Stories For Ghosts

Horror for the Discerning Fan

Category: History (page 1 of 2)

November 2017 Horror – Serial Killers, Revenge Plots, and Office Mayhem

Halloween has come and gone, leaving horror movies in its wake like so many crumpled candy wrappers on my coffee table. Just as we kind of ignore Thanksgiving and skip from Halloween to Christmas, November’s horror release calendar makes me long for December when The Shape of Water will grace theaters.

And yet, even though it’s a slow time of year for horror movies, all is not lost. Yes, there are some real stinkers on November’s slate, but look at the bright side! I’ve found a few promising movies here, like My Friend Dahmer, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and Mayhem, all of which have toured the festivals and gained critical acclaim as examples of innovative and striking horror filmmaking. Sometimes it’s the most unassuming horror movies that make the biggest impact, right?

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13 of the Creepiest, Most Disturbing Lore Episodes

Today is Friday the 13th, which makes it a perfect release date for Amazon’s new series, Lore. This new anthology series is directly inspired by Lore, an awesome and exquisitely researched podcast started by novelist Aaron Mahnke.

And I could not be more excited. Lore is one of my favorite podcasts.

As a podcast, Lore retells old legends, myths, and real-life ghost stories from America and Europe, but these aren’t your average campfire takes. Mahnke is a wonderful storyteller who carefully researches and questions the stories he tells, all of which weaves a stunning picture of human nature. You may have heard stories of the Moth Man or the Jersey Devil or Elizabeth Bathory, but never like this. And Amazon’s new series continues this tradition by adapting Mahnke’s podcast episodes for the small screen.

In honor of the new series, I wanted to share my 13 favorite Lore episodes with you. It was no small task to narrow down the 70 (and counting!) episodes to 13, so I had to make some hard choices. I hope you enjoy them!

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How the Ouija Board Went from Family Pastime to Demonic Threat

For my childhood, “occult” games were a staple. During recess, we used origami fortune tellers and other strange little rituals to divine our futures. My friends and I loved to play light as a feather, stiff as a board at sleepovers and camp. And we played with Ouija boards, asking the spirits to tell us our futures and answer all the inane questions a preteen girl might ask. We had even learned how to make Ouija boards out of construction paper and markers, just in case an actual board wasn’t available.

Most of us didn’t believe that Ouija boards worked and certainly didn’t believe that a spirit could lash out from the board. We accused each other of manipulating the planchette. We also had great fun scaring each other with scary stories. It wasn’t real, but that didn’t stop us from always observing proper Ouija board etiquette. Never use the board alone. Delegate one person to ask questions so as not to confuse the spirit. Be polite. Always be sure to say hello and goodbye to properly “close” the board. And if shit gets weird, throw salt on the board (or rip it up, should you be using a paper board).

It was a fun trick to feel like we’d gotten deliciously close to something mysterious and supernatural, like telling ghost stories and shivering by the campfire. Nothing more.

Thus, I’m always surprised when I hear that someone is genuinely wary of Ouija boards. It doesn’t seem to make sense that otherwise rational people would vehemently insist that Ouija boards are evil and dangerous. “Why would you mess with that?” they ask? “You’re just asking for trouble.”

I always disagree, explaining that it’s just a game. A really good example of how the ideometer effect works. It’s just a silly, thrilling way to probe the darkness of our obscured subconscious but in a way that’s easy for children to grasp. If God wanted me to become possessed, I would insist, it would happen regardless of any Ouija board.

Still, the Ouija board’s drastic and unwieldy power looms large in the minds of many. It has a uniquely America history. It’s a mainstay of the American obsession with the occult. We love a spectacle, especially if it’s a little scary, bringing us close enough to see a faint glimmer of what we’ve long suspected to be true. A part of us wants to touch the other side and another part of us wants to be convinced that it’s just a game. But America also loves to shake its fingers at things it doesn’t understand, as many conservative Christians swear that Ouija boards should be avoided as un-Christian.

How did we get here? How did a game become regarded as a beacon for the demon world?

In case you didn’t know, a Ouija board is a wooden board inscribed with the alphabet, numbers, “Yes,” “No,” and “Goodbye.” It comes with a heart-shaped planchette that the spirits use to “communicate” by moving over the board and resting on letters and numbers. It’s a variation of the talking board and automatic writing, which have been used by human beings for centuries.

While talking boards and automatic writing are nothing new, the Ouija board is an American invention. The Ouija board rose in popularity due to the American Spiritualism movement, which exploded onto the scene in 1848. The meteoric rise of the Fox Sisters launched the movement as the first celebrity mediums. They claimed to have communicated with spirits through a series of knocks and rappings in their parents’ farmhouse. They took their unique talents on the road, touring America and Europe and holding impressive séances in front of paying audiences. Soon, Spiritualism had gripped the country. In an era where the average lifespan was less than 50 years (if you survived childhood, disease, childbirth, and war), the opportunity to commune with deceased loved ones was irresistible. People of all walks of life engaged in these practices and spent vast amounts of money. Even First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln held séances in the White House in an effort to contact her son, who had died at the age of eleven.

After the Civil War, during which mediums and spiritualists experienced a boom in business, mediums made an effort to streamline the séance. The ritual could drag on for hours and get boring as mediums deciphered the rappings and spirit writings. Talking boards were easier, less complicated, and they could be used by almost anyone.

America’s industrious businessmen saw an opportunity, recognizing that talking boards could be packaged and marketed in such a way that grieving Americans could cut out the middleman and literally circumvent mediums. In 1890, Charles Kennard, a Baltimore businessman, founded the Kennard Novelty Company and set about to become the exclusive mass-producer of talking boards for the American public. Armed with an eerie name and an aura of mystique, Kennard secured a patent from the US Patent Office for his Ouija boards. Legend has it that Kennard was able to “prove” the board worked by correctly answering personal questions about the patent officer working at the time, which scared the patent office and secured the patent. Whether or not you believe that story, the point is that Kennard was able to scare the hell out of the poor patent officer, paving the way for the Kennard Novelty Company to make a fortune selling Ouija boards.

 

After that, the Kennard Novelty Company marketed the Ouija board as an otherworldly oracle, capable of allowing the user to divine the secrets of the spirit world. But they also marketed it as a wholesome family fun, because who wouldn’t want to have a delightful time together trying to summon Grandma? Notably, the Ouija board was most popular during hard times, when war, disease, and cultural upheaval dominated headlines. Historian Robert Murch explained, in an interview with Smithsonian Museum, that many people used the board to affirm their deepest wishes for an afterlife. “People want to believe,” he said. “The need to believe that something else is out there is powerful. [The Ouija board] is one of those things that allows them to express that belief.”

And so, the Ouija board became culturally ubiquitous. Writers boasted about using Ouija boards to “dictate” whole novels written by spirits. It was featured in episodes of I Love Lucy and Bewitched as well as in films like The Uninvited and 13 Ghosts. Norman Rockwell used it in one of his iconic pictures for the Saturday Evening Post. In 1967, the board outsold monopoly. While some sensational news stories linked the board to depraved murders and tales of insanity, the vast majority of people did not feel threatened by Ouija boards. At the very most, it was a tool. At the very least, it was a game.

Until The Exorcist came along.

In a pivotal scene in the film, Regan MacNeil shows her mother how she uses an Ouija board to communicate with a spirit named Captain Howdy. Things seem innocent at first, and while the film never explicitly links her use of the Ouija board to her demonic possession, the implications are clear that a demon took advantage of the board to lie to Regan, gain her trust, and ultimately possess her.

Audiences flipped. Not only was the movie terrifying as a whole, but the Ouija board scene proved especially controversial. Religious groups were quick to denounce Ouija boards as a dangerous tool of the devil. (Interestingly, the Catholic Church supported the film and provided consulting behind the scenes.)

“It’s kind of like Psycho,” explained Murch. “No one was afraid of showers until that scene… It’s a clear line.”

After The Exorcist, Ouija boards were transformed from a radio for the dead to a portal through which Satan could drag children into torment and damnation. Numerous religious authorities and publications warned against using Ouija boards (along with fortune telling and horoscopes), claiming that Ouija boards were an affront to God. Religious leaders like Billy Graham warned that Ouija boards would not only lead the faithful away from God but into entanglements with Satan.  Pat Roberts said that “Demons can control a Ouija board, and you begin to deal with the occult, that’s who you’re dealing with. You’re not dealing with Jesus, you’re not dealing with God, you’re dealing with demonic.”

While it’s weird to me that Pat Roberts gets his knowledge of demonic possession from horror movies, it’s not surprising. After The Exorcist, horror writers and directors everywhere started using the Ouija board as a convenient plot device. It became a nationally recognized symbol for a reckless tool that even the best mediums could not control. Movies like the Witchboard series, The Craft, What Lies Beneath, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, the Paranormal Activity series, The Conjuring 2, and the Ouija series all feature Ouija boards, adding to the status of the board as a dangerous device vulnerable to demonic interference.

ouija

Presently, the Ouija board is used more for the thrill of the unknown than for spiritual purposes. It is still very popular, experiencing a bump in sales from the release of Ouija. And the board still has its detractors, with numerous religious groups speaking out against it. In 2001, a New Mexico church burned Ouija boards alongside Harry Potter books.

Real or not, Ouija boards are here to stay. Personally, I think the enduring draw of the Ouija board is significant and natural. The board is some of the most concrete evidence we have showing how we create our own scary stories. We invent the monsters. We summon the ghosts. We find our fears spelled out underneath the planchette’s window. We have become so distanced from death that we fear it now, and Ouija boards reflect that. This game, this spooky little ritual, allows us to find answers hidden deep within our psyches. Even if you have never used a Ouija board, your conception of the board says a lot about you without you having to ever ask the board a question.

Just because we don’t like the answers doesn’t mean we should stop asking questions.

 

List of sources:

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

 

 

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Horror Movies at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival

It’s time for the annual Cannes Film Festival! And that means there’s a whole new crop of Cannes horror films!

Cannes is one of the renowned and distinguished film festivals in the world, attracting talent and glitz from all over. The festival has proven itself to be an important predictor of award-winning and groundbreaking films. Among all those storied films, composed of equal parts Oscar-bait and innovative indies, are some of the best horror movies.

As I pointed out in last year’s post, films like It Follows, Green Room, Possession, and Evil Dead were all shown at Cannes. Cannes has always recognized good films, even if they do happen to be horror films.

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Blood, Guts, and Politics: 11 Political Horror Movies

*Beware, here be spoilers*

The tense political environment right now has me thinking a lot about my identity as an American. I was born and raised here. I’m fairly patriotic. I studied the law and our nation’s history in part to better understand the rules that underlie our Americanness.

And when I think of myself as an American, I think about our rights and the defense of our liberties. I think of working together with those who have different viewpoints. I think of respect and tolerance, because Americans are supposed to hold those values in esteem. I also think, “It’s easy to be American when things are going well.”

What happens if this all falls apart?

We Americans treasure our autonomy. Look at the Bill of Rights. Look at the Constitution. These are the rules by which the government protects our rights and with which the people limit the government. We have all said we agree to abide by this rulebook to preserve everyone’s pursuit of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness (within reason). Do we mean it?

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Recap Post – My First Séance

**This post is a follow-up to my history of the séance post.**

Part of my enjoyment of horror the genre is how effective scary movies and stories are at suspending my disbelief. Without exposing me to actual threats, a good movie can horrify and terrify me. With just ink and paper, a good ghost story can momentarily convince me that poltergeists exist. It’s the best kind of make-believe. When the credits roll, when I close my book, I can go about my day changed. I’ve been made to confront something illogical and frightening and uncomfortable. And I’m better for it.

That is the kind of experience I expected when I attended a séance a few weeks back. I didn’t expect to really contact a ghost or commune with supernatural entities. But I did expect a good deal of drama and excitement and freaky shit. I was really looking forward to it. I thought I would be treated to a solid ninety minutes of impressively executed tricks and seamless transitions from ghost story to ghostly encounter. I thought I’d be scared, faced with some eerie phenomena I could not rationally explain.

But that is not what happened.

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They Live – John Carpenter’s Timeless Political Masterpiece

**Beware: Here be spoilers For They Live.**

The 2016 Presidential Election is finally and mercifully drawing to a close. Regardless of political affiliations, it seems like the whole country reels from the drawn-out election cycle, temporarily traumatized by the mudslinging and grandstanding and pettiness. But this election has been one for the ages. I know everyone always complains that every succeeding election is worse than the one before, but this one was really, really nasty.

We are all overwhelmed by this election, a terrible yet fitting end to an exhausting year. Myself, I try to stay as politically connected as possible. I read the news, follow Congress’s lawmaking progress (or lack thereof), watch the President’s speeches, and read all the Supreme Court opinions I can reasonably fit into my life. So for this election, I gritted my teeth and surrendered to the vicious news cycle. I listened to stump speeches and watched the debates and did my research. It was draining. When I cast my early voting ballot, I was relieved because I thought I could stop caring for a while, until the next election cycle starts back up.

I threw myself into Halloween and friends and blogging. I tried and failed to distract myself. Not only was the election impossible to avoid, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I watched my horror movies and read my scary short stories and couldn’t help but ask myself, How will we express what this election has wrought? What art will come out of this election?

Which brings me to John Carpenter’s political sci-fi-horror B-Movie classic, They Live.

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La Catrina – Icon of Death, Beauty, and Dia de Los Muertos

Today is All Saint’s Day! Or as we celebrate it in Texas, El Dia de Los Muertos, a Mexican holiday. For the uninitiated, El Die de Los Muertos is a vibrant, introspective holiday devoted to remembering the dead. Those who celebrate the holiday will tend to the graves of their deceased loved ones, cleaning the tombstones, arranging flowers and altars, and leaving food and small offerings. They do this to invite the spirits to visit so that the departed will hear the prayers of their living relatives.

While this sounds like it could be morbid and depressing, El Dia de Los Muertos is actually cheerful and uplifting. People are encouraged to remember the dead fondly by recounting happy and funny stories about them. This attitude carries over into the festival itself, which is often whimsically macabre and very enjoyable.

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Marfa, Train Tracks, and Haunted Hotels: The Best Texas Ghost Stories

October is slowly coming to a close, and Halloween is almost here. Since I’ve been doing my Halloween Blogging Blitz, I’ve reflected a great deal on scary stories. Why do we tell them? Why do we listen to them?

I hope that, if you’ve been following any of my posts, that you’ve learned that so many horror films and books are art. And as art, they help us reflect upon reality: our prejudices, our fears, our secret desires. The right ghost story has much to teach us.

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Creep Yourself Out – 10 of the Best Scary Podcasts

One of the regrets I have about growing up is that I no longer experience “Story Time.” It sounds silly, and maybe it is, but I really loved sitting quietly and listening to a teacher or parent tell me a story. Who didn’t love Story Time as a kid? Especially around Halloween, when the teacher might bust out a worn, cherished copy of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark? Even as a teenager, when I attended summer camp, we regularly stayed up to tell creepy stories. We took turns telling ghost stories around a literal campfire.

Such stories, told with the human voice, possess their own kind of magic. There’s something genuine and compelling about a lone voice weaving a story in the night, while others listen in complete silence. There is the gravitas of ritual, the authenticity of an intimate story, and the hard-to-deny possibility that maybe it’s real after all. Without the spectacle of movies or the artful words of a book, you’re left with the truth, right? Possibly?

These days, I can satisfy my love for stories with movies, television shows, novels, short stories, and comics whenever I want. But they don’t approximate that shivery joy of listening to a person tell you a spooky story.

That’s why I love podcasts. With the right podcast, I can find that same thrill combined with wonderfully complex, creepy stories that fold and unfold, drawing in threads and characters and events that transport me to an entirely different world. Using only the power of the human voice.

In honor of Halloween, I want to share some of my favorite scary podcasts with you. These podcasts vary from graphic true crime, to macabre accounts of historical events, to fictional audio plays. They’re all compelling in their own ways, keeping readers, including myself, coming back for more week after week.

Enjoy!

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