Friday, September 13, 2013




INSIDIOUS CHAPTER 2: SLOW, FLAWED, INSIPID

Earlier this year moviegoers went screaming – some of them all the way back to church – after sitting through James Wan’s THE CONJURING.  Though some parts of that movie were admittedly slow and at variance with the real-life (and much more frightening) experiences of the people involved, it delivered creepiness with a payoff and horror at the pitch of a sonic boom.  Many of you may know then, that Wan is also the filmmaker responsible for the first INSIDIOUS (2011), an original, creep-inducing film where old horror tropes were reimagined in new and intriguing ways; in short, the first INSIDIOUS would have left moviegoers wanting more even if the sequel had not been set up by the ending.  Enter INSIDIOUS CHAPTER 2.


I don’t know.  Maybe being a paranormalist, someone with personal experience of the reality of the impossible and familiar with the laws of the supernatural realm (at least where that realm can be said to have laws), sets my “fright bar” rather high.  But in the case of James Wan, high expectations are understandable: the first INSIDIOUS contained one of the creepiest scenes (that of a ghostly woman crying in a corner) seen in the genre since the days when ambience and effect actually counted for something; and THE CONJURING, once it got started, was a non-stop fear fest.  And it is precisely because of these successes that INSIDIOUS CHAPTER 2 disappoints.


 


INSIDIOUS CHAPTER 2 is really just more of INSIDIOUS.  In fact, this second installment often makes us feel as if we are viewing the outtake reel from the first movie, with some new locations and a couple of new faces – alive and dead.  Following opening credits that are mostly a visual rehash of pertinent parts of “the story thus far,” we are once again introduced to the hapless Lambert family, parents Josh (Patrick Wilson) and Renai (Rose Byrne) and their children, one of whom – Dalton, played by Ty Simpkins – was the catalyst for the haunting activity in the first film.  In CHAPTER 2 we are asked to assume that the action has picked up almost exactly where the first film left off – which is difficult because both Simpkins and his on-screen siblings have obviously matured since 2011.  Having reclaimed young Dalton from the spiritual nowhere-land called “the Further,” and shocked by the death of the medium who helped facilitate the boy’s rescue (Elise, played by Lin Shaye) the family moves in with Josh’s mother, Lorraine (Barbara Hershey).

Grandma Lambert lives in a house equally as creepy, and way more claustrophobic than the home where all the Lamberts’ troubles began.  As it happens, this is also the place where, as a child, Josh had his own harrowing  out-of-body experiences, and we quickly learn how the memories of those experiences were suppressed in Josh’s memory.  This is only the first of many flashbacks, retellings, continuations, and contrivances that pass as this movie’s complicated second act.  One dead medium (Shaye) is replaced by a new medium who is immediately endangered by a possessed Josh Lambert (replacing his son in the realm of the Further) who also poses a danger to his entire family while his wife is marginalized into being the “reactor” to all the frights and his mother gets to do some truly exciting ghost hunting outside of her crazy, stuffy Victorian house.  Got that?


 


Yes, the zany ghosthunting team is back and in fact, they get the most screen time in this film, along with Grandma Lambert and the new medium.  Unfortunately, this team of investigators does nothing to further anyone’s confidence in serious paranormal research as they bumble through grief over the loss of their friend Elise, then raid her home, break into an abandoned hospital and a derelict house, simultaneously juggle Class A tranquilizers, Hot Pockets, and jelly donuts, and knock themselves unconscious: everybody say, “Aw, shucks!” Just a day in the life of those crazy paranormalists!  And we kind of retroactively start to really like the dead medium after we see how cool her house was in life (why can’t the whole movie take place there? oh, and look for hints of “Paranormal Activity”) and once we realize that she’s the only one who’s going to help us ALL out of this puzzle, and she’s DEAD. 

Flawed, slow, insipid, even unnecessary are good ways to describe INSIDIOUS CHAPTER 2, especially because the entirety of the “new” story could have been told in an Unrated/Extended Cut edition of the first INSIDIOUS.


"Oy!  I get all dressed up - you think they'd use me more!"


 
 

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Conjuring: A Dread-filled Treat
for the Intelligent Horror Fan



"Fear sees, even when eyes are closed." - W. Gerard Trotman

I'm betting there are plenty of closed eyes in movie theatres across America tonight.  In some of those theatres medical personnel and even priests are standing by, because such is the nature of this particular little piece of movie-making that insubstantial feelings like fear, dread, and terror come unexpectedly, and very palpably, to life.  Say what else you will, "The Conjuring" certainly lives up to its hype.
 
