Local Backstage Wisconsin music show

Local Backstage Trailer

Over the last several months I’ve been working with some longtime friends and collaborators to produce a music show/podcast/channel. We’re all lifelong musicians who have been actively participating in and/or supporting the local music scene for decades.

Last weekend we fired up the cameras and shot a proof-of-concept trailer in the studio we’ve been building.

The show’s hosts are Jay Tamez of WAMI (Wisconsin Area Music Industry), Steve Madsen of The Resonant Complex (and my partner in crime for Backster Effect) and DJ Broh of Milwaukee Entertainment News.

I’m producing from behind the camera (because this is what happens when I force myself to be in front of it) with my son managing technical aspects of the production.

Watch the trailer:

We’re still working out some technical issues, but we have a lot of great ideas once we move into active production that will feature local artists in an interesting and meaningful way, along with other content that will reach beyond the local to musicians and music fans in general.

I’m already planning a Wisconsin Frights-sponsored Halloween episode if all works out, so stay tuned!

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Funeral

February 2, 2024. 4pm. A text message from my sister. “Grandma just passed away.”

Two days after her 95th birthday.

She stopped leaving the house or accepting visitors a long time ago, so I hadn’t seen her in over a decade. I did just talk to her on Christmas day, nearly yelling into the phone and her still unable to hear most of what I said. But it was nice to hear her voice. Tiny. Strained. Sad. But still her.

That was just a few days before she stopped answering her phone and my dad found her unresponsive.

He took her to the hospital and she never returned to the home she had kept since 1955.

The funeral was the following weekend.

My son and I left for Milwaukee a little earlier than we needed to that morning. A man who lost his life on the Titanic was buried in the same cemetery, so I figured I should take the opportunity to get some pictures and video of his grave to share the story on Wisconsin Frights on the anniversary of the sinking.

My grandfather was buried there in 2006. Incidentally, the man whose reckless driving caused the death of my maternal great-grandfather in 1954 is interred nearby.

Captain Edward Gifford Crosby was a Great Lakes shipping magnate from Milwaukee who was traveling on the Titanic with his wife and daughter on its single, ill-fated voyage. Awakened by a “thump” when the ship struck the iceberg, Crosby sent his family off on the first lifeboat to depart the ship, and stayed behind to help others.

His body was later pulled from the freezing Atlantic among the 337 recovered dead.

Crosby was cremated at Forest Home Cemetery in Milwaukee and interred in the newly built Fairview Mausoleum.

When the mausoleum was condemned in 1996, Crosby and his family were moved to Graceland Cemetery and marked with a gravestone engraved with an image of the Titanic.

We arrived at the cemetery early and spent about 20 minutes searching for Crosby in the Fairview section. Most stones were clearly visible, but a handful were too overgrown or swallowed by the earth to read. A few were submerged beneath water from the melting snow of Wisconsin’s record breaking temperatures.

We didn’t find his grave, only a memorial by a tree dedicated to the Crosby family from the Titanic Historical Society.

My grandmother’s funeral was short. She outlived most of her friends and family, so there were only a few of us. And her life, her entire 95 years, was summarized by the officiant in a brief “record of her life” of just a few key moments: She was born, she played in an accordion band, she had one son, two grandchildren, two great-grandchildren, and then she died.

We watched her casket descend into the ground atop my grandfather’s, and then it was over.

Afterward, we went to her house. I was grateful for that. I hadn’t been there in a quite some time. But, for the first time in my life, I was there and she wasn’t. And she wasn’t going to be ever again.

That’s when the weight of it really began to settle into my bones.

95 years of life culminating in a 15-minute funeral with eight attendees and a small, empty home of neatly organized and labeled closets and decades-old family photos under years of dust. A typed list of family birthdays and anniversaries. Her electric organ. The hat my grandfather had always worn, in a closet, placed neatly in the center of an otherwise empty shelf. (Right where he left it?) An empty house suspended in time, haunted by the lost specters of my earliest and fondest childhood memories.

The back patio where we’d swing on the porch swing and I’d draw pictures and tell Grandma stories.

The small patch of concrete where I sat on my first bike the day my grandparents bought it for me. I was maybe five or six.

The living room where my grandfather gave me my first guitar when I turned 12. An old nameless acoustic. He showed me some chords that his aged hands couldn’t play anymore.

A few years later, he and my dad took me to a nearby music store to buy my first electric guitar and a practice amp. We brought it back to the house to play.

Years of birthdays and holidays. Mint chocolate cakes and chocolate sodas.

That emptiness, I’ve learned, never goes away. Every loss leaves a hole and that part of us goes with them into the earth. I’ve lost a lot of family and friends in recent years. But you eventually find distractions from that icy hollow abyss. Eventually.

That feeling has since permeating each day. What’s the point of anything–the struggle, the fleeting moments of happiness, the grueling acts of creation to bring new things into the world–if we go out in pain and sadness and desperately pleading for the end. I’ve been a ghost myself, just passing through the days since the funeral. Maybe earlier. In and out. Sometimes fading out entirely.

Certain necessities don’t go away, however, so you have to keep moving.

I had a Wisconsin Frights newsletter to send, and I didn’t want to. I stared at a blank screen for days until I found a way in. It wasn’t what the newsletter was supposed to be, but I said the only thing I had to say at the moment. Just an abbreviated version of this, really. Still the only thing I have to say, I guess.

I made a few edits before hitting send, though, to scale back on the intensity of my existential crisis.

I’ve been slowly fading back in since then.

Because we have to keep moving.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep. And miles to go before I sleep. And miles to go before I sleep. – Robert Frost

Polar Vortex

Transmissions from the Polar Vortex

We had a warm, brown Christmas here in Wisconsin, so naturally some sort of frozen doom was inevitable. I’m writing now from under a pile of snow and subzero temperatures. Hell, or at least Mental Shed HQ, has officially frozen over. Add to that the fact that my daughter just turned 21, and my 95-year-old grandmother—my last surviving grandparent—is tired of living and has effectively checked herself into hospice where she intends to stop eating and drinking to speed things along.

