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Double, Double, Toil and Trouble: A Reading List About Witches

The Witches Sabbath, by Frans Francken II, 1607.

Sara Benincasa is a quadruple threat: she writes, she acts, she’s funny, and she has truly exceptional hair. She also reads, a lot, and joins us to share some of her favorite stories (and some of her friends’ favorites, too). 

What is a witch, anyway? Is it an old woman with green skin stirring a pot of something weird and stinky in an animated fairy tale? Is it a man who lives in the wilderness in isolation and emerges only to perform specific rituals to bring the rains? Is it a hippie chick in Berkeley in flowing fabrics appropriating cultural totems and symbols in order to get a desperate wealthy tech couple fertile and baby-ready? Based on my research, the answers seem to be “sure,” “yes,” and “I mean, I guess so.”

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Boo: A Reading List About Ghosts

red, green, blue, and orange pac-man ghosts painted on a gray wall, with bright green grass on the ground
Photo by Jason Whitaker via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Sara Benincasa is a quadruple threat: she writes, she acts, she’s funny, and she has truly exceptional hair. She also reads, a lot, and joins us to share some of her favorite stories (and some of her friends’ favorites, too). 

Tonight the subject is…ghosts. (Cue “WoooOOOOOOOOOOOooooo” sound effect.) Ghost stories seem to point to a reality beyond our own — or, at the very least, to an expanded understanding of what exactly this plane of existence encompasses. And from a philosophical perspective, I’m half Mulder and half Scully, which means I can find deep spiritual fulfillment from things that I’m 100% sure are total bullshit.

I was raised in rural western New Jersey, right across the Delaware River from the beautiful farmlands and forests of eastern Pennsylvania. Both sides of the river are dotted with 17th and 18th century homes and outbuildings, and many people speak of ghosts as matter of factly as my old neighbors in New Mexico speak of aliens: Maybe they hadn’t personally seen one, but their cousin sure did, and he wasn’t nuts. I’ve never seen a ghost, but I, too, have met many reasonably rational people who report ghost stories. I had a friend whose mother, a salt-of-the-earth woman with common sense and a practical nature, told me with no tongue in cheek about the ghost that lived in their farmhouse.

“I think it’s a little boy,” she said. “I don’t know why, but I get that sense. He’ll leave cabinet doors open. I can feel when he’s in the room and when he isn’t. When we first bought the house, I sensed him here. I could hear him rattling around in the basement. After the cabinet doors thing kept happening, I said out loud, ‘Hey, we don’t mean you any harm. We are going to fix some things in the house but we aren’t going to mess anything up or tear anything down.’”

She said she felt things were very nice after that, and that he still did the cabinet thing sometimes and she would say “Hello!” out loud when he did. “Maybe he’s lonely,” she said. “He’s mischievous but not mean.”

Like my friend’s mother, I was raised Roman Catholic. My relationship with the religion today is tenuous at best — I dislike corruption and mass sexual assault in any internationally franchised corporate entity, whether or not they get nonprofit status due to centuries of political influence — but I give credit to my loving Irish-Catholic father for teaching me an important lesson about belief. (My father, it must be stated, is also not a fan of homophobia, financial misappropriation, abuse, or incense.) Along with giant curly hair, he passed on to me a nearly prayerful awe for science. But his approach to spiritual belief — and belief in spirits — is deeply respectful, more so than my own. He said, “I think it would be arrogant to assume we know everything about this world and if other worlds exist. We don’t know what happens after we die. Maybe elements of energy or what we call a soul do stick around. And I do believe people who say they’ve seen things. Whether or not they were real ghosts, I can’t say.”

My religious background and the relatively open-minded attitude of my parents also influenced my curiosity about telekinesis, astral projection, astrology, clairvoyance, and the bestselling Time-Life “Mysteries of the Unknown” books. It certainly vaulted me in the general direction of witchcraft. Though I am a member of no religion and have a healthy skepticism about many things, I retain the desire for spiritual fulfillment and a connection with the divine. I also like ritual; I recently paid someone a couple hundred bucks to do a healing ceremony with me in a beautiful old house in Los Angeles. (It involved tarot, prayer, and creating a spell bag. I got to write down a list of things and then set that list on fire. It was great! Ten out of ten, would recommend.)