I confess that I am a fan of horror films, especially horror films that deal with supernatural subjects.  However, as an occultist and paranormalist, my "bar" is set especially high; let's just say, it takes a lot to get my attention and even more to hold my interest.  Because of my avocations in the area of the inexplicable, and although I truly try to resist the temptation, I immediately set to dissecting what I am watching.  And although I like the B-horror movie premise as much as anyone who grew up steeped in American pop culture, I do believe that any film positing itself as dealing with major, profound, or deeply disturbing supernatural subject matter better be worth the money and the mental attention I'm putting up to experience it.  "The Conjuring" is all this, and more.

Opening the door to the Harrisville Haunting;
the cast of "The Conjuring" in a happier moment.

 
The plot of "The Conjuring" is culled from two sources:  one is the real-life experiences of a typical American family of the 1970's, the Perrons of Rhode Island, who move into a home that is nothing short of a bee's nest of dangerous supernatural activity; and the second source is the experiences had by paranormal researchers Ed and Lorraine Warren as they try to analyze the activity and help the family.  The Warrens, as any paranormalist worth his or her salt knows, are considered the "Godparents" of paranormal research, and as there has been no small amount of grousing about the role of the Warrens in the story told in "The Conjuring" we will deal with them at some length below.
 
The Perron family, fleeing a life in a suburbia that seemed to be devolving before their very eyes, and seeking a more wholesome place to raise their family, purchase some country acreage boasting a beautiful, rustic farmhouse, a ready-made barn, a babbling brook, and even an outhouse.  In the film, as well as in the real life experience, strange things begin to happen to the Perrons almost immediately.  Familiar tropes such as the family pet that refuses to enter the new homestead to the youngest child in the family suddenly gaining a brand-new invisible friend are introduced early; the latter, at least, is used successfully throughout the film.  Indeed, it is the Perron children - five girls ranging in age from 13 to 6 - who are the first to acknowledge the supernatural occurrences, and the first to be victimized by the entities in the home that clearly mean no one any good.
 
While the youngest Perron daughter, April (Kyla Deaver) is immediately befriended by an unseen little boy named "Rory," the next-eldest daughter Cindy (Mackenzie Foy) begins to exhibit the habit of sleepwalking; during her nocturnal forays, Cindy is inexplicably drawn to a creepy old armoire located in eldest daughter Andrea's (Shanley Caswell) bedroom.  Over several apparently random nights Andrea is awakened by Cindy who is standing before the antique armoire, banging her head against the doors.  As the atmosphere begins to change throughout the house, whisperings, knocking, unexplained footsteps and shuffling are experienced.  But it is the experience of daughter Christine, played by the amazingly gifted young actress Joey King, that introduces genuine, dread into the film. 
 
Up to this point the frights have been somewhat subdued and almost predictable, and even the catalyst of Christine's fright - something apparently standing in the shadows behind her bedroom door - might be considered lame.  Yet as we watch Christine's complete and utter immersion in fear, her implosion, if you will, into abject terror, we share every emotion with her and we know, just by looking into her eyes seeing something none of us can see, that absolute dread has quietly taken hold of our experience.  From this moment on, the fright takes on a life of its own; it is palpable and we might almost be able to touch it, if we were not hiding our eyes with our two shaking hands.  From this moment - and its effectiveness is due in no small part to the amazing ability of Ms. King to convey it to us - the dread never stops; relentlessly, in scene after scene, we are shocked and shaken, riveted to the screen until the final second.  This is the mark of excellent filmmaking meeting an excellent and talented cast.  Further, it is the hallmark of an amazing story, made all the more amazing because we know that it is real.

Lili Taylor and powerhouse actress Joey King
in a meltdown of fear, terror, and dread in "The Conjuring"


The man behind all this on-screen terror is director James Wan.  Many of you may remember him as the director of that other little piece of haunting supernatural terror, "Insidious" - a movie that had (at least up until I witnessed Joey King's meltdown) the most effecting and, for me at least, disturbing scene I had witnessed in a horror film in a long time.  Those of you who saw the film may remember when Patrick Wilson (who appears in "The Conjuring as Ed Warren) is lost in "The Further" and encounters a woman weeping in a room and only a shadow of a shape can be seen, cowering in a dark corner.  Everything NOT revealed in that melancholy and highly disturbing scene first marches across little Joey King's face and then presents itself in all its ghastly, hope-destroying dread in the exorcism scene at the climax of "The Conjuring."  Here, at least, any nit-picking of mine was brushed completely aside, and as the sights and sounds of a possession that puts little Regan McNeil of "The Exorcist" to shame seemed to fall out of the theatre screen like crushing brick walls, two things happened:  I made the Sign of the Cross, and I was momentarily struck with fear that something, surely something, might follow all of us home.

A possession scene that puts "The Exorcist" to shame
from "The Conjuring"
 
 
In short, anything that can cause that reaction in me, who has lived through demonic hauntings of my own, who writes "excellent stories about really horrible things," who knows her occult bearings and whereof she speaks when she says something is truly frightening - that, THAT is incredible!  You must see "The Conjuring" . . . !

