By: MARIAM BASTANI
HAUNTED ROAD TRIP
Last weekend, Alison Lang of Women with Guts, Monika Estrella Negra and myself, Mariam Bastani, from Audre’s Revenge Film hit the road and headed to the third annual Ax Wound Film Festival held in Brattleboro, Vermont presented by Women in Horror Month.
With a full tank of gas, shitloads of snacks and multiple playlists, the eight hour drive had us speeding through most of New York state and very fittingly right past Seneca Falls, NY. What better way to start a trip to a women’s horror film fest then a visit to the Women’s Rights National Historical Park and Museum? To be honest, the visit was precipitated by the signage on the side of the road, but the fortunate coincidence was too good to ignore.
Seneca Falls is not a big town and neither is the historical sight, but with the help of plenty of signs, we made it. Being naturally skeptical of how any history is recorded, I was expecting a primarily white feminist presentation of how we have gained so much from so few, but I was mistaken. The museum is two floors and when we reached the second floor, we were all surprised by its intersectional representation. The museum had sections about international interpretations of feminism, critiques on beauty standards past and present and even unexplicit but definite digs at TERFs in it’s representing of queer folks. There were still gendered bathrooms, but as I said Seneca Falls is a small town and I do not expect institutions to be radical. There is always room for improvement.
Next to the museum is a monument and the church that served as the battleground for women’s suffrage. It was eerie being in there. We were mostly silent, but not because of any reverence due to being in a church, but because the place serves as vortex of overwhelming conflicting sensations. With mixed emotion we stood there recognizing that Monika and I would have not been allowed in the building not so long ago, but also that we wouldn’t be in this building if it’s famed events hadn’t happened. It’s a difficult place, but we were all feeling very positive and glad having gone.
The last hour of our journey to Brattleboro was all two lane driving through some hilly mountains. Monika put on a mix with tunes from bands like Light Asylum, Skinny Puppy, Christian Death and Drab Majesty (see playlist here), some of our many examples of horror in music, and we cruised the curves. Seeing only a few cars, and fewer houses, the music and pitch black served as inspiration. We all agreed that since the festival didn’t start until 8pm the next day, we would visit some haunted sights.
Once equipped with Wifi, we found out that two very haunted sights were just a few minutes away. The first was the ruins of Madame Sherri’s Castle. What remains of this castle is a walled swimming pond, the foundation of the castle and a huge stairwell that served as the grand entrance to this well-known party house during the prohibition era of the 1930s’. Madame Sherri was a french woman who immigrated to the U.S. and became a Haberdasher with her husband in NYC. One of their apprentices became an oscar-winning costume designer and also Madame Sherri’s benefactor after her husband died from, what legend has it, poorly home brewed booze. The home she built in West Chesterfield, NH was a palace filled with art, music and beauty. She hosted innumerable parties for her New York City artist, actor and eccentric friends. She was an early fruitfly and possibly a beard. Because of her eccentricities and flamboyant style, she was vilified by the people of the town. She wore wigs, often went naked under a fur coat, cruised with her friends in a cream colored Packard, which led some of the townspeople to label her as the madame of a whore house (as if this were a bad thing). At some point in her 60s, her house was brutally vandalized, painting slashed, windows broken. By then she was too old to care for herself and she eventually died in a home.
Supposedly, Madame Sherri can be seen on the grounds, reminiscing about the happy days of the castle. We didn’t see anything and while the place felt like it may have some links to other worldly beings, it felt like a happy place. How many places can you say have a happy haunting? The next site was not the same.
