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
I’m sorry to say that I’ve given up.
I’ve given up hoping that we’ll ever get a decent depiction of Wonder Woman — possibly the world’s foremost female superhero and certainly DC Comic’s — on either the big or small screen. I came to this conclusion after rewatching the 1970s TV show starring Lynda Carter. (Yes, I own the box sets. Shut up.) Those three season just dripped with lovely cornball goodness as only a show of the 70s could, complete with turtlenecks, disco music and sunglasses so big they would swallow your face. Yet despite all the goofiness, there was a certain heart and soul to Carter’s depiction of the princess from Paradise Island. She was likable. More importantly, she liked humanity. She believed in people and really wanted to help them, even as she was clucking her tongue at their stupidity.
I’m now pretty confident we’ll never see that Diana Prince / Wonder Woman ever again. Maybe she was the product of an earlier time and the modern moviegoer (or movie producer) is just too cynical to tolerate her strength-through-kindness schtick. I certainly don’t have much faith that the upcoming Zack Snyder produced film will reclaim her magic mantle. I might be a little premature in writing this, but I think I’m on pretty solid ground here.
Let’s start with the fact that it’s taken a bafflingly long time to bring Wonder Woman back to the screen at all. After numerous false starts like David E. Kelly’s horrific TV movie from 2011 and Joss Whedon’s unproduced script, we finally got a sneak peak at the Amazon princess in Batman v. Superman: The Dawn of Justice. But there was a problem. Like so many other elements of that film (the plot for example), Diana Prince as played by Gal Godot was almost incidental. She hobnobbed with the power elite in slinky dresses and was set up as a foil for Bruce Wayne despite their all-too-brief interactions. But when the going got tough, Diana hopped on a plane out of town and only returned at the last second to help battle Doomsday. Not only was this out of character for Wonder Woman, perhaps one of the most morally steadfast characters in comic books, but she lacked those essential qualities that made her more than a superhero, but also a feminist icon. Where was her empathy for others? Where was the intellect?
I can’t fault Gal Godot for any of this considering how little she as given to do in Batman v. Superman, but the film did underscore how she has some mighty big red boots to fill. And, considering the increasingly poor quality of DC Comic movies, I’m not expecting much when Wonder Woman hits theaters next year.
So at day’s end, I think I have to agree with so many other Wonder Woman aficionados, which include some notable comic book artists, when I say that for now, the definitive Amazon princess will remain Lynda Carter’s version. After waiting 40 years to see Wonder Woman on the screen, I've given up hope that Hollywood can get this character right.
On the discussion page for my novel The Men in the Trees, I have a variety of photos from an Arizona ghost town called Vulture City. Over the years, visitors have asked about the town and its mine so I've created this synopis of the area's history, legends and what you can expect when visiting one of the best preserved frontier communities in Arizona. It should be noted that the images and experiences shared here are from 2009, when my son Myles and I spent the better part of a day exploring the townsite.
The Beginning of Vulture City
Like many of the state's mining towns, the story behind Vulture City is an amalgam of fact, fiction and falsities. According to legend, the town's origins began in 1862 when a prosector named Henry Wickenburg shot a vulture while out hunting. Where the bird dropped to the ground, Wickenburg discovered some spectacular quartz formations infused with gold and promptly established a claim to the area. Although the dead vulture part of this story is most likely an affectation, Wickenburg's instincts about the quartz were spot on and the mine eventually became the most profitable gold producer in Arizona.
Wickenburg sold his controlling interest in the mine to Benjamin Phelps and a group of investors in 1866. Under Phelp's supervision, it is estimated that the Vulture produced $2.5 million in gold (or roughly $60 million in today’s dollars), with almost as much being snuck out by the miners and their corrupt foremen. The theft of raw gold was mentioned in The Men in the Trees in a conversation between Meryl and Rose (pp. 86-87):
Meryl exhaled slowly. “Okay, then. Let’s say you actually find the mine, which would be like finding a needle in a haystack I think, but let’s say you do it. Then what? I doubt if the U.S. government is going to let you go in there and dig out any gold. It’s a national forest, after all.”
