I think it’s fair to say that 2016 has produced more than its share of craziness and oddities, and it would be impossible to pull out any one particular thing to sum up just how bizarre this year has been at times. The Clown Sightings of the United States must be somewhere on the list though.
During the months of August and September reports were coming out of America of sinister clowns seen lurking by roadsides, clowns appearing in vans, clowns yelling at children in school playgrounds, and clowns attempting to lure children into the woods. Clowns were either appearing alone, or roaming in packs. Schools went into lockdown, and police warned that anyone appearing in clown costume in the street would be immediately arrested. Newspaper headlines entitled it “Clownpocalypse”. Police warned the public not to form vigilante mobs and go hunting the clowns down, maps appeared Online showing where the clowns had been sighted, Stephen King said it was all terrifying … and poor old professional clowns bemoaned the tarnishing their job was getting, and the possible knock-on effect on business.
It all began in August, when residents of Greenville, South Carolina, were spooked by tales of a sinister clown appearing, loitering in a menacing fashion, by roadsides, simply staring at people, but also unsettling rumours that he had been offering children money or sweets to follow him into the woods. One woman said she had seen a clown hanging around outside a laundromat. She told police he had stared at her, but didn’t speak or make any attempt to follow her. For a while it became known as the Greenville Clown Sightings. Naturally some wondered if it was a promo event for a film, or an Internet game, like a flash mob event. I even saw someone speculating that it may have been a Derren Brown stunt!
But then things began to get out of control. Residents of an apartment block received a letter from property management asking them to abide by a 10 PM curfew, and to not let children walk out alone at night. In Winson-Salem, North Carolina, on 4 September, children told of a man dressed as a clown who had tried to lure them into woods. An adult told the police they had heard the person, but hadn’t seen him.
The clown sightings took on a momentum all of their own, and spread like a contagious disease across several more counties. Soon the states of Alabama, Georgia, Maryland, New Jersey, North Carolina, Virginia, Mississippi and Pennsylvania all reported clown sightings of their own. To me, it all began to look like mass hysteria, a bit like the Monkey Man Scare in India a few years ago. In that case one resident said that the legend took hold because no one wanted to be the only person in their street who hadn’t seen it, and certainly the Clown Sightings had that feel to it. Police were soon able to confirm that some of the sightings had been outright fabrications. Someone reported seeing a bunch of clowns standing next to a white van, which seemed to have run out of gas. Police searching the van though found no evidence at all of clown paraphernalia.
On 12 September police investigated after receiving threats on Facebook that violent clowns would be targeting three schools in Lagrange, Troup County, Georgia. They would be driving a white van, the clowns helpfully posted. The cops received numerous calls concerning sightings of the clowns around the City, but no one was found. Three days later police responded to worrying threats made on a Facebook page from someone calling themselves Flomo Klown or Shoota Cllown, concerning Flomoton High School. The school was put under lockdown as a safety measure. A 22-year-old woman, Makayla Smith, was subsequently arrested for making a terrorist threat. Smith had posted pictures of herself on Facebook wearing a female clown’s costume, with the words “HI DO YOU LIKE CLOWNS?” written in fake blood on the front.
And still the clown sightings continued to spread. Florida – a state well-known for its crazy news stories – was soon to get in on the act. A Facebook video went viral after someone posted footage of a clown standing by a dirt road. The clown begins to move towards the car in a menacing fashion, and someone in the vehicle utters the immortal words “let’s get the hell out of …” A resident of Palm Bay told Florida Today that she had seen two clowns standing staring at her, whilst she was out walking her dog. She returned home as quickly as she could.
On 24 September a man was arrested in Middlesboro, Kentucky, after he was found crouching in woods near an apartment block, wearing a clown mask and costume. Jonathan Martin, aged 20, was charged with disorderly conduct, and wearing a mask in a public place.
Towards the end of September the clown mania seems to be showing no signs of abating. York College, Pennsylvania, issued a security alert, after several clown sightings were reported near the campus. In Phillipsburg, PA, residents claimed they were under siege by clowns. In only two days it was reported that (1) three clowns had come out of the woods and chased a child, (2) a man dressed as a clown sighted walking down a main road, (3) a clown armed with a toy sword chased a child, (3) a truck sighted with clowns hanging out of the windows, and (4) children reported seeing clowns hanging round a nearby school. Police were unable to locate any of the aforementioned clowns.
On 27 September, a woman in Lancaster, Ohio, called police at 2 AM to say she had seen a clown holding a large kitchen knife. The cops talked to other witnesses at the scene, who said they had seen two clowns, one dressed in a gold costume, carrying a balloon, and the other dressed all in black. The following day police in Fort Collins, Colorado, investigated after someone, using a clown profile pic, posted a threatening message directed at Poudre High School on Facebook. The page has since been deleted.
It would be very easy to dismiss the clown sightings as a bit of hysterical nonsense that has got woefully out of hand, but there has been a very dark side to all this, including a fatality. A 16-year-old boy was stabbed to death in Pennsylvania after a confrontation with someone in a clown mask. It is a very real fear that there could be others. Plus there is no denying that many people are genuinely scared by all this, and not just ones who suffer from coulrophobia (a fear of clowns). Tales of strange people trying to lure children away are not something to be dismissed lightly, and if someone is doing this as a prank, then it is downright irresponsible and sick – and I mean “sick” in the standard sense of the word, not modern slang.