In 1834 the Vermont Asylum for the Mentally Insane was founded in Brattleboro. It is still there, but under the name Brattleboro Retreat. In 1887, the institution embarked on the construction of the Retreat Tower located in the hills above the main building. When you drive through town it can be seen ominously poking through the trees with a steep and rocky embankment sloping down on one side. While the whole campus is said to be haunted, this is the sight with the most frequent experiences. Believing that physical labor would help as treatment, this tower was constructed entirely by the patients. Instead of a place of peaceful contemplation, it became a location of patient suicides. Legend has it that an apparition can be seen throwing itself off the tower and disappearing before it hits the ground. What is even more bizarre is that the number of deaths associated with the tower is said to be a heavily guarded town secret. Naturally, we were curious.
In our haste to beat a quickly approaching dusk, we ended up scaling the side of an extremely steep hill sprinkled with some murderous, jagged rocks poking out from under dead leaves and fallen pine needles. It was not the smartest move, but we love adventure and in the end, two of us made it all the way up and one of us did not. Concerned with falling and splattering our brains, we lost sight of each other. When I reach the top, what little light we had left was obscured by the canopy of trees. The forest became heavy. I faintly heard Alison call out. If you have ever spent time in a forest, you know that it chokes human sound. I listened, but before I could investigate further I turned to suddenly see the tower looming over me. It was not good. It seemed to materialize out of the earth and I was startled. I instinctively did not turn my back on it and tracing my steps backward, I called for Alison. As soon as I heard her footsteps crunching near I told her I had found it. My expression was of mild disgust. We pause to look at the tower. We had to get near it and even touch it. The place was suffocating us with misery. We snapped back into reality and both felt an urgency to find Monika. We found a trail and I finally got a view of where we had parked the car in a lot belonging to a ski hill not yet in use. I saw Monika close to the car, but on the side obscuring the view of the road. I knew it was protective behavior when I spotted a van idling off the side of the road. My instincts kicked in and I hastened down the path, cutting down the side of the steep hills, sliding down. When I crossed the road I took a picture of the back of the idling van. When we reached Monika, she told us that the man saw her in the parking lot waiting for us. He pulled off the road and beckoned her to the van, when she nodded no, he put the car in park and waited there. Now, this area has minimal traffic, no other cars in the lot. If you are trying to help a woman alone, waving her to approach your idling van is not the way to do it. When we walked around the car and he saw us moving in a group, he sped away. Always trust your instincts.
We ended up walking back up the trail so Monika could experience the tower, but I kept looking back to make sure we weren’t followed. Again, the Tower appeared almost suddenly and while we acknowledged that it was as repellent as it was alluring, none of us felt welcome. We were all feeling haunted by then and drowning in the sadness of the place. The next experience made it worse…
Like most towns with “progressive” politics, there is a food coop filled with organic produce, kombucha, free range items, much of which is unaffordable to many people, much like anything branded as “healthy” food. Being healthy-ish eaters we needed to refuel and get some supplies. Feeling heavy and hungry from the last hour, we split up to find what we wanted. That’s when Monika and I were tailed by “Loss Prevention.” If you are a PoC, particularly one who does not present as white, you know about this common experience. I was followed by a mild mannered looking white man who was far too obvious at his job to be sneaky, while Monika was followed by an aggressive white woman who made it very known that she was being watched. This is not a coincidence or an isolated incident. The frequency and venom of these incidences are very much determined by color gradient, that is no lie. When we regrouped, the aggressive woman was scowling at us and was clearly in some sort of hateful panic. It was fucked up. We bought our shit anyway because we needed to eat and as we were leaving a cop was walking in. He looked at us and by the time we got to our car, he walked out again. It is no doubt in my mind that he was called. How’s that for a horror story? It’s autobiographical and it happens hourly somewhere, no exaggeration. What does “scary” look like to you?
AX WOUND FILM FESTIVAL
At 8pm that evening, Ax Wound began its first block of films. Ax Wound founder Hannah Neurotica and Ashlee Blackwell of Graveyard Shift Sisters were running the door. It was definitely one of those strange moments when fantasy and reality meet. Having read and seen so much of their work, I felt the satisfaction of puzzle piece fitting into place. Now we could start talking horror. Hannah gave a brief introduction and we were plunged into the most comforting darkness. There were a total of four film blocks, 48 films, six panels/presentations and we attended everything!