Ed and Lorraine Warren
 
 

Now to the subject of the Warrens, about whom there has been much grousing from some quarters.
 
Anyone familiar with the ad campaign leading up to the release of "The Conjuring" will certainly have seen a creepy doll featured prominently and scenes showing Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga (as Ed and Lorraine Warren, respectively) lecturing college students on the subjects of the supernatural and paranormal investigation.  In fact, the doll, which is meant to portray "Annabelle," an infamously haunted Raggedy Ann doll that is still kept guarded under lock and key in the Warrens' museum of the supernatural, is integral to the first scenes of the movie.  It is the doll and immediately subsequently the Warrens whom we meet first, even before we are introduced to the Perron family.  Now this might strike some as odd, especially because the movie is ostensibly intended to be based upon the Perrons and their experiences.  But when one considers that literally for years the working title of the film was "The Warren Files," the technique of framing the beginning and end of what we see with the Warrens begins to make more sense.
 
Certainly, Ed and Lorraine Warren were deeply involved in the Perrons' story.  They did take on the Perrons' case, did conduct extensive investigations of the family and the property, and were involved in attempts to cleanse the house that may - or may not - have included a full-scale exorcism.  The movie presents this last as an absolute, something that actually did take place.  But what appears as drama differs somewhat from the facts of the story as related by Perron daughter Andrea in her trilogy of books, "House of Darkness, House of Light."  In fact, Andrea Perron is quick to point out that the Warrens' involvement quite definitely reshaped the nature of the hauntings in the Perron farmhouse, making the activity more negative and the spirits more threatening.  Perron traces this change in the course of events to a failed séance conducted by the Warrens in which, Perron alleges, a dangerously negative entity was set free inside the already crowded supernatural landscape of the home.  Further, according to Perron, the Warrens never successfully cleansed the home or rid the family of the spirits tormenting them. 

Andrea Perron, survivor of the Harrisville Haunting
and author of "House of Darkness, House of Light"
one of the sources used in "The Conjuring"
 
In the Warrens' defense, they were in the act of becoming pioneers in a field of research that, even in the 1970's when the Perrons were living their experience, was largely considered to be a sideshow of speculative science - if it was ever considered at all.  Unlike today with its oversaturated field of paranormal "experts" and "paranormal reality" television shows, the 1970's and to some extent the 1960's before it, was the time of those pioneers.  Where the 1960's saw a blossoming of renewed interest in magick and the occult (thanks in large part to the seminal work "Morning of the Magicians" and to a rediscovery of the works of Aleister Crowley), the 1970's saw a natural expansion of all that inwardly focused curiosity to the next logical step: the realm of the unseen and beyond.  It was in the 1970's that the Warrens were minted, along with Hans Holzer, Sybil Leek, Brad Steiger, and yes, even Satanist Anton LaVey as self-absorbed seekers peered into what lay beyond the scrying mirror or the edge of the circle of work.  In short, all that occult and drug experimentation produced a ton of bad vibes and bad trips.  The world needed someone to deal with it, and the Warrens were in the right place at the right moment.
 
Most of the antagonism now directed toward the Warrens seems to revolve around one case in particular: the Amityville Horror.  Owing in large part to the patent unbelievability of George and Kathy Lutz, who along with their kids were the alleged focus of the Amityville events, Ed and Lorraine Warren ended up being painted with a broad brush in a color just a shade lighter than "fraud."  That Ed maintained until his death a few years ago - as Lorraine maintains to this day - that the haunting in Amityville was very, very real only seems to annoy the grousers more.



But the Warrens' detractors are either ignorant of the occult and supernatural laws governing the manifestation of haunting activity in a given environment, or they are willfully ignoring certain details within the publicized details that support the Warrens' contentions that the Amityville house was, indeed still is, haunted.  For example, it is a well-known axiom in magickal workings that "like attracts like," and in the case of an alleged haunting the activity can be manifested to meet the expectations of those living in the environment or investigating the environment: a condition I like to call "bring your own ghost."  So it is not unreasonable that spirits connected with the investigators, over the years of being steeped in the energy of the investigators themselves and/or of the homeowners, will appear and act in a manner that meets the expectations of the humans involved. 
 
Further, specifically with regard to Amityville, the interest of George and Kathy Lutz in eastern meditative and mantric practices - particularly Transcendental Meditation, which they indulged in regularly, even while living at Amityville - was very probably directly related to the manifestation of negative entities in their environment, or at the very least exacerbated the hauntings.  TM and other mantric practices have been proven to produce supernatural occurrences in the practitioner's environment and regardless of the will of the individual involved; it has also been proven to be physically, mentally, and psychically detrimental to those engaged in the practice.  So, when Lorraine Warren says, "That house is haunted," about the Amityville house, I believe her because I am willing to give her credit for what she obviously does know and benefit of the doubt because I know something about the nature of hauntings.
 
