Thursday, April 25, 2013

Haunted Enough: Building the Foundation of a Haunted House

What is a haunted house? A place where spirits supposedly reside. But what does that mean for someone who has never seen a ghost? It means a haunted house is nothing more than a spooky structure with a creepy history. So, I will not base this examination of a real haunted house on secondhand testimonies from men and women I don't know or trust. I will base it off the vibe and past of one of the most interesting houses I’ve ever been inside. The Frank House in Kearney, NE, is not known for its ghosts, but by my definition, it is very haunted.

The Frank House can be found in a state of restoration on the campus of the University of Nebraska at Kearney (UNK). It’s red sandstone facade matches the red tile roof, which causes it to take an almost uniform color of a large brick. A juggernaut standing guard in the vast corn fields of the state, the structure stands solid and looks over the school from the edge of the city. Numerous chimneys reach out of it, as if it were a factory, not a homestead. A wall of more stone wraps around the porch at the front of the house and gives the sense the building serves as a fortress, protecting the souls trapped under its roof.

According to UNK’s website, the house was constructed by the George William Frank, Jr. and was very advanced for its day--“[i]t was the first house west of the Mississippi to be wired for electricity during its construction.” The inside, which has been remodeled several times over the years, impresses guests as much as the outside. The Victorian Preservation Association claims the house also “contains one of the largest stained glass windows Tiffany designed for a residence.” Oak seems to cover everything, and visitors feel as if they have stepped back in time, especially when they visit for a holiday event like the Victorian Christmas tours held every year. Being so connected with the past, it’s no wonder it’s easy to feel as though someone or something is watching over your shoulder when you visit.

If you visit the house or the website, you will learn the family that built it lost a good chunk of their fortune and ended up selling the house. After being sold, a portion of the house became a private hospital/sanitarium before eventually becoming part of the Nebraska State Tuberculosis Hospital and served as a residence for staff ("Frank House"). If you’re ever lucky enough to tour the house, you may still be able to see leftover signs of where the house used to be sectioned off for private quarters. With a history of owners falling into financial ruin, patients being houses under its roof, and connections being made with a nearby TB hospital, the Frank House gains its own life. Histories like these bear haunted houses.

The only thing this structure does not have is the eyewitness accounts to back up sightings. Still, I bet if you talk to the right people or stick around long enough, you’ll hear a bump or two in the night. Maybe you’ll notice a figure disappear around the veranda. Possibly you’ll catch a glimpse of strange light coming from a window late at night. Anything is possible. A house with this stature is sure to keep past residents around, even after death.

Works Cited

"Frank House." The University of Nebraska at Kearney. Web. 25 Apr 2013.

"Historic House Museums in Nebraska." Victorian Preservation Association, 04 Feb 2013. Web. 25 Apr 2013.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Paranormal Participation: How Paranormal Activity Connects With Audiences

Paranormal Activity gets a hard time. I can understand the criticisms thrown its way, especially since the sequels have worsened with each entry. However, the original was one of the only movies that sent me home terrified--a credit last given to The Ring and before that Event Horizon. Maybe this movie has a lot to be desired, but it did a lot of things right to make it a truly frightening story any writer of stories about ghosts and demons can learn from.

Most of the criticism comes from the acting, the character motivations, and the reality TV effect the movie is filmed in. I have to agree with the shortcomings all three of those presented. The acting was not phenomenal, but it wasn’t terrible either. It did the trick. The character motivations were ridiculous. In the face of a presence that can obviously not be fought, no rational person would continue fighting or filming. Of course, the excuse is used they can’t run away, but not attempting to flee was ridiculous. As for the reality TV effect, there is no defense. It’s a cheap ploy, and I hope movie makers forget about it soon.

Even with the three major shortcomings, positives overshadowed them. The movie pulled creepy off extremely well. If the strongest fear is the fear of the unknown, this movie portrays the purity of the unknown. The couple has no idea what they’re dealing with. The audience has no idea if it’s a ghost or a demon, or even what that necessarily means. Eventually, the biggest mystery of all is given away, which was whether the evil could be overcome. With an answer of no, the sequels lost an essential mystery and were therefore lacking at least one important element from their conceptions--audiences cannot fear for characters if the characters are certainly doomed from the start.

The sequels also had a Hollywood flare that the original lacked--especially when viewed with one of its original endings. The lack of this flare made everything more realistic and creepier. None of the events were so extreme the audience lost any sense of realism, until Katie grew fangs and attacked the camera. Simple problems like noises in the hall could happen. Larger problems like sleep walking and night terrors also happen. They are terrifying in their own light. When they were amplified by the threat of the unknown, they became more dreadful. If the movie had been a drama about a brain tumor causing these problems, the tumor would be as horrifying as the demon because the tribulations created are realistic. When a threat connects, it becomes real for the audience and makes them question their own lives.

The original ending, specifically the one where the cops show up, worked the best. I understand the switch to a jump-inducing ending for massive audience, plus the ability to make a sequel with the new ending, but the Hollywood ending was a gimmick. The ending with the cops was chilling. There’s never full verification of a demon, and when Katie gained lucidity in the final moments, the movie made me shiver.

My favorite portion of the film would be the photo in the attic. Everything else, I felt, could be rationalized with logic in some way, shape, or form. The picture, however, was tangible evidence that something had been stalking Katie for a long time. Maybe it was her own mental deterioration collecting personal artifacts and storing them in odd places, or it could be the odder possibility. Maybe a demon held onto that photo for decades. I even wondered if it had pockets to store the photo, but relating the demon to a stalker/voyeur/pedophile still makes me cringe to think about. The situation would be no less creepy if they found an old guy up in the attic with the picture--this is invasion and disturbing to the max. The fact it was supposedly a demon just makes the threat unbeatable.

This movie frightened me when I first saw it. I went home thinking every bump in my house was either a demon or an intruder. I wondered what I might find if I looked in my attic. I couldn’t sleep that night. I loved that rush. The sequels didn’t have the same effect. They were fun like a roller coaster might be fun, but they weren’t scary, and any emotion brought up in the film was left in the theatre when I went home. They’ve also progressively gotten worse, although the third one holds a special place in my heart because it reminds me of growing up in the 80s and playing ghost games with my friends. Too bad they all can’t work as well as the first one.

On a side note, I want to mention that the commercials for these movies have been a very interesting study. They have turned into mini films--scenes created specifically for the commercials, but created without any intention of being in the movie. For instance, the third one had a game of Bloody Mary, where a woman appeared in the background. It also had a huge fire scene in the preview, which had been elaborated on in the first two movies but did not appear in the third film. The fourth movie’s trailer was a fabricated, shortened version of the film--the protagonist jokes about her house being haunted and within seconds the haunting hits full force. The reason behind this false marketing has been to lure audiences in without ruining any of the jump-inducing scares. I give the film makers kudos for handling the commercials in this fashion, but if they handled the terror the same way as the first film, they wouldn’t need to mislead the audience as to avoid ruining the pop-up frights.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Grave’s End, I Guess It Worked

I find it a bit difficult to review this book. I didn’t dislike it, but I wasn’t enthralled by it either. It never bored me, though. It was written well and had a fine pace--which I respected especially since this is supposedly a work of non-fiction. My issues with the book related to the actions the characters took, but since this was based on a true story, I can’t argue those. What should be discussed, though, is how those this book's shortcomings could be improved for a fiction work.

The first character issue I came across was the discrepancies concerning the presence in the haunted house. The ghosts seemed hostile, and the characters all seemed intimidated at times (when they were being held down to their beds). However, the perceptions of the ghosts deviated. The ghosts would be illustrated in a terrifying light, then the narrator or her children would claim they felt no malice from the entities. Maybe in real life there can be times where one does not feel malice, while at other times he or she can be terrified--what one sees at night can be a lot scarier than when he or she sees it during the day. In fiction, clarifying the level of the threat would be more important.

When the house was cleared in Grave’s End, there was an explanation that the ghosts were just playing around, including the sleep paralysis scenes. This explanation seemed hollow, and the house cleansing was a bit anticlimactic. However, it did seem like a realistic cleansing based on actual events. In fiction, however, more explanation would be required, bones should be dug up, and the passing over of the ghosts should be more evident. I would be angry if this were a work of fiction and it never explained why the ghosts were in mines beneath the house and why the house was basically a portal to the afterlife.