This whole thing is still very much ongoing as I write this. I can only hope it all fizzles out eventually before anyone else gets hurt. From a psychological angle it is fascinating. I read a piece by an American political blogger recently who said, for him, the whole clown sightings mania summed up how he felt about America at this stage in its history, of it being led into the dark woods … by a big clown with red hair.
I love a good lighthouse mystery, and this one has the added bonus of being one of the more intriguing cases in the UFO field. The Isla de Lobos is a small island a few miles off the coast of Uruguay. There has been a lighthouse there since the middle of the 19th century, and it’s the only substantial feature on the island, which is largely populated by seals (the name of the island means “land of the fur seals”). The island is now a nature reserve. The lighthouse, at 66 meters in height, has the distinction of being one of the tallest in the world. It went fully automated in 2001, but it was back in 1972 that something very strange occurred there.
The care of the lighthouse came under the jurisdiction of the Uruguayan Navy, and a party of men would serve 15 days on the island, and 15 days off. During their time on the island the men would live at a garrison house close by. On 28 October 1972 Navy Captain Juan Fuentes Figuerora was amongst a party of 5 men who travelled to the island to carry out routine maintenance.
At about 10:10 PM Captain Fuentes went out to check on the generators, which were housed in a building at the base of the lighthouse, along with the telegraph office. It was a clear night with no Moon (New Moon had been a couple of days before). Fuentes was shocked to see mysterious lights on the flat terrace roof of the generator building. At first the Captain thought it might be car headlights, even though he knew that was completely impossible, as the terrace was 6 meters off the ground. He returned to his bedroom in the garrison house to fetch his pistol. To do so he didn’t have to pass through the living area where the rest of his colleagues were seated, oblivious to all the excitement going on outside. When he returned outside the lights were still there, and he described them as a mix of white, yellow and violet-coloured, flashing on and off.
The lights were sufficient to show him that there was a small figure standing by the object, which was described as metallic, copper-coloured, and standing on legs. A second figure was descending from the object, followed by a third. The figures were human-sized. The first two were about 5ft tall, and the third was a 6-footer. Their outlines were very dark, as if they were wearing black rubber suits, like diving outfits. The witness said their heads seemed to be an elongated shape, but whether this was natural, or down to some kind of hood or helmet is not known.
When the mysterious visitors clocked the Captain, they seemed to hurriedly converse amongst themselves. The Captain was thoroughly unnerved by the situation, and raised his gun up to shoot. Except he found himself paralysed and unable to do so. When relating his bizarre experience afterwards the Captain said he had felt a vibration and his hair standing on end, and a feeling of “Don’t shoot because it’s useless”. The strange figures took advantage of this to re-enter their craft and make a quick getaway. They pulled themselves up into the craft – although the witness said he hadn’t seen steps or a handrail – and the strange object flew off at high speed, emitting a blinding fireball as it did so. Fuentes said the object flew off towards the beach. It was going so fast that he was convinced it was “going to smash itself”. The entire incident lasted barely just over a minute in duration.
Captain Fuentes rejoined his colleagues, who said he was as white as paper, and speaking with a trembling voice. His strange story was not believed, and the Captain became rather upset by the disbelief and the ridicule which he encountered. Once back in Montevideo he threatened to go to the newspapers, but before he could do so he was summoned to see a superior officer. This man listened to Fuentes’ story, and then disappeared into another room to consult with two members of staff from the American Embassy. After a while someone reappeared with some drawings, and asked Fuentes to show which one most closely resembled his experience on the island. Fuentes did so, and was then dismissed. The Captain said he hadn’t spoken with the Americans directly, but from listening through the door he was able to gauge that they were shocked and surprised by his close encounter.
In August the following year the Uruguayan Air Force passed the case onto the CIOVI, the Centro de Investigacion de Objetos Voledores Identificados (Unidentified Flying Objects Research Center) for investigation. They put Captain Fuentes under extensive psychological testing. They concluded that he was a simple man, straightforward and trusting, of limited education, and not the sort to be prone to imaginative flights of fancy. Although the Captain’s lack of imagination and general honesty gave the case some respectability, the CIOVI only gave the case a credit rating of 50%, due to the fact that it had only one witness.
I have seen one review of this case – on the Phantoms & Monsters website – which suggests that the Captain simply saw a helicopter, and that the occupants of said helicopter panicked when he came out at them with his pistol raised. Although that doesn’t answer who the helicopter belonged to, or what it was doing landing at a remote lighthouse late one Autumn night. Sadly Captain Fuentes passed away in 2002. By all accounts he was a good man (I got quite fond of him whilst writing this), and he’s left us with an intriguing mystery.
Mary Carleton had a short but eventful life in Restoration England. By her antics she became a notorious celebrity, proving that there’s nothing remotely new about dubious people becoming famous for all the wrong reasons. These days she’d probably be popping up on Celebrity Big Brother. In her 31 years on this planet she was a thief, a bigamist, an actress, and a fake German princess! In many ways she was a real-life Amber St Clair, from Kathleen Winsor’s bestselling, raunchy novel Forever Amber.