Patrick Wilson as Ed Warren
 
Vera Farmiga as Lorraine Warren,
with Rory's music box
 
 
Most of the objections I have read or heard seem to be from those who doubt the veracity of the story of "The Conjuring" because the Warrens are in it and allege it to be "true."  But, in fact, it is Andrea Perron's story that is the basis for the "true" claim.  Anyone interested in reading the REAL story, which encompassed ten years in the life of the Perron family, should purchase Andrea Perron's books as soon as possible.  The books are filled with more information and more vividly frightening details than the movie could provide.  The real nightmares are living in the pages of those books and, of course, in the memories of those who lived through them.
 
 
"In the presence of the ... darkness and [dread], which might be concealed but a few paces away, he felt disarmed and helpless."  - Sienkiewicz.
 
WHAT:  "The Conjuring" (R)
 
WHEN:  Now playing.
 
WHERE:  Everywhere.
 
Follow this link for more about priests being posted at screenings of "The Conjuring":
 
 
 












 

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

THE UPSTAIRS LOUNGE FIRE MEMORIAL
 
Yesterday, June 24th, marked the 40th anniversary of the horrific Upstairs Lounge fire in which 32 people - 31 of them gay men - were burned to death.  The fire is widely believed by authorities and many members of the New Orleans gay community to have been deliberately set.  No one was ever captured or charged with the crime and case is still open, making it the oldest unsolved hate crime against gays in American history.
 
Yesterday's jazz funeral and memorial capped off PRIDE celebrations in New Orleans that also included the premiere of "Upstairs: The Musical" and declarations by Mayor Mitch Landrieu and other officials naming June 24th Official Pride Day - a long, long way from 1973, the year of the fire, when Mitch's own father, Mayor Moon Landrieu, failed even to acknowledge the tragedy.
 
I've told my story so many times - there's a link to that on this website, for those of you who might be interested - and there are so many images of the awful tragedy that was the Upstairs fire, that I think for the remainder of this post anyway, I'm going to let yesterday's images speak for themselves.
 
A beautiful floral tribute was donated for the occasion.
 
A brass band assembles to play for the traditional
New Orleans "jazz funeral."
 
Gay community leader Misti Ates (right) has worked
unceasingly for the past two years to make an Upstairs
fire memorial reality.  She is joined here by cast members
of "Upstairs: The Musical."
 
Charbonnet Funeral Home donated the services
of one of the last remaining horse-drawn hearses
in New Orleans.  The hearse is meant to symbolize
the dead who are not with us.
 
A better view of the hearse.
 
The funeral moves north on the Rue Chartres.
 
A smiling Misti Ates, for whom this memorial
means a promise is kept.
 
Attendees stretch back for blocks.
 
Relatives of the victims and others who couldn't walk
were given a ride in a streetcar shaped bus, seen here
as it moves west on the Rue Ste. Louis.
 
With the band playing "Just A Closer Walk
With Thee," the funeral makes its way
south along the Rue Royale.
 
The hearse, now with the flowers inside symbolizing
the spirits of the dead, comes to a stop in the Rue Iberville
next to the Upstairs Lounge site.
 
The band and people assemble outside the old Upstairs
to hear the blessing and the reading of the names.
 
A tearstruck Misti Ates reads the names of the
32 victims of the Upstairs Lounge fire.  Standing
just beyond her, in the grey shirt, is Duane Mitchell, Jr.,
son of Duane "Mitch" Mitchell, one of the 32 names on
that list.
 
Here is a very brief video I captured of the
blessing being rendered at the Upstairs site.
 
The story of the Upstairs Lounge didn't end with yesterday's memorials.  In many ways, the story has really just begun.  There is still much work to be done.  There is still much that might be learned about the victims; there may be family members who, overcoming the fears that kept them silent in 1973, might choose to come forward to help fill in the details; and there is a legacy to be celebrated, changing and growing and producing new expressions such as the dramatic musical that instantly became so integral a part of memorial activities. 
 
And speaking as a paranormalist, I would be terribly amiss if I were inclined to call the investigations and paranormal research carried out at the site complete.  Indeed, it is anything but complete.  Certainly, the tormented dead, who may conceivably have been reliving the horrific last moments of their lives in a fog of fear and anger, and in relative obscurity for the past 40 years - these dead may have finally passed on.  But the question for the paranormalist must always be, "Just what - if anything - remains?"


Monday, June 24, 2013

St. John's Eve Headwashing Ceremony In Honor of Marie Laveau

Manbo Sallie Ann Glassman attracts the faithful, the curious, and the obtuse in her annual celebration of the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans.