So it’s a bit weird and bleak over here.

But that’s just par for the course lately.

With school called off multiple days for snow, and working remotely because I live near the bottom of a hill on a dead end street that rarely gets plowed (so there’s no escape) I’ve just hunkered down and gotten to work.

Here’s what I’ve been working on:

One Mental Minute

I work on a lot of things that rarely see the light of day, mostly because I don’t have time to finish them. So I’ve been kicking around the idea of needlessly consuming even more of my time by creating short form “day in the life” style videos about various things I’m working on. Maybe it will motivate me to finish something, maybe it will just help keep my video chops up, maybe I’ll abandoned the whole idea in a week. There’s no telling.

Anyway, here’s a day in a polar vortex, hanging out with one of my polydactyl cats, and working on Wisconsin Frights:

I had to break this up into two parts because I couldn’t possibly cut the cat shots. So the second thrilling installment will be posted later.

Ultimately, I consider this one a complete failure because I wanted a shot of a skeleton hand sticking out of the snow, but I couldn’t find the hand.

Project: Weird-Ass Cartoons

One of my passions has always been bizarre animation. Traditional animation, stop-motion, CG. Liquid Television on MTV in the early 90s, the kind of stuff you see on Adult Swim now. I’ve always been obsessed. I’ve started planning numerous animated shorts over the years, but I really don’t have that kind of time. I still don’t have that kind of time. It would be better to work with someone, but I also don’t have that kind of money. Regardless, I’ve decided to start piecing things together slowly as time allows to see if it will eventually take shape. Because I need to exorcise these ideas. They’re consuming too much headspace. So I’m learning new animation software, writing scripts, developing visual styles. The goal is to produce one initial short form video comprised of multiple animated micro shorts.

Project: Short Horror Story

A new publisher has opened submissions for their next anthology horror book. It sounds fun. But after initially thinking I didn’t have an idea that fit their concept, a drive through the dark, wintery wastes of Wisconsin served to help formulate a potentially viable story. I started working on it, but it didn’t take long until I hit a roadblock. I haven’t completed a work of fiction in a really long time so I’m not particularly hopeful.

Project: Music Site

A longtime friend (who I recently worked with to conceptualize some guitar amp designs and branding) is developing another music-related project that needed a quick website for a presentation to potential early adopters. I’ve been casually working on branding ideas for this one for a while, but it still came together surprisingly fast.

Dungeons & Dragons

2024 marks the 50th anniversary of Dungeons & Dragons, which was created right here in Wisconsin. Thanks to a group called the Gary Gygax Memorial Fund, a lot of great D&D-related things have been happening in his hometown of Lake Geneva that’s making it a must-visit destination for TTRPG fans. So I worked up this piece for Wisconsin Frights: 12 Dungeons and Dragons Things to Check Out in Lake Geneva.

Recent Distractions

Books

Focusing on fiction right now. I’m finishing The Cipher by Kathe Koja, which just keeps getting more disturbing, and just started the short horror story collection Doors of Darkness from Terrorcore Publishing. I also read through the Kindle preview of The Deep by Nick Cutter, and I’m definitely going to have to finish it.

Video Games

I finally finished the Bioshock trilogy over the holidays, I’m giving up on actually completing Breath of the Wild, and I don’t want to to finish Resident Evil: Village because then it will be over. But I got Jedi: Survivor for Christmas, so I’ve been attempting to play that a little in the evenings. Usually, I start a game, don’t get back to it for several years, forget how to play it, and wander off to do something productive. So I’m really trying to stick with this one. My favorite part is wondering aimlessly for long periods of time between action because I can’t figure out what the hell I’m supposed to do.

Movies

I fired up Amazon prime to find something to watch briefly with dinner. A movie called Nefarious was right there in front. Hadn’t heard of it, pressed play. Possession movie, great! But Christian propaganda slowly started to drip in. I paused about half way through, when the demon started monologuing about how “the carpenter” has been their biggest problem. Looked the movie up on IMDB, realized with extreme horror that I had been duped by the people who made Unplanned and God’s Not Dead. I immediately took a shower and tried to scrub it off, but I still feel dirty.

TV

We’ve been rewatching Breaking Bad. It goes without saying that this show is a masterclass in story telling, but it’s been a while since I watched it last, and I’m mesmerized all over again by how brilliant every second is. Also, the new season of True Detective just started, starring Jodie Foster and set during the polar night in Alaska. I’ve been counting the days until the premiere, but then I spent too much time editing the first One Mental Minute video. So it was nearly 2am when I finally turned True Detective on, and I didn’t last long.

Mental Shed Year in Review

2023 Mental Shed Year in Review

2023 has been a challenging year, and there have not been many successes to speak of. The majority of what I hoped to accomplish didn’t come to fruition for various reasons. For the last several years I felt like I was finally starting to crawl my way up the “Hierarchy of Needs” to the levels on which I could begin to focus more on creativity and philanthropy.

But this year knocked me back down to the bottom, where basic needs are at stake once again.

Still, there are a few 2023 achievements to report.

New Mental Shed Logo

New Mental Shed logo design

I tend to have plenty of branding ideas for client work, but not for my own projects. I’ve struggled with how to visually represent the Mental Shed throughout all of it’s 20+ year existence. But this year I may have developed a concept that works. Now, it doesn’t tick all the boxes, but it gets some of the important ones: Creepy shed and tentacles.

Also, it looks good on a Christmas card.

Wisconsin Travel Guide to the Dark Side

Wisconsin Travel Guide

I started working on the Wisconsin Travel Guide to the Dark Side for Wisconsin Frights around the end of 2022, and finally finished it and released it in June of 2023. In six months it was downloaded more than 4,000 times. I designed it for print, and most people would have preferred it that way, but the budget just wasn’t there.