There are many genres of paranormal tale, and I believe the greatest of these is the ghost story. Do we see the people who’ve died before us? Is this simply wishful thinking? And if it is wishful thinking, why do some people report terrifying apparitions none of us would ever wish to see? Is this a collective human tendency to hallucination, or mental illness, or are ghosts really real? I don’t know, but I do know I’ve gotten to read some very good stuff on the subject.

1.  “Why Do People Believe in Ghosts?” (Tiffanie Wen, The Atlantic, September 2014)

Wen leads with three anecdotes about women who believe they may have captured images of ghosts via iPhone camera. Wen herself is one of these examples, and she does a medium-deep dive into why folks in our modern world still believe in specters and ghouls.

Recent surveys have shown that a significant portion of the population believes in ghosts, leading some scholars to conclude that we are witnessing a revival of paranormal beliefs in Western society. A Harris poll from last year found that 42 percent of Americans say they believe in ghosts. The percentage is similar in the U.K., where 52 percent of respondents indicated that they believed in ghosts in a recent poll.

Wen cites examples from Asia and mainland Europe, and consults scholars and scientists to figure it all out. By the end of the article, I came to the conclusion that there’s simply something wrong with the iPhone camera and the way it captures images, and that it was probably something notorious asshole Steve Jobs knew about and couldn’t fix.

2. “Ghosts Definitely Don’t Exist Because Otherwise The Large Hadron Collider Would Have Found Them, Claims Brian Cox.” (Andrew Griffin, The Independent, February 2017, suggested by Kara Hansen)

The headline alone is hilarious. Before reading this article I had no idea who Brian Cox was, but his photo told me this dude was wild, because he is giving us “deeply-moisturized Mads Mikkelsen on a casual science journey” realness. I’d also heard of the Large Hadron Collider, probably on an episode of Big Bang Theory or in an article I skimmed, but I didn’t know what the hell it was either. Now I do!

The LHC is the biggest particle accelerator ever built. It is includes a huge ring of superconducting magnets and accelerators that fling particles around, sending them into each other at such speed that they can be used to understand some of the most fundamental properties of the universe. In doing so, scientists can find out how elementary particles interact and behave, and understand how they work to compose the world that we see around us.

Sounds dope. What does all this have to do with ghosts? Well, Brian Cox, who is a TV-friendly professor at the University of Manchester, thinks the LHC would’ve seen a ghost if ghosts were real. It hasn’t, so ghosts are not real. Also important: Cox has a Beatles haircut, very on-brand for Manchester. And he was in a band, much like my friend Brian, who is a physicist but also half of the hilarious band Ninja Sex Party. Maybe they hang out.

Oh, Cox also has a podcast called the Infinite Monkey Cage, with which I plan to become obsessed. So he said some smart-sounding thing about all this on his show, and fellow TV-friendly scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson was all, “Friggin’ excuse me?” Except what he actually said was, “If I understand what you just declared, you just asserted that CERN, the European Center for Nuclear Research, disproved the existence of ghosts.” And Cox was like, “Yes.” Anyway, I’m going to become a Brian Cox fan, probably.

3. “The 10 Best Ghost Stories” (Lauren Oliver, Publishers Weekly, October 2014)

Lauren Oliver seems like a really neat person. She’s also a talented author. And while my columns here are reading lists and I don’t usually link to other lists, I’ll make an exception here. Oliver collects her favorite ghost stories, and I’m terribly embarrassed to say I’ve read none of them. I’ve certainly seen Kubrick’s screen adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining, and I know it has key differences from the book. And I’ve seen any number of film, stage, and TV versions of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Anyway, I’ve got to get my shit together and check out all of her recommendations before I myself am dust and ashes, at which point I’ll pass on to my next life, or stick around this plane as a lingering ghost, or simply be dead and gone. Regardless of what happens, I doubt I’ll have much time to read.

