a millennium later,  Martin Luther (yes, the guy responsible for the Protestant Reformation) is the first person to use the term in print. He blamed the Roman Catholic Church for them and just thought it was the Devil messing around with him. (Being a really holy dude, he considered the Pope a much more formidable opponent than Satan.) So, yeah, people have been saying poltergeists are demons long before mediocre ghost tour guides.

Look closely at the demon in the center, he’s got a little demon face where his junk should be!

And not just demons, but fairies! This is where Geoff Holder blows my mind, because he talks about how what we think of as poltergeist activity, people used to attribute to fairies and they would even act in certain ways as to not upset the fairies (and of course many of the U.K.’s stone circles have faerie connections as well!) And this is where things get interesting.

Poltergeist behaviors in the hundreds of studies that Geoff has looked into, doesn’t seem to follow human behaviors. If it’s the spirit of a dead person, wouldn’t that person still have some of their humanity left? Why would they just rattle the chandelier, why would they be knocking on the wall? For the love of God, why would they make more work for everyone by breaking plates?!

Poltergeists act more like tricksters with an adolescent sense of humor (poop is often involved), their behavior is mercurial often causing havoc at the slightest or no provocation at all. Having a poltergeist in your house is like hanging out with the Joker from Batman or Joe Pesci from Goodfellas, you’re always on pins and needles because you don’t know what they’ll do next. They can be kind or cruel in equal measure and with no explanations why.

And that’s completely in character with fairies, they’re not all Tinkerbell and godmothers. Fairies in the old legends are scary, they’re not just inhuman, they’re ahuman. They’ll do something wonderful for you one day and they’ll steal your child the next and you’ll never understand why. The fey are so fundamentally different from us.

It’s similar to how we think of aliens. A 2012 National Geographic poll showed that a full seventy-seven percent of Americans believe that aliens have visited Earth, but you know that 77% of Americans do not believe in faeries. 

One thing Geoff Holder has showed is the context surrounding belief might change, but the paranormal behavior doesn’t. Whether it’s Bulgarian Vampires causing trouble or Teenage Drama Queens having a psychic blowout, poltergeists have an volatile and  unpredictable quality to their actions.

Humans have a particular set of needs and motivations, these phenomena, whether they’re aliens, faeries, or demons, they don’t have those needs. And they don’t care about ours. That inspired this week’s Sunspot song, “An Indifferent Universe”.

Visit Geoff’s website to check out his awesome books and scripts right here! 

who wears the twilight
walks in starfall
who wears the cold
walking through walls
something ancient
from the before
some kind of echo
knocking at the door

they can save us
they can destroy
every human
some kind of toy
explaining power
you can’t understand
the never knowing
will drive you mad

all reality

outside time
outside space
where infinity is a place

an indifferent universe

outside time
outside space
where infinity is a place

And here’s an extra treat, Allison was so inspired by the conversation that she wrote a poem right after we finished the interview… check it out, a little bonus to enjoy after you listen to the episode!

Gone are the sacred stones,
Plowed under like lovely bones.
Dancing sylphs in circles meet,
Trample them beneath your feet.

Pebbles and peat fall from the sky,
You can’t be bothered to ask why.
Apples picked and washing done,
But still you’re not a happy one.

Bind her to the bedpost,
She’s up to no good now.
Is she Eve or is she fae?
You’ll never know her anyway.

Bind her to the bedpost,
She’s up to no good now.
Is she Eve or is she fae?
Doesn’t matter, you’ll have your way.

You fear she’s coming back,
Her playful smile,  a sneak attack.
Wrapped in moss,  draped in flowers,
Just can’t bear it unless it’s ours.
The daughter, the lover, the mother, the crone,
If she is all, what do you own?

Cupboards burst and dishes smash,
Worlds awaken, ideas clash.
Your homely house a hell,
She’s imprisoned in this shell.
She belongs in the wild wood,
Respected, misunderstood.

Bind her to the bedpost,
She’s up to no good now.
Is she Eve or is she fae?
You’ll never know her anyway.

Bind her to the bedpost,
She’s up to no good now.
Is she Eve or is she fae?
Doesn’t matter, you’ll have your way.

She’s setting fires with her mind,
You should know, you can’t trust her kind.

Save The Mounds – Has The Entire Wisconsin State Legislature Never Seen “Pet Sematary”?!

So wherever you stand on the political spectrum we all know one thing, disturbing burial sites is a quick way to get murdered by something supernatural. In fact, it’s so common that there’s even a page on TVTropes.com about it. Everybody from The Brady Bunch to the family from Pet Sematary knows that you don’t mess with sacred burial grounds, of First Nations people or otherwise.  Wisconsin even has the largest concentration of burial mounds in the United States. So, doesn’t the legislature at least have Netflix or a MovieBox near the Capitol?

save the mounds
Sometimes, dead is better.

Obviously the Wisconsin State Legislature needs to start watching some horror movies because what they’re planning might unleash a whole host of terrors on the unsuspecting mining companies who they think they’re doing a favor for.

Not only are they disrespecting ancient sites that are millennia old but they’re also putting all the property owners and mining company’s employees lives at risk for the inevitable paranormal backlash that is going to come from the desecration of these sacred sites.

For the love of God, people, please watch Poltergeist. You can even watch the remake, Sam Rockwell doesn’t get all the love that he deserves anyway. He can play an everyman as well as a little kooky, do you remember Moon? C’mon, he carried that movie all by himself.

Save The Mounds
Hey guys, remember when we “verified” that there were no human remains before we took all that money from the mining company? Yeah, bad idea.

What this bill will do is let people much more easily challenge existence of human remains on burial sites that currently exist on their land and then be able to intrusively start digging into the ancient mounds in order to look for buried human bodies and if they can’t find any in their selective testing, then the burial site is taken off the register and the land is open for mining, development, whatever… Would you let someone dig up your grandmother’s cemetery to “verify that human remains” exist there? These mounds are the same thing as the cemeteries and you don’t just dig those up, out of respect, as well as out of fear of spiritual repercussions.

This isn’t about the culture war between Left and Right or Republican and Democrat, this is about respecting cultural and religious heritage (as well as saving innocent lives.) When they created the Catacombs in Paris (out of necessity, not profit), it was done with religious sanction by the people of the city. The Ho-Chunk Nation isn’t sanctioning this at all, in fact they’re actively fighting it. They’re scheduling a rally on Tuesday, January 12th at the Wisconsin State Capitol. If you can’t make the rally, you can also show your support by signing the petition.

And just for a final reminder, we all better watch this awesome Ramones video for their track, “Pet Sematary”. We need to Save The Mounds or this might be the last song a lot of innocent people will hear.