She was born Mary Moders in Canterbury, Kent, on 11 August (though some sources have it as the 11th January) 1642. Her father was a chorister at Canterbury Cathedral. Mary grew up during the turbulent years of the English Civil War, and Cromwell’s Puritan reign. According to the Newgate Calendar Mary was an intelligent girl, but addicted to reading romances, and imagining exciting identities for herself. At a young age she married a shoemaker called Thomas Stedman, by whom she had two children. Sadly both children died in infancy. Thomas found it hard to keep his wife in the lifestyle to which she wanted to become accustomed, and so eventually Mary absconded to Dover, where she married a surgeon. This landed her on trial in Maidstone for bigamy. Somehow, “by some masterly stroke”, she was acquitted.
After her trial she travelled on a merchant ship to the Continent, and set herself up in the spa town of Cologne, hoping to catch the eye of some rich nobleman. This she did, in the shape of an old gentleman who had an estate a few miles out of the town. He seems to have been very smitten with our Mary, because he showered her with gifts, and urged her to marry him. Mary had other ideas though. Gathering all her rich lover’s gifts, and helping herself to her landlady’s money, Mary travelled back to England, via the Netherlands. She had a whole new persona mapped out for herself.
By this time the monarchy had been restored in England, and King Charles II, the Merry Monarch, was on the throne. It was a time for the titled and moneyed to kick up their heels in London, after the severity of the Puritan years, and indulge in debauched, extravagant excess. Mary adopted the title of Princess von Wolway, claiming she had been born in Cologne, and was now an orphan, and that she had fled to England to escape a jealous lover.
On arriving in Billingsgate in March 1663, she had gone to the Exchange tavern, where she spun her sob story about how she had been reduced to such a state, and that she was now in such a pitiful way that she had to earn a crust by exposing her body to the highest bidder. The landlord believed all her nonsense about being the daughter of Lord Henry von Wolway, a “sovereign prince of the Empire”. Mary caught the eye of John Carleton, the 18-year-old brother-in-law of the landlord. John – a law student – was captivated by this “German princess”, and fawned over her in an obsequious manner. He married her, only to have an anonymous letter-writer expose the truth about her. In 1663 Mary was hauled up in court again, this time charged with passing herself off as a German princess, and marrying John Carleton under a false name.
The whole thing became a scandalous cause celebre. Mary claimed John had tried to pass himself off as a duke, and was trying to extricate himself from the marriage. She said she had never claimed to be fabulously wealthy, and that her husband’s family had invented this themselves, and had turned on her when they found out the truth. Husband and wife both published pamphlets putting their own side of the story. Mary milked her notoriety for all it was worth, even acting in a play, entitled The German Princess, written about her, and enjoying a whole new rash of admirers. She married again, but her new husband (I’ve lost count) didn’t enjoy any more luck than his predecessors. Mary stole his money whilst he was drunk, and escaped.
Mary’s new persona was that of a rich virgin (!) heiress fleeing an arranged marriage. She was so convincing at this that her new landlady arranged to match her up with her nephew. Mary faked letters claiming that her brother was dead, and had left her all he owned, but that her father was still after her for the arranged marriage. Her new lover invited her to live with him, but this poor sap came a cropper like all the others. Mary, with a female accomplice disguised as her maid, robbed him of all he possessed, and fled.
Over the next few years Mary and her maid went through several more men like a dose of salts. Eventually she was arrested for stealing a silver tankard, and sentenced to deportation to Jamaica. After two years she returned to London, and was soon up to her old tricks again. Passing herself off once again as a rich heiress, she married an apothecary. No prizes for guessing what happened next. She took all his money and fled.
But Mary’s luck was running out. In December 1672, she was recognised by a turnkey from Newgate prison, who was searching for stolen loot, and she was put on trial at the Old Bailey. Mary cut a dash at her trial, her hair primped in the very latest style, and wearing an Indian gown, a silk petticoat, and white shoes tied with green laces. As she had turned from penal servitude without permission, she was sentenced to death. Mary tried to plead for time by claiming she was pregnant (which was a favourite way of deferring execution by female inmates at that time). A jury of matrons was brought in to examine her, and found that this was not the case.
Mary’s short but colourful life came to an end via the hangman’s noose on 22 January 1673. On the fateful day Mary was described as appearing “gay and brisk”. Her iron shackles were taken off, and she was led out to the cart, wearing a picture of John Carleton pinned to her sleeve. She told the waiting crowd that she had been a very vain woman, yet she hoped God would forgive her, as she forgave her enemies. Her body was buried in St Martin’s Churchyard. On her grave someone wrote “The German Princess here, against her will, lies underneath, and yet, oh strange! lies still”.
When it comes to the world of conspiracy theories, this is the sort of tale which has everything. Freemasons, tick. Illuminati, tick. Dark Satanic forces behind the scenes, tick. Engineered perpetual war and false flag events, tick. Predictions of the end times, tick.
Born in 1819, Albert Pike was a Freemason, and during the American Civil War he had been a Brigadier General. On 15 August 1871 he allegedly wrote a letter to an Italian revolutionary, Guiseppe Mazzini. In it Pike laid out a series of uncanny predictions.