There were two Q & A panels moderated by Jay Kay of Horror Happens Radio. I loved hearing from these directors and writers of horror, even if the comments were brief. Hearing filmmakers talk about overcoming challenges, their inspirations and feelings of success started breaking down the barriers in a room filled with strangers, which is what festivals like Ax Wound do. Shout out to filmmakers Julia K. Berkey and Stee McMorris for being candid and honest.
Christina Raia, director of crowdfunding at Spark and Seed gave a great presentation on what she does and how we can do it too! Funding for film is hard enough, but being women in film presents unique challenges and one of them is lack of cash for our craft. Cassandra Sechler of Dreams for Dead Cats Productions out of San Francisco made a video presentation especially for Ax Wound that gave the audience some amazing tip about how to make realistic DIY entrails on a budget. There was also a live podcast by Nicole Solomon and Sean Mannion of 4Mile Circus that filmmakers Monika, Christina Raia and Lindsey Serrano participated in about using Ancillary Content to support your film. Coming from a DIY Punk and hardcore background, this spoke to me because punk is multimedia and sensory blitz.
The last presentation “Horror in the Trumpian Era” by Alison began at 6:30 pm, just before the last block of films. By then everyone was ready to have conversations about the films we had seen. The presentation was funny and alarming. Alison’s style was intelligent and disarming. The conversations afterward were my favorite part of the weekend and even though the majority of the crowd were women, we had a lot of different views. I think this reality is startling for many women. Not for me. While I support women’s projects, I know that I must make more, create more and control my visibility. No one person can depend on another to represent their views, especially if you are not a straight, white, cis woman. I felt a lot of camaraderie with the other folks there and I believe that more women artists need to be creating as much as possible. Unfortunately, we are often put in a position to battle each other for resources, because for some reason we are led to believe that there is only an allotted amount for women in film. It’s bullshit, we know it and not all of us are interested in playing the game. My creative partners and I have never been interested in asking for permission.
Now for the films! We attended all four film blocks and each selection was well worth the viewing. I could have written a top 20 for this, but I decided to narrow it down to the three films that I really reacted to, so here goes.
Blood Sisters written by Hannah White, directed by Caitlin Koller and Lachlan Smith (Australia)
“Two friends whose attempts to dabble in witchcraft have unintended results.”
In true Audre’s Revenge style, my interpretation of this film is different than perhaps the filmmakers had intended. The two friends in the movie are white, cis, blonde and thin twenty-somethings – Beckys – and I realize that that is not a positive term. While the two characters are seemingly unrelatable to a lot of us, there are moments that femmes will appreciate and bond over that, at times, had me unexpectedly rooting for them. The practical effects are both meanings of gag-worthy, equal parts gross and hilarious, and extremely well executed. Having intimate knowledge of and by being very close to friends and family who are practitioners of spiritual religious traditions that are intrinsically connected to our ethnic roots, watching this story unfold in unexpected and humorous ways was incredibly satisfying, as if the ancestors finally had a say in horror without being racist caricatures or a cheap plot device. No spoilers, but the end is incredibly satisfying.
Cowboys and Indians written and directed by Emilia Ruiz (Spain)
“A young boy learns a new way of having his action figures interact with each other.”
Anyone who loves horror knows that child actors can really shit on a good story. Sorry kids. This is by far a stellar example of a great child actor who will have you terrified and catching major feels that haven’t torn you up since Danny in The Shining. The cinematography is effective in taking you into the child’s world of isolation and overstimulation. It’s tough to write about why I loved this short so much without spoilers, but I will say that the issues so creatively addressed in this film are part of a larger narrative that are not only very timely, but also very much need to be kept in our daily discourse. Shining the light on a child’s interpretation of toxic masculinity and the often ignored ills within domesticity in all types of relationships is incredibly powerful here.
