Saturday, September 20, 2008

October Country NYC

We made it through a week of film meetings, film parties and conferences. All those introductions. All those quick eyes scanning badges. One area where filmmakers went behind a curtain to give quick pitches to funders resembled an STD clinic. A woman with a clipboard came out, a filmmaker went in. Soon the filmmaker came out either grinning (rarely) or with the defeated look of someone who was off to get that prescription filled and give all their partners the bad news. For us however,
it was a buzzing productive week. And we met some awesome folks.

Party highlight ! we got into a film society party at the Dakota- a very quiet, sincere occasion, a very tasteful cheery, if ornate apartment. No whiff of Brimstone anywhere. Everyone talked in low voices when mentioning Rosemary’s Baby, afraid the hosts would over hear, weary of that business, think us crass. Cheers to John and Yoko, and God bless message of peace, but with it’s gargoyle light fixtures in winding halls, iron gates, high dark walls and gothic rooftops, the Dakota seems rather to say give Satan (or at least Ruth Gordon, satanically gaudy) a chance.

"They're witches every one!"

The Screening

To top all this off, we had the work in progress screening of October Country, for an audience of 300 on a school rooftop in Manhattan, with the September moon above and graffiti images of immigrants workers, hip hop superheroes, peering children, and ghosts and skulls on the brick walls all around.A chill came on halfway through the film, matching Halloween on the screen. The reaction was as everything we hope for (how often does that happen?) But I stood answering questions, thinking how strange it was to be so happy when the lives in the film are so fucked. Thank you Mark Elijah Rosenberg and all at Rooftop Films for a night of the most mixed emotions I’ll ever have.

Home Viewing

On the train and it’s dark outside now, just my own reflection and the flicker of town lights through trees. As we head toward the Mohawk valley, the film becomes my family’s life again, the life they don’t deserve even though most of them make it for themselves. An abandoned brick factory glides past the window, flood lit and seemingly built on dark air. October Country here we come again.

mom and dad and ?

The film finished. Credits rolled. Not only did they like it. They’re proud of it.
Nothing could have been better, nothing more to say about it.

Daneal, age 4



mom in the pool

archery target in the neighbors yard

Donna's T-shirt

cigarette machine


The Valley

Signs at the toll exit read “Welcome to the historic Mohawk Valley. To the historic Township of Herkimer.” This is the outstretched toe of Fennimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking country, and the towns that crouch along the banks of the Mohawk are sites of original colonies and revolutionary battles. Colonial graves are hidden in the woods. Barbed wire sags under blackberry thickets at the edge of the Reservation. Every country road has its tumbledown barns and skeletal silos, the rural gothic testaments to the dying agricultural economy. Industry hardly fares better. In the town of Ilion, the smokestack of the Remington Arms, the valley’s first and possibly last industry, stands like graveyard monument at the center of town. Though nearly all the life has been sucked from the valley’s dour brick factories, death continues rolling in bits and pieces along the Arms’ conveyer belts. How many lives has our local industry claimed? How many restless spirits has this factory produced.

Aside from weapons and a shabby bit of history what is there to sell here? Tough lives on tough, tired land. Motels and vacation cabins molder in lines along the highways like boxcars a train has abandoned. Tourists drive through but do not linger. The summers are short, the river water cold, and though every farmhouse and trailer park has a storage shed converted into a craft shop, there is a terrible shortage of real antiques. There is in fact a shortage of real past and real future. The kind of daily struggle that happens here makes own, cyclical present tense – a gritty unappealing one that goes unseen, unvisited. The Valley and the lives within it exist as ghosts.

But this is where I came from, where I left, and where my family still lives. We haunt each other. In the logic of haunting, memory, and photography, a fragment of time becomes unmoored from the greater flow and turns in on itself, producing phenomena that contain both presence and absence. The ghosts here in the valley are my ghosts, just as I am a ghost, there but unseen, in the pictures I take of them.