He begins by writing: The First World War must be brought about to permit the Illuminati to overthrow the power of the Czars in Russia and to make that country a fortress of atheistic Communism. The divergences caused by the agentur [agents] of the Illuminati between the British and the Germanic empires will be used to foment this war. At the end of this war, Communism will be built and used in order to destroy the other governments and in order to weaken the religions.
The disasters of World War 1 did indeed propel Russia towards a revolution, overthrowing and destroying the Czar and his family, and bringing on decades of Communist rule. After the horrors of the war, religion did suffer a reversal of fortune (certainly here in Britain), as people became more disillusioned and questioning.
Pike then moves on to World War 2: The Second World War must be fomented by taking advantages of the differences between the Fascists and the political Zionists. This war must be brought about so that Nazism is destroyed and that the political Zionism be strong enough to constitute a sovereign state of Israel in Palestine. During the Second World War, international communism become strong enough to balance Christendom, which would then be restrained and held in check until the time when we would need it for the final social cataclysm.
Well of course the Nazi’s were destroyed, and the state of Israel was created in 1948.
Understandably, skeptics have been quick to point out that the terminology and ideas Pike uses in his letter wasn’t around during his lifetime. Pike died on 2 April 1890. He may well have been familiar with the works of Karl Marx, but could he have predicted the Russian Revolution? The jury seems to be out on that one. Dostoyevsky’s novel Devils, about Russian revolutionaries, was published in 1869, and certainly such feelings were bubbling under the surface in Russia for many years before they finally exploded onto the surface at the beginning of the 20th century.
Nazism as a word certainly didn’t surface until many years after Pike’s death. And, according to Wikipedia, Zionism didn’t emerge as a political movement until 1897 … seven years after Pike died. I’d also like to add that, as Pike says, World War 2 was brought about to destroy Nazism … and yet one can argue that you wouldn’t have had the rise of Nazism without World War One!
Many argue – quite legitimately – that the letter is an outright hoax, and that it was invented in 1894 by a Leo Taxil, who wrote a controversial book called The Devil In The Nineteenth Century, which was an attack on Freemasonry, and it’s alleged links to world revolutions. The book was so sensationalist that it fell into disrepute, and has largely been forgotten since. The author claimed that Freemason Pike had his visions of the future after a demonic hallucination.
Others have pointed out that Pike’s blueprint for world chaos comes from a book by William Guy Carr called Pawns In The Game, which was published in the mid-1950s. In 1959 Carr claimed that Pike’s letter had been catalogued by the Library of the British Museum, London … who have since denied all knowledge of it.
But what about the World War 3 part, you may well ask? Well here it is: The Third World must be fomented by taking advantage of the differences caused by the agenturs [agents] of the Illuminati between the political Zionists and the leaders of the Islamic World. The war must be conducted in such a way that Islam (the Moslem Arabic World) and Zionism (the state of Israel) mutually destroy each other. Meanwhile the other nations, once more divided on this issue will be constrained to fight to the point of complete physical, moral, spiritual and economic exhaustion …. He then goes on to talk about the pure doctrine of Lucifer, brought finally out in the public view.
All this can sound very David Icke-ish, but the bit about “complete physical, moral, spiritual and economic exhaustion” struck a disturbing chord with me, as it feels all too familiar with what’s going on all around us now. I’m not saying I believe the letter is genuine (I have no idea), just that it’s having enough of an impact with readers to still cause the level of argument I’ve seen Online about it.
There can be a lot of unforeseen problems when you buy a new home, but having your own nearby stalker really shouldn’t be one of them. But that’s what happened to the Broaddus family of New Jersey.
In June 2014 Derek and Maria Broaddus exchanged contracts on a very attractive 6-bedroom, 3-bathroom colonial house in Westfield, New Jersey, to house themselves and their 3 young children. The purchase price was $1.35 million. On appearance it looks like the absolutely perfect family home, spacious and peaceful. It must have felt like the beginning of a wonderful new life. Sadly it wasn’t to turn out that way.
Three days later the Mr and Mrs Broaddus received a letter signed “The Watcher”, which informed them that “my grandfather watched the house in the 1920s and my father watched it in the 1960s. It is now my time”. Over the next month, as the family had renovation work done to the property, a couple more letters arrived. These were equally unsettling. One wanted to know whose bedrooms would be facing the street, and added “I am pleased to know your names now and the names of the young blood you have brought me”. Another, received in July 2014, read “have they found what’s in the walls yet?” “Will the young bloods play in the basement?”
My immediate reaction on seeing the contents of these letters is that it’s some weirdo who has been reading too many horror novels. That’s not to make it any the less unsettling. The family handed the letters to the police, who found a woman’s DNA on the envelope, but were unable to home in on a suspect.
The Broaddus family have never moved into the house, and are currently suing the previous owners, the Woods family, for not informing them of The Watcher. The Broaddus’ claimed that the Woods had received a threatening letter from The Watcher only days before the contract was signed and sealed. Another previous inhabitant, Mr Blakes, who spent his childhood in the house during the 1950s and 60s, said his family had never received any letters like that, and that the house was a dream place to grow up in.
