If you’re in the San Jose area looking for famous haunted places, then the Toys R Us in Sunnyvale may be second in reputation only to the Winchester House. The recent announcement that Toys R Us will be closing all of its stores nationwide, having succumbed to bankruptcy, has inspired me to revisit this alleged haunting which was popularized on the 1980s variety show That’s Incredible. For decades, there have been rumors of customers and staff members having strange experiences inside the store. Overnight, toys are moved from shelves and piled on the floor in bizarre configurations. There’s often the sensation of being watched by invisible eyes. In the women’s restroom, the water taps may turn on spontaneously or ghostly hands might stroke your hair.
These strange occurrences were investigated starting as far back as 1978. The most best known inquiries were done by the late Sylvia Browne, a professional psychic as famous for self-promotion as she was for being a dubious prognosticator. You might remember that Browne completely immolated her reputation over the 2002 Shawn Hornbeck abduction case. Shawn was an 11-year-old victim of a stranger abduction in Missouri. Hornbeck was missing for four years when he was miraculously recovered by police looking for a separate kidnapped boy. Browne, who was a regular guest on the Montel Williams Show, did a “reading” about the Hornbeck case four months after the boy vanished and was wrong on almost every detail. More heartbreaking, Browne stated on the show that Hornbeck was dead. That must’ve been horrifying for his parents to hear. When your child’s missing like that, all you have to cling to is hope. Certainly the Hornbecks must’ve thought about their son’s fate all the time, but for anyone to state it as fact in such a public forum... terrible!
In hindsight, Browne’s excursions to the Toys R Us were just as much bullshit. Perhaps to silence her detractors, Browne produced a now infamous photo of a tall, thin man leaning against a wall behind the seance members. The man was not part of the seance party, Browne insisted, his form only showing up in one photo taken with an infrared camera. During this same seance, Browne claimed that she identified the thin man with the less-than-inventive name “Johnny Johnson.” Johnny was a suitably tragic figure right out of the professional psychic’s handbook. A poor immigrant farmhand, he was heart-broken when the beautiful rich girl he loved chose to marry a man most suitable to her station. Shortly thereafter, Johnson hurt himself with an axe while working in the orchards that once stood where the Toys R Us now resides and died from resulting the infection.
While the details of Johnny’s life sound a lot like the plot from a bad romance novel, what about that famous photograph? Again, we’re reliant only on Browne’s word about how the photo was taken and there are some obvious problems, including that the man appears to be wearing modern dress (not that of a 19th century farmhand) and is throwing a shadow on the floor (something a ghost would be unlikely to do). I am not posting the photos here since I do not own the rights to them, but you can easily find them online by searching for “Johnny Johnson ghost photos.”
Despite the Johnny Johnston story, it’s entirely possible that strange things have occurred in the Sunnyvale Toys R Us over the past four decades. At the very least, it wouldn’t be the first toy store that boasted of a ghost. The juxtaposition of such a mundane and comforting place having a spooky supernatural side is tremendously alluring for us human beings. It’s why so many similar venues, be they bookstores, theaters, amusement parks etc., are also thought to be haunted. Let’s face it, shopping for toys becomes even more fun if you think you’re being watched by the spirit of a lovesick farmhand, trapped forever among its plastic, neon-colored plastic merchandise.
Now doesn’t it?
If you grew up in Tucson, Arizona, during the 1970s and 80s, and were inclined to play miniature golf, Magic Carpet Golf was really your best choice. Located on Speedway Boulevard near Wilmot, it was not the city's only course, but it was the most authentic.
Designed in 1968 by Lee Koplin, the crazy artistic genius who built all kinds of miniature golf courses and roadside attractions starting just after World War II, the grounds were what I imagine the inside of Tim Burton's head must look like. Magic Carpet was an over-sized repository of kitschy Americana, right up there with roadside dinosaurs and cigar store Indians. The place teemed with strange concrete decorations — including a giant monkey with a swinging tail; a rampant bull with bulging eyes and lethal-looking horns; and an Easter Island mo'ai so large you could climb up its innards for a nighttime view of the surrounding city. And whether you considered these strange edifices to be art, architecture or just crap, they were a uniquely American invention which provided a uniquely entertaining mini golf experience.