The long streets, sparsely lit. Piled leaves scattered by the gusty wind. A photograph may capture their color, their motion, but not their sound. They rise with a crisp, dry hiss, fluttering, beneath the streetlights, then fall, to scuttle crab-like across the pavement. Desiree crunches waist-deep into a yellow, curbside mound. She emerges with oak leaves, like petting hands, clinging to the fur of her costume. Originally, she was to be a handmade pumpkin from Ladies Home Journal, until the release of 101 Dalmations when the half-sewn yards of green and orange felt were replaced with a pre-packaged, spotted hide. On a porch she stops, shying away from the gnarled, toothy face, the claw holding out the candy. She takes into consideration her mother’s words, “It’s not real, honey, it’s a mask.” But tonight, phantasm outweighs adult authority. She won’t even take the candy I collect for her. However, after watching me enjoy it without painful death, or sprouting hair and fangs, she charges the next house, undaunted by skulls, flashing Frankenstein heads, and a clothesline’s worth of cotton sheet ghosts.

Daneal is wearing a “sexy kitty” costume. Her posture slides between 12 and 17 as she swings her treat bag in time with hips she doesn’t quite have. Her eyes are sharp, trying to guess the boys behind their masks, so she can flirt, snub, or at least know which walk to use as she goes by. She is so intent on maximizing whatever sex appeal she has, so focused on her growing powers, that she seems to be calculating them on a moment-to-moment basis. She leaves us when she sees a group of older, unchaperoned girls. She crosses the street to show off her costume. The girls give an ambivalent nod of acknowledgement. Daneal’s bright voice, carried by the damp air, chatters away as if she does not notice their disengagement. But she does not linger. She returns, smiling and listing the girls' merits, with discomfort twitching behind her whiskers.


Dear Donny,

Here are the rules we have in our handbook. I hope they help.

No smoking tobacco products during an investigation.

No alcohol before, during or after an investigation if remaining on site.

Remember, you have more to fear from the living than from the dead. Haunted sites are often isolated and deserted. That makes these sites attractive to people engaged in illegal activities. Use caution and common sense.

Ask the spirits of the dead for permission to take their photos. They appear as orbs because this form has the most binding surface tension for the energy expended. If you see a sparkle when you shoot, you got something.

Have extra batteries for cameras, spirits draw power from them.

As your mother taught you, never speak ill of the dead. Avoid sarcasm and jokes in haunted settings. Sometimes, the spirits "get even."

If you become unreasonably frightened, leave. If you aretroubled by unwanted thoughts after leaving a haunted location, relax. Eat some comfort food. Watch a happy movie or TV show. Talk it out with a skeptical friend. Spend some time in a church. If the thoughts persist, see a professional.

Ghosts do not "possess" people without their consent. If someone or something seems to be taking control, tell it to stop. Think rude thoughts at it, and generally picture yourself as a bigger bully than the spirit is. This does work.

Generally, you cannot help a ghost. You can advise them to move on, but don't waste more than five or ten minutes discussing this. Most ghosts are tied to their earthly locations because they want to change something that happened in the past.

You can't change the past, and most ghosts aren't really interested in anything else.

Sounds like things are going pretty good for you. Did you get the pictures I sent from our hunt? Did you get anything? The night shot camera picked up a mist around us and shortly after that we both smelled beer. I guess they were having a party that night.

Aunt Denise

(Image from Denise's ghost hunting notebook)


(Middleville Cemetery)

The cemetery stretches along the center of the town, taking up the greater portion of Main St. Headstones outnumber houses here in Middleville (just as the death rate outnumbers the birthrate through the region.) The Valley is spotted with little townships like this one. A few homes. A fire station and a post office. A gas station and a convenience store if you’re lucky. Trains still run through the backtstreets twice a day but, even in the heyday of the railroads these places never had stations.

At the cemetry entrance, nailed to a old tree whose roots threaten to topple nearby headstones, a hand painted sign reads, “NO ARTIFICIAL FLOWERS.” I snap a shot. It occurs to me later, when I print the image, that a photograph is a kind of artificial blossom, a synthetic memory token, fading eventually in the sunlight.