The guide has features on creepy things to do in Wisconsin Dells (such as visiting Peter’s Kurten’s head), Ed Gein, the incorrupt priest of St. Nazianz and more, plus a regional guide to weird, unique and creepy locations.

Now I can’t decide if I should do a new edition for each year, or one general edition that can be updated as needed.

UFO Daze

Benson's Hideaway UFO Daze

For more than 30 years, a little bar on the shore of Long Lake called Benson’s Hide-A-Way was home to the annual UFO Daze celebration put on by proprietor Bill Benson. The area has been the nexus for strange lights in the sky, crop circles, and other phenomena for at least decades.

This year, I started working on a 3D piece involving a UFO gliding slowly across the surface of long lake and then soaring over Benson’s.

You can see this in motion right here.

Went to the drive-in on the Satanic Highway

Highway 18 drive-in theater in Jefferson, WI

I’ve been meaning to go to get to the Highway 18 Outdoor Theatre for a decade, and I finally did – right at the end of the season, right before the announcement that the current owner was putting it up for sale.

This drive-in is almost all original besides the digital projector (though you can see the original film projector in the concessions lobby) and it has the biggest outdoor screen in the state.

Here’s hoping someone buys it and appreciates it.

Wisconsin's Satanic Highway

But this trip served two purposes: 1. See two movies with Wisconsin connections at a rural Wisconsin drive-in (Barbie is a Wisconsin native and so was the actor who played Sloth in The Goonies) and 2. Drive down the newly minted Satanic Highway.

Officially started a new music project

Backster Effect

An idea that started in California in 2019 as a casual poolside conversation with one of my oldest friends and musical collaborators finally started to come to life this year. We settled on the name Backster Effect and have a number of songs in the works. In October—Friday the 13th—we publicly released a 44-second clip of a song tentatively titled “Our Lady of Fire.”

Backster Effect is new, challenging, and experimental as we work to weave the digital into the organic. It’s simultaneously both a big departure from what we usually do, and yet somehow still recognizably our sound that we started in a very similar way nearly 20 years ago.

Follow Backster Effect on Tiktok, Instagram, and Youtube. to see and hear more as we progress.

Creation Myths Podcast

Creation Myths Podcast

While working on Backster Effect and hearing the constant death knell of the music industry that’s ever present these days—how no one cares about music or values it anymore—we started wondering what makes us care, and how could we maybe get others to care, as well.

Our tentative answer to that is Creations Myths, a podcast and video series showcasing the journey of hardworking local musicians (and other artists) and why they do what they do. Because in all things, story is always the hook.

We got most of the creative direction hammered out, branding done, content strategy, and even an early partnership in place. Just need to start recording some episodes when there’s time.

Follow Creation Myths on Tiktok, Instagram and Youtube for now.

Reorganized my portfolio

Revolution Amps guitar amp design

I spent some time this year redesigning certain elements of my portfolio to better showcase my work, such as branding and design concepts for Revolutions Amps, branding, design, and digital strategy for Grave Digger Candles, and title treatment and key art for Squeal.

I’d like to do more motion design and sound design work in 2024.

Dominion of Terror Video

Dominion of Terror haunted house in Sheboygan

I had the opportunity to work with the Dominion of Terror haunted house in Sheboygan this Halloween season to produce a shortform video promoting the haunt on Wisconsin Frights. The people were great, the attraction is a lot of fun, and I think the video came out pretty good.

Watch it right here.

Photo published in Harold Schechter’s new book

Peter Kurten's head in the book Murderabilia by Harold Schechter

I first read Harold Schechter back in the 90s when his book Deviant about Ed Gein came out, so to get my photo of Peter Kurten’s head published in his latest book Murderabilia is pretty satisfying. I took this photo during a winter getaway to Wisconsin Dells for my daughter’s 17th birthday in January, 2020—right before all hell broke lose.

Degenerative AI

AI art

Generative AI irreversibly changed the world this year. Like many niche website owners, designers, and marketers, I started testing various AI tools to see 1) if they are going to replace people like me, and 2) if they were viable for my personal business needs.

One of the primary pillars of a successful niche website is a continuous stream of high-quality content, which obviously takes a considerable amount of time to produce. A tool to reduce those hours would be invaluable.

I primarily worked with Midjourney and ChatGPT. For my personal needs, I found them fun for a while, and maybe good to brainstorm ideas. But in the end, everything I’ve achieved with my websites has been because of my personal knowledge, my research, and my own work. If my websites focused on more accessible niches, it would probably be much easier to generate passable content with just a bit of editing, as many are already doing.

This is the reason why authenticity will be so important going forward.

For my personal needs, AI tools have mostly helped me decide what not to do, because the quality of their output isn’t great.

However, Adobe’s Generative Fill has quickly become an integral part of my workflow for expanding images and removing objects—the tedious stuff that took way too long in the not-so-distant past.

This short clip was my first real experiment with Generative Fill. Normally, creating a parallax effect like this would take hours to just fill in the holes where you cut out foreground and background elements. I cut out the trees in Photoshop and used Generative Fill to cover up the holes. Then, I brought the PSD into After Effects and did all the fun stuff there.

It took a fraction of the time and none of the frustration.

The Dirge

All in all, I’m happy to see 2023 go. I didn’t accomplish most of what I intended, and rarely even got away from my desk because I couldn’t. The year was marked by loss of various kinds, sadness, anxiety and instability. But I’m going into 2024 hoping to somehow find a way to regain some of that stability. And I’m fortunate to be a part of a few exciting projects that won’t pay the bills, but will at least help me feel like I’m achieving something.

Mental Shed Christmas

Season’s Creepings

There’s nothing like a little cosmic dread for Christmas.

This year’s Christmas card features what is probably the new official Mental Shed logo – with an extra dose of winter wonder.