The house was put back on the market in the spring of 2016, and has dropped in value to $1.2 million. Some have speculated that the Broaddus family may simply have found themselves lumbered with a huge mortgage they couldn’t afford, and this was a way of getting out of it (am curiously reminded of the Amityville Horror here). Other rumours abound that The Watcher is in fact the disturbed adult son of a couple living in the same street as the Broaddus’ house, and that no one wants to confront him for fear of retaliation.
Criminologists analysing the letters say that such a person would get a thrill out of frightening people this way, and that the writing style indicates someone with deep-rooted anger. Joe Navarro, a former FBI profiler, told the Daily News that “I have what’s called a one-kilometer rule. Most things happen within one-kilometer”. This may simply be someone who has got themselves in a state about the prospect of having new neighbours. Another curious factor is The Watcher’s obsession with this particular house. If you look at old poison pen letter cases, the culprit tends to target many in their area, not just one dwelling-place. As one criminologist put it, to be obsessed with this house, suggests The Watcher truly believes there is something odd about it, and is completely delusional.
I can only agree with someone who posted in a Daily Mail comments section (yes I know!): “this is weird … even for New Jersey”.
I felt like a bit of fun, and got the idea for this after reading James Forster’s Horror Television Madness, a compendium of his favourite TV horror shows, so I thought I’d list some of my own. Some of these have already appeared on my film blog. Younger readers might complain it’s a bit too dominated by the 1970s and 80s, but I guess that was my era. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not some old fart who believes nothing good is being produced these days – because that’s blatantly not true – but I suppose I’ve simply got harder to scare as I’ve got older! Anyway, for nostalgia buffs, I hope you enjoy this little trip down Memory Lane. Listed in chronological order.
THE TWILIGHT ZONE: IT’S A GOOD LIFE (1961)
Based on a short story by Jerome Bixby, this horribly unsettling episode concerns a little brat called Anthony, who is able to read people’s thoughts, and is possessed of supernatural powers. Ruling the adults by fear, he has managed to isolate them from the rest of the world, and the entire neighbourhood bows to his every whim. If anyone rebels against the loathsome little toad, he banishes them into the cornfield, from which they never return. I once heard a radio adaptation of this story, which if anything was even more frightening, as you had to visualise the horror. The scene where Anthony turns one of the neighbours into a jack-in-the-box sounds silly, but is in fact very disturbing.
THE TWILIGHT ZONE: NIGHTMARE AT 20,000 FEET (1963)
Mention The Twilight Zone to anyone, and chances are this is the episode they remember the most. A super-dishy William Shatner (as one person commented on YouTube, you either get the phenomenon of William Shatner, or you don’t) is on a plane journey when he sees a weird, freaky creature through the window tearing pieces off the wing. It could have all been very silly, but in true Twilight Zone style it pulls it off with aplomb. I still think of it when I take plane journeys.
THE WAR GAME (1965)
A couple of decades before Threads, The War Game was the BBC’s attempt to warn the public about what could happen in the event of a nuclear attack on Britain. The end result was considered so frightening – the Beeb were worried it would ignite a spate of suicides – that it was banned for 20 years. Even though we know now that a real attack would be far more horrifying than is shown here, The War Game still packs an emotional punch. And the comparison to the sound of the bomb hitting as “like a giant door being slammed in Hell” haunted me for years. I watched it again a couple of years ago during a trip to Crail Nuclear Bunker in Scotland, and I was still in tears by the end.
WHISTLE AND I’LL COME TO YOU (1968)
Jonathan Miller’s masterly adaptation of M R James’s ghost story, starring the superb Michael Hordern as Professor Parkin, a fussy bachelor taking a walking holiday at an out-of-season East Anglian hotel. After removing an old relic from an abandoned graveyard, he finds himself being haunted by a strange spectre rustling about his bedroom. This is very understated horror, you won’t get any extravagant CGI thrills here, but it oozes Atmosphere. Is the Professor really being haunted by some disgruntled ghost, or is he having a nervous breakdown brought on by loneliness? You decide.
The directing debut of a certain Steven Spielberg, and based on a short story by Richard Matheson. Dennis Weaver (love him to bits) plays David Mann, a mild-mannered travelling salesman. Whilst out on the road, Mann finds himself becoming terrorised by a steaming old rust-bucket of a truck. Part of the horror is down to the fact that we never find out who the driver of this vehicle is. We never see him, apart from an arm waving out of the window, and his feet at one point. This notches up the supernatural aspects of the story no end. Is the driver the Devil? David Mann has to bury his natural timidity to fight in this duel to the death. I can’t praise Weaver enough. He has to virtually carry the entire film on his own, and he does it brilliantly.
A GHOST STORY FOR CHRISTMAS: THE STALLS OF BARCHESTER (1971)
Everyone has their favourite episode of these classy adaptations of M R James’s ghost stories. The Stalls of Barchester never seems to rank up there with the favoured ones, but it’s mine. Robert Hardy plays an ambitious priest, who is frustrated that his boss seems intent on living forever. He plots his demise, and then finds himself being driven mad by a series of strange events, which happen as the dark nights of the year close in. Hardy, who often has a bit of a reputation for hamming it up all over the place, is nicely understated here.
