A Note Of Warning: The topic I discuss this week may not be suitable for listeners under the age of 13.
Did you know real human skeletons were cheaper than fake ones in the 1980s? Or that theaters began handing out barf bags to viewers of the Exorcist? Join me as I dive down the rabbit hole of haunted media. I mostly talk about haunted film sets, but I also scratch the surface of subliminal messaging, ARGs, and even Satanic Panic
*I butcher the word Giardiasis in this episode.
*Check out The Last Movie by Pacific Northwest Stories - https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/the-last-movie/id1360493241
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Hello my friends, to another episode of your favorite spooky history podcast, Strange Origins. If you’re new here, my name is Paige, and I love history. After graduating college with a degree in Humanities, I realized I hadn’t even begun to scratch the surface of history, so I decided to start a podcast combining two of my favorite subjects; the past, and the bizarre. In Strange Origins, I try my best to research the history of a particular topic and find out all about its origin story. In some episodes I just end up dissecting a subject that I didn’t know much about before, and that always leads me down a few rabbit holes into discovering even more subjects you guys might be interested in learning about.
This week, after a crazy month of working, moving, and making major life decisions, I just wanted to cool down and research an easy topic that I’ve been interested in for quite some time now. As I’ve talked about before, one of the main ways that I decide to pick a topic out is by letting the universe pick one out for me. When I scroll through what is now a 33-page document containing ideas for this show, I’ll always find one that has somehow managed to worm its way into my subconscious that week. This time, that subject is Haunted Media.
I grew up in the era of found footage films. While I was born in 1994, The Blair Witch Project came out in 1999, and The Ring and Paranormal Activity was released just as I was starting to watch scary movies. I also grew up with the folklore of Bloody Mary and Candy Man which made their way onto film in some way or another.
Something I used to do to get through writing papers and studying for online exams, and this is a great tip for anyone studying a subject that is particularly boring, was to put found-footage thrillers from Youtube on in the background. Even though I knew they were fake, and usually pretty cheesy, the scenarios were still an adrenaline rush and kept me awake and alert enough to get through everything I needed to get done. So whenever I see a found footage film that isn’t of the best quality do pretty well, I’m not that surprised. This also applies when horror films have that title card at the beginning of the film that says something like “Based on Real Events.” Even when you know it’s fake, there’s still something in the back of your brain saying “but what if it is real?”
Today there are a lot of different ways media can be haunted. Films can claim to be real footage of horrifying events that someone miraculously somehow found and distributed after the fact. Or they can be based on urban legends that can drill a hole into your brain and make you jumpy and superstitious. Just the other day I was washing my hair and what I’m sure was just water tugging a strand down, reminded me immediately of the film The Grudge, and the scene where a hand comes out of the back of a woman's head when showering.
Especially today people are creating brand new genres of media on Youtube, TikTok, and video games that aim to blur the lines between real life and fantasy. A form of entertainment known as Alternate Reality Gaming uses actual social media accounts and different videos posted online to look real in order to tell a story. Leaving behind different forms of media online, people can use a breadcrumb trail of clues to lead people through a plot.
Another great version of media is, of course, podcasts. Along with producing two podcasts, I also am a big fan of listening to fictional podcasts that may or may not be based on real-life events. A great one that got me onto the subject of haunted Media is a podcast called The Last Film, which I’ll be sure to link in my show notes. In The Last Film, a journalist explores the myth of an underground film that drives you insane when you watch it, and has, since its release, caused a few violent events and deaths to occur.
Other than the fascinating concept that watching a film could kill you, a subject that I found interesting was that the idea that creating a film could kill you, or at the very least haunt you. And when I dug a bit deeper into that theory, I found that there have actually been quite a few mysterious things that have happened surrounding the production and even post-production of some of the world's most beloved horror flicks.