“What if they don’t know about it?”
“Well, this mine is in the middle of nowhere. Who’s going to notice some old coot like me carrying out some ore in my backpack? It happened all the time during the frontier days. Miners would stuff a nugget or two into their boot and walk out with it. It was called ‘high-grading the gold.’”
“And if they caught you, they’d hang you?”
“And what would they do to you today?”
“Prison, I imagine,” Rose said with a casual shrug.
“High-grading” was such a persistent problem at the Vulture mine that there was actually a "hanging tree" on site for those who were caught. The tree was still around when Myles and I visited the site.
The mine changed hands again in 1878, being sold to a man named James Seymour who quickly identified another gold-rich vein and further increased profits. During this same era, Vulture became an important rest-stop in an otherwise unbroken stretch of desert. By the 1890s, the site included many houses, dormitories, an assayer's office, a general store, a post office and a school. At its height, the town was home to 5,000 people.
I'm going to make a brief argument against one of the most pervasive trends in Hollywood these days — the almost obsessive need to create reboots and sequels of just about every movie that's been released in the last 30 years. I've felt this way for a while, but it perhaps came to a boil for me when Netflix announced their sequel to Ang Lee’s game-changing martial arts film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). Starring Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh and Ziyi Zhang, the original film was a gorgeously produced and multi-faceted story of unrequited love, misguided loyalties and enduring compassion. Moreover, it was an indictment of how traditional Chinese society repressed women. The film went on to win four Oscars, including Best Foreign Language Film which is really the Best Picture award for flicks where people speak something other than English.
Jump ahead sixteen years and we find Netflix producing a sequel entitled Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny. Even though they managed to talk Michelle Yeoh into reprising her role as Yu Shu Lien, make no mistake, this film is an imposter of the highest magnitude. Gone is any attempt at subtle storytelling. The plot is a simple retread of the “evil warlord must be stopped” trope with the Green Destiny sword now strangely imbued with almost magical powers where, in the original film, its power was wholly symbolic. The magnificent stunt choreography of the original is replaced with run-of-the-mill CGI effects, a lazy and galling substitution for so many reasons. The acting is horrendous.
Why Netflix felt the need to provide Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon with a sequel may seem baffling, but this is the company that gave Adam Sandler an exclusive four movie deal, which, to a fair, has turned out marvelously for them (read more about that here.)
But Adam Sandler is not Ang Lee anymore than The Ridiculous 6 (shudder) is Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. There’s no expectation on anyone’s part that Sandler will ever be remembered as a great filmmaker while Lee certainly is. And this brings me to the crux of my argument… Frankly, I’ve come to believe that some films are so important, so culturally significant that reboots and sequels should not be allowed. Of course I write knowing this is impossibility for a variety of reasons. Who, for example, would determine which films are and are not “culturally significant”? Beyond that, filmmaking is often big business, which means little regard is ultimately given to the intrinsic value of a thing if there’s money to be made (hence that Sandler-Netflix deal.) In the end, I think it relies more on the viewing public to curtail this trend by withholding our attention and dollars when necessary. Yes, there will still be the occasional unwanted sequel and reboot, but maybe, just maybe, we can stop things before a franchise is born.
Once upon a time, kids, getting Star Wars toys for the holidays meant looking forward to an empty box. I don't mean this facetiously, because in the Winter of 1977 when Star Wars mania was at its height (the first time), the movie that would go on to become a phenomenon had precious little merchandising. As a result, ten of thousands of parents were desperate to find something to give to the tens of thousands of children pining anxiously for anything Star Wars-related.
It was Kenner Toys that came up with a novel solution: sell parents the promise of toys to come.
Officially, this was called the "Star Wars Early Bird Kit" and it consisted of a cardboard display stand, a few pieces of cheap swag and a promissory note that four actions figures (Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, R2-D2 and Chewbacca) would arrive in the mail sometime in the near future. This was either the most impudent or most ingenious marketing ploy ever... but since it worked I think we'll have to mark it as the latter.