FRANKENSTEIN – THE TRUE STORY (1973)
Colourful all-star retelling of Mary Shelley’s classic novel. It’s been a firm favourite of mine since the moment I first saw it. It’s elegant, with great attention of period detail, but doesn’t take too many liberties with the story. A host of familiar faces are on hand – David McCallum, Tom Baker, Jane Seymour, Nicola Pagett, James Mason, Yootha Joyce – to guide us through the gothic tale. The ending, set in the ice-bound wastes of the Arctic, is gloriously scary stuff.
THRILLER: SOMEONE AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS (1973)
Thriller was an ITV series, created by Brian Clemens, which ran for a couple of years, and featured one-hour films, which ranged from straightforward crime thrillers, to ones with a more supernatural bent. Someone At The Top Of The Stairs is one of the oddest ones they ever did. It concerns two female students who take digs in a decaying old house in London. (The grim 70s decor is frightening enough on it’s own). Something clearly isn’t right about this cut-price accommodation though. The other tenants never seem to leave the house, and there is a strange old man living on the top floor, who is never seen. This one had me utterly baffled the first time I saw it, and remains a firm favourite. Thriller has it’s detractors these days, who complain about the ubiquitous use of American stars (that was the norm back then), and some of the more dafter stories, but I love it.
MRS AMWORTH (1975)
A 30-minute TV play which I never knew existed, until I found it by accident on YouTube recently. It’s an adaptation of E F Benson’s short story about a woman who arrives in a small English village, and proceeds to wreck havoc amongst the inhabitants. It turns out that she is a vampire. The glamorous Glynis Johns, who I’m more used to in light-hearted comic roles, is great as the lady concerned.
THE SIGNALMAN (1976)
Where spookiness is concerned, it doesn’t get much better than this. Denholm Elliott is the eponymous signalman, working at a lonely outpost, who is haunted by a strange figure on the tracks, and the inexplicable ringing of the bell in his signal box. For a Christmas ghost story, this one can’t be bettered.
NIGEL KNEALE’S BEASTS: DURING BARTY’S PARTY & BABY (1976)
Beasts was a one-off series of odd tales, scripted by the legendary Nigel Kneale. It was a bit of a mixed bag, in all honesty, with some silly episodes (particularly the one about the killer dolphin), but 2 episodes stand out. Baby terrified me when I first saw it, and watching it again a couple of years ago, I still found it impressive. A young couple move into a remote cottage. During renovation work they uncover an old jar hidden in the walls. Inside is the mummified corpse of some strange creature. From then on the pregnant wife is plagued by a series of eerie events. This is still freaky stuff. During Barty’s Party is a truly odd tale about a middle-class couple, living in the countryside, who hear that a horde of giant rats are on the rampage! I often wonder how much this was inspired by James Herbert’s first book The Rats which was a huge bestseller around this time. All the horror is off-screen. We never even see the pesky rats. We only hear the determined little critters chewing through the floorboards. It’s a very odd piece indeed, but executed superbly.
ALTERNATIVE 3 (1977)
This was originally meant to be an April Fool joke, but due to a technicians’ strike, it didn’t get aired until a few months later. A factual show Science Report claims it has unearthed Top Secret information that Planet Earth is on it’s way out, due to extreme climatic changes, and that the world’s top brass are secretly moving the elite to Mars. It’s done brilliantly, with everything played completely straight. I remember everyone talking about it at school the next day, and ITV having to announce that the whole thing had been a hoax, as people were panicking. The themes it presents resonate even more now than they did back then, with fears of Climate Change, and secrecy amongst the Establishment. This film has probably fuelled no end of conspiracy theories in it’s time.
COUNT DRACULA (1977)
One of the finest adaptations of Bram Stoker’s novel that I have ever seen. Louis Jourdan is the legendary Count, and he does a admirably understated turn at it. This BBC adaptation is an elegant piece. The early scenes, showing Harker’s journey up into the Carpathian mountains, are wonderfully eerie.
TALES OF THE UNEXPECTED: THE LANDLADY (1979)
Like all TV series Tales Of The Unexpected, introduced by Roald Dahl sitting by a crackling fire, could be a bit of mixed-bag, with some episodes better than others. I remember the very first one, The Man From The South, was a super-tense episode about a man who bets an American that he can’t make his cigarette lighter flick into life 10 times on the trot. If he fails, he will forfeit his finger. Then there was William And Mary which starred Elaine Stritch as a downtrodden wife, who has a very peculiar revenge on her domineering husband. The Landlady was the one I found the eeriest. In it a young man arrives in Bath. He finds cheap lodgings at a strange, dark little house, run by a genteel woman with a vaguely menacing air about her. It seems she never has many guests, and the few that she does have never leave. She also has a hobby …
HAMMER HOUSE OF HORROR: THE 13TH REUNION (1980)
Everyone has their favourite episode of Hammer House Of Horror, and I was torn between choosing this one and Rude Awakening, which starred Denholm Elliott as an estate-agent, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, who finds himself visiting a house run by an eccentric old lady who seems to belong to the Edwardian era. But The 13th Reunion has the slight edge, simply because the story is so damn good. Julia Foster plays an investigative journalist, who goes undercover at a slimming club based at a country house. It’s run by a bullying Sergeant Major type, who uses what we would now call “fat-shaming” on the guests. That’s not the horror though, the health farm is a cover for something much more sinister indeed.