A great opening example of haunted film sets is 1982’s Poltergeist. If you haven’t seen the film, here’s your warning right now this film, and probably a few others I’ll be talking about are going to have a lot of spoilers, so do with that what you will.
In Poltergeist, a family in the suburbs of California are disturbed by a group of ghosts in their home that end up causing a bit more trouble than your friendly neighborhood Casper. When some parapsychologists and mediums come to investigate, they discover that the house was actually built on top of a cemetery. They find out that the development company simply just decided to move the gravestones of the cemetery and never bothered to move the actual bodies. Seeing their resting places as disturbed, the ghosts decide to, uh, make some trouble.
One of the more fascinating parts of this film is the fact that directors Steven Spielberg and Tobe Hooper decided to use real human skeletons. Near the end of the film, the character of Diane Freeling ends up in a swimming pool filled with the bodies of the cemetery her house sat on top of. To be more cost-effective, the crew ended up purchasing from a medical supply company, what were real skeletons. This was simply because fake skeletons would have ended up costing a lot more than real ones at that point. What’s horrifying to me, but what probably made the most sense at the time, was the fact that the cast ended up having no clue that they were working with real human remains. While this may have been a great way to save money, I feel like working with real human remains on a film warning people not to mess with human remains was a bit of a bad decision.
Another scene that gave me the heeby-jeebies, was the scene where the young son of the family is wrestling with a mechanical puppet. In real life, things ended up getting out of hand during the filming of that fight. While the clown was only supposed to simulate strangling the boy, the mechanics got screwed up somehow and the creepy doll actually started to choke the young actor during a take. Thankfully Steven Spielberg jumped in and rescued him, but I’m sure that kid didn’t want to work with any more dolls after that.
There were also quite a few deaths surrounding the cast and crew of all three films. Will Sampson, who played the Medicine man in the sequel died from a kidney transplant, Julian Beck who played Reverend Kane, also in the sequel, died of stomach cancer, and Heather O’Rourke, who was the little blonde girl in all three of the films died from a case of Giardiasis which the head Gastroenterologist at Irvine Medical Center described as being a “distinctly unusual” case. Just months after the release of the first film, the actress who portrayed Dana, the eldest daughter, was strangled to death by her boyfriend.
A lot of the original cast and crew don’t really believe in the curse of the film, though, which makes sense. Coincidences do happen, especially in a job where you’re supposed to make fake scenarios look real. Something else actors cited as being not unusual was the fact that human skeletons have been used in films for quite some time, including in 1931’s Frankenstein and 1959’s House on Haunted Hill, without anything notable happening to the cast or crew of those sets.
The Exorcism of Emily Rose
One of the lesser-known films on this list is The Exorcism of Emily Rose, which premiered in 2005. One on a giant list of exorcism-themed movies, Emily Rose is about the true case of a German woman in the 1950s who began showing signs of what people couldn’t differentiate between grand mal seizures coupled with psychosis, or a serious case of demonic possession.
On the set of the show Jennifer Carpenter, who portrayed Emily Rose, was quoted as saying that she would often feel a strange presence in her hotel room for the duration of filming. Something incredibly bizarre that kept happening to her was the fact that her alarm clock would turn on every morning at random times just to play Pearl Jam's Alive. What was spookier was the fact that it would specifically play the lyric “I’m still alive” over and over again.
Next on my list is The Omen, which premiered in 1976, and is about a family who discovers that their son, Damien, is the son of the Devil. The set of The Omen had just a few too many incidents occur during and after production, which is why I decided to add it to this list. A lot of these accidents were animal-related too, which I found interesting. In a scene where some dogs attacked a man, a stuntman was used who wore protective gear. Despite the gear being pretty thick, the trained rottweilers still bit through the gear and wouldn’t stop attacking despite the trainer telling them to do so. In another strange event, another trainer, who was responsible for a pack of baboons that were featured in the movie, died just the day after his work on the set of The Omen in an attack where a tiger got a hold of his head.
Aside from animal-related accidents, there were also a few plane-related events that happened before and after production to the cast and crew. The star of the film, Gregory Peck, boarded a flight en route to the filming location of The Omen when his plane was struck by lightning. One of the engines of the plane caught fire and the plane came pretty close to crash landing in the Atlantic. A few weeks later, Mace Neufeld, a producer for the film, had a similar experience where his plane was also struck by lightning. And lastly, after shooting, David Seltzer, a screenwriter for the film, was also on a flight when the plane was struck by lightning, oddly enough.
Aside from the lightning-related events, a stuntman for the film reported feeling as though he had been pushed by something when preparing to do a scene where a character jumps off of a bridge. Awkwardly falling, he hit the ground instead of the airbag that he was supposed to land on. He survived, thankfully, and after regaining consciousness was rushed to the hospital.
The strangest event that makes people believe in the idea that the Omen was a cursed movie from the start involved a tragic accident with two of the special effects designers for the film. While going to work on another set after wrapping for The Omen, the two were involved in a serious car accident. While the driver, John Richardson, was simply just knocked unconscious, Liz Moore was sadly decapitated. What was so notable about this was that Richardson was, not too long before the accident, in charge of designing a scene in the Omen where a character was decapitated.
Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)
For the fourth film on this list, I decided to go with 1983’s, Twilight Zone: The Movie.
Vic Morrow, who is the late father of actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, to give you some background, was killed on the set of the movie, along with two child actors in a helicopter accident. In the movie, Vic played a racist who was thrown into the point of view of persecuted people throughout history, with his character ultimately dying on the way to a concentration camp during WWII. But that wasn’t originally the end of his character's journey. In the end, he was supposed to save two Vietnamese children in the middle of the Vietnam war, redeeming himself and beginning again with a new viewpoint on life.
Sadly all three passed when the helicopter flew too close to the ground and crashed. It’s said that a year before filming the Twilight Zone Movie, Vic Morrow took out a $5 million life insurance policy on himself, believing that something bad was going to happen to him. It was also revealed in a court case following the accident, that the movie’s concept artist, who drew out the film from start to finish, accidentally drew a burned-out helicopter in the middle of a river, which some believe was a foreshadowing of the event.
And finally, for the grand-daddy of haunted media, was 1973’s The Exorcist. While probably the most frightening film on this list, it’s also famous for having quite the haunted set. I’ve also heard through the grapevine that Universal shelled out about $400 Million just to buy the rights to the Exorcist franchise. That’s not for any productions of any films, but just for the rights to make the films, which seems crazy to me. With those rights, they plan on creating a trilogy that I am both excited and terrified to my core to witness.
In the original film, the set was to be exorcised itself by a technical advisor, a Jesuit Priest by the name of Thomas Birmingham who also played the role of Tom. In the end, was only blessed a few times, but some believe that that wasn’t enough of a precaution to keep evil spirits away. Despite those blessings, there still ended up being nine deaths linked to people who worked on the film, which is a statistically large number for any film set.
The more notable deaths on that list included the lives of two cast members, Jack MacGowran and Vasiliki Maliaros, who passed away shortly after wrapping. This was especially eerie as they also played characters who died in the plot of the film. Other people who died were a set technician and a night watchman. Also, two main cast members including Max Von Sydow and Linda Blair lost family members while shooting. The set was also a dangerous place to work, as a lighting technician lost one of his toes and a carpenter ended up losing one of his thumbs.
During the premiere of the film, which ended up being a giant success in 1973, film viewers couldn’t quite handle the graphic nature of the film. It makes sense, as it was after all, extremely realistic and disturbing for its time. Even researching it today I’ve had to quickly scroll past any pictures of the makeup they used in the film as it’s just a little too gruesome for my taste. As a result of watching the film, quite a few people needed assistance after viewing it in theaters, stating that they felt nauseous or dizzy. It was reported that theaters even started handing out what they called Exorcist Barf Bags when buying a ticket for the show, but that might just be a myth. One woman even passed out and broke her jaw. After that experience she attempted to sue Warner Brothers, the company that produced the film, stating that they had put subliminal messages in the film that caused her to pass out.