During my childhood and teen years, I visited Magic Carpet regularly without ever knowing its pedigree. By the time I had kids of my own, age and lack of maintenance meant the two courses were an often dangerous thicket where masses of cactus overgrew the pathways and low-hanging tree branches tore at you from above. The strange menagerie which lived there had also lost much of its sheen. Concrete skins had begun to chip away, revealing the rebar and chicken wire skeletons beneath. Nothing had been repainted in years, unless you counted the several layers of graffiti. As the place continued to deteriorate, it became both sad and fascinating. Suddenly, you weren't just playing miniature golf — you were an urban explorer unlocking the mysteries of mid-twentieth century "roadside art."
Clearly, most Tucsonans didn't share my fascination because the last few times I went we had the place to ourselves save for the aging owner and a teenage employee who did everything from run the concession stand to repair the video game consoles. When the owner passed away in 2008, the era of Magic Carpet golf ended with him. A group of dedicated citizens rallied to save as many of the concrete statues as they could. The aforementioned mo'ai ended up on Fourth Avenue as the gateway to a popular nightclub. Others were sold to private residences or found an equally weird home at another local oddity, The Valley of the Moon.
Years after the golf course was demolished and turned into a parking lot for a local car dealership, my sister told me she had found the bug-eyed bull in her neighborhood. By that time I was living in Oregon however and quickly forgot about him. This past Christmas however, I went looking.
Hidden on a side street behind a Brake Masters and a massage parlor, there he was! He emerged from the trees like the minotaur bearing down on Theseus. (Wait, does that make me Theseus in this scenario? Never mind.) Honestly, I didn't even see him until I was practically on top of him. The Irish steakhouse whose parking lot he festoons is now closed and abandoned, so once again the bull is an orphan to time. The irony of this was not lost on me but it was still good seeing him. He looks well and he gave me a few gentle moments to remember all the fun I'd had at his former home. I don't know where he'll go from here. Hopefully there's a kind, nostalgic heart out there who's willing to give him another shot.
In 1979 I was twelve years old and in the midst of a preteen conundrum.
America was in the midst of a Golden Age of Science Fiction. Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind had crushed box office records a couple of years earlier and had inspired countless imitators. Broadcast television was filled with science fiction and fantasy shows, although admittedly most were pretty terrible — not that that mattered in the least to a sixth grader.
In May of that year, a dark, stylish film called Alien appeared in theaters. The critics buzzed about it. They debated as to whether it was science fiction film or a gothic horror film set in outer space. They reveled that the characters were essentially blue collar miners ultimately led in their fight for survival by a young woman, played by the then unknown Sigourney Weaver. They were mesmerized by the pugnacious alien, a bio-mechanical nightmare so different from the weird but mostly agreeable creatures offered up by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.
I knew I had to see it. Yet a single obstacle lay in my way: my mother.
A surprisingly efficient gatekeeper when it came to television and movies, my mom allowed me and my sister only 3 and a half hours of TV per week and we were required to use color-coded pens to circle our selections in TV Guide to prevent any cheating. As for films, it was G and PG ratings only. Alien’s hard R and its provocative tagline — In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream — had sealed its fate long before I had ever asked to go.
Now let me just add that my mother was absolutely correct in denying me access to Alien. As a parent, her instincts were spot on but my juvenile brain and sense of indignation were not quelled by a logic I did not see at the time.
Later that summer however, my father offered to take me, a suggestion which was undoubtedly motivated by his complete ignorance about the film and a lingering desire to stick it to my mom who had divorced him a few years earlier. But I was not the type of kid who routinely lied to or disobeyed my parents, so I declined and we enjoyed a double feature of The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker instead. It wasn’t a decision I regretted. After all, James Bond had a super cool Lotus Esprit S1 which turned into a submarine IRL and fired missiles! But it did mean that I would have to wait a few more years to see Alien.
If there was any light at the end of the tunnel, it was through books. My mother, a school librarian, had no problem with frequent trips to libraries and book stores. As it happened, Waldenbooks carried the illustrated Alien Movie Novel so over the summer I literally READ the film I was never allowed to see. This had to be done in covert intervals of course, as purchasing the book with all its gruesome, chest-bursting, head-smashing color photos was also verboten.
Decades passed and I hadn’t thought about that book until I stumbled upon a used copy of it in a comic book store two weeks ago. There was an immediate rush of nostalgia, warm memories of being a kid and getting away with something. Granted, reading the Alien Movie Novel wasn’t quite as scandalous as flipping through a dirty magazine, but for a boy who loved horror films born into a family that loathed them, it felt like a naughty victory.
Now, 38 years later, the book sits on my shelf next to my Alien Blu-ray, a quiet reminder of when life was defined by the simple problems of childhood.
When I was a sophomore in high school, I made my first foray into Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). It did not go well.
I had little exposure to role playing games (RPGs) prior to high school, but had fallen in with a group of boys who were (and still are) rabid for them. After a certain amount of cajoling, I agreed to give it a shot. My interest in the fantasy genre was limited, but the storytelling aspects of D&D appealed to the burgeoning writer in me and I even wrote out an extensive history for my first character. Because I also had some artistic talent, I created portraits of all our characters. So, before I’d even had my first adventure, I’d already put a lot of effort into the experience and my enthusiasm was building.
On a sunny summer afternoon, we assembled at the Dungeon Master’s (DM) house for my first game. I was the novice of the group, and my level one character was a poor addition to a fellowship which had been in play for a long time; but with my friends to guide me, I felt comfortable and confident. Within the first hour, we found ourselves in a dungeon and, being the most under-powered character in the group, I was holding back.
“Y’know,” the DM told me, “if you don’t take any risks you won’t gain any experience points.”
At his urging, I took it upon myself to break down a locked door — immediately falling into a pit of green slime. Thus my character, only an hour into his first quest, met an abrupt and unseemly end.
Keeping in mind that “do overs” are not included in the D&D rule book, and the DM’s uncompromising personality did not incline him to make any exceptions, I found myself with few options.
“What do I do now?” I asked.
“Nothing. You’re dead,” the DM replied.
“Can I roll up a new character?”
“You can for the next game, but not this one. You can watch us play, I guess.”
Needless to say, I didn’t spend the rest of the day watching four other guys play Dungeons & Dragons. I went home and convinced myself that RPGs simply weren’t my cup of tea. That attitude lingered for thirty years. Except for a brief flirtation with World of Warcraft (the digital version of D&D, I suppose), I’ve never had any interest in trying RPGs again.
In retrospect, what kept me away from RPGs wasn’t the games, but the gamers. Over the years, watching from the sidelines as my friends continued to play, I was amazed by how seriously they took the experience. (This is not unusual for gamers.) Still, I found it ridiculous when one friend stopped talking to another over a romantic dispute involving a female NPC (non-player character). Another would become enraged whenever a companion “went rogue” and strayed from an agreed upon action. Yet another was so conservative in his game play that he eschewed any kind of combat, robbing the gaming experience of its excitement. From a distance I could find all this amusing, but I knew if I actually sat at the table with these kinds of gamers, I’d want to kill them or quit.
So why am I telling you this? Well, after thirty years of resisting D&D, I just started playing again and I’m finding plenty of others my age who are doing likewise. Yet it can be daunting to know where and how to start so consider this a cautionary tale. What changed between my two experiences is who I decided to play with, opting for other noobs and finding a DM who was patient and willing to instruct rather than dictate. I kept my focus on the social aspects of the gaming experience, rather than becoming obsessed with the minutiae or one-upmanship I watched pervade so many other games. As a result, I’m really loving my RPG experience.