Denise and Peggy hurry into the cemetery. I watch their plump forms disappear into the darkness. They become floating heads. Cameras flash on headstone inscriptions. Names and lifespans from centuries, decades, and even months ago flare up and fade into the darkness. A few small, pristine flags are revealed –servicemen? National Guard boys or girls trying to get out of the valley, ending up dead in Iraq? I can't tell. In the distance I hear Denise speaking softly, trying to draw the spirits to her. We wait. All is quiet. If the spirits speak, it's on tape. If they manifest, it's on film. Our senses mean nothing.

(Peggy w/ thermal scanner)

On the ride home, Denise and Peggy bitch about their health, about work and welfare checks. They gossip about adulteries and trade tales of local hauntings. They will put tonight’s investigation in notebooks full images, incidents, and folklore. I’ll do the same, just as I have since I started photographing this place. Dark trees and houses decorated for Halloween sail by the car window.

It’s not as strange as it seems, stomping around the boneyard with these two women. We are continuing an upstate NY tradition. In the 1700’s Shakers arrived here and became possessed by Indian Spirits during their Sabbath meetings. In 1848, in nearby Rochester the Fox sisters initiated the spiritualist movement by cracking their toes to mimic ghostly tappings. The long conversation with the dead has continued ever since. Denise thinks the presence of the Remington rifle factory guarantees the valley is full of restless spirits. I think of all the canal routes and hollows of the valley, a natural version of Sarah Winchester’s house, a labyrinth that traps and confuses the angry dead.

Everyone’s haunted by something around here and the ghost stories tell as much about the living as they do about the dead.

“You can still hear her walking in the old jail house. She was the last woman hanged in the state.” “Why?” “Her husband beat her, so she killed him, chopped him and fed him to the pigs.” “No shit. I know some girls who should start raising pigs.”

“She had a restraining order but she came home from the late shift and found him waiting in her house. She ran out but he caught and killed her right there in the road. After that, they say you’d see her at night, running toward the passing cars. It was a dirt road back then. No one saw her after they paved it.”

“All four of them were huffing glue. He said so, the one who survived. They were on the way back from a show in Syracuse and something came out of the woods, right in front of the car. The driver, his head was cut off. His body stuck in the wind shield. Ozzy still grinning on his t-shirt.”

“He went to work down at Remington’s, making rifles all week and doing the National Guard for the extra cash on the weekend. He liked it. He called it playing soldier. He never expected to leave the valley, let alone go over there. He’d been gone about a month when I saw him under that old tree. Just like grandpa. Grandma Bee knew he’d died in the hospital ‘cause she’d seen him under that tree.”



On the wall of the hospital room there is a wooden clock decorated with blossoms made of flat-headed nails. Each hard, round petal is coated with pink or yellow nail polish that gleams in the cool clinical light. From the bed, her death bed, my grandmother Ruby says, ”Nice, isn’t it.” The clock is one of the few personal items in the room though she has been in hospital for over 5 months. She speaks softly, with many pauses. Gone is the hard, nasal tone of the woman who wore lipstick as red as her namesake stone and met her first husband while serving drinks in seedy, dockside bar in Manhattan. The distinctive sound of her is drying up, evaporated by the loss of a lung and the quiet atmosphere of the elderly ward.

Our own voices are muffled by the surgical masks we must wear during the visit. Years of smoking and close proximity to house cleaning chemicals have not only taken one of Ruby’s lungs, but left the other fragile and possibly cancerous. Any bacteria could be dangerous. My face itches beneath the mask. The air within the white folds is warm and moist, soured by fast food grease and coffee. When the nurse is not in the room however, I pull the mask down, giving my grandmother the first, full glimpse of my face. She smiles and nods. Under her white sheet, her left leg quivers repeatedly. Ed, her current husband, reaches to sooth the fluttering limb. He says she gets the shakes, but she mumbles defiantly, “I’m shaking it.” I had forgotten she was half- paralyzed by a stroke. Five months ago the left side of her body abandoned her and if she is indeed moving her leg it is an ambiguous a triumph – a reminder of both the strength of her character and how much of that strength she has lost.