WEST COUNTRY TALES (1982)
Why why why has this series never been released on DVD? A series of short little films, all based on I suppose what you would call West Country Urban Legends. They were wonderfully spooky, helped enormously by some creepy Tubular Bells-style music. I remember one episode, set in a church, which had the dead congregation rising naked from the pews to haunt the vicar. In one a lonely old lady is haunted by some young people in her house whom only she can see. Another had Anita Harris – of all people – as a lady serial-killer! Sometimes I’ve occasionally managed to find some of these episodes Online, but they are ridiculously scarce now.
This was a huge TV event at the time, and it still ranks as one of the most frightening films I’ve ever seen. Like it’s predecessor The War Game, and it’s American counterpart, The Day After, it was made to show realistically what the effects of a nuclear strike would be. Even now, I find it hard not to get emotional during the scenes when the bomb goes off.
HAMMER HOUSE OF MYSTERY & SUSPENSE: CHILD’S PLAY (1984)
This series was a follow-up to the previous Hammer House of Horror, but didn’t prove to be as successful. The one episode which stuck in my mind was this one, which concerns an American couple who wake up one morning to find their entire house surrounded by a wall. I found it very spooky the first time I saw it, although some viewers might recognise the plot from an old Twilight Zone episode. I watched it again recently Online, and I still found it quite impressive.
JULIET BRAVO: HALLOWEEN (1984)
Juliet Bravo was a British cop drama about a female police inspector running a small Yorkshire police station. The supernatural wasn’t exactly it’s usual remit, but at Halloween 1984 they decided to branch into the weird for a change. This could so easily have been silly, and tried the patience of it’s usual viewers, but (from what I remember) they pulled it off, and produced a very tense and spooky episode.
THE WOMAN IN BLACK (1989)
This masterly adaptation of Susan Hill’s bestselling novel aired on Christmas Eve 1989, and – for legal reasons which I simply don’t understand – has never been shown since. Arthur Kidd is a young solicitor in the 1920s, who is dispatched to a remote seaside village, to sort out the affairs of the newly-deceased Mrs Drablow. Her house seems to be much feared by the locals, and when Arthur is prowling round the garden, he finds himself being menaced by a spectral woman in black. This is old-school creepy, and there is one scene which made me jump out of skin when I first saw it.
Based loosely on the Enfield Poltergeist haunting, Ghostwatch was a BBC TV play, which aired at Halloween 1992, and caused no end of fuss. It even tragically resulted in one man’s suicide, and as such has never been aired on television since. In essence, it precedes Most Haunted, with a TV crew investigating an allegedly haunted house in the London suburbs, and with dear old Michael Parkinson manning the hub back in the studio. Unfortunately everything gets out-of-control, in a way which never happened to Yvette and Co! The story is excellent, and there are some stand-out spooky moments. The moment where the camera pans around the bedroom, and we briefly catch a glimpse of the ghost standing next to the curtains, was incredible the first time we saw it.
WITHOUT WARNING (1994)
American TV film, done in real-time docu-drama style, about an asteroid attack on Planet Earth. Apparently this had much the same effect Stateside as our own Ghostwatch did here, and as such has never been shown there since. It’s a low-key, understated film, carried by some tense scenes from the TV newsroom. The ending is very powerful.
NUMBER 13 & A VIEW FROM THE HILL (2006)
I had reservations when I heard that the BBC were going to resurrect the old Ghost Stories For Christmas a few years back. I had images of ham-fisted acting, and far too much CGI ruining any chance of some genuine Atmosphere. I needn’t have been worried. These are superb little films. In Number 13 a man checks into a rural hotel, and finds himself plagued by a noisy neighbour in the next room, No.13 … only there isn’t a No.13. In A View From The Hill a young historian is summoned to the house of an eccentric lonely squire to catalogue his archaeology collection. Some superb photography of the English woods in late autumn help to make this a little treasure of a film.
Johnny Gosch was a 12-year-old newspaper boy, who – like our own Genette Tate here in Britain 4 years previously – disappeared whilst out on his round. What looks at first like a tragic, but all too depressingly familiar case of child abduction though, has had a very strange aftermath. All I can say about this case is that it’s an extremely odd one, with bizarre claims and counter-claims galore. I apologise in advance for how confusing this case is. It’s one of those that – the more you look into it – the more bewildering it gets.
Just before dawn on 5 September 1982, Johnny set off to do his round in the suburb of West Des Moines, Iowa. Normally he would awaken his father, John, who could come and help him, but on this day he set off accompanied only by the family’s pet dachshund, Gretchen. According to one website I saw Johnny had asked his parents the night before if he could do the round on his own. They had refused, so he had sneaked off without waking them.
He collected his stache of papers at the collection point, along with the other paper-carriers. A neighbour said he saw Johnny from his bedroom window, talking to a stocky man in a two-toned blue Ford Fairlane (a very classic American-looking car), which had Nebraska plates. He couldn’t make out what they were talking about from where he was. Johnny told another paper-boy that the man had stopped him to ask for directions, and that something about the man disturbed him.