If you’re new to RPGs or just curious to try them out, find gamers you can work with. Many game and comic book shops will hold workshops and classes to help beginners, and this might be a good place to start. But also take a moment to ask yourself what you want to get out of the experience. As I found out in high school, your first foray may color your perception of RPGs for a long time to come so make it a good one!
I’ll admit. I’m kind of obsessed with Riverdale, The CW’s neo-noir crime drama starring K.J. Apa, Lili Reinhart, Cole Sprouse and Camila Mendes. If the name and characters seem familiar to you, but you just can’t place them, that’s because the show’s a dark adaptation of the Archie comic books.
Yes, those comic books and yes, I mean dark.
If you remember Archie, Jughead, Veronica and Betty as thin teen stereotypes concerned only with who to take to the homecoming dance, your illusions are about to be shattered. Take that all-America trope and shove it through the lens of David Lynch; or think about movies like Heathers or River’s Edge; and you’ll be in Riverdale’s neighborhood.
By any standard, it’s a pretty remarkable transformation.
Honestly, I was never a fan of the Archie comics, finding them a little too white bread for my tastes. Granted, Archie was created just prior to World War II when wholesome, nostalgic depictions of young adults were in vogue. Mickey Rooney, Julie Garland, Shirley Temple and Jackie Cooper dominated the box office and Archie was a deliberate attempt to replicate their success by offering a serialized character who was “normal” (i.e. didn’t have super powers). The downside of normalcy was storylines that strayed into the mundane. Major themes included the female characters (Betty and Veronica) vying for Archie’s attention, rivalries with other students, homework problems and difficulties relating to parents. All of these things are common challenges for adolescents regardless of the era, but Archie was inclined to present them in a highly sanitized, and increasingly unrealistic, manner.
By the 1960s, this trend reached its zenith. Archie had become a superhero called Captain Pureheart (yes, really) whose main power was being a really swell guy. By the following decade, he’d been coopted by conservative Christians and spent much of his time espousing the virtues of Jesus Christ and encouraging prayer in schools.
None of these later comics, nor the related animated shows, were particularly successful. Many didn’t last more than one edition (or season), and it was clear Archie needed to be modernized if he was going to appeal to increasingly sophisticated, worldly young adults.
And the competition was fierce.
By the start of the twenty-first century, comic books had become something very different from what they’d been in decades past. Zombies chewed their way through humanity in the stark, black and white artwork of The Walking Dead (2003). Japanese manga was on the rise, exposing American readers to unapologetically adult themes including frank depictions of sexuality. Even mainstream publishers like Marvel Comics were shifting long establish paradigms, with one of the best examples being 2006’s Civil War. Yet despite these industrywide changes, the Archie brand was slow to adapt.
In fact, the Archie comics really didn’t push boundaries until the century’s second decade. One of the most notable changes was in the art. The cartoony feel used since the 1940s was replaced by something more stylized and storylines became more inclusive. Real-life themes such as gun control, divorce and death were introduced. By 2010, an openly gay character named Kevin Keller was established and the following year made history as the first male LGBT character to have a solo comic book storyline. In 2012, the comics even went so far as to kill off Archie when he takes a bullet intended for Kevin.
But as you know, nothing that dies in comic books can stay dead forever. (Just ask Superman.)
By 2014, Archie was relaunched and rebranded to appeal to millennials under the New Riverdale banner. With writer Mark Waid (Daredevil) and artist Fiona Staples (Saga) leading the way, the concept was to keep Riverdale as a “whitebread community” on the surface, but give it a seamier underbelly. Ultimately, this transformation fed into The CW television series which began with the revelation that underage Archie’s having an affair with the high school’s music teacher, which has caused a schism between he and long-time friend Jughead Jones and possibly caused him to witness the murder of a classmate named Jason Blossom.