This holiday season, the children of the world will have no "empty box" worries if my experience today at the local Toys R Us is any indication. Aisle after aisle of Star Wars toys, slickly packaged in an ominous red-and-black veneer, didn't just overwhelm my senses... it crushed them. Curious, I thought, that while in 1977 the movie was devoid of toys, now many of the represented toys are devoid of a movie and will be until Episode 7 hits theaters in December. To the dozens of people I saw purchasing them, however, it didn't seem to matter. They may not know exactly who Captain Phasma is, but at this point Star Wars is religion and merchandise its holy icons. And if you're not ready to snap up Episode 7 toys until you've seen the film, fear not as the whole pantheon is well represented from the first trilogy to the Clone Wars. In fact, the only thing I didn't see was merchandise for the 1978 Star Wars Christmas Special... but maybe that will come too?
I've been an avid Star Wars toy collector since 1977 when I tried to talk my mom into purchasing that "Early Bird Kit." (For the record, she didn't.) But with time I've come to see these toys in a different light. Most of what's out there is dreck and you have to be more circumspect about what you take home. A couple of decades ago I might've at least concentrated my buying power on one line of Episode 7 stuff — probably action figures — but I won't even do that now. Frankly, I know that line will never end I don't want to become the toy equivalent of a crazy cat lady.
But beyond the insane expenditure in time and resources, there's an argument to be made that Star Wars merchandise ceased to be special when it became so ridiculously commonplace. Whether it's the Death Star Chip and Dip bowl set or the Stormtrooper Silicone Oven Mitt or the AT-AT Halloween costume for your dog (all real things), the prevalence of Star Wars merchandise had burned me out. I guess there really can be too much of a good thing.
I recently just wrote a review of the movie Mr. Holmes and it's had me thinking about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Not the great author who created Sherlock and his world... but the fragile and highly superstitious man in search of comfort. For this blog I will discuss his tour of the United States in the early 1920s and how his obsession with understanding the metaphysical world began with great loss and ended with a tarnished reputation.
During his lifetime, Conan Doyle was known as much for his interest in Spiritiualism as for his literary works. His fascination with ghosts and spirits was not unusual for his time, when Spiritualism was at its height and professional mediums could enjoy the patronage of the rich and famous throughout North America and Europe. Spiritualism was often seen as a diversion for Victorian society’s elite, and certainly Conan Doyle was proof of this.
At a very young age, Conan Doyle was sent to Hodder Place, a preparatory school run by the strict Roman Catholic Jesuits. The experience was apparently a bad one for him and he emerged from his schooling agnostic. Later in his life, however, his religious views began to change drastically. Many sources link this transformation to the death of his son, Kingsley, who was serving with the British forces during World War I and was wounded during the disastrous Allied offensive known as the Battle of the Somme. While recuperating for his injuries, Kingsley developed pneumonia and died in a field hospital. His passing was certainly crushing to his father, but it was only one in a series of deaths that Conan Doyle had to endure. Eleven years earlier, his wife had succumbed to tuberculosis and Kingsley’s death was followed by that of Arthur’s brother, his brothers-in-law and two nephews. By all accounts, so much loss in such a short period of time sent Conan Doyle into a depressive tailspin and he turned to Spiritualism for solace.
By the time he reached California in 1922 as part of his tour of the United States, Conan Doyle’s reputation as a devout defender of Spiritualism was well established. And largely ridiculed.
One of the most sensational causes he championed would become known as the case of the Cottingley Fairies. In 1918, two English girls claimed to have taken photos of themselves interacting with several diminutive sprites in the Yorkshire woods. Conan Doyle was assigned by Strand Magazine to investigate. He consulted several experts in the field of photography. The results were mixed. The Kodak corporation acknowledged that the negatives were not tampered with, but also stated that such photos could be easily staged and duplicated. A second expert named Harold Snelling declared the photos genuine and it was Snelling who Conan Doyle chose to believe. Convinced of their legitimacy, Conan Doyle provided the girls with a new camera and over the next few years they were able to produce several more photos. The fact that the girls were allowed to use the camera without any witnesses didn’t seem to bother Conan Doyle; and his sense of Victorian honor compelled him to believe that no girl would be deceitful enough to perpetrate such a hoax or fool a man such as himself. Ergo, the fairies had to be real.