The passing of time also worked because the book claimed to be non-fiction. It’s easy to say characters should leave a house if it’s haunted, but this story clarifies the events took place over long periods of time. Things would act up then calm down as if they never happened at all. With such cycles, homeowners can easily question the authenticity of supernatural events and can understandably justify staying in the house. For non-fiction, this built authenticity. In fiction, that structure wouldn’t work. Progression through the story should build the tension and events should happen faster and faster. With an onslaught of supernatural events, characters can only reasonably leave the home.

The ethos of this book was well done and worth mentioning. To help solidify the authenticity of these events, the narrator attempts to present the story from an unbiased angle. Although her neutrality doesn’t always hold up, she ends the book by claiming her intentions were to help others going through similar predicaments. By claiming to help others, she’s building her own credibility, shrugging off a motivation of self-gain, and making her story more believable because she is trustworthy. Although I am a skeptic of this tale, its plausibility rose far above The Amityville Horror

Grave’s End wasn’t a terrifying read. Questions were left since explanations to the events were not fully revealed. But the story worked as a piece of creative non-fiction. Motivations made sense, and things wrapped up with a humble approach. However, if this were a work of fiction, there would be many details to be worked out before it became a great story.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Why so Famous: An Examination of The Workings of The Amityville Horror

The Amityville Horror differed greatly from my expectations. I've seen the movies and the remake countless times because I enjoy haunted house stories, but I can't say any of them were spectacular. The book, which I expected to elaborately illuminate the infamy of the cursed house, seemed simplistic. The writing itself was neither interesting in a literary sense nor elaborate in a true, biographical account. Because of the shortcomings of the book, I had to wonder why it became so popular. I'm still not positive, but I think it might be due to the sensationalization of the story to the masses. The book is very easy to read and aims to scare readers through a nonfiction stance. Since I expected more substance, I was let down.

Memories are easily corrupted, so it’s no surprise eyewitness accounts are considered weak evidence, and likewise, even if this book were nonfiction and believable, the accounts would have been inflated to make the story more interesting. But too many random events happened to make the story believable, and the narrator comes off over-embellishing those events with details no one could remember in order to build tension. However, instead of instilling fear, he comes off almost as if he’s pointing to the events and screaming, “These are real! Really! Believe me!”

The narrator’s determination to force readers into buying the supposedly true story then pushes the reader to question even more. For instance, the parents become volatile towards their children. The narrator tries to brush this off onto the house’s psychological corruption; however, when examining these events in the light of reality, flags are raised by this couple’s actions. As I read this book, I couldn’t help but hope the cops would take the children away because the parents seemed like meth addicts (can’t get warm, violent, squandering money) who were abusing their children and blaming the house for their own actions. When the mother forgot to buy her children Christmas presents, I kept thinking the real reason was because she’d blown her savings on drugs.

Though the book is portrayed as a nonfiction examination of the events in the house, a number of reports have come out clarifying the fiction of this story, but the book doesn’t work as fiction, either. As nonfiction, the events are too unrealistic and raise warning flags of domestic problems. As a work of fiction, the book doesn’t work well either because it’s blending too much and character’s don’t behave rationally in terms of a horror tale. For instance, the priest never does much of anything except complain about a rash and get sick--he never develops. The cops sit back and do not help or hinder the situation. And the family, especially the parents, seem to confront one random disturbance after another without really learning, adapting, confronting, or overcoming the problem. Instead, at the end, they simply run away, which is what they could have done from the start. Another book I’ll blog on soon works better in both senses because the characters do eventually find a way to overcome the problem of their haunted house, but more importantly, as an honest account, the events aren’t so sporadic--from marching bands to hostile statues to hooded demons--as they are in The Amityville Horror.

So, I was left wondering why this book became so popular when other haunted house stories do not. Partially, I think people want to believe the uncanny and macabre is real. Most people like to have something to be scared of, and some can only be scared when the line between fiction and nonfiction is blurred. This explains why Blair Witch Project became so popular, too. This book also simplifies a variety of folk lore. It’s overambitious and becomes silly to me as a horror reader and writer, but for general audiences, maybe that combination works here because it enables them to believe the folklore has some truth.

In the end, this book might just be dated. It took a different approach than previous haunted house books by masking itself as nonfiction. It lost its credibility, though, at least to a more contemporary reader. The writing style wasn’t official enough to be considered biographical, but the story also failed as a work of fiction. Reading the source of all the hype was interesting, yet it just didn’t live up to the momentum it’s gained over the years.