How’s that for shifting a paradigm?
With the season two trailer dropping yesterday (see below), now’s a good time for you to check out the series if you haven’t done so already. The show can be streamed on The CW website, Netflix, YouTube and a variety of other places.
Enjoy the ride.
Regardless of what you’re writing, social media can be a valuable tool to connect an author with his or her readers. At it’s best, it will provide insights, education and entertainment to those you’d ideally like to transform from “followers” to “fans.” At it’s worst, it can become a marketing bludgeon which may eventually drive people away from your feeds — or at least cause them to ignore you.
After about a decade of working with social media, I decided to get serious about it in Fall 2015. I created a social media strategy, set benchmarks, watched my stats and attended workshops and other professional development opportunities to stay current on social media trends. I work at least an hour a day on my social media feeds, creating, scheduling and reviewing both new and curated content. Since then, my online following has increased by 160%. This hardly places me as a social media superstar, but it does underscore that having a plan and carrying it out faithfully can yield results.
As part of my new plan I began watching other author’s media streams, not just for inspiration but also to be mindful of annoying and counter-productive habits. Toward that end, and with my tongue somewhat in my cheek, I present my list of the top 6 things authors should NOT do on social media.
Don’t inflate your success. Have you noticed how every author you’ve never heard of claims to be both “best selling” and “award winning?” In many cases, this is completely disingenuous. There’s no universal standard for measuring a best seller, so unless you’ve made it onto the much coveted New York Times list, doing so is akin to labeling a food “organic” — it sounds good but what does it actually mean? As for book awards, well, these can actually be purchased by authors who have a few hundred (or thousand) dollars to burn. Both of these strategies may give someone bragging rights, but that’s not the same as connecting to your readership. I can’t ever recall purchasing a book just because it was “best selling” or “award winning.” I purchase books because I’m interested in what the author has to say — which is really more important than whatever epaulets they have on their shoulders.
Don’t fake your followers. Speaking of disingenuous social media trends, authors may purchase Twitter or Facebook followers in order to give the illusion that they’re popular. There are a tons of online services that will happily provide you with a ton of fake followers if you’re willing to spend the money. Once I published my first book, I was deluged with offers (they still average about two a day) from companies and individuals who promised me thousands of followers for prices as low as $5. If you’re an author who’s just interested in playing a numbers game, more power to you. But if you’re actually interested in building a loyal social media following, it takes time, dedication and creativity. Twitter has some free tools to help you do this, which you can access here.
Don’t make everything a sales pitch. Every writer wants to sell, but there comes a point where you really need to cool it with the constant sales pitches. Some authors I followed on social media were rebroadcasting the same ads / Amazon links multiple times a day. Does this actually translate into sales? Honestly, I don’t know. Certainly it makes for a dull, obnoxious social media feed that tells you nothing about that author except he or she is a very motivated seller. In my opinion, a better habit is to strategically promote your books (during a sale for example) and then provide occasional free content as well, such as a short story or an ePub version of an older book. Yes, you want to stay in your readers’ mind — but not because you’re obnoxious.
Don’t just use other people’s content. To elaborate on my previous point, it’s important for authors to create something NEW for their followers. Curated and reposted materials are fine if the author’s selective. Simply hitting the “retweet” button on everything tagged #amwriting is not the same as being an thoughtful editor. Like a good book, a good social media feed has a voice, a soul and a story to tell. Figure out what those are and only share other people’s content if it helps enhance your message.
Don’t be afraid to follow back. Your readership may have interesting things to say and you can tap into that by following them back on social media. Not only can this be a great way to distill ideas for your next novel, it can also tell you what your audience is hungry for and allow you to engage with them one-on-one.
Finally, please don’t wear fedoras. This seems to be more of a trend among male authors who specialize in crime novels or spy thrillers, apparently borrowing a page from the handbook of Mickey Spillane. For Spillane, the fedora worn at a rakish angle may have been iconic in the mid-twentieth century, but today it’s just a schlocky affectation. This isn’t just about hats, of course. The larger message here is that ridiculous props and costumes can make an author seem pretentious rather than genuine.
Do you have additional tips for authors on social media? If so, use the comments section below to share them.
Back in December 2016, I went hiking with two of my best friends to Seven Falls, a natural area located just north of my home town of Tucson, Arizona. At first blush, such a thing would hardly seem blog-worthy, but for me it was highly cathartic. Before I reached my 50th birthday, which would happen two months later, I was making it a point to reconcile myself with a few things that had happened to me in the previous decades. This had been an ongoing process, started in earnest after I had left Arizona for Oregon in 2010. My reasons for leaving my home state were varied and complicated and I won’t bother addressing them here. But suffice to say that I left behind some unfinished business. In the author’s vernacular, these were incomplete stories, needing just a few more sentences before I could put them away for good.
Thus the hike to Seven Falls.
It’s been my tradition to share ghost stories and spooky legends on my blog for the Halloween season. Now that October is officially upon us, I’m decided to look at stories which originated in my own back yard — on the Oregon State University campus in Corvallis, Oregon.
American universities are rife with ghost stories, many of them remarkably similar in their details. Usually these are tragic tales of aggrieved or grieving coeds who are either brutally slain, die in freak accidents, or take their own lives in particularly horrible ways. Some are thinly veiled morality tales about how sex, drugs, alcohol and even poor grades will lead to suffering and death.
The two OSU ghost stories which intrigued me centered around Sackett Hall, a sprawling dormitory located near the campus’s epicenter. Both of the ghosts in question were of murdered women. One was allegedly butchered by an infamous serial killer in the dorm basement; the other by a fellow student in her own bed. At first blush, both stories seemed to be simple retellings of common urban legends, but I wanted to know if there was any truth behind them.
I found much more than I expected
The Serial Killer
Of the Sackett Hall legends, the one about the basement was easier to research and document, although details have become skewed over the years. The legend claims that Ted Bundy, a murderer, cannibal and necrophiliac who stalked college campuses in the early 1970s, had lured a girl into the catacombs below the dorm. The story was partially true, as a Sackett Hall resident named Roberta “Kathy” Parks was abducted by Bundy outside the building on May 6, 1974.
Ann Rule's famous biography about Bundy, THE STRANGER BESIDE ME, provides an intriguing account of Kathy's last day on Earth:
The next girl to walk away forever lived in Oregon. Nineteen days after Susan Rancourt vanished — on May 6th — Roberta Kathleen (Kathy) Parks had spent an unhappy and guilt-ridden day in her room in Sackett Hall on the Oregon State University campus in Corvallis, 250 miles south of Seattle. I knew Sackett Hall; I'd lived there myself when I attended one term at O.S.U. back in the 1950s, a huge, modern dormitory complex on a campus that was then considered a ‘cow college.’ Even then, when the world didn’t seem to be so fraught with danger, none of us would ever go to the snack machines in the cavernous basement corridors alone at night.
Kathy Parks wasn't very happy at Oregon State. She was homesick for Lafayette, California, and she’d broken up with her boyfriend who'd left for Louisiana. On May 4th, Kathy had argued in a phone call with her father, and, on May 6th, she learned that he'd suffered a massive heart attack. Her sister had called her from Spokane, Washington, with the news of their father's coronary, and then called back some hours later to say that it looked as though he would survive.
Kathy, whose major was world religions, felt a little better after the second call, and she agreed to join some of the other residents of Sackett Hall in an exercise session in the dorm lounge.
Shortly before eleven, the tall slender girl with long ash-blond hair left Sackett Hall to meet some friends for coffee in the Student Union Building. She promised her roommate she would be back within the hour. Wearing blue slacks, a navy blue top, a light green jacket, and platform sandals, she left Sackett for the last time.