(The girls admitted in 1981 that the photos had been faked, but that their embarrassment at fooling Arthur Conan Doyle kept them from confessing earlier.)
Conan Doyle’s absolute belief in the Cottingley Fairies, and his subsequent publishing of a book on the subject, did little to shore up his credibility. The public seemed to expect a more impartial reaction from the father of Sherlock Holmes, a medical doctor and a renowned man of letters. Skepticism and ridicule continued to follow Conan Doyle as he began his tour of America. Read one U.S. newspaper editorial:
“Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes and author of a number of other stories which have captured the imagination of tens of thousands of readers, is one person. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, making himself ridiculous with his profession of faith in pictures of fairies and other spiritualistic flapadoodle, is another. Of the two, the first is an admirable figure, but the latter has made of itself a fit mark for the mocking laughter of the world...”
Conan Doyle did not seem deterred by his detractors and continued to lecture publicly and give interviews to the press about spiritual matters. In June 1923, the Oakland Tribute provided Conan Doyle with the opportunity to defend himself in an article entitled “‘Sherlock Holmes’ Creator Tells Of His Bridge to Land of Hereafter: Doyle Admits He Met Spirits Via Medium Route.” Conan Doyle wrote:
“I was a confirmed materialist and fought against their facts [of spiritualism] until they were too much for me and I could not help realizing their truth. This process took many years of reading and experiment as detailed in my books. What nonsense it is therefore to say that I had a ‘great consuming desire to believe... etc.’ It was not so...”
Despite his assertions, Conan Doyle’s method for examining psychic phenomenon and the legitimacy of mediums was suspect even in his day. One author, in an exposé of the parlor tricks used by mediums to dupe their clients, wrote: “Doyle admits that the medium’s throat and lips showed movement during this singing, but he swallows the whole thing when, as he says, the ‘intelligence’ glibly explained that the medium’s throat and organs are used by the spooks.” The author asked, “In Doyle’s case is the wish father to the thought?”
As the author toured California, he met with a variety of mediums and visited many venues thought to be haunted, including the Whaley House in San Diego. He also continued to speak out on some of the most famous paranormal events of the day, including the rumored “Curse of King Tutankhamun.”
In November 1922, the western world was left stunned after archaeologist Howard Carter discovered the tomb of an obscure pharaoh and in the process the greatest treasure trove in history. Shortly after the tomb’s excavation, Carter’s patron and friend, Lord Carnarvon, died suddenly in Cairo. Rumors began almost immediately that the Lord’s demise was the result of ancient curses placed on Tutankhamun’s remains by Egyptian priests. Conan Doyle openly supported this notion, and even offered other example’s of the so-called “Curse of the Pharaohs.”
“...The son of Sir William Ingram, London publisher, met the fate prescribed by a mummy he discovered and brought to London. On the mummy was found the following inscription:
‘May the life of the one who disturbs me end rapidly and may his bones never be buried.’
Shortly afterward the son was killed in a hunting expedition in Somaliland. The body was placed in a dry bed of a stream, pending removal. When the party returned, the dry bed had been turned into a raging torrent and the body had disappeared...” [“Spirits On Guard At Tombs, Says A. Conan Doyle,” The Oakland Tribune, Tuesday, April 5, 1923.]
Ironically, it was during this same period that Conan Doyle met and befriended Spiritualism’s greatest critic — Harry Houdini. (The two men are pictured together below.) The renowned magician had developed an interest in Spiritualism following the death of his mother. In this respect, both men were united in their search for answers by the deaths of loved ones. But for Houdini, Spiritualism was a profound disappointment. His expert eye quickly identified the illusions and sleights of hand used by mediums during séances, and he became convinced that the entire movement was fraudulent. Conan Doyle hoped to change Houdini’s mind and eventually became convinced that the magician possessed supernatural powers of which he was either unaware or unwilling to acknowledge.
During the final part of his American lecture tour, Conan Doyle and his wife invited Houdini and his wife to a séance. Lady Conan Doyle had recently discovered her ability to produce “automatic writing” and she was anxious to help contact Houdini’s deceased mother. During the séance, she produced six pages of handwritten notes for Houdini which she claimed were created by his mother’s spirit. Houdini was far from convinced. Lady Conan Doyle’s notes were in English, a language his mother didn’t understand and the ritual had taken place on his mother’s birthday, although her spirit did not seem to acknowledge that fact. Concerned of offending Conan Doyle, whom Houdini believed was sincerely trying to help him, he said nothing about these discrepancies for months. When he finally broached his concerns to Arthur Conan Doyle, the man of letters had his usual convenient answers, claiming that the spirit world did not worry about things as trivial as language or dates on a calendar. Their friendship never recovered from this disagreement.
Conan Doyle continued to unflinchingly defend Spiritualism through the remaining years of his life, even publishing an impressive two volume tome called The History of Spiritualism in 1926. On July 8, 1930, he died of a heart attack while strolling through his garden but even death did not seem to sever his connection to Spiritualism. For years afterward, Lady Conan Doyle claimed to be in regular contact with her husband and came to rely on his advice for many everyday concerns. The Conan Doyle family also credited Arthur’s spirit with diagnosing his wife’s tuberculosis from beyond the grave, a feat that he had not been able to perform in life despite his medical training. Likewise, the mediums he had championed so ferociously seemed reluctant to give up his patronage after his death. Suddenly, Conan Doyle’s vaporous image began to appear in many “spirit photos” produced by various professional psychics. (See the photo of Conan Doyle at the top of the page for an example of this hoax.) But even this development could not delay the inevitable.
“...Many of the mediums whom Conan Doyle had supported were falling from grace,” wrote author Daniel Stashower in his biography entitled Teller of Tales. “Nino Pecararo, whose powers Conan Doyle had defended against the criticisms of Houdini, was soon hounded out of business by the magician Joseph Dunninger. “Spirit of Doyle’s Son Merely Nino’s Trick,” reported the New York Evening Journal; “Nino Pecararo, Who Helped Conan Doyle’s Faith in Mystic World, Admits Deceit,” announced the Herald Tribune. For the next ten years, similar headlines would appear at regular intervals as one “reformed medium” after another attempted to convert exposure into financial gain.
“Conan Doyle’s own messages from the spirit world were also held up to criticism. “Now the late Sir Arthur was an admirable writer of English,” noted one journalist. “If the post-death messages are exact copies of those messages, his knowledge of even the elementary rules of grammar must have suffered woefully since his death.”
In the end, Conan Doyle’s literary brilliance may have been overshadowed by his preoccupation with the supernatural and his Victorian conceit. However, we must be charitable in knowing that whatever folly he championed, he did so only as a reaction to his own great sense of love and loss.
The photos shown above are in the public domain.
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Most creative people probably don't spend much of their day thinking about their personal copyright issues. That's because American copyright laws, which were vastly revised and improved in the mid-1970s, made it very easy for artists, musicians, authors and others. Put simply, the moment you create "a thing" — a poem, a novel, a song, a painting, a silly little doodle, whatever — you're copyright protection is immediate and inherent. Put more simply, the act of creation is all that's needed to cover you under U.S. copyright law.
Now it didn't used to be this way. Prior to 1976, whenever you created "a thing," you had to register said thing with the U.S. Copyright Office. It was an enormous amount of work, bureaucracy and bother. Plus, there were some dangerous loopholes. Your protection only lasted 28 years, and if you forgot to re-register your work THREE DECADES after you created, well, then you no longer owned the copyright. Needless to say, if you were a prolific artist, or just one who's been working for a long time and has amassed a large body of work, then trying to stay abreast of your registrations would be a nightmare. But all that changed in 1976 and it's worked well ever since.
