Tag Archives: pop culture

Is This House Haunted, or Is That Just a Drunk Guy on the Lawn?

The Amityville Horror house (image in the public domain)

The Amityville Horror and the dozens of subsequent related books and movies are about a real house at 112 Ocean Avenue in Amityville, Long Island, where Ronald DeFeo, Jr. shot and killed his parents and four siblings. At Topic, Michelle Dean walks us through the whole story: the crime, the subsequent owners who claimed the house was haunted, and the more recent tenants who didn’t buy into the tale of terror.

Instead of spirits, the Cromartys complained, they were haunted by what could only be called paranormal tourists, who knocked on the door at all hours of the day and night. These people sometimes called themselves witches. Sometimes they cursed out the Cromartys and told them they would die. Sometimes they were drunk. And sometimes, as the family told Newsday in 1978, they were just odd: “I think one of the funniest things was when we woke up at three o’clock and heard this guy with a bugle playing ‘Taps’ on the front lawn. I opened the window and applauded and said, ‘Kid, you’ve got a real good sense of humor,’” said Jim Cromarty.

In case you were thinking of digging your bugle out of the attic and paying the current owners a visit, the address has since been changed to discourage tourism. Sorry!

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Failed Promises: A ‘Bachelorette’ Reading List

Rachel Lindsay and her new fiancé out and about in New York City (Photo by Tanya Kesey / AP Images)

The Bachelorette came to an end on Monday when Rachel Lindsay, the first black Bachelorette, broke up with Peter and chose Bryan. Seven million viewers collectively released the most exasperated sigh they could muster in an already-exhausting year. Lost love is as horrible to experience on a television screen as it is in real life. 

As a first-time viewer, Rachel Lindsay drew me in with her easy smile, fiery confidence, and honest vulnerability. It felt powerful; a woman of color commanding both the camera and a palette of men eager to woo her. Watching the show was like vicariously living what I thought my twenties would be like: fun, flirty, and carefree. Her dark skin was a desired luxury in Bachelorette paradise. Rachel played the rejecter, not the rejected, and she didn’t have to gloss over her race with her suitors or the viewers. 

Before I could slip fully into this idealized universe, the rosé-tinted veil parted. Instead of the other, better world I’d hoped for, the past nine weeks brought unnamed racial tensions masked as entertainment, a hazy divide between reality and reality television, and millions of regular viewers questioning the morality of the network. 

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The Gossip Columnist Who Became the News

Liz Smith and Ivana Trump celebrate Trump's 40th Birthday at La Grenouille in New York City in 1989. (Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)

“If you were a woman and wrote about politics and D.C., you were a Washington gossip. If you were a man, you were a columnist,” explained Rona Barrett, the television presenter and celebrity gossip queen of the 1970s and ’80s, in an interview with BuzzFeed’s Anne Helen Petersen last year. Gossip—he said, she said, who was there, who was he with, what did they talk about—is the official currency of the Trump Administration, and any reporter who thinks they are above it is going to lose the newspaper war.

The women who became the great gossip columnists of the late twentieth century knew they weren’t above it—a reporter merely reported what their sources told them, a gossip columnist psychoanalyzed them.

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A (Disney) Pirate’s Life for Me

Pirates of the Caribbean, Wench Market
Pirates of the Caribbean, Wench Market via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

When my siblings were youngish and my parents still married, we’d have a family vacation nearly every summer near the Magic Kingdom. We’d leave San Jose while the morning was still dark and we’d drive through the California’s Central Valley while the heat and the light came up. My dad had a friend in Anaheim, California; the kids were close to us in age. A day or two later, we’d all be in Disneyland, begging to see the same things — The Haunted House, The Enchanted Tiki Room, and of course the Pirates of the Caribbean. Of course. Every time.

At the LA Times, Todd Martens looks at Disney’s enduring magic and how the Pirates of the Caribbean continues to captivate new generations of park visitors.

“I’ve tried to analyze what is happening in that ride,” says Tony Baxter, a former senior executive at Walt Disney Imagineering and now a creative consultant for the division. “Is it a book report of some movie? I think it’s more metaphorical to falling asleep and having this incredible dream-like experience.”

Years later, my brother and I went with two of his friends from Sweden, towering boys who we insisted wear mouse ears the whole time, including when our tiny Honda Civic crapped out somewhere near Tracy, California. The local sheriff did not like the looks of us, not one bit, but we couldn’t stop laughing at his suspicion. Two nostalgic California 20-somethings and two harmless foreign visitors; I’m sure we were singing “A pirate’s life for me…” for much of the drive.

“If you go back, the amusement business didn’t tell stories,” former Imagineering chief Marty Sklar says of theme parks before Disneyland.

“They were just thrill rides. Walt [Disney] changed that by creating stories. That’s the basis of everything that Imagineering does. When I talk to Imagineers, I always say I’m jealous because they have so many new technologies, but you have to have a good story or else you’re wasting your time.”

Disney is tangled throughout my early childhood memories, and somewhere in my house there are mouse ears with my name in looping script on the back.