Mental Shed Christmas Card

Mental Shed Christmas Card – Front

Mental Shed Christmas Card

Mental Shed Christmas Card – Back

 

 

See it motion here:

Ghosts of Whitewater

The Creepiest Town in Wisconsin

Aside from the story of the Witches Tower, I’ve been slacking on bringing Whitewater legends to Wisconsin Frights. Since I was already telling the strange stories of Wisconsin spiritualists (see: Wisconsin Governor Who Talked to the Dead and Did a Ghost Kill John Sullivan?) it seemed to be a good time to finally share the story of Morris Pratt’s “Spook Temple” and other tales from the town so steeped in legend it’s earned the nickname “Second Salem.”

See it here: Mary Worth, Morris Pratt, and the Legends of Whitewater

I threw together this short video to go with it:

@wisconsinfrights

Is Whitewater the creepiest town in Wisconsin? Here’s a quick look at some of the haunted legends of Second Salem. #wisconsin #weirdwisconsin #hauntedwisconsin #haunted #hauntedplaces #paranormal #occult #travel #travelwisconsin #discoverwisconsin #explorewisconsin #creepy #onlyinwisconsin #wisconsinlife #wisconsincheck #uwwhitewater #hauntedtiktok #wisconsinlegend #spiritualism #wisconsinhistory #darktourism #travelguide #seance #witchcraft #secondsalem

♬ Creepy simple horror ambient(1270589) – howlingindicator

The photos in the video were taken from an expedition to Whitewater a few years ago, which I wrote about on Cult of Weird: Monsters, Murderers and Spirit Mediums in Whitewater

WTF Wisconsin

The W in WTF Stands for Wisconsin

We’re only half way through October, and I’ve already filled my Halloween season quota of weirdness over on the front lines of Wisconsin Frights.

Visitors tend to use the contact form there with the idea that they are reaching the actual haunted attraction they have a question for. I try to make it as clear as possible that Wisconsin Frights is not affiliated with the haunted houses featured there, so that hopefully they can get the help they need much sooner than waiting for me to respond. Still, if I catch an email in time, I’ll try to direct people to the right place.

Part of the problem is likely that many of these haunted attractions aren’t digital strategists or designers, leaving their websites and social media profiles devoid of important details such as contact info and location, or they’re just incredibly hard to find. This is the why I’ve started writing helpful marketing guides for haunt owners that I’ll be posting on Wisconsin Frights soon.

Anyway, these types of interactions are common, and I’m always happy to point someone in the right direction if I can.

But here are a few examples of the somewhat less than ordinary issues that have come up so far this month.

Scary Billboards

I received an email from a grandmother scolding me for putting up billboards in Sheboygan with imagery that scared her young grandson.

Wisconsin Frights doesn’t have any billboards.

She was upset about Dominion of Terror billboards. Which makes me wonder if sites like Trip Advisor or Yelp get yelled as much as I do about the business listed in their directories?

By the way, we visited Dominion of Terror on opening night, had a great time, and shot this video for them:

@wisconsinfrights

DOMINION OF TERROR haunted house in Sheboygan, WI #wisconsin #hauntedhouse #halloween #hauntedattraction #sheboygan #sheboyganwisconsin #travelwisconsin #thingstodoinwisconsin #travelwi #explorewi #discoverwi #wisco #spookyseason #spookyszn #weirdwisconsin #visitwisconsin #wisconsincheck

♬ original sound – Wisconsin Frights

Grave of Gein’s Unidentified Victims

Psycho: The Lost Tapes of Ed Gein

Poster art for Psycho: The Lost Tapes of Ed Gein

The MGM+ docuseries Psycho: The Lost Tapes of Ed Gein has given a small boost to the interest in Ed Gein this month. It’s been much less than I anticipated, actually, but I’m guessing MGM+ probably just doesn’t have the big pull that another streaming service would. Still, Gein-related search queries rose a bit, and I’ve been resharing Gein content from all of my sites across social media because ad revenue is how I pay my bills.

On one of these posts on Facebook, a Wisconsin Frights follower shared a link in the comments to a video revealing the location of the grave in Plainfield Cemetery where all the unidentifiable remains found in Gein’s house  were buried – things like his human skin suit, the lamp shade, the chair, etc.

That’s an interesting part of the story that’s been missing.

In his book about Gein, Judge Robert H. Gollmar says only, “The grisly relics were duly photographed at the crime lab and then decently disposed of.”

The video was livestreamed by a paranormal investigator who gives the name of a local “author” who showed her where the grave was, and, as she says, gave her exclusivity to show it for the first time ever.

I wrote something up from that angle and shared the video on the site in September. The details that were important to those involved were included right there in the video.

A couple weeks later, I got an email from the woman who originally shared the video link (not to be confused with the paranormal investigator who livestreamed the video), saying my post was misleading and demanding I give proper to credit to the man who found it.

Later that day, the man in question posted a comment on my article, calling it “bullshit.”

Then, the lady who emailed me also posted a comment on the article with the same accusations from her email.

The next morning, another comment came in from this guy, saying that I could use his newly uploaded video now that the previous one I had embedded in the article “don’t work anymore.”

Sure enough, the original video had been deleted, and this guy took a drive to film his own so he could get credit for the grave filled with the body parts of Ed Gein’s victims.

This man is a local Gein enthusiast who, for reasons unknown, is featured prominently in The Lost Tapes of Ed Gein, showing the documentary crew around various Gein-related locations such as Plainfield Cemetery, and the courtroom where he was tried. In the final episode of the series, they even film him chipping away ice in the cemetery to reveal the gravestone of the unidentified remains.

Ed Gein book by Scott Bowser with a photo by Charlie Hintz

Why is my photo on the cover of this book?

The irony in all this is that I first learned about this guy in early 2022 while working on a Cult of Weird post about strange Gein collectibles available online. I discovered his self-published Ed Gein travel guide was for sale on Amazon with an unlicensed use of my photo on the cover – a photo I specifically took for commercial purposes, as I get frequent requests for the use of my work, such as in the latest release by true crime author Harold Schechter.