Under the indigo moonlit skies of a New Orleans midsummer,
Manbo Sallie Ann Glassman leads the ceremony in honor of
Marie Laveau.
 
 


"Mother of Vodou, Queen of Conjure, Mistress of Many Names: Teach us how it is right to call upon you. Meet us in the moonlight, where the waters kiss the shore; let our drum beats be the heart beat
Of your presence that endures."
 
June 23rd, the Eve of St. John, has historically been an important day in the Vodou religion and in the beliefs of related conjure practices.  Indeed, if there is such a thing as a "holy day" in traditional voodoo, St. John's Eve is that day. 
 
Madame Marie Laveau (1794-1881) was recognized as the Mother of Vodou in New Orleans in her lifetime.  Even as a young woman she enjoyed the distinction of her reputation as a "rootworker" and "conjure woman."  Although initially that reputation was mainly among the free people of color and slave populations of New Orleans, she entered mature womanhood recognized by all as the de facto Queen of Voodoo in New Orleans - a title that has never been successfully challenged in all the years since her death. 
 
Madame Laveau's name can be found connected to any number of tales and legends that treat of the subjects of voodoo, hoodoo, and the supernatural in New Orleans; she has always been considered a mysterious historical personage.  But in fact there is plenty that is known about the life and activities of this powerful maven of the old city.  One thing is well-established, that every year on St. John's Eve (June 23rd) Madame Laveau would host a gathering of her followers on the shore of St. John's Bayou where it met Lake Pontchartrain.  These gatherings were very similar to the slave "bamboulas" held in the Congo Fields on the edge of the old French Quarter, but there was one exception: the St. John's bamboulas had Marie Laveau as a host.
 
Residents living nearby the St. John's Bayou site, and even those at some distance along the Bayou's interior, took to their homes at the first sound of the bamboula's ritual drums; superstitious about voodoo and other "heathen" practices of the slaves, good folk figured it was best to shelter inside when Madame Laveau was about "conjuring the devil."  Though there was conjuring going on at these bamboulas, it had nothing to do with the devil of Christian beliefs - and every good vodusi knew no devil would be rash enough to come up and challenge the great Marie Laveau! 

Portrait of Madame Marie Laveau
by Schneider (believed to be an accurate representation).


In age-old rituals, brought from Africa and through the islands of the Caribbean with the slave diaspora, Madame Laveau in her role as high priestess would call for the blessing of the ancestors, those familial spirits who are closest to those of us who dwell in physical reality.  Madame Laveau would then call upon Papa Legba, the guardian of the crossroads and, like the Christian St. Peter with whom he is syncretized, the keeper of the keys to the realm of the unseen.  Once obtaining the favor of Papa Legba, the remainder of the ritual could commence; this might focus on a particular Lwa (voodoo spirit) or perhaps on the initiations or petitions of the faithful assembled.  Rapturous drumbeats would call to those unseen on the other side, and throughout the night the spirits might come and go through the thin veil that separates the worlds, under the protection of Papa Legba and the constant guidance of Madame Marie Laveau.
 
Needless to say, in addition to the initiated and the faithful, Madame Laveau's rituals also frequently attracted the curious and the superstitious.  The gatherings were often written about, albeit overdramatically, and this served to increase the interest of visitors to New Orleans: indeed, curious travelers actually helped to raise local voodoo to tourist-attraction status very early on.  And even though it is at least 130 years since Madame Laveau physically participated in a St. John's Eve ritual, she regularly appears at gatherings of the faithful even in the 21st century.
 
The St. John's Eve Headwashing Ceremony hosted by New Orleans' most popular manbo Sallie Ann Glassman is one of these occasions. 

Manbo Sallie Ann Glassman stands before the altar
dedicated to Madame Marie Laveau.
 
 
For a number of years, Manbo (yes, that's the correct spelling in Haitian vodou) Sallie Ann Glassman and her community of initiates and followers known as La Source Ancienne Ounfo have hosted a St. John's Eve headwashing ceremony at Bayou St. John.  An altar honoring Marie Laveau is erected on the footbridge that crosses the bayou at the landmark of Cabrini High School, and the faithful assemble there at a specified time to celebrate the powerful Queen of New Orleans Voodoo.  Madame Laveau is evoked, petitioned to manifest to the community by possessing Manbo Sallie Ann or another of the company and to make herself known.  Unlike demonic possession, possession by a good spirit or one of the Lwa is looked upon as a positive experience in vodou, and one to be celebrated by any devotee.  I have personally seen Manbo Sallie Ann possessed by Marie Laveau's spirit, and not just at St. John's Eve rituals, but have also witnessed other attendees at the summer headwashing experience spirit possession.  The phenomenon is unpredictable and cannot be manipulated even by the High Priestess; it is amazing to witness.