The black felt has lost much of its integrity over time. The Disney-Industrial Complex has no place for decay, though.

There also will be a spotlight on Pirates of the Caribbean, which even in its middle age is serving as a microcosm for Disney’s need to adapt to generational shifts. Those who are resistant to change will no doubt have strong opinions about the recent announcement that the bridal auction scene in Pirates will be modified at Disneyland, Walt Disney World and Disneyland Paris; by the end of next year, looted trinkets, not women, will be on the block.

Those fans who object can console themselves with the knowledge that the red-headed woman, who currently seems to approach her precarious position with a bit of a femme fatale attitude, will be staying.

Related: Podcast The Memory Palace has an excellent episode up about the day the Yippies “invaded” Disneyland. Listen here.

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There’s No Way Hannah Can Afford That Apartment

Lena Dunham on the set of Girls (HBO)
Lena Dunham on the set of Girls (HBO)

I worked retail, selling art supplies, when Friends was insanely popular. I lived in a tiny studio — they’d call it micro-housing now — and I got by. I quit when I was hired as a caption writer. It paid three times what my retail job paid, though it was still not a lot of money. I moved into a two bedroom duplex with a friend, and I continued to get by. I didn’t have a lot of money, but I didn’t have a lot of expenses, either.

But it was not New York City, it was Seattle on the front edge of the tech boom, and it was still cheap. It always bothered me that Monica, a line cook, and Rachel, a barista — and not, I think, a very good one — had that spectacular apartment. Joey and Chandler’s place seemed a bit more believable, though I imagine Chandler was always having to front Joey at least part of his rent.

And now I’m on about Friends, when I mean to be on about Girls, which has the same maddening practical issue. How do they pay their rent?

On The Billfold, Emily Meg Weinstein compares Girls creator Lena Dunham’s own experience with that of her main character, Hannah Horvath. Weinstein provides real world economic context for what it means to be a working creative and — spoiler alert — single mother.

Dunham has never been a struggling artist. She has played one on TV. This may be one reason that Girls is not remotely realistic about the earnings of a freelance writer — no one involved in the making of the show has ever been, or even bothered to talk to, one. The real Dunham has published frequently in the New Yorker, and got a multimillion-dollar book deal in her mid-twenties. Still, she imagines a different existence.

In the episode in which Hannah decides to have the baby, we see her type on her computer a list of reasons not to do it, among them the fact that she earns “$24K” a year.” I publish with a frequency similar to Hannah’s, in similar publications. I would be thrilled to earn twenty-four thousand dollars a year from my writing, but I earn barely a tenth of that. Like most writers, I support my writing by doing another job. (Over 90% of my income comes from a tutoring business I have run since I was twenty-one.)

TL;DR: It ain’t happening.

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Twenty Years of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’: A Reading List

Photo by jason gessner (CC BY-SA 2.0)

It was me friend Anna who encouraged me to watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer. After my initiation, Anna made sick playlists featuring the bands of The Bronze—the nightclub in Sunnydale, where Buffy took place—and shared the soundtrack to the infamous musical episode “Once More With Feeling” with me. But I don’t remember consciously watching Buffy—it feels like I absorbed it by osmosis, or drank a large, invisible Big Gulp of Whedonverse. Like all of the folks in the essays below, I find Buffy the Vampire Slayer engrossing and nuanced. It’s not perfect, but it is wonderful.

Anna also designed me a t-shirt with THE BRONZE emblazoned on the chest. It’s tight and black with white letters, and I get complimented every time I wear it. It fits perfectly underneath my jean jacket. I wear it when I want to feel prepared, strong, sexy. It’s what Buffy would want.

1. “‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘ is the Greatest Show in the History of Television.” (Rachel Vorona Cote, The Week, March 2017)

Some time ago, I compiled a writing playlist comprised of my favorite instrumental pieces. Propelled by instinct rather than reason, I included “Sacrifice,” the music that concludes the fifth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. My husband watched with mild bemusement as I clicked and dragged the file to a place of prominence within the mix. “Are you sure you want to listen to ‘Sacrifice’ while you’re trying to work?” he asked. “You cry every single time.”

2. “Once More With Feeling: A ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ 20th Birthday Roundtable.” (Autostraddle, March 2017)

Autostraddle staffers share their come-to-Buffy moments, with especially insightful commentary about seeing queerness and depression represented on-screen.

3. “The Enduring Legacy of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer,’ 20 Years Later.” (Angelica Jade Bastién, Vulture, March 2017)

One of my favorite aspects of Bastién’s analysis is the reminder that Buffy ends up single. Though you’ll find Buffy aficionados have Many Opinions about her love interests (we can all agree Riley is trash, right?), “This series was daring enough to say that its lead heroine’s romantic journey wasn’t her most important. Adulthood for Buffy was marked…[by] her relationship with her own identity and destiny.” This is an important reminder for women everywhere, I think. We can forge our own way. We don’t have to be at the mercy of the tropes foisted upon us.

4. “If the Loneliness Comes, Beep Me.” (Brian T. Burns, March 2017)

My editor, Mike, tipped me off to this wonderful, touching essay in which writer Burns turns to Buffy to help him process sadness.