Johnny’s parents were alerted that something was wrong when they began to get telephone calls from disgruntled neighbours, complaining that their papers hadn’t been delivered. At 6 AM (have also seen this noted as 7 AM) John Gosch did a search of the neighbourhood, and found his son’s abandoned paper cart a couple of blocks away. The family called the police, who finally turned up to take the report 45 minutes later. It would be 72 hours before Mr and Mrs Gosch were allowed to report him as officially missing. This apparently was standard procedure at the time. There has been much criticism of the police handling of this case. They seemed reluctant to treat it as an abduction case, and wanted to regard Johnny as a runaway (which, when looking at the details of the case, is frankly absurd). They seemed to stick to this even when witnesses spoke of seeing a car screeching it’s tyres as it made a quick getaway. And one witness said she had seen an unknown man taking Johnny’s picture outside his school a couple of weeks earlier.
Over the next few years police investigations, private detectives assisting the family, Johnny’s mother’s own exhaustive efforts, and Johnny’s face appearing on milk cartons, all failed to uncover any trace of the boy. And then in 1997 things were to take a very curious turn indeed. Johnny’s mother, Noreen, (now divorced from her husband), claimed she was awoken at 2:30 AM one night in March that year by a knock on her apartment door. Outside was Johnny, now aged 27. He was wearing jeans, shirt and a coat, and had shoulder-length hair, dyed black. Noreen said she recognised him immediately, although Johnny opened his shirt to disclose a birthmark on his chest, to prove that it was him. Johnny was accompanied by another man, who was a stranger to Noreen.
Mother and son chatted for an hour-and-a-half, but the other man was present the whole time. Noreen said Johnny would keep looking across to him, as though waiting for approval for him to speak. “He didn’t say where he was living, or where he was going”, said Noreen. They left before daybreak, and that was the last she was to see of her son.
(I’ve also seen another version of this strange visit, in which Johnny came alone, and claimed he was on the run from his abductors, and that he couldn’t reveal where he was living).
Whatever the truth of the matter, sadly this was to be no joyful reunion, with Johnny safely home again. A few more years passed. Noreen self-published a book explaining what she believed had happened to her son, and started up a website. Over the years she has also campaigned about the law’s mishandling of missing children cases, and to raise awareness of high-level paedophile rings involving the CIA, the military, and politicians in Washington (all this should sound distressingly familiar to many Brits).
Then, in September 2006, some disturbing photographs were left at her front door, showing boys bound and gagged. One photograph showed the 12-year-old Johnny with his feet and hands bound, and a human brand on his shoulder (it was later claimed that Noreen had photo-shopped this image). A few days later, on 13 September, an anonymous letter was sent to the Des Moines police claiming that the photographs were a vile practical joke, and that the boys in the photographs were 3 Tampa, Florida boys, who had taken the pictures during an “escape contest” a couple of years earlier.
There is also the strange tale of a woman who claimed she was approached by a boy in the car-park of a convenience store in Oklahoma, about 6 months after Johnny’s disappearance. She said the boy screamed “I’m Johnny Gosch, I’ve been kidnapped!” before being bundled away by two men. The woman notified the police of this odd incident after seeing Johnny’s photo on TV. The FBI later confirmed that they believed this had been Johnny. At another time a dollar bill was handed to the Gosch’s, with the words “I am alive. Johnny Gosch” written on it in his handwriting. About a month after the disappearance Noreen had received a phone call from a boy who said “please help me, please help me, I can’t get away”. She said his voice had sounded slurred. She asked him where he was, but the boy hung up. Noreen believes this to have been her son.
There are cases of other missing paperboys in this area, including that of 13-year-old Eugene Wade Martin in 1984. Authorities said they were unable to prove a link between the two cases, but Noreen said that she had been warned of the abduction a few weeks previously, by a private investigator, Sam Soda, whom she had hired to look for her son. The police though said they had never been able to trace Sam Soda, and they didn’t believe he had ever existed, that Noreen had made him up. Eugene has never been found. He was normally accompanied by his step-mother on his rounds, but like Johnny, on this day he was alone.
And then we have the weird case of Paul Bonacci, who was arrested for prostitution in Nebraska in 1989. On being questioned by the police Bonacci said he had been part of a child sex-ring. He made wild claims that this ring had supplied children to the White House. Not only that, but the ring was run by bankers, the Franklin Credit Union, who were already being investigated by police for embezzlement, and using male prostitutes. Lawrence E King of the Franklin Credit Union was subsequently jailed for embezzling $38 million. Bonacci said that as he got older his abductors lost interest in him for sex purposes, and instead he had to become an abductor himself. One of his victims was Johnny Gosch. The police though said that Bonacci was an unreliable witness, so much so that they hadn’t been able to use any of his evidence against the Franklin Credit Union. They also doubted he had been in Iowa at the time of Johnny Gosch’s disappearance.
SO WHERE’S JOHNNY?
Where Johnny is now is completely unknown. He would now be in his 40s. One message-board I saw said that he had escaped his captors many years ago, and was now living anonymously. Even his own mother doesn’t know where he is. Unless he turns up alive and well one day (here’s hoping), and tells us exactly what happened to him, this case will continue to be lost in the murk.