4. “The Truth About The Paranormal” (David Robson, BBC, October 2014, suggested by Kara Hansen)

Robson opens with an anecdote about a naked Winston Churchill encountering the ghost of Abraham Lincoln. I am here for any and all naked Churchill stories, and to put it in the lede is a bold and brave move, so probably this article should get whatever the British Pulitzer is called. (It should be called the Bareass Churchill.)

His supposed contact with the supernatural puts Churchill in illustrious company. Arthur Conan Doyle spoke to ghosts through mediums, while Alan Turing believed in telepathy. Three men who were all known for their razor-sharp thinking, yet couldn’t stop themselves from believing in the impossible. You may well join them. According to recent surveys, as many as three quarters of Americans believe in the paranormal, in some form, while nearly one in five claim to have actually seen a ghost.

Read on for information on damage to visual processing centers in the right hemisphere of the brain, symptoms of epilepsy, and other reasons you might think you’ve seen a ghost when you haven’t. Turns out sometimes your brain tries to fill in missing information when, for example, you catch a glimpse of something unidentifiable in low light. Also turns out there are no more Churchill naked tales in this article, but you should still read it.

5. “The Spookiest Ghost Stories From All 50 States” (Mental Floss, October 2017)

There are so many delightful stories here. I’m highlighting one from Connecticut, our nation’s dullest state, as a reward for being a nice place to stop for a pee at the many Dunkin’ Donuts shops between Boston and New York.

In 1970, famed paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren were called to combat the spirit of “Annabelle,” a demonic presence attached to a giant Raggedy Ann doll. For weeks the doll had thoroughly freaked out its owner, Donna, moving from room to room, leaving handwritten notes, and even attacking a friend who suggested Donna get rid of the doll, choking him in his sleep. Finally, a priest exorcised the doll and the Warrens locked it away in a special case designed to check its malevolent influence. But even that wasn’t enough to save one brash visitor to the Warrens’ museum, who reportedly taunted the doll and died in a motorcycle crash on his way home.

* * *

In high school, my mom and her sister threw a party when their mom was away. My football-playing, pot-smoking, drag-racing (not in the RuPaul way, sadly), respectful-of-ghost-believers dad (remember him?) showed up with his giant cloud of curly red hair and found her Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy dolls, and proceeded to arrange them into a coital tableau to make his dumbass football bro friends laugh. My mom was enraged and embarrassed because she was trying to impress some guy and my dad was stealing focus. The point is, adolescent boys are gross and my mom wouldn’t go out with my dad for another year.

I’d tie it back into spectral ghosts but I keep picturing Raggedy Ann humping Raggedy Andy at a hormonal teen house party in Bound Brook, New Jersey in 1973 and now I’m snort-laughing on a flight to Dallas. Because for me, the most compelling part of ghost stories will always be the tales of who we used to be. Pantomime doll sex is just a bonus.

* * *

Sara Benincasa is a stand-up comedian, actress, college speaker on mental health awareness, and the author of Real Artists Have Day JobsDC TripGreat, and Agorafabulous!: Dispatches From My Bedroom. She also wrote a very silly joke book called Tim Kaine Is Your Nice Dad. Recent roles include “Corporate” on Comedy Central, “Bill Nye Saves The World” on Netflix, “The Jim Gaffigan Show” on TVLand and critically-acclaimed short film “The Focus Group,” which she also wrote.

Editor: Michelle Weber

Great Reviews Of Movies I Have Never Seen: A Reading List

In a movie theater, rows of red velvet chairs sitting empty in front of a blank screen.
Image by hashi photo via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0)

Sara Benincasa is a quadruple threat: she writes, she acts, she’s funny, and she has truly exceptional hair. She also reads, a lot, and joins us to share some of her favorite stories (and some of her friends’ favorites, too). 

I will admit upfront that I haven’t seen as many films as I feel I should. I’ve written one, an adaptation of my third book, DC Trip. It was scary to contemplate: I thought, “I haven’t seen enough films to write a film.” And then someone pointed out that the average male aspiring screenwriter would never let that stop him, and I figured this was correct.