5. “How ‘Buffy’ Changed Television For A New Generation.” (Alanna Bennett, BuzzFeed, March 2017)

Scandal, The 100, The Hunger Games, Veronica Mars…so many seminal works of television and film owe their story arcs and character development to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. 

We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Screen: On the Addictive Escapism of Video Games

Screenshot from the game "Incredipede" by Colin Northway (CC BY-SA 3.0)

In Vulture, Frank Guan, an avid gamer himself, digs deep into the appeal and addictive qualities of video games in an effort to understand the psychology that undergirds hard-core gaming — and whether it has an impact on or can predict our politics.

I wouldn’t trade my life or my past for any other, but there have been times when I’ve wanted to swap the writing life and the frigid self-consciousness it compels for the gamer’s striving and satisfaction, the infinite sense of passing back and forth (being an “ambiguous conduit,” in Janaskie’s ­poignant phrase) between number and body. The appeal can’t be that much different for nonwriters subjected to similar social or economic pressures, or for those with other ambitions, maybe especially those whose ambitions have become more dream state than plausible, actionable future. True, there are other ways to depress mental turnout. But I don’t trust my body with intoxicants; so far as music goes, I’ve found few listening experiences more gratifying or revealing than hearing an album on repeat while performing some repetitive in-game task. Gaming offers the solitude of writing without the strain of performance, the certitude of drug addiction minus its permanent physical damage, the elation of sports divorced from the body’s mortality. And, perhaps, the ritual of religion without the dogma. For all the real and purported novelty of video games, they offer nothing so much as the promise of repetition. Life is terrifying; why not, then, live through what you already know — a fundamental pulse, speechless and without thought?

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Fifty Shades of Dreck (or, Save Two Hours and Read This Spoiler-Filled Review)

dumpster on fire
An actual, rather than metaphorical, dumpster fire. Photo by Timothy Wildey (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Christopher Orr, film critic for The Atlantic, watched Fifty Shades Darker — the second film in the series based on the super-popular Fifty Shades of Grey books — so that you don’t have to. Why bother to read? Because “a movie this bad deserves to have its flaws enunciated clearly.”

Ana explains that she left him following last movie’s whipping in his Red Room of Pain, because “you were getting off on the pain you inflicted.” I feel obligated to note that this is the exact phrasing used by Steve Martin in the song “Dentist!” from Little Shop of Horrors, making Christian literally a knockoff of a parody of a sadist.

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The Diluted State of Punk

With a recent slew of documentary films and books, punk’s forty year old body has been repeatedly repackaged, sweetened and sold to the masses at the mall, mystifying and irritating many people in the process. In The Baffler, Eugenia Williamson analyzes punk’s history, evolution, literature and commodifycation and addresses the lingering question: what does being ‘punk’ even mean anymore more?

Besides, anyone who’s seen the Ramones documentary End of the Century knows that punks weren’t entirely free from rules, even within the confines of their small domain. In one of the film’s saddest sequences, Dee Dee Ramone—the band’s lovable, goofy bass player and resident junkie sexpot—tries to set out on his own as a white rapper. By the time he hit his forties, he had grown tired of the bowl haircut, tight jeans, and leather jacket dress code enforced by Johnny Ramone, a man who thanked George W. Bush at his induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Chastened by the verdict of the market—and it must be conceded, abundant evidence of his absent rapping talent—Dee Dee fatalistically dons his bomber jacket and returns to the Ramones fold, never again to depart from the prescribed formula in the short balance of his life. So much for punks doing whatever the fuck they wanted.

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Grimes and the Changing Face of the Music Industry

In the newest issue of The New Yorker, Kelefa Sanneh wrote about Grimes, real name Claire Boucher, whose history in underground experimental music led her to making homemade electronic bedroom pop. Last year, Pitchfork named her song “Oblivion” the best song of the decade to date, and as she’s preparing to release her second proper album, she and artists like Lana Del Rey are redefining what pop music and independent musicians are.

Boucher has a hard time censoring herself in interviews, or on social media, which means that she provides a steady stream of content for music Web sites, whose readers love to express their sharply differing opinions of her. “I feel like if I read about myself from the media I would hate me,” she says. “I’d be, like, ‘Fuck that bitch!’ ” Online, she has shared not only her enthusiasms but also her frustration with the music industry, where “women feel pressured to act like strippers and its ok to make rape threats but its not ok to say your a feminist.” Her outspokenness has helped to make her something of a role model. Musicians are now expected to advertise their political beliefs, but Boucher is unusually thoughtful and passionate about social injustice and environmental degradation. (She travels with a canteen, and has essentially banned plastic water bottles from her tour bus.) One particularly trenchant Tumblr post, from 2013, earned a vigorous endorsement from Spin, under the headline “GRIMES’ ANTI-SEXISM MANIFESTO IS REQUIRED READING (EVEN IF YOU’RE NOT A FAN).” That last phrase hints at what is, for Boucher, a disquieting possibility: that her online presence might be even more popular, and more influential, than her music.

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