Subliminal messaging was also one of the reasons that I decided to write on haunted media this week. It wasn’t too long ago that American Horror Stories released an episode that featured a cursed film that, using subliminal messaging, caused its viewers to go crazy and kill one another. Towards the end of the episode, and this is a spoiler alert by the way, it was revealed in the fictional world that the man who created the film was an assistant director on the set of the Exorcist. It was there that he found that adding in the face of a demon that lasted for an eighth of a second caused people to go hysterical in theaters. While the plot of the AHS episode was fictional, it was true that the Exorcist featured two very quick shots that featured a white-faced demon.
This process is referred to as Psychorama and is when messages are sent to your brain for processing without you consciously realizing it. If you’ve ever gotten a word or an image stuck in your head without knowing how it got there, only to realize you passed by it so quickly you didn’t fully register it, you’ve experienced Psychorama. While it’s not quite brainwashing, and it won’t turn you into a rabid zombie-like in American Horror Stories, it can still be unsettling and confusing when it happens. Especially if it’s the face of a demon.
Another film that was famous for using subliminal messages was a little-known film called Antrum. According to the legend that surrounds the fictional film, the creators of the movie state that Antrum contains a ‘Secret’ which can only be seen by a select few when they witness it, and which is sure to kill them after viewing it. The film can only be seen in snippets in a mockumentary that was created in 2018. Kind of like Paranormal Activity, it’s widely believed to be a fake film, created for the purposes of the mockumentary. It is an interesting concept nonetheless. The plot of the original film was pretty simple; a pair of siblings, depressed by the death of their pet dog, decide to burrow their way to Hell in order to rescue their pet’s soul. The title Antrum is a term in biology that means cavity, which makes sense as the kids decided to dig a hole to Hell. According to the mockumentary, the first showing of the film was in 1988, where the cinema caught fire and 56 people were killed. In a later show in 1993, the building exploded and killed 30 audience members.
The Exorcist was such a big film that its style and subject matter rippled down through cinema history all the way through the ’70s, ’80s, and even ’90s, which deeply influenced the creation of Antrum. But besides other films, The Exorcist was also, most notably, a film that exacerbated the rise of what people referred to as “Satanic Panic,” which in my opinion, would make a fantastic band name.
Satanic Panic is kind of difficult to summarize because of just how many different parts of it there were. It was essentially mass hysteria in society, in what seemed like what was mostly the Christian suburbs, where a fear of the occult overtook the media. Sensationalized media would feature reports on how the youth of the time, who were usually nothing more than your average angsty teenagers, were involved in satanic worship and ritual abuse. Court cases were even held that are highly reminiscent of the witch trials of the 1600s. A famous case to look into if you’re interested was the West Memphis Three, where three teenagers were wrongly accused of killing and sacrificing three children in Memphis in 1993. They ended up serving 18 years in prison until DNA evidence provided more insight into the crime. Even the crimes of Charles Manson and his quote-unquote “family” were blamed on ritualistic satanism when it turned out that deep racism was the real culprit.
Researching Haunted Media this week was a lot of fun, and I think I’ll end up doing another episode on it somewhere down the line. Something I found that was difficult to get to the bottom of was whether or not there was an original form of haunted media. Many think that death photography, or as some call it, post mortem photography, would be a good guess, I don’t agree. Something I would like to dive more into is the concept of ARGs, as well as the concept of haunted video games. If you have any personal stories on this subject, or if you know of any examples that you think should have been included in this episode, DM on Instagram or email me at email@example.com.
Thank you so much for tagging along with me for this crazy episode.
Stay safe, keep your instincts sharp, and don’t forget to Keep It Strange, guys. Bye!