I realized — and this is applicable for any job, really — I shouldn’t negotiate from a place of “I’m so lucky anyone would consider me for such a gig.” I should negotiate from a place of “Hell yeah, I can knock this out of the park and I deserve this gig! I will learn what I need to learn, ask questions, do the work, and figure it out as I go along. And I will do a very good job.” And I started watching more films, because while you learn a lot by doing, you also learn a lot by watching. Plus, if you want to do something for a living, it’s only respectful to your art form of choice to, you know, actually study it.

Conveniently enough, I also recently got sober, which means I’ve got more time on my hands now that I don’t spend one to two days a week functioning at the intellectual level of a toaster oven. Did you know that if you replace alcohol with water, you’ll sleep better at night and have a superior command of syntax in the morning? True facts, my friends. You’ll also have to deal with a bunch of stuff you were ignoring, like credit card debt and emotional scars, but you can escape that temporarily at your local movieplex!

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Remembrance of Folks Past: A Reading List of the Stories We Tell

Sara Benincasa is a quadruple threat: she writes, she acts, she’s funny, and she has truly exceptional hair. She also reads, a lot, and joins us to share some of her favorite stories. 

In “The Depth of Animal Grief,” Carl Safina writes, “A researcher once played a recording of an elephant who had died. The sound was coming from a speaker hidden in a thicket. The family went wild calling, looking all around. The dead elephant’s daughter called for days afterward. The researchers never again did such a thing.”

How do we remember our dead? We hold funerals. We engage in rituals that celebrate a life and symbolize its worth. We build monuments — headstones, perhaps, or statues. And we do something else, something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. To crib a line from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s tiny little off-off-off-Broadway theatrical experiment “Hamilton”: “Who lives? Who dies? Who tells your story?”

Who lives? We do.

Who dies? They do — as shall we.

And who tells your story? The living. And while we are among the living, it is our job (if we so choose) to tell the stories of those who’ve gone. I’ve been thinking (and writing) about death and endings rather often of late. Here are some lovely examples of obituaries and tributes, some chosen by me, some chosen by helpful friends.

1. “Anthony Bourdain and the Power of Telling the Truth” (Helen Rosner, The New Yorker, June 2018)

Helen was my editor when I did this death-focused piece about TGI Fridays for Eater. She’s consistently edited James Beard Award nominees and winners, and she’s been a nominee herself. Her piece about her pal Tony is beautiful. She gives a more-than-well-deserved mention to his longtime creative collaborator, Laurie Woolever. And boy, does Rosner ever land the dismount. What. A. Kicker.

2. “Remembering Mr. Rogers, a true-life ‘helper’ when the world still needs one” (Anthony Breznican, Entertainment Weekly, May 2017)

I met Anthony Breznican — a gifted writer who regularly creates illuminating stories about entertainment and entertainers — after we spent 15 minutes chatting at a mutual friend’s barbecue, comparing his luminous Italian-American wife’s family funeral practices to those of my own clan. It was around the time his wonderful Twitter thread tribute to Fred Rogers went viral.

In college in Pittsburgh in 2001, Breznican was going through a hard time. This essay, based on the tweets, tells his story of running into Fred Rogers on campus. Here’s a snippet of what happened at what Breznican thought would be the end of a brief, polite exchange.

That’s when I blurted in a kind of rambling gush that I’d stumbled on the show again recently, at a time when I truly needed it. He listened there in the doorway. When I ran out of words, I just said, “So … thanks for that. Again.”

Mr. Rogers nodded. He looked down, and let the door close again. He undid his scarf and motioned to the window, where he sat down on the ledge.

This is what set Mr. Rogers apart. No one else would’ve done this. No one.

He said, “Do you want to tell me what was upsetting you?”

The rest is more than worth your time, neighbor.

3. “Colonel Michael Singleton” (The Telegraph, January 2003), suggested by Neil Gaiman

I ventured through the thickest wood, o’er hills and across rickety wooden spans under which dwell only the very sexiest bridge trolls (they have never heard of the internet and will eat you if you try to explain it) to climb a talking tree atop a mountain and whisper a single word into the ether: “Gaiman.”