The only time I ever licensed this particular photo was for a Gein-related episode of Ghost Adventures. To the best of my knowledge, they ultimately didn’t even use it in the final edit. So this photo was only ever published cropped, and with a watermark, for my 2015 post on Cult of Weird.

Plainfield, Wisconsin, the home of Ed Gein

A Secret Gein Victim

Over the years, I’ve talked to numerous people with Gein stories. It’s part of the reason I continue to research and write about the legacy of Gein’s crimes. Everyone has a story, knows a thing that no one else knows, has an unlikely connection, knows someone who ate Gein’s “venison,” saw lights out in the cemetery at night, etc.

Of course, there are Plainfield area residents who really do have legitimate stories. Some want to share them, some threaten your life just because you write about Gein online or visited Plainfield.

Those are interesting facets of Gein’s lasting effect on the world that I like to document.

But equally fascinating are the ones that are dubious at best.

For example, I posed the question in one Cult of Weird article that maybe, somewhere on Gein’s property, the missing hunters suspected to possibly have been victims of Gein, along with their vehicle that seemingly vanished, are buried on his land somewhere, still waiting to be discovered.

Some time after writing that, someone told me they knew exactly where on Gein’s property the vehicle was buried.

I didn’t follow up.

A new piece of this bizarre legacy came in yesterday.

I received this message:

Have respect please to Gein’s victims. He killed my grandmother’s sister. Glorify the criminal and its upsetting to the families.

I began several responses attempting to explain why I write about Gein, and why I generally choose to focus on him and his crimes rather than his victims because I don’t want to continue associating him with the people he hurt.

But I deleted each one, knowing as usual that it wouldn’t solve anything, and would likely be misunderstood no matter how I approached it.

But I would like to tell the stories of how families have coped with this thing in their lives for over 60 years, if they were ever interested in talking about it.

So after staring at a blank screen for a while, I simply wrote, “Who was your grandmother’s sister?” and hit send.

I received a response soon after:

“Her name has never been released to the public. And I do not want her name being forever connected to the sickos who think gein is a fan club. She was a mother to two young children in our family who still have to deal with the loss.”

Gein murdered two women, whose names are known and are public record. The rest of his victims were already dead and buried when he got to them. There has always been speculation that he may murdered others, but their names have also always been public.

So, now there’s a third murder victim who has never been mentioned in the case files, and whose name has never been released to the public?

I’ll leave you to ponder the veracity of that claim for yourself.

The head of Peter Kurten in Murderabilia by Harold Schechter

The Vampire of Dusseldorf

When I read Deranged by Harold Schechter in the 90s, I never would have imagined one day a piece of my work would be in his.

But now, a photo I captured of a serial killer’s severed head during a Wisconsin Dells trip for my daughter’s birthday is officially in print in Schechter’s new book Murderabilia: A History of Crime in 100 Objects.

Peter Kurten's head in the book Murderabilia by Harold Schechter

My photo of Peter Kurten’s head in Murderabilia by Harold Schechter

There’s an additional layer of surreality in the fact that, at the same time, I’ve been watching Schechter discuss Ed Gein in the new MGM+ docuseries Psycho: The Lost Tapes of Ed Gein.

My contribution to Murderbilia isn’t about Gein, though there is a chapter in the book dedicated to his mother Augusta’s crucifix. It isn’t Gein’s head hanging in the Waterpark Capital of the World – he’s still buried in Plainfield Cemetery among the graves left empty by his plundering.

The head in question belongs to someone considerably more abhorrent than Gein: Serial killer Peter Kurten, the “Vampire of Dusseldorf” who was executed in Cologne, Germany in 1931 for crimes exponentially more horrendous than anything the Butcher of Plainfield got up to.

Kurten was an awful human being, the details of his crimes nauseating, but I find it endlessly fascinating (and undeniably Wisconsin) that his mummified and anatomized head can be found spinning on a hook in the heart of kitchsy Wisconsin Dells, where you can have your food delivered by model train, a Zoltar fortunetelling machine lurks around every corner, there’s an upside down White House, and a giant Trojan Horse with a go-kart track running through its belly.

I mean, this is a place for families and children…and here’s the head of a guy who did horrible things to children and got off on drinking the blood from their wounds.

Despite the fact that the Dells has been home to Peter Kurten’s head since Ripley’s Believe It or Not! opened there in the early 90s (it was their key attraction) I had no idea it was there until 2017. When I was young, we made a couple family trips to the Dells, but we were basically just a hair over living in poverty. So I had walked past Ripley’s a few times, looking longingly through the windows, unable to explore the bizarre wonders inside.

In 2017, I had the opportunity to chat with true crime researcher and filmmaker John Borowski at a Chicago horror convention. He had recently made an appearance on the History Channel series American Ripper, where he weighed in on the theory that serial killer H.H. Holmes, could have escaped his own execution.

I had questions. Namely, how hard did the producers try to sway him into saying something that fit their narrative.

John was great, he was friendly, and it was a thoroughly fascinating conversation.

He also had a new series on Prime called Serial Killer Culture TV, about people who collect murder memorabilia.

He asked if I had watched the series. I admitted that, while I knew of its existence, I hadn’t actually made the effort to watch it yet.

Ask me about all the dumb things I’ve said to unintentionally insult famous people over the years.

Anyway, I felt guilty, because John was a really nice guy and I wanted to support his work. A day or two later, I put the show on. The entire episode was dedicated to the story of this serial killer’s head in Wisconsin Dells that I’d never heard of.

I dragged my kids along on our first pilgrimage to Kurten’s head a few weeks later – one last hurrah to peer into the gaping eye sockets of a decapitated sadist before summer break was over.

I was content for a while after that, but in January of 2020 (just before the COVID pandemic began) we embarked on a weekend getaway into the frozen Wisconsin wastes for my daughter’s 17th birthday.

Temperatures plummeted below zero. Wisconsin Dells was a ghost town. Vibrantly colored water slides contrasted starkly against empty pools and barren waterparks blanketed in snow. But our hotel room had a fireplace and a jacuzzi, so we couldn’t complain.

Our last stop of the weekend – before a harrowing two-hour drive home through a blizzard, in the dark, with little visibility – was to Ripley’s to shoot some new photos and video for various upcoming projects.

The photo in Murderabilia, a similar shot on the cover of my Wisconsin Travel Guide, and this video, were all taken then.

Murderabilia by Harold Schechter

Murderabilia by Harold Schechter

Murderabilia is available now. Grab your copy right here.

Campfire

Dusk

Autumn has arrived, and daylight is on a steady decline here in Wisconsin. This is the time of year when some people begin the plunge into seasonal depression, but for me it’s the opposite. Spring and summer are my seasons of sorrow – painful reminders of every missed opportunity and all I’ve lost over the years.

In fall, when the air cools and darkness consumes the world by late afternoon, I feel relief and contentment. Isolation and emptiness stops hurting so much.

Even if I’m suffering from the Halloween burnout I mentioned in my last post, fall adventures with my kids give me life. Expeditions into local legends. The first visit to the nearest Spirit Halloween store the moment it opens. Ghost walks with Nate. Our annual drive out to Holy Hill, with stops at the skeleton display and the orchard down the road for fresh hot cider.

Imagine my kids and I, heathens that we are, wandering around the hallowed ground of a revered Catholic basilica, where people have come for more than a century to be bestowed with miracles from the Virgin Mother.

The ground around the earliest incarnation of the church used to be littered with crutches left behind by those healed by this strange land. There’s still a collection of crutches, eye glasses, and other objects (like a bag full of hair) to be found inside the basilica today.

It’s a bizarre place, to be sure.

Charlie Hintz

That’s me with the “Holy Hill Skeletons,” 2021

Since it’s situated atop one of the highest points in the state, Holy Hill is also one of the best places to see the fall colors.

But we go for the creepy dead Jesus in the lower chapel, the replica Shroud of Turin, the outdoor faucet with the free holy water (I guess the whole water table has been blessed?) and, of course, the legend of the murderous monk who lived on the hill in the mid-1800s and sometimes appears to visitors as a man-shaped mist in the cemetery.

It was also here where, a few years back, my daughter put her hands in a peculiar gray powder coating a pile of yellowed leaves on the ground…which was probably someone’s grandma.

Fond memories.

This year will be different.

In the poignant words of one animated meerkat (I promise I’ll never again use a Disney reference) “our trio’s down to two.”

And I’m just not sure how to move on, how to enjoy any of that, when I feel like half my heart is missing.

Years ago, when my friend Shawn‘s daughter moved with her mom across the country, he was devastated. He wrote a song called “Away from My Heart.”

As a parent, I understood it. But my kids were young, and still right by my side. Now I really get it.

In a difficult year, and a distressing month, the last week has been particularly challenging. After a sleepless night, and a day spent trying desperately to hold it together in the office (failing a few times) I started taking anxiety pills for the first time in over a decade.

At least it takes the edge off the “everything is meaningless” and “how can I possibly go on.”

Here’s what’s been keeping me distracted:

The Lost Tapes of Ed Gein

Ed Gein

Reenactment of Gein robbing graves from Psycho: The Lost Tapes of Ed Gein

Psycho: The Lost Tapes of Ed Gein is a new 4-part series on MGM+ that reveals recently discovered audio recordings of Ed Gein‘s interrogation the night he was arrested, with insights from the likes of true crime author Harold Schechter, The Last Podcast on the Left hosts, an expert on necrophilia, and local author Scott Bowser, whose book The Travelers Guide to Ed Gein uses one of my photos on the cover from this Plainfield trip.

I filmed this video during that same trip.

I wrote about some of the details I found interesting: 4 Chilling Details from The Lost Tapes of Ed Gein Part 1

I also made this shirt, which is now for sale in the Wisconsin Frights shop:

Ed Gein t-shirt

Idle Hands

Idle Hands

They didn’t go toward the light because it was too far

I’ve been wanting to revisit this one for a while, since the only time I watched it was shortly after it was initially released on DVD. And I only saw it then because my roommate at the time was obsessed with Jessica Alba.

I don’t remember what my take on it was originally, but upon rewatch, it’s a dumb stoner comedy horror that’s pretty fun.

I’ve been getting caught up on the Chucky tv series, in which a middle-aged Devon Sawa makes a consistent appearance despite the fact that he’s met several gruesome ends already, so it’s great to go back and revisit his work from the 90s.

My favorite role of his will always be perma-trip Sean from SLC Punk.

Dusk by Chelsea Wolfe

Chelsea Wolfe

Chelsea Wolfe

I love everything Chelsea Wolfe does, but her new single “Dusk” has been an unexpected salve this week. It’s got a gothy, immortal vampire love thing going on in the lyrics, but, more importantly, this song sounds like a flickering bonfire on a cool fall evening – fresh dirt, dead leaves, and burning wood.

This is what dusk sounds like.

Takes me back to a fall night I spent intoxicated at a dilapidated cabin, with a taxidermy squirrel and a campfire.

There were people there, too, I suppose.

But as far as my memory is concerned, it was just me, the squirrel, and the woods.

Anyway, the production of “Dusk” is so textured and interesting, and Chelsea’s voice is melancholy, raw, ethereal.

Exquisite.

Speaking of music…

I recently had another sleepless night with a song stuck in my head, so I was awake at 4am, programming drums and writing some odd synth lines. I sent it over to my partner in music crimes, and he quickly returned it with some perfect guttural bass grooves. It’s easily my favorite song we’ve written so far for this project, and I haven’t even put down any guitar yet. I’m particularly excited about this one because I used all new software and virtual instruments. The only pre-existing gear is the 13-year-old midi controller I used to play the parts. So I literally couldn’t have created this song a few months ago.

Also, I think we’ve settled on a name and logo for this project:

Backster Effect

Backster Effect

Logo design for our music project, Backster Effect

My personal goal is to make this project as vastly different from anything I’ve done before as possible, and so far I feel like it’s heading in the right direction. We’ll start sharing bits and pieces of it eventually, but not yet.

Talking to the Dead

Spiritualist graves in Rienzi Cemetery

Graves of the Tallmadge family in Rienzi Cemetery

It can be a challenge to sit down and focus on work when you feel like you’ve just lost your entire purpose and everything is meaningless. But I still have Wisconsin Frights content to create for the spooky season because you have to make hay when the sun is shining…er…when the jack o’ lantern is glowing? I don’t know.

Anyway, Wisconsin’s curious contributions to the history of spiritualism is one of my favorite research topics, so for last week’s newsletter I wrote about the Wisconsin governor who talked to the dead and left behind a whole cemetery full of restless spirits.

In the Works

Grave of Kate Blood in Appleton

Screenshot from my upcoming video about the bleeding gravestone of Kate Blood

Last year, my kids and I hit the road to shoot the first two episodes of what I intended to be many for the Wisconsin Frights Youtube channel. For the first one, we visited another of Wisconsin’s most haunted cemeteries. I managed to get that edited and uploaded pretty quickly.

But the second one – with a historic insane asylum cemetery, a senator’s exorcism, and a bleeding gravestone – was thwarted by kidney stones, car problems, equipment problems, and the fact that I should never ever be on camera ever.

So the footage from the second trip has just been wasting away, half edited, on my hard drive for a year.

My goal is to finish that and get it uploaded by early October.

But if you’ve been following along for any amount of time, you probably know by now that when I set goals, I fail miserably. Just look at how this haunted Wisconsin book project from last year turned out. Spoiler alert: It didn’t.

We’ll see what happens.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,   
But I have promises to keep,   
And miles to go before I sleep,   
And miles to go before I sleep.
– Robert Frost

Highway 18 Outdoor Theatre in Jefferson, WI

RIP Summer: Tales from the Mental Shed

It’s September, which means Spooky Season is upon us. These days, Halloween is more stress than fun. I’ve already been knee deep in it since at least July, getting Wisconsin Frights ready for the season.

I don’t enjoy Halloween like I used to, since I work with horrific and haunted subject matter nearly every day of the year and my house is filled with real bones, antique Ouija boards, and other oddities.

Most of the fake, overpriced Halloween decor just doesn’t cut it next to the real stuff.

It’s even harder to get into the Halloween spirit when it’s 90-plus degrees outside.

So I’ve been on a steady diet of horror movies and 80s horror soundtracks.

“Dream Warriors” has been stuck in my head for months.

It’s a bit of a reprieve, I suppose, since this time of year it’s usually either The Ramones’ “Pet Sematary” or “Dead Man’s Party” by Oingo Boingo.

This summer was generally depressing and demoralizing, and I had little time (or ambition) for the adventures we usually embark upon once school lets out. The daily scramble to make ends meet in the current economy means constant work, little sleep, and limitless anxiety.

Wisconsin's Satanic Highway

We did finally get out this past weekend for an excursion down Wisconsin’s newly minted Satanic Highway to the Highway 18 Outdoor Theatre. There, I met Madison-area horror host Dr. Ivan Cryptosis and had the first authentic drive-in experience since my parents took me to the Starlight when I was five to see a Dokken cover band (this was the mid-1980s) and be permanently deranged by Pink Floyd’s film The Wall.

SIDE NOTE: If you’re a fan of American Movie and Milwaukee filmmaker Mark Borchardt, there’s a brief nightmare scene with some hooded cult members in Borchardt’s short film Coven that was filmed in the parking lot of the Starlight before it was torn down.

Highway 18 drive-in theater in Wisconsin

I was inspired to finally make the pilgrimage to Highway 18 (it’s about an hour’s drive) after watching this documentary about the Mahoning Drive-In.

Highway 18 drive-in theater in Jefferson, WI

@wisconsinfrights

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♬ Quirky Suspenseful Indie-Comedy(1115050) – Kenji Ueda

Aside from this trip, I lived almost exclusively at my desk for the majority of the summer. But I did take the opportunity once in a while to waste precious time on pointless projects that help ease the unrelenting hum of creative energy in my brain.

Here’s a few things I’ve been working on:

Ed Gein Tour

There’s an Ed Gein documentary series coming to MGM+ this month, so I’ve been preparing my Gein-related content across various sites for the onslaught of trending search traffic that may bring when it’s released. While digging through archived files for photos from past Plainfield trips, I discovered some smartphone footage I had forgotten I shot during the 2015 visit I documented on Cult of Weird right here.

So I edited those clips together, stabilized the footage, and cut out all the gristle for a short tour of key Gein locations in Plainfield. Watch it above or click here to view it on Youtube.

Wisconsin Frights Halloween Guide

Wisconsin Halloween Events & Activities

Wisconsin Frights has been steadily growing in traffic over the last few years, and even more so this year, but it always explodes during Halloween. So since I’ve decided to offer advertising options on the site for the first time in years, I also decided the mundane Halloween page needed to be more interesting.

See it here: Wisconsin Halloween Guide

3D Skull

I was testing out some of the new 3D features in After Effects beta. It kept crashing, but I managed to render this short experiment:

Music

Mental Shed Studios

I was sitting poolside in California with an old friend in September of 2019. We were discussing the potential of starting a new music project together for the first time since 2006. We passed a few tracks back and forth after that, not amounting to much. I had little time to focus on music, and the situation only worsened when some of my aging hardware started dying.

But we finally started getting together on a semi-weekly basis this summer to hammer out some ideas.

It’s a mental struggle for me because I’ve been exclusively (and unsuccessfully) writing and recording by myself for well over a decade now. The self-doubt and self-loathing that comes from that is crippling, even when I’m working with someone I started playing music with in the 9th grade.