Entropia written and directed by Marinah Janello (U.S.)
“A lonely woman attempts to regain her youth through her spells and taxidermy.”
Unabashedly female bodied, bloody and definitely intimate, this one had everyone peeking through their fingers with their hands over their eyes. What would a lonely woman would do to regain her youth? A concept which we have been conditioned to be synonymous with beauty. In casting a mature actress who does not hide the processes in her quest, the film takes us into realms that go far beyond what we expect forcing us to question our own concepts of how we interact and feel about the blood, guts, goop and meat that makes up our bodies – the natural scuzz that we deal with coming from our own bodies, but wouldn’t fuck with coming out of anyone else’s. Sitting in the back, I watched everyone in the theater squirming and laughing with discomfort, yet receiving total satisfaction akin to Cronenberg body and fluid horror, but definitely without the fear of vaginas. To men this may be the worst Freudian nightmare, but to me it was gross in the ways I have been waiting for. By taking us so far into the body, the return is a relief and then total appreciation – my period this month will be a good time. The well composed trio of discomfort-inducing set style, a mature actress with brutal hair and revolting practical effects had everyone mesmerized.
There were a lot of great films, so I want to list some honorable mentions that I also really enjoyed:
- Nothing a Little Soap and Water Can’t Fix directed by Jennifer Proctor
- Inside the House written and directed by Jennifer Bonior and Dycee Wildman
- Childer written and directed by Aislinn Clarke
- The Vicar written and directed by Chanelle Eidenbenz
- Gemma’s Monster written and directed by Julia K. Berkey
- Knock Knock II written and directed by katherine McManus
- Satanica written and directed by vivienne vaughn
- Beautiful Injuries written and directed by judith beauvallet
- MAB written and directed by katie bonham
- Night In written and directed by christina raia
- Buck Moon written and directed by Kylie Anderson and Zoie Harmon
- Mare written and directed by Nicole Solomon
- Beneath written and directed by Lindsay Serrano
With day-old hangovers, we piled into the car way too early and hit the road. In the daylight, the spooky mountain road we took into town was charming on the way out. Just as we were about to hit a minor highway, Alison realized that we were passing Bennington VT, where Shirley Jackson had lived! After an illegal U-turn and some spotty googling, we learned that her house was still there. It was not easy to find. It is unceremoniously tucked on a side street near the college. There are no signs. There was no marker or plaque. The house itself was dingy and in the beginning stages of dilapidation, but seemingly locked in time, as if the house had always physically absorbed and exposed the dysfunction happening on the inside. This house was always a sad one. We felt sad for Shirley Jackson and continued exploring the town and it’s strange forgotten monuments. We noticed lots of homes for sale and how the town seemed empty. Fiending for a real cup of coffee and a bathroom, we stopped at a coffee shop downtown where two middle aged women were working. Monika and Alison dipped out with their coffee to smoke and I approached the two women, “We found Shirley Jackson’s house, but do you know if there is any more information about her time here? Maybe at the museum or visitor’s center?” We had passed both of these places in our quest to find the house. They both shook their heads, “I don’t know who that is.” I thanked them and joined my traveling buddies. The women working at the cafe are busy, they have shit to do, but I still wish they had known that another hard working woman had lived in their town. To be fair, we are everywhere, but we still struggle with being represented, treated fairly, to be seen on our own terms. It’s up to us to tell our own stories and find each other.
Most of the trip home was in silence, listening to music and all of us deep in thought. I could write something about how profound the trip was and how we have all changed. That’s the Stephen King version. Our version of the story doesn’t end. Our is filled with ghost stories, real-life horrors and ones make up in our heads, we are all haunted by something, but there are happy coincidences, fun times and building of communities and friendships that take on different forms throughout time. Happily I deliver this one version, one chapter of it from our trip to Ax Wound Film Festival.