Thursday, October 27, 2011

Black Aggie: Washington DC's Haunted Statue

When I was a kid I had a thing for reading tales of allegedly true ghost stories. I kept going back to them, even though they terrified the hell out of me. Some of the stories popped up in several of the books I read, such as the Berkeley Square Horror, or the Borley Rectory, but one of my favorite stories appeared in only one book stocked by my local library.

It was the tale of Black Aggie, a statue that would supposedly come to life at night. The story, as I remembered it from the book, was that the statue was angel carved out of black marble and it served as a grave marker. Not long after it was put in place, tales about the statue began to spring up. People claimed that at night it would stroll about the cemetery or that it would blind you if you stared into its eyes at night. Grass wouldn't grow in its shadow.

Eventually the statue caused such a commotion that the family had it removed from the cemetery and donated to the Smithsonian Institution, who then hid it deep in storage, not wanting to take any chances of supernatural phenomena occurring if it were put on display. The book, the name of which I have sadly forgotten, had a single illustration of the statue, showing a black angel with glowing red eyes against a moonlight sky. If anybody knows the book this is from, please let me know, as I would like to credit it.

Unfortunately for years, that was all the information I had on the Black Aggie. It wasn't until the internet started to proliferate that I could find enough information to verify the story. Of course, the internet, being what it is, I found a good amount of versions of the tale that seemed to merge it with other urban legends. A popular one merged it with the story of the college student who took on a dare to spend a night sleeping on the statue's lap, only for him to be found the next morning dead of fright. (I'd usually heard the story told without the statue. The dare was that the student was dared to stick a knife in a grave plot. Something holds him to the plot and won't let go, and he dies of fright convinced that the dead body below was grabbing his foot, when in reality he'd stuck the knife through his pant leg.)

Eventually, through sites such as this, or this, I found more information that filled in some of the gaps of the half remembered story, and suggested there was some truth to it after all. For one thing, it turns out the statue was actually an unauthorized copy of another statue known as the Adams Memorial, (sometimes referred to simply as "Grief") The Adams Memorial was made in 1891 by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and commissioned by Henry Adams for his wife marion who had committed suicide. The original still resides in Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington D.C.

The unauthorized copy was made by Edward L.A. Pausch and purchased by General Felix Agnus for his family plot in Druid Ridge Cemetery, in Baltimore, Maryland. It was this statue that became known as Black Aggie, although according to Wikipedia, the legend sometimes was mistakenly attributed to another statue in Druid Ridge Cemetery that represented the greek fate Clotho. They are similar in appearance, and the Clotho statute is actually of an angel, which may account for Black Aggie being described as one in some versions of the story, such as the book I previously mentioned. However, as the Wikipedia article states, it isn't likely to be the statue of the legend because among other things, there's no reason for it to be named "Aggie."

The one fact I was glad to find on doing my research as an adult was that the part about the Smithsonian losing the Agnus Memorial in storage was false. In fact, the statue is currently on display in the rear courtyard of the Dolley Madison House on Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C. In 2008, I was passing through D.C. and decided to see the statue for myself.

Standing in front of the Dolley Madison House, at first glance it appeared that the courtyard was inaccessible from the street, due to the way the house was adjoined to the nearby buildings. However, it turned out the courtyard was rather easy to reach from the street. Starting in front of the house, just take a right on H Street, and then turn right under the first archway in the red brick building right next to it. If you're not looking carefully, it may just look like an alleyway or an entrance to the brick building but it leads right behind the Dolley Madison House.

The Black Aggie, in it's current setting looked more serene than terrifying. When I saw it in the courtyard, it was in the shade, nestled between several bushes (none of which appeared to have any difficulty growing around it.) I suppose at night it may have been a bit unnerving to walk past, but in the daylight, the statue, and the courtyard it sat in, looked like a nice quiet place to visit to ease a bit of midday stress.

When I went home that night, I did a bit more research on Black Aggie and the Adams Memorial that it was based off of. I thought about seeing the original Adams Memorial, but passed on that idea upon learning it was all the way in Baltimore. However, it turned out that there was a second, authorized replica of the Adams Memorial on display in the national gallery.

It seemed I wasn't the only person who was interested in the statue because when I asked the guard where the Adams Memorial was, he told me that I was the fifth person to ask about the statue that week and he wanted to know if it was mentioned in a book or something. I didn't really care to get into the backstory about Adams and Agnus Memorials, so I just told him I thought it was an interesting statue and moved on.