This, as most people know, is the only way to contact Neil Gaiman. He then sent a fox riding an owl riding an elephant riding a second, extremely annoyed fox, all of them inside a hot air balloon basket, and they appeared after two days (during which time I had to urinate on the talking tree, who had some pretty colorful thoughts to share about that), and then the owl opened its mouth and dropped a piece of paper, which had the URL for this obituary on it. I borrowed the tree’s iPhone to read it and boy, did we smile!

Colonel Michael Singleton ran a boys’ prep school and was of the philosophy that young men “should be neither cosseted nor cowed,” which is as great a recipe for raising a decent human as ever I’ve heard. I’m not 100 percent on board with all the Colonel’s methods, but I admire his sense of politeness: “Knocked unconscious during action in Holland, he was saved only when a family emerged from a farmhouse cellar to drag him inside. In peacetime he returned to thank them and was delighted to be reunited with the field glasses which he had mislaid in the blast.” He was also wounded three times in battle. Later, he was appointed a Commander of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth.

There’s a lot more, but not too much, and I think you’ll enjoy it.

4. “The most awful kind of grief. The most beautiful memories. So long, son.” (Chris Erskine, Los Angeles Times, March 2018), suggested by Carrie Seim

My friend Carrie is a journalist who has been writing for years about all sorts of things; since journalists read a lot, I figured she’d be able to suggest a powerful example of this type of writing. And she sure did. I can’t imagine writing something like this, and yet I can, just a little bit, because writers write through pain. It’s one way that can help. Sometimes it exacerbates the agony but usually it helps – sometimes because our words end up helping someone else, who tells us so. That’s the greatest honor a writer can claim, I think.

5. “Eloquent Barbara Jordan: A Great Spirit Has Left US” (Molly Ivins for Creators Syndicate, January 1996)

“Barbara Jordan, whose name was so often preceded by the words “the first black woman to . . . ” that they seemed like a permanent title, died last Wednesday in Austin. A great spirit is gone.”

Hell of a lede. But then, it’s Ivins, who specialized in ledes, kickers, and everything in between. She catalogues Jordan’s magnificent life of public service, sure, but she also gives us personal gems:

Jordan’s presence was so strikingly magisterial that only her good friends knew how much fun she could be in informal situations. Before multiple sclerosis crippled her hands, she loved to play guitar, and she loved to sing to the end of her life. Jordan singing “The St. James Infirmary Blues” was just a show-stopper.

Barbara Jordan was the first black person from the South elected to Congress since Reconstruction. But she was a lot more than her resume, and Ivins gives us a glimpse at Barbara Jordan, musician and friend.

6. “Molly Ivins, 62; humorist who targeted her wit at the powerful” (Elaine Woo, Los Angeles Times, February 2007)

I love Molly Ivins — not personally, as I’m sad to say I never met her. But when I was a teenager in the late ‘90s, her work furthered my love affair with political humor, a love that began when I was a mere kid reading my grandparents’ Art Buchwald books. Here’s Elaine Woo on the final days of Molly Ivins:

In her last weeks, she devoted her waning energy to what she called “an old-fashioned newspaper campaign” against President Bush’s plan to escalate the Iraq war. “We are the people who run this country. We are the deciders,” she wrote in her last column two weeks ago. “And every single day, every single one of us needs to step outside and take some action to help stop this war.”

What would Ivins have to say today about the Trump administration’s policy of ripping families apart at the border? I have a feeling that, with some small edits, it would look much like what she wrote above.

I miss her, I miss her, I miss her.

* * *

Sara Benincasa is a stand-up comedian, actress, college speaker on mental health awareness, and the author of Real Artists Have Day JobsDC TripGreat, and Agorafabulous!: Dispatches From My Bedroom. She also wrote a very silly joke book called Tim Kaine Is Your Nice Dad. Recent roles include “Corporate” on Comedy Central, “Bill Nye Saves The World” on Netflix, “The Jim Gaffigan Show” on TVLand and critically-acclaimed short film “The Focus Group”, which she also wrote.

Editor: Michelle Weber