Kathy never made the Student Union Building. Like the others, all of her possessions were left behind: her bike, clothing, cosmetics. [pp, 67-68]
So although Parks was abducted outside Sackett and probably killed at an entirely different location altogether, the history behind the haunting legend still had a firm basis in fact. But what about the girl murdered in her bed? Was this also based on a real incident?
It’s unusual that I write one blog and then have to write another on the same topic so soon, but sometimes things happen quickly and without warning.
On September 1, I posted a blog entitled The Monster Is Not The Most Terrifying Thing About Stranger Things. Ostensibly about the hit Netflix horror series which takes place in 1983, the blog detailed how the disappearance of one of the main characters reminded me of the real disappearances of children from that era. I wrote about several cases, but the one which impacted me the most was the 1989 abduction of Jacob Wetterling. I won’t repeat the content of the original blog other than to share the last line I wrote about Jacob:
“To this day, his fate remains unknown…”
Forty-eight hours later, everything changed quickly and without warning. Danny James Heinrich, the only person on Earth who for three decades actually knew the boy’s fate, confessed to abducting, molesting and then murdering Jacob. His confession lead authorities to where Jacob's remains were buried in a rural field in central Minnesota.
For 27 years, Jacob’s memory has haunted his family, friends, the people of Minnesota, and the American public. It haunted me as well. My recollections of obsessively watching the news for updates on his case during the Fall of 1989 are as clear and impactful as the destruction of the space shuttle Challenger and the fall of the Twin Towers.
As more details emerged, my mind reeled and my heart broke all over again. We now know that Jacob met his end shortly after being snatched by Heinrich, his body hastily buried on the edge of a cow pasture about 30 miles from his family’s home. Even more unbelievable is that Heinrich was a person of interest to the police as far back as 1990. But as with many missing person cases, the devil was in the details. Authorities were confounded by a lack of physical leads despite a massive search effort and Heinrich never flinched in maintaining his innocence. If he hadn’t been anxious for a plea bargain on child pornography charges and thus more cooperative with investigators, the Wetterling family might’ve never known what had happened to their son.
One would like to believe that Heinrich’s revelation, as horrific as it was, brought the Wetterling family some closure. One would like to believe that with knowledge came metamorphosis, that pain softened and some greater meaning was pulled from such senseless brutality. But when I put myself in the Wetterling’s shoes, having also raised sons, it’s difficult to imagine how you could ever find peace after such trauma.
Still, what’s touched me, amazed me and gratified me is how Jacob’s friends and family have been so consistently empathetic and decent throughout this ordeal. Patty Wetterling, the grieving mother who went on to be a national advocate for child safety, asked people to remember her son by celebrating life. People listened and responded. Athletic teams from high schoolers to the Cleveland Indians are honoring Jacob by wearing his hockey jersey number — 11 — on their uniforms. The hashtags #JacobsHopeLives and #11forJacob are flooding social media. Events, fundraisers and public memorials are being staged. Doubtless even more expressions of compassion and solidarity with emerge in the day’s ahead.
As for me, I’ve come to a few revelations about how Jacob’s case affected my life. Two months after his disappearance, I graduated from the University of Arizona and started volunteering at a local children’s shelter. A decade later I became a foster parent to five boys, ultimately adopting my sons Cooper and Myles. In fact, I’ve spent the better part of my adult life working with and advocating for abused and neglected children and all of it can be traced back to Jacob Wetterling.
My sons grew up — a privilege Jacob never got — but caring about the welfare of children shouldn’t end just because your kids are no longer kids. Or because you don’t have kids. Or because you think these things will never happen to your kids. If Jacob Wetterling has anything to teach us all these years later, it’s that we must be kind, we must be fair and we must be vigilant.
The Wetterling family has asked that people display the number 11 in honor of Jacob's memory. There are a few of these 11 For Jacob graphics already circulating on the internet, but since I don't know who they belong to I created my own. Anyone is allowed to use these graphics for the purpose of honoring Jacob's memory. They may not be used for any commericial purposes. If you have questions, feel free to email me. Thanks.