Oddly enough, the Adams Memorial, the one that didn't have any ghost stories about it, seemed creepy to stand in front of. It sat alone at the end of a hallway. I took a picture of it with my Holga camera, which seemed to exacerbate the creepiness factor of it when I got the photo developed, especially since the way the camera flash hit the eyes, it made them seem to glow a bit. Had I seen the real Black Aggie when I was kid, I would have simply thought it was cool statue, but had I seen the Adams Memorial, it would have certainly haunted my nightmares.

So I found an illustration from the ghost story book I mentioned, unfortunately the site didn't have any information about the book itself. If anybody recognizes the book from this illustration, I'd greatly appreciate it, as I'd like to credit that book for introducing me to this tale.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Top 10 Scary Movies

I felt the need to throw my hat in the ring for a Top Scary Movies list because every year I come across lists that mention the same old movies that aren't really scary at all. Personally, I'm still trying to figure out why the original Wicker Man is on so many lists, because it's not suspenseful or terrifying, and it's not like there's anything frightening about Britt Ekland dancing about naked. Yes, I realize I omitted a few genuine classics, such as Alien, but I decided to shed a bit of light on one or two you may have missed out on.

10. Silent Hill
Okay, it is based on a video game, but unlike most other video game adaptations, this one came out pretty good. In Silent Hill a mother named Rose wakes up in an abandoned town after wrecking her car. The town is covered in ash that falls like snow, the road she drove in on now leads to a gaping void,  her daughter is missing and at first the only other person she can find is a police officer who doesn't seem to grasp of what's going on.

This movie comes in at number ten because I'll concede that it won't be everybody's cup of tea. It's twisted and surreal, and it gets very strange very quickly. The town of Silent Hill turns out to be populated by religious fanatics who think Rose's daughter is some sort of evil, and every now and then the world becomes a darker, more twisted form of itself and bizarre creatures come out of everywhere to kill anything in sight. The whole atmosphere of the movie is extremely unconventional, and the monsters are are uniquely designed. Instead of goblins or demons, the creatures are faceless perversions of humans. The result is that the film doesn't visually fall victim to the usual horror movie tropes, and instead looks like unfamiliar territory. For that reason it's probably the closest thing I've ever seen on film that depicts what a truly unbound nightmare is like.

9. Joyride
You may have passed up on this movie when it first came out because it stars Paul Walker. You should check it out because it's co-written by J.J. Abrams. Steve Zahn and Paul Walker play brothers driving cross country who decide to play a prank on a random truck driver they started talking to over a CB radio. The driver doesn't take too kindly to their little joke. After the brother's pick up Paul Walker's girlfriend, the trio finds themselves relentlessly hounded by the driver no matter where they go.

Once the action gets going, it maintains the tension straight through the end of the movie. It may toe the line of plausibility every now and then, but there's enough suspense to get you to suspend your disbelief. As an added bonus for film buffs, the DVD of Joyride includes not just an alternate ending, but an entire alternate final act for the movie. The theatrical version is the best one, but it is fun to check out a version of the story that hits the same plot points but in a different way.

8. Nightwatch (1997)
There's several movies out there named Nightwatch. The one I'm referring to is the 1997 film starring Ewan McGregor. McGregor plays a law student who takes a job as a night security guard at a morgue. As if that weren't enough to deal with, it turns out a serial killer is at large, and the lead investigator, played by Nick Nolte becomes convinced that McGregor is the killer. McGregor, in turn, starts to suspect it may be his best friend, played by Josh Brolin.

This film does a great job of establishing how unsettling an environment the morgue is by starting with a scene where McGregor is shown the rounds he will have to make each night. When begins his first round of duty, you get a feeling of dread and isolation as you watch him go room to room, doing his check ins.

I would have put this movie higher on the list if the film spent most of it's time in the morgue, which I honestly found to be a creepier environment than the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. Unfortunately, as the serial killer investigation moves closer to the forefront, more scenes take place in the outside world and the solitary, confined mood dissipates as a result. On the plus side, the suspense picks up after the atmosphere dies down.

7. The Mist
Sometimes a B-movie premise can result in a top notch film when in the hands of a the right creative team. In The Mist, a story about a small town besieged by monsters becomes an allegory for the darkness of humanity due to the creative vision of Frank Darