Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Horror under the Ice

Some kind of gargantuan beast lurks beneath the polar landscape in this painting by Pierre-Etienne Travers.  I wouldn't want to be around when this thing thaws...

Friday, December 5, 2014

Beware the Krampus

"You better watch out..."  

So begins the beloved Christmas song "Santa Claus is Coming to Town", but maybe it isn't Santa that children shouldn't be worried about this time of year.  Perhaps instead they should be on the look out for his malevolent counterpart, the Krampus!

Originating from German folklore, the Krampus is a malevolent demon-like creature who accompanies St. Nicholas as he makes his yearly yuletide rounds.  While St. Nicholas rewarded the good little boys and girls, the Krampus punished the bad.  Generally depicted as the black-haired, long-tongued devil beast, the Krampus would beat kids with switches and rusty chains or haul them off in sacks.

Apparently, the tradition of the Krampus goes as far back as the 1600's.  Many believe that the Krampus (and other such traditions) originated from pagan Winter Solstice celebrations that eventually found themselves incorporated into Christmas celebrations.  In Austria and other neighboring European countries it wasn't all that unusual to receive Krampus-themed greeting cards depicting scenes of the grinning demon torturing screaming kids.  Another bizarre tradition featuring the Krampus is Krampusnacht (Night of the Krampus) which is a sort of parade in which young men dressed as the Krampus and terrorized any children on the streets.

Examples of Krampuskarten - Krampus Greeting Cards
Around the 1800's the Catholic Church attempted to phase out the Krampus as part of their annual Christmas celebrations and later in the 1930's (and even into the 1950's) the Austrian government even discouraged the tradition.  In some places the beast was all but forgotten while in others it never fell out of style.  However, thanks to a resurgence in popularity (due to online curiosity and references in various pop-culture mediums) the Krampus is making something of a comeback.  Krampusnacht parades having become an alternative holiday celebration with droves of people dressing up as the Krampus and terrorizing the general public in Europe and North America.

A modern Krampusnacht parade

Monday, December 1, 2014

Cryptic Curiosities: Topsy

Standing about 10 feet tall and weighing around six tons, Topsy was an elephant with a nasty reputation.  The female Asian elephant was known for being a man-killer.  Amazingly, this was a major draw for the public, ever seeking a thrill.  While reports alleged that Topsy was a beast responsible for as many as 12 murders, these were likely exaggerated to further entice crowds.

Topsy was smuggled into the United States in 1875 to perform in the Forepaugh Circus, the captive elephant endured poor living conditions and regular harassment.  Topsy lashed out at her trainers on, but a few occasions, resulting in injuries.  But in 1902, a drunk taunted Topsy, throwing sand in her eyes and touching a lit cigar to her trunk.  The enraged animal flung the man to the ground and crushed him to death.  A few months later a spectator tried to tickle Topsy behind the ear, startling her.  The elephant lifted the man into the air and slammed him into the ground.

Following this latest "attack" the owners decided to sell Topsy and the elephant ended up at an attraction on Coney Island in New York.  Her constantly drunk trainer once stabbed her with a pitchfork and later intentionally setting Topsy loose to run the streets.  The event that proved to be the last straw for city officials involved the same drunken trainer actually riding Topsy, goading her to ram into a police station.

While the trainer was merely fired from his position, Topsy was given a death sentence.  It was not uncommon in those days for circuses and other attractions to publicly execute elephants, charging admission to the "spectacle".  Other elephants had been put to death by hanging via a large construction crane, while others were simply shot or poisoned.  Due to protests by early animal rights activists, however, the owners finally decided that Topsy would be electrocuted to death. 

On a cold January morning in 1903, Topsy was fitted with large copper sandals by engineers from Edison Electric Light Company.  The elephant, perhaps sensing what was about to happen, refused to be led to the intended execution site even with the enticement of food.  Wires which would soon carry some 6,000 volts through the copper fittings on Topsy's feet had to be brought to the spot where she firmly stood.  

After about 10 seconds, the elephant which had in life faced so much cruelty at the hands of men finally  collapsed and died.  Witnesses say that the elephant didn't even make a sound.

Apparently, the ghost of Topsy still wanders Coney Island...

Note:  I wrote this post some time ago, but it depressed me so that I couldn't bring myself to publish it...

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Halloween Update: The Big Night

It's hard to believe that another Halloween has now come and gone...

Above is a picture of this year's yard display.  At least this is how it would have looked had the weather not turned so nasty.  Between frigid winds and nearly constant precipitation, we were forced to bring the majority of the props inside to avoid damaging them.

Thankfully, I did set everything up just the night before to fine-tune the lighting and took some pictures!

You'll notice a new prop next to Cousin Eerie in the picture above.  I call him Fly Guy and he's a prop I put together earlier this week.  I envisioned him as being a mad scientist of sorts, so of course I also had to make him a laboratory complete with glowing, bubbling chemicals, spooky specimens, and advanced, yet antiquated, scientific equipment.  Fly Guy's mask and gloves were made by Ghoulish Productions.  

Anyway...  In total, we would have had around 10 full-sized props on display.  Unfortunately however, as I previously mentioned, the weather just didn't cooperate this year.  Any props we set up in the yard either blew over or were at risk of being ruined by the freezing rain.  It was only midway through trick-or-treating that we were able to put three props out on the porch.  Thus, we ended up having a bare bones (pun intended) setup last night.  Hagatha, the Toxic Zombie, and Fly Guy made the cut while the others had to be put back inside.  

To say that I was disappointed with last night's weather is an understatement. It's frustrating to spend a whole year preparing for one night just to have it ruined by some nasty weather. 

In spite of it all, we had fun and the trick-or-treaters seemed to get a kick out of the props we were able to display.

As an added bonus, Jacob Vaught - my cousin, who is a talented up-and-coming filmmaker - shot and edited together footage of the display!  Enjoy...

Well...  I guess it's time to start planning for next year!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Vintage Halloween Costumes

The Halloween costumes of yesteryear are so much creepier than any you're likely to see tomorrow night!

Monday, October 27, 2014

Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House

My sister and I used to beg our mother to let us listen to her record player.  She has a great collection of classic rock albums...  My parents have great taste in music!  

However, inevitably, the record we always ended up giving a spin was Disney's Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House.  Of course we had to turn out the lights to set the proper mood.  Then we would sit there in the dark listening to the spooky noises until the record stopped (which, to me, was always the most terrifying sound!).

Released in 1963, this album consists primarily of sound effects apparently drawn from Disney's archives.  Many of the ghostly groans and screams are recognizable from their library of classic movies and cartoons such as 1937's Mickey Mouse cartoon The Lonesome Ghosts.  As far as I can tell, this record is in no way associated with Disney Land's Haunted Mansion ride, aside from the fact the album artwork was created by that attraction's concept designer, Paul Wenzel.

Side A of the record is broken into narrated segments that incorporate the various sound effects.  Oddly enough, these have very little to do with the "haunted house" theme, aside from the opening track.  For example, the remainder of the album includes sounds of a lumberjack chopping down a tree and subsequently being crushed, an explosive fuse being lit, someone crossing a rickety bridge, Chinese water torture, and a UFO landing.  The creepiest tracks are probably the sounds of a pack of wild dogs and a Hitchcokian flock of killer birds.  Side B consists of many of the same sound effects without the narration.


Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Life and Death of a Pumpkin

We just had our annual BYOP (Bring Your Own Pumpkin) party at our house.  This event basically consists of a bunch of friends and family getting together to carve pumpkins and have some Halloween fun.

But the smile of a Jack O' Lantern belies an unspeakable plight of horror we are not aware of...

This is a great short film was created by Aaron Yonda and Matt Sloan of Blame Society Films.  It has become sort of a tradition to watch it this time of year, especially before or after our BYOP event!  

A fun memory:  Several years ago I taught 8th grade Writing and Language Arts.  Around Halloween I presented a unit on scary stories.  Along with sharing some of the traditional folk tales and the classic Poe stories, I thought it would be cool to let the class watch this video to get the creative juices flowing.  However - to make things interesting - I played only the audio for them at first.  In the dark. Leaving out the beginning "Hello, I am a pumpkin," narration.  

The kids were freaking out.  

"Should we be listening to this at school?"  

"This is messed up!"  

I actually had a few girls come close to getting ill. They were for certain that they were hearing the narrator describing what sounded like the torture and murder of another human being!  Only after letting the class listen to the audio only did I actually show them the video in its entirety.  They found the humor in my little trick.

Yup.  To think they actually trust me with molding young minds...

Friday, October 24, 2014

Halloween Update: Hagatha Christie

It's been a while since I posted an update on my Halloween projects, but I promise you I haven't been sitting on my thumbs.  Above is a picture I took of the front porch during the last Full Moon which turned out looking very spooky I think.

I'm sorry to say that pretty much all I've gotten set up for my front yard display so far is some spiderwebs, the Grim Reaper you can't really make out in the picture, and - one of my favorite new purchases - a 5 foot tall poseable skeleton.

This thing is a hoot!  
I would put out more, but the weather has been very rainy here lately.  I'd hate for any of my props to get ruined, so I've got them set up all around the inside of the house, much to my wife's delight!  Actually, she doesn't mind.  She's awesome that way.

The real reason for this post, however, is to present my newest prop:  an animatronic cauldron-stirring witch I call Hagatha Christie!

Hagatha is the by far the most complicated prop that I've attempted so far.  She was made using PVC pipe and chicken wire, like my other props.  The mask I used, called Bruja in most online stores, was made by Ghoulish Productions.

Unlike my other props, Hagatha is animated, which required a lot of help from one of my friends who is much more mechanically inclined that I. I'll attempt to explain our process:  We mounted a windshield wiper motor to a wooden base placed inside the cauldron and connected a metal attachment to the motor for the witch's staff to rest upon.  As the motor turns the the attachment the witch's staff moves as if it is stirring the cauldron.  The top arm is stationary and merely holds onto the staff as the lower arm marionette-like and moves along with the staff, which completes the effect marvelously.  I wish I could take the credit for the genius behind this prop's design, but sadly, I cannot.  This type of prop is called a "cauldron creep" and you can find more detailed instructions here.

Once the animation mechanism was complete I had some more help, this time from my aunt who assisted me in tracking down fabric that matched the hood on the witch mask.  She also helped me make a robe for the witch to cover the up the PVC pipe and chicken wire armature.  

The completed prop looks much, much better at night...

The coals beneath the cauldron were made using Great Stuff spray foam insulation which adhered itself to a chicken wire frame attached to a wooden stand the cauldron rests on.  I painted the foam black and wired some flickering Christmas lights underneath to get a burning effect.  It looks great at night (although not such much during the day).

Inside the cauldron is a small fog machine hooked up to timer that allows the fog to spurt out at a regular interval, making it appear as if the contents are steaming.  A color changing LED spotlight illuminates the witch from below.  With her eyes looking directly at you as she stirs the cauldron, it's kind of unnerving and very creepy.

After spending so much time working to complete Hagatha, I'm not sure whether or not I will be able to complete the last prop I planned on building this year.  Even if I don't I'm pretty pleased with what I've done so far.  The trick-or-treaters are going to love it I think!

Halloween is almost a week away...