So why does the Copyright Office, certain Internet-based corporations like Google and elements in Congress want to change it?
Well, they'll tell you it's because how we produce and deliver art has changed radically since the 1970s, with most of us now using electronic means to do so. As such, they argue, it's time for a re-think. But really it's about money. Entities like Google, Facebook, etc. have been trying for a while to co-opt our creations through their privacy and terms of service agreements. But if there's not inherent copyright protection for anyone — whether you earn your living as an artist or not — then anything you put out there can be essentially legally stolen and resold. Imagine Facebook running its own stock image business using photos pilfered from their users. How messed up is that?
The last time these changes were attempted was in 2008 and it failed miserably due to the massive defense mounted by artists of all kinds from all over the country. It's time to do that again.
And don't be fooled. This effects all of us. If you create anything, you could lose your rights to that "thing" if these new rules pass. Toward that end, I'm encouraging you to join the defense. I've added some links below to where you can learn more and where you should send letters rejecting any changes to the existing copyright laws. If you want to learn more, watch the attached podcast for details from illustrators Will Terry and Brad Holland. But hurry, the next deadline for comments is July 23, 2015.
Teen filmmaker in action. My friend Jake Kreager is only seventeen but he's already a veteran filmmaker. He and his cousin cranked out this suspense film in two days without a script or even a cameraman. You can follow Jake on YouTube here.
Even though I've been doing it since I was nine-years-old, I haven't written much about filmmaking on this website. It's an unfortunate oversight, because I feel we're in a very exciting time for filmmakers of all levels. The ease, affordability and prevalence of digital cameras, editing software and video-sharing websites has given a whole generation the chance to flex their filmmaking muscles. And though this has also given us way too many videos of kittens riding Roombas to the screaming chords of "Eye of the Tiger," the chance to express, create and share with each other is unprecedented.
So filmmakers, indulge me while I tell you how young people once made movies before all this technology made it so darn easy...
My interest in filmmaking began in the mid-1970s when my grandfather gave me an 8mm camera which, even for the time, was a primitive device. It looked primitive — a black metal box with a pebbly surface and a small lens. There was a trigger to expose the film and a large silver lever to operate the zoom. You had to focus manually and though filming in color wasn't an issue, there wasn't any sound. Fresh film was always in short supply. A reel cost about $10 — half of my monthly allowance — and there were still trading cards and that copy of Starlog magazine I needed to purchase, too! Needless to say, my early works had a certain "economy" to them. A typical film was three minutes, an epic would grow to nine. Everything had to be filmed on the first take.
The first film I ever made was entitled "The Horror of the Desert" and starred me, my sister, and the three kids who lived next door. We were all between the ages of 11 and 15. The plot was simple enough. I put on a bright blue papier-mâché monster mask, draped myself in an old blanket and menaced the other four for a total of six minutes. Granted, "The Horror of the Desert" wasn't a long on plot but at least there was lots of running and screaming. (Okay, there wasn't any screaming because, as I just mentioned, the camera had no sound.) Instead, in the true tradition of silent film, there was plenty of melodramatic pantomime. Finally, one of the neighbor girls drives a wooden stake through my monstrous heart, a technique which apparently works as well on aggressive space aliens as it does on vampires. The film was a huge hit, the least among the other neighborhood kids who immediately lined up to be in my next production.
Editing of my 8 mm creations was done by hand. I had a cheap, manually-cranked machine through which you could watch your footage on a tiny screen, slicing out the unwanted bits and reordering sequences by taping the strips of film back together. The basic concepts behind editing haven't changed with the newer technology, but the results and rapidity of the process have improved exponentially. What I can now edit by computer in thirty minutes might've taken an entire day in 1979.