Manbo Sallie Ann ministers to a possessed
devotee at a previous headwashing ceremony.

 
The public has always been invited to the St. John's Eve ceremonies and each year Manbo Sallie Ann, assisted by other initiated priestesses and priests, perform ritual headwashings upon each other and the public who attend.  The goal of the ritual is simple, to wash away negativity and those thoughts or beliefs that may be holding one back, and to replace them with positive thoughts and affirmations of renewal for moving forward.  Manbo Sallie Ann doesn't deviate very much at all from the type of ritual Madame Laveau would have conducted at her long-ago bamboulas, something interesting to keep in mind for the folklorist or historian in the audience.



Then again, it might be difficult for anyone to make that connection with history given the realities of attending a public voodoo ritual in the heat of June amidst a press of people.  Just as Marie Laveau's St. John's Eve rituals attracted crowds of the curious and the superstitious, so does the ceremony hosted by Manbo Sallie Ann.  In the several years that I have been attending the ceremonies, I have noticed the numbers of actual initiates and devotees remaining mostly constant, and can readily recognize some other attendees who have been around for a while.  But with each passing year the press of spectators and curiosity-seekers has increased until now, unfortunately, these people outnumber the old-line attendees.  
 
Insofar as the local residents of the St. John's bayou neighborhoods are concerned, the annual ritual is yet another opportunity to participate in what they see as a kitschy and trendy New Orleans activity.  And before you take me to task you might be interested to know that I say this after having sighted a family reclining under a TENT complete with grill and ice chests, a young hipster-chic woman tip-toeing through the grass in a white crinoline slip and very little else, and two jewelry-laden women emerging from a ginormous house with wine glasses, chattering gaily as if this old-line ritual was just another attraction at White Linen Night.  Yes, attendees are asked to wear white, but even the High Priestess is in white cotton and manages with bottled water . . .



Whether or not all this makes Madame Marie Laveau less-inclined to put in an appearance at the headwashing ceremony that is meant to be honoring her is left to rumination.  But I do worry that the annual ritual may outgrow itself, or indeed may have already done so, and might become more about the attendees and their idea of what constitutes a chic trend, somewhere else to see-and-be-seen, and less about the vision and historical purpose of the ceremony overall.



 
This aside, several interested tourists and passers-by were eager to ask questions about what was going on, and were fittingly enthralled when being told about the event.  The spark in their eyes, the glitter of a mental glimpse of something long-past manifesting right before them in modern times really struck me.  Now if we could just have a whole audience of people like that . . .
 
I realize, however, that this is not being altogether fair to Manbo Sallie Ann, a woman I love and admire tremendously.  She is, after all, a force to be reckoned with, and she has helped so many in her community that it is understandable for that community to follow her and embrace her whenever they can.  As a matter of fact, she does an awe-inspiring job of being the link not just to spirit on behalf of her servite, or to shaping vodou for a forward-thinking crowd, but also to the deep roots of our city's past.  And if there is anyone in visions of vodou that one can most easily picture standing beside Madame Marie Laveau on the shores of Bayou St. John's past it is Manbo Sallie Ann Glassman. 
 
As she teaches and often says, "We reach from here," pointing at her heart, "to infinity."  I cannot imagine Marie Laveau would in any way take issue with that!

Manbo Sallie Ann washing the head of
a ceremony attendee.


WHAT:  St. John's Eve Headwashing Ceremony in honor of Marie Laveau

WHERE:  "Magnolia Bridge," the old footbridge across from Cabrini High on Bayou St. John,
                  New Orleans

WHEN:  Annually on or about St. John's Eve (June 23rd)

 
For more about the Holy Day of New Orleans Voodoo visit this link:
 


Friday, June 21, 2013

UPSTAIRS: THE MUSICAL

The long, strange trip to recognition.




Last night I attended the world premiere of “Upstairs: The Musical,” a dramatic musical tribute to the 32 victims of the tragic 1973 fire at the Upstairs Lounge, one of the most heinous hate crimes in the history of the American gay rights struggle.  As I sat there waiting for the show to start, just amazed at the excited, positive vibe pulsating from the audience, I couldn’t help but recall the day I jumped on this strange wonder train that has been the story of the Upstairs Lounge.

I grew up in New Orleans and I vividly remember the ghastly images shown on the news in the aftermath of the fire.  Charred forms, grotesque mannequins that were once human beings, frozen in the throes of death and protruding from the scorched, barred windows were the images seared into my young mind at the time of the tragedy.  When, later in life, I became involved in paranormal research, the “old Upstairs” seemed a natural place to want to investigate.

The stairs to the old Upstairs Lounge.