Now I watch her, passive and pliant, suffering the rough efficiency of the nurses. She retreats, leaving her flesh to the well-practiced hands that chaff her, sit her up and strap on an oxygen mask. For the next twenty minutes I watch her frustration and discomfort grow; her eyes acknowledging her weakness while her mouth, softly sucking the air, fades from view behind a clouding, plastic shell. I realize that her death will likely be a continuation of this condition – a dull, extended drowning in discomfort. My father, adept at mischievous rescue, pulls the cotton swath far enough away from his lips to stick out his tongue. With her good arm, Ruby puts her thumb to her and wiggles her fingers. When the treatment is over, my mother combs her hair, performing a role reversal so seamless that you could easily miss the fleeting embarrassment on both women’s faces. That night I dream that it is snowing inside my grandmother’s oxygen mask, flurries eddying, swirling as she breathes.


I am spending the evening with my aunt Denise, the witch watching the Osbournes on TV tucked into a press-board shelf encrusted with crystals, unicorn figurines, swordsmen and sorcerers. Wizard’s abound here. Anywhere you look in the tiny room, some gaunt, bearded keeper of arcane secrets peers down at you from beneath bushy brows. Above the couch, elven queens stretch long, samite clothed limbs. The lengthiest super models, viewing these twiggy princesses, might suddenly feel their own bodies dumpling-like in comparison, and head off to the nearest national park to live on a diet of dew drops, and practice cat walking along the treetops. Its happy hour among the elves, they all bear cocktails in silver chalices. Stiff ones too, by the looks of the steam rising in the shape of dragons, screeching spirits and of course Unicorns. Another wall is devoted entirely to those pure and virginal beasts. It’s hoof and horn floor to ceiling. Against black velvet they stand, with flanks of clotted white paint, thick as snow banks. Lint clings like stars in the night sky to the soft, unpainted cloth of their eyes. If they were to stampede the blows of their sparkling hooves would surely fall and feel like snowflakes on skin. Herds of them roam the house. Virgins beware the bathroom! They stare questioningly at the lap of any who sit on the toilette. The kitchen is full of them, grazing at the houseplants, trotting along the back of the stove, quenching their thirst at the sink,.

But this housing project apartment is not only a sanctuary for mythical beasts, it is a headquarters for investigations into the paranormal. Denise sits me at the kitchen table, pulling notebooks from a pile that blocks the window. Inside are pictures of blurs, orbs, streaks of light crossing the frame. On their plastic coverings she has circled every and any speck that could indicate spectral presences. “Orbs or spirit manifestations on film,” she informs me, “are perfectly round unlike water drops or snow flakes.” I have the feeling of being in a horror film scenes where the unbelieving protagonist consults the reclusive, but enthusiastic expert on matters occult. Denise, I think, has the same feeling, her soft voice explaining “You can’t see them with your eye, but you can feel them, try putting the camera over your shoulder and shooting behind your back.” She shows me image after image, graveyards, colonial manors, homes she has had, even snapshots stolen from family albums. A magenta 70’s sprint of my sister and I at play, flecks hanging in the air above our heads. My aunt in NC, two days before announcing her desire to divorce my drunk, verbally abusive uncle. White circles float in the dark windows behind her. And a shot of ruby, My recently deceased grandmother, outside on a winter’s night. According to Denise, what I see spinning in the air around her is not snow, but a flurry of spirits, a precipitation of souls, falling so thickly that we will have to shovel them from the path come morning.

I could argue but what good could come of troubling her world. Besides, if I were to step out into the snowy evening, I’d know she was right. It’s dark when I walk home. All around are the sounds of the valley, the highway, the trains, dogs barking, movie soundtracks drifting from the windows of darkened houses –the town and hills disembodied. Behind the electric candles in one of those windows I can see Stallone's face repeatedly battered by a boxing glove. An American flag beats against yellow aluminum siding. The faint orbs of Christmas lights are blinking in little clutters along the unlit stretches of the street.