By junior high, I was dabbling in stop-motion animation and practical special effects. The latter usually involved creating elaborate miniatures complete with painted backdrops and then setting them on fire in my backyard. By the end of college, I had several "co-producers" assisting me and troupes of amateur actors to do my bidding. And by the mid-90s, I was constructing elaborate parodies of science fiction and fantasy films under the name "Aneurysm Theater."
Technology advanced as well. Eight mm film gave way to videotape and finally digital media. But the real boon didn't come until the home computing giants, Apple in particular, created video editing software which more people could afford and understand.
All this was fun, but it had yet to become a serious venture.
In reality, filmmaking didn't become part of my profession until the early 2000s when I was tasked with creating law enforcement training films in Arizona. I produced six videos in all and that experience paved the way for my current work with the Oregon Coast Aquarium's Oceanscape Network, a web-based project which is extremely video-intensive.
So why am I telling you all this, young filmmakers? Because whether you hope to make film your profession, or it's just a fun hobby, you have tools at your fingertips I couldn't even imagine when I was starting out. And as with the publishing world, the internet and associated technology now allows you the opportunity to reach an audience without having to go through the traditional "gatekeepers" of those industries. Take advantage of it. If the past is any indication, this field's just going to get better and better.
RELATED: For examples of my filmmaking, visit my profile on Stage 32.
I'd heard of Ashland, Oregon, long before I visited it. Its Shakespeare festival, which runs February through November, has a international reputation and is often mentioned in the same breath as Stratford-on-Avon, where the plays originated. I can't say I'm a devotee of The Bard's work, but I have seen and enjoyed enough of his plays to jump at the chance to visit Ashland at the height of the festival. It was road trip time, down through the winding hills and thick forests of Oregon to just a few miles north of the California border. My anticipation was high, but my expectations of finding costumed denizens and live jousting ala a Renaissance Faire turned out to be very different from my experience.
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) is a celebration of live theater. But a word of caution about this... If you intend to see Shakespeare performed in the classical Elizabethan style, read the play descriptions carefully or you may be disappointed. Some of plays reengineer Shakespeare, placing them in times and places far removed from what the playwright had imagined. The performance I attended of Romeo and Juliet was an excellent example. Set in 1840's Alta California (a Spanish colonial province which is today the combined area of California, Arizona, Nevada and Utah), the performance suffered from a unique case of split personality disorder. I'm still trying to wrap my head around actors delivering their Elizabethan lines in thick Mexican accents; or punctuating an impactful monologue with the occasional Spanish word as if only to reinforce how this version of Romeo and Juliet was so very different. Judging by the recurring snickers from the audience, I wasn't the only one who found this, well, ineffective.
Fear not. If altered Shakespeare isn't your cup of tea, the OSF and Ashland provide plenty of other live theater choices. In fact, we had twelve different options ranging from other Shakespeare titles to off-Broadway productions. The selection reinforced Ashland's catchphrase: "Come for four days, see four plays." With performances running continually in a lavish complex of both indoor and outdoor theaters, you could actually see more than four if you had the inclination and the money.
When I tired of Shakespeare, I strolled the downtown area which, in many ways, reminded me of Sedona in Arizona's Verde Valley. Most of the businesses were upscale boutiques, creekside cafés and art galleries with a strong hippie vibe. The penchant for live performances spilled out onto the sidewalks, where everyone from teenaged crooners to stringed quartets to transients with broken ukuleles vied for attention and tips. The heart of the downtown area is Lithia Park. Dating from early twentieth century, the park was designed as a tranquil refuge where urban dwellers could enjoy the arts, explore nature and ponder their existence. It was also the most visible expression of the Chautauqua educational movement, which strived to bring culture and beauty to America's more rural areas. A century later, Ashland still embraces Chautauqua and it was gratifying to see such large crowds (and so many children and teenagers) attending the plays, hiking the nature paths or listening to music. In the era of Jersey Shore and Twilight, it seems like America needs a good dose of Chautauqua. Kudos to Ashland for providing it!
For more on Ashland and the chautauqua movement, see my articles on the Oceanscape Network.