I encountered the “old Upstairs” more personally when, during my meeting with Jimmy Massacci, building manager and owner of the Jimani Bar (located on the ground floor just below what was once the Upstairs Lounge), I got to tour the site.  Massacci pointed out charred bricks and wood, a third floor that had barely changed since the days of the Upstairs, and the very window where the charred mannequin body had been.  Yet the story had only just started to sink in.

About a month later, in July of 2010, members of Louisiana State Paranormal Research Society and I assembled at the site of the “old Upstairs” to begin our investigation.  It was miserably hot inside, and in some areas stiflingly silent, and during a solo EVP (electronic voice phenomena) session I reached out to the Upstairs dead; though I did not know whether or not I had any replies, I remember my words exactly:  “I promise you I will do the best I can to tell your story,” I said.  “I’m not gay, but I will find a way to get in touch with the gay community and to make them aware that you are still here.”  A chilling EVP response was captured saying:  “Promise me .  . .”

Almost exactly a year later, after my story about the Upstairs investigation and our findings had been published on the web, I was still puzzling over how to get the attention of a community whose members I didn’t know and who weren’t paying any attention to me.  Then one day, out of the blue, I was contacted by a woman named Misti Ates.  She broke the ice immediately by telling me, “You’re going to think I’m crazy, but since I read your story two weeks ago I have not had a minute’s peace!  We have to do something about this!” 

Misti Ates (right) and wife Catherine Gaither.
 
 
Well, imagine my surprise when I learned that Misti Ates had been voted Lesbian of the Year and was Grand Marshal of the New Orleans PRIDE parade that very year, and that further, she was actively involved in organizing in the gay community!  I would say she “came out of nowhere” but, as I was shortly to learn, “the guys” of the Upstairs have a way of bringing the right people together at the right time.
Throughout the remainder of 2011 and 2012, Misti and I, supported by her wife Catherine and several of their friends, made deciphering and telling the Upstairs story a genuine priority.  Admittedly, I took a little bit of a back seat to the powerhouse organizer that is Misti Ates – I had discovered that the dead of the Upstairs were still waiting to “come down” from their closeted hiding place, and Misti readily accepted that knowledge as truth and just ran with it!  She accompanied me on a return visit to the Upstairs where she and Catherine met Jimmy Massacci and went on a tour of the place; she immediately reached out to friends who might be able to help her rethread some of the skeins of this almost forty-year-old story. 
Gravesites were found – from those in the anonymous fields of the Holt Cemetery to, most recently, the last resting place of Reverend Bill Larson, the burned man of the window who became a mute, but powerful symbol of the journey as a whole; relatives were found and Misti would always reach out to them tactfully and compassionately; and survivors and other members of the gay community who remembered the event were located and asked to share their stories.  In the early summer of 2012, Misti and I, together with LSPR Society founder Bernadine LeBlanc, and my daughter, who was an eyewitness to some of the unexplained phenomena at the location, were filmed for an episode of SyFy TV’s “Ghost Hunters” series.  Although some might frown on this as grandstanding, it must be understood that the show’s producers had already happened on the story through mining of my website: we stepped in and agreed to be filmed in order to keep these “reality TV stars” from turning the story into a complete sideshow. 
Then on June 24th, 2012, I joined Misti, Cat, and two of their closest friends at the Upstairs site for a tiny, private memorial where we simply laid flowers and read the names of the dead, and renewed our promise to tell their story to the world.
Photograph of plaque commemorating the Upstairs Lounge victims.

 
 
Fast forward to last night and you can imagine, then, some of the emotions going through me.  It had been, very definitely, a long, strange trip, sometimes a roller-coaster with dark tunnels and dizzying heights – and last night was one of those heights as “Upstairs: The Musical” deftly rose to the occasion.  Each of the performers in the ensemble cast knew the weight of the responsibility they carried in attempting to translate such a tragic, hateful event into musical theatre.  But instead of dwelling only on the tragedy and the hate, the performers took the high road and fulfilled both the audience’s desire and the requirement of history to know more about whom these men were that died so brutally.  So what we saw weren’t just doomed gay men – indeed, one of the dead, Willie Inez Warren, was just a mother who stopped by the club to pick up one of her sons – but amalgamations of an “everyman” that combined all the possibilities that might have been true of every man in the bar that tragic day.  Lost love, faded dreams, true love, commitment in the face of hate and prejudice, ferocity, and above all, humanity were all aspects of the Upstairs dead; pick anyone that you like from the list of victims, they were all represented last night.
Scene from "Upstairs: The Musical"
 
Certainly there were standouts among the performers:  Katrina McGraw as Inez, Garrett Marshall as Buddy, and Patrick Dillon Curry as Mitch all turned in powerhouse performances.  The musical score and lyrics of show creator Wayne Self provided the perfect vehicle for the telling of the Upstairs story, with one song in particular – the plaintive “I’ll Always Return” – destined for anthem status.In fact, the only detractions worth mentioning are a sound system that could use some improvement and uncomfortable metal chairs in portions of the audience seating.
 
