By guest blogger Whitney Sanderson
On November 8, Easthampton City Arts+ and White Square Books co-sponsored a live broadcast of the paranormal podcast Lore as a fundraiser for the second annual Easthampton Book Fest in April. The location of the Eastworks mill complex—which now houses a variety of local businesses, art galleries, and residential apartments—seemed apt for an event based on haunted New England folklore. A crowd of more than a hundred people gathered in a small room at the end of the building’s echoing high-ceilinged halls. Behind the temporary stage set up for the podcast, old-fashioned windows of wavy glass showed an Impressionistic scene of gray river and fading autumn foliage.
Lore’s host, Aaron Mahnke, began to weave his tales over a soundtrack of soft, eerie music. His opening commentary on the nature of fear was well-crafted and philosophical, reminiscent of Fox Mulder’s existential X-Files soliloquies (Mahnke also bears a passing resemblance to Byers, the most well-dressed of the Lone Gunmen).
“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear,” began Mahnke, quoting H.P. Lovecraft, the Victorian master of eldritch horror, “and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” At that point, the unscripted howling of a dog (or was it?) from some unidentifiable direction contributed to the pleasant giddiness of a good scare. Mahnke began in the Berkshire Mountains, 1851, with a series of fatal accidents at the site of the Hoosac Tunnel, followed by numerous reports of ghostly voices, further mysterious tragedies, and eventually an inevitable railway “ghost tour”. The second piece of lore introduced the Wampanoag legend of the Pukwudgie, a kind of mini-Bigfoot that, rather than just shambling around inciting rumors, deviously lures hikers to their deaths. “It’s not the trees that make the forests dangerous, it’s what the trees conceal…” said Mahnke before introducing a solid-citizen protagonist who encountered the Pukwudgie (and lived to tell the tale) while walking his dog near the Freetown State Forest.
In the final story, “Half-Hanged Mary”, a Hadley woman who escaped the Salem Witch Trials was subjected to vigilante justice—but it was one of her accusers who would up dead under mysterious circumstances.
Mahnke's storytelling was polished, eerie, and entertaining, filled with the narrative details that make the scary story genre shine (like the beam of a flashlight glinting on a pickaxe in a long-abandoned railroad tunnel, perhaps).
After Lore, seven storytellers took center stage in a competition to see who could “tell the tale most likely to show up in your dreams (implied: nightmares!) tonight”. Kerry Ditson began with a naïve Smith College freshman caught up in a deadly dare. Seth Lepore continued the Halloween theme with “Ya Look Like a Fool out De” (because mullets are always scary), and Rona Leventhal thoroughly spooked the audience with her tale of a woman buried alive.
Bob Reiser extended a sinister invitation to his home near a haunted mine in “The Loudville Lead Mine—The True Story”, and Andrew Shelffo revealed the half hilarious, half terrifying origins of his fear of St. Nick in “Santa Claus”. Miriam Sirota continued in a somber note with a narrative of a wheelchair-bound aunt left behind in Nazi Germany in “Short, Dark Hair”, and Tim Van Egmond closed the show with his story of a horse and rider making an impossible river crossing in “The Phantom Bridge”.
The audience favorite turned out to be the opening act—perhaps because Kerry Ditson has had plenty of practice in captivating audiences with spooky stories from her work at Valley Ghost Tours.
After the event was a reception with cider and cookies donated by Big E’s grocery store. Aaron Mahnke signed a large number of his books, which include the paranormal mysteries Grave Suspicion, Indian Summer, and Consumed, as well as a young adult fantasy novel, Destiny: A Fairy Tale. And of course, everyone had an opportunity to buy a darkly stylish Lore t-shirt.
Easthampton Story Slam from Easthampton Media on Vimeo.
In New England, it often seems like Halloween is more a season than a single evening of trick-or-treating and costume parties. In many South American countries, the autumn holiday honoring ancestors and other departed souls actually extends over several days or more. (It’s also more festive than most occasions associated with death in Western culture).
The Lore live podcast event was a welcome opportunity to make the spooky season last a little longer in Easthampton. Speaking of which, the Eastworks complex is too cool not to be the setting for a few scary legends itself—anyone spotted a ghost while stopping by for a Pilates session at The Lift or a burger at Riff's?
Whitney Sanderson is a writer from Western Massachusetts and a lifelong horse enthusiast.