Regardless, we’ve managed to make headway on a few songs I’m pretty stoked about. It’s a little edgy, a little ethereal. Dissonant, beautiful. Organic, synthetic. So far, so good.

For us, music is life. But it seems as though the accessibility and lack of physicality has changed many people’s relationship to music. It’s an indistinct, intangible thing that exists in the background of Youtube and Tiktok videos. The world doesn’t seem to value or care much about music anymore. We talked about what that means for musicians today. What’s the point? What’s the end goal? And is there some way to get people to care again?

Probably not, honestly. But it lead us to this:

Creation Myths Podcast

Creation Myths Podcast

To be clear, I don’t want to do a podcast. I’m not a radio personality. I will be bad at this in all the possible ways.

But it seems like a thing we should do.

Because art is a collective expression of life, and wisdom, and feeling. Artists pour their souls into their work and it means something. It’s cathartic and transformative. And maybe, if someone in the crowd at a bar knows why the artist on stage creates, how they create, and where it comes from, they will care and it will transform them.

We’ve been figuring out the logistics and talking to a couple potential guests. I worked up some graphics and am (slowly) winding up the marketing machine. Follow along so when we start recording episodes, you can see just how much I should not do a podcast: InstagramYoutubeFacebook.

What I’m Listening To

Tales from the Crypt

Since we started considering doing a podcast, I thought I better listen to more podcasts. I’ve gone through phases of listening to Lore, Welcome to Night Vale, and a few horror fiction productions – Creepypasta, NoSleep, stuff like that.

I decided to check out The Last Podcast on the Left. It pops up on my radar from time to time because, like Lore, they cover much of the same stuff I’ve written about on Cult of Weird, and someone usually points that out in the comments.

I also recently discovered The How NOT To Make A Movie podcast, which is a fascinating and thoroughly entertaining look behind the curtain at why Bordello of Blood,  the disappointing follow up to the first Tales from the Crypt film, Demon Knight (a near perfect film), ended up being so terrible.

As told by the people who made it, no less.

Before this podcast, I didn’t know about the movie they originally set out to make called Dead Easy, a Tales From the Crypt take on New Orleans and voodoo.

And now I feel a little emptier inside knowing that Dead Easy never got made.

As far as music goes, I had an awakening this summer.

Ronnie James Dio

Black Sabbath’s Ronnie James Dio era happened over 40 years ago (Heaven and Hell was released the year I was born) but somehow it’s flown under my radar all this time. Now, thanks to this Dio documentary, I’ve discovered the majesty of those recordings. Dio’s voice over Sabbath riffs…holy hell.

For at least a month, “Heaven and Hell” and “Children of the Sea” were the only songs playing in my car.

What I’m Watching

Amityville Horror house

Amityville: An Origin Story

I recently watched Amityville: An Origin Story on MGM Plus. I wasn’t going to. Despite my work researching and writing about the history and legends of “haunted” places, I’m generally pretty skeptical and cynical about the paranormal.

Still, Amityville was the quintessential haunted house story for anyone growing up in the 80s. And ever since watching My Amityville Horror, I’ve been somewhat invested in understanding the perspectives of the Lutz children who lived through the supposed haunting and spent their lives in the shadow of it.

The MGM Plus series is interesting because it provides new insights, including first-person accounts from people close to the Lutz family who’ve never spoken publicly about it before. And, much like the Charles Manson series before it, Amityville does a great job of cultivating atmosphere and context, while brandishing little-known details to tell an old story in a new way.

After watching the series, I wrote this: 16 Weird and WTF Moments from Amityville: An Origin Story

Jason Goes to Hell

Friday the 13th: Jason Goes to Hell

It’s been a long time since I watched Jason Goes to Hell, the most-loathed installment of the Friday the 13th franchise. I was never a fan of parasitic worm Jason, either. However, I thoroughly enjoyed it this time around. It’s not the most thrilling, the plot is not great, and the kills are definitely subpar, but it was all glorious nostalgia for me this time around.

A New Nightmare

Same with a rewatch of A New Nightmare. I used to think the whole meta approach that film took to A Nightmare on Elm Street was dumb. I probably still do. But it didn’t bother me this time, because it just reminded me of watching it with friends as a teen in the 90s – when I last watched it.

Tales from the Crypt

Tales from the Crypt

I started watching the 1972 Tales from the Crypt film over a decade ago, but didn’t make it more than a few minutes in before I got distracted by something else and never found my way back. I put it on recently while working and finally finished it. It’s an anthology film comprised of five segments, each based on an original EC Comics story. They’re not as edgy as HBO’s Tales, and the Cryptkeeper is just a bald guy in a robe, but they still have some bite.

With that said, I’m keeping my fingers crossed that Tales from the Crypt episodes eventually find their way to streaming. I’m not ambitious enough to put in the DVDs anymore, but the series would be on 24/7 if I just had to click a few buttons.

Come on, HBO. Let’s make it happen.

What I’m Reading

I haven’t bought a new book in a while. I like to have physical copies of books I can hold and page through, but I’m entirely out of space for them. As it is, I have bins full of books in the basement that I don’t have shelf space for.

And then I caught a mention of the dread-inducing “Funhole” at the heart of the 1991 horror novel The Cipher by Kathe Koja.

The Cipher by Kathe Koja

And I needed to read it.

Original paperback copies of The Cipher are a little pricey, however, so I broke down and bought my first Kindle book.

I’m still working on it, but rest assured that yes, the Funhole is quite dreadful.

Speaking of books…

Murderabilia

Murderabilia by Harold Schechter

True crime author Harold Schechter’s new book Murderabilia: A History of Crime in 100 Objects comes out later this month and unless they’ve changed it (the layout has definitely changed since I posted the screenshot in this post) my photo of German serial Peter Kurten’s head hanging in a dark corner of Wisconsin Dells will be included.

As a Schecter fan and a collector of macabre objects, I’m particularly looking forward to this one.

It makes the summer’s dirge all the sweeter.