Speaking of the audience, there were several representatives of the Metropolitan Community Church present, of which the Reverend Larson was a member, as well as representatives of St. George’s Episcopal Church, St. Mark’s Methodist Church, and St. Anna’s Episcopal Church, all of which opened their doors and their hearts in the aftermath of the Upstairs fire.  In a moment when even the families of many of the deceased would not step up to claim the bodies of their own, these congregations stepped in to do the right and honorable thing.  So it was with interest that, occasionally during the show, I would glance over to the reserved seating area, where the congregation representatives and their friends were sitting, just to gauge their reactions.  
 
Members of several churches who stepped up for the
victims at the time of the Upstairs fire watch intently.
 
What I saw there were a group of people enthralled by what they were experiencing; watching a performance that certainly must have transported them back to the awful day and the weeks that followed the fire, their faces were a mix of enjoyment, a few tinged with sadness, perhaps some others stung by regret.  Yet over all there was a prevailing sense of one emotion: pride, the pride of having at last done right by the Upstairs dead.
 
Show Creator Wayne Self addresses the audience.
 
As for me, I took away a kind of “mission accomplished” satisfaction and not a little contentment in having kept a promise.  “I promise I’ll do the best I can to tell your story,” I said to Bud Matyi and the other victims when they were still waiting in the darkness of the “old Upstairs.”  I am content today because I know, I can feel it: the dead have come down, they have come out of the closet of obscurity that was the fire and death and the past.  They have come out to join the vibrant proud community that they hoped for and gave their lives for.  They have come out at last.
LISTEN TO THE MOVING "I'LL ALWAYS RETURN" AT THIS LINK:
 
 
WHAT:  UPSTAIRS: THE MUSICAL
WHERE:  The Istanbul Theatre inside the New Orleans Healing Center, St. Claude Avenue
WHEN:  Now through Monday, June 24th
 


 
 

 


Sunday, June 9, 2013

FANGTASIA III COUNTDOWN SHOW HEATS THINGS UP FOR THE MAIN EVENT
 
Fans with fangs enjoying the Voltaire show in the Howlin' Wolf Den.
 
Vampire enthusiasts, pop culture and industrial fans, and Renaissance fest veterans packed the house at Howlin' Wolf's Den last night to kick-off the countdown to Fangtasia III.  The eclectic mix produced a lively and friendly crowd with several stand-outs including organizer Kurt Amacker and his wife Sabrina, the inimitable Lord Chaz, author Lewis Aleman, paranormal researcher Bernadine LeBlanc, photographer Becky Plexco, scene favorite Gina Valentine, and New Orleans' own Lisa Lansou.
 
Industrial performance artist Michael Gunn and Shrapnihil loosened everyone up with a European-style arthouse performance of beats and rhythms coupled with a fascinating mist and light show.  The audience was held transfixed throughout the set.
 
  
Dark cabaret star Aurelio Voltaire headlined the show.  Playing the guitar and accompanied only by a bottle of Captain Morgan rum, Voltaire performed fan favorites including "Death Death (Devil, Devil, Evil Evil)," "To the Bottom of the Sea," and "Don't Go By the River" which he dedicated to the "wicked" City of New Orleans.  Voltaire's performances thrive on audience interaction, and the Howlin' Wolf Den venue added to the intimacy especially when, several songs into the set, Voltaire appealed to a guy leaning against a wall to "flip that switch" because "ya'll can't see me!"  Sure enough, the spotlight that had been missing sprang to life.  This interactive rapport with his fans is obviously a big part of his appeal, to say nothing of the tricorn hat, frock coat, streaming dark hair and piercing eyes . . . 
 
 
 
This countdown event was a precursor, just a little something for fans to sink their fangs into while anticipating the main event.  Fangtasia III, featuring dark wave band Christian Death and industrial edge performance artist DJ Jyrki 69, will take place on July 20th with the venue being once again The Howlin' Wolf. 
 
 
An "anonymous" commentator wants you all to know that this is NOT
Michael Gunn (with Mohawk) enjoying Voltaire's set.
 
Gina Valentine (center) was on hand for the show.
 
 
Fangtasia event organizer, author and artist
Kurt Amacker, handling mc duties.
 
 
Lisa Lansou (yes, she's related to the witch)
taken by surprise!
 
 
Bernadine LeBlanc, founder of Louisiana State Paranormal
Research Society and one-half of Les Dames Sombres
du Paranormal, keeping her eye on the scene.
 
 

The author, Alyne Pustanio, enjoying
a rare night out.
 
 
For more information about the Fangtasia event visit
 
For ticket information visit www.howlin-wolf.com