Like so many other Netflix viewers, I was blown away by Stranger Things. If you haven’t had the pleasure yet, the series takes place in 1983 and is a direct homage to the early films of John Carpenter and Steven Spielberg, with perhaps a little Joe Dante and George Romero thrown in for good measure.
In true Spielbergian fashion, the first episode introduces us to four boys playing Dungeons & Dragons late into the evening. The scene is clearly reminiscent of the first few minutes of ET: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), not just for the RPG reference nor the suburban setting, but because of how the mundane is suddenly interrupted by the extraordinary. In the case of Stranger Things, the interruption is not caused by a potato-shaped alien botanist, but a bloodthirsty monster released from an alternate dimension by meddling government types. (Yeah, E.T. had those too if you’ll remember…)
Stranger Things isn’t the first to attempt this kind of throwback. J.J. Abram’s Super 8 (2009) covered similar themes with similar characters, but Stranger Things does it better thanks to its excellent writing, outstanding performances and the sheer creepiness of its execution. Abrams' work, by comparison, got bogged down by his typically over-the-top special effects and world-destroying violence.
But what I realized as I tore my way through the mere eight episodes of Stranger Things is that the creepiest aspect of the show had nothing to do with monsters and everything to do with the disappearance of one of the young role-players named Will (Noah Schnapp).
If you lived through the 1980s, you might recall it was the Era of the Missing Child. And I don’t mean that more children went missing during those ten years, but rather that Americans became suddenly, frantically aware of the issue thanks to the use of mass media.
If you have to put an iconic face to the problem of missing children during the 1980s, it must be that of Etan Patz. The six-year-old vanished while walking to a school bus stop in May 1979. His father was a professional photographer and made many portraits of Etan available to authorities and the media. For years afterwards, tow-headed Etan grinned back at you from the pages of the newspaper, the nightly news, thousands of MISSING CHILD posters… Etan’s face was also the the first to appear on the back of a milk carton, bringing the issue of missing children literally into the family kitchen.
Two years later, Adam Walsh vanished while playing video games in a Sears store. His head was found floating in a canal weeks later and this grievous crime launched his father, John Walsh, on a lifelong crusade to protect children and bring criminals to justice. Walsh’s television show, America’s Most Wanted, ran a whopping 24 years (1988-2012) and was lauded by law enforcement and American presidents alike as an essential public service.
If there was one 1980s child abduction case that impacted me the greatest, it was the 1989 abduction of Jacob Wetterling. The 11-year-old was riding home on his bike from the local video store when a man in a mask appeared and held he, his younger brother and a friend at gunpoint. The man told the other boys to run away and not look back. Jacob was never seen again. I was in my senior year in college when the Wetterling case broke and, coincidentally, was managing a video rental store. I couldn’t help but draw parallels between Jacob and the innumerable kids his age who wandered in and out of my store at all hours of the day and night. Were they at risk, I wondered? Most of them lived just around the corner, but in the Era of the Missing Child it didn’t seem to matter. Apparently you could vanish without a trace doing even the most innocuous things — going to school, playing video games, renting a movie. I remember watching the news night after night, hoping that Jacob would be safely recovered. To this day, his fate remains unknown.
As I watched Stranger Things, I realized that the scenes that affected me the most were those with Winona Ryder and Charlie Heaton (who played Will’s mother and brother, respectively) dealing with their grief of not knowing the boy’s fate. I don’t know if Stranger Things creators Matt and Ross Duffer intended Will’s disappearance to be so reflective of other boys like him during the same era. I guess it doesn’t really matter, because it struck a chord no matter what the intent. I can only imagine the anguish that the Wetterlings, the Walshs, the Patzes and other families of missing children still deal with daily. If Stranger Things did one thing for me personally, it was reminding me that monsters needn't come from alternate dimensions. We have plenty of them living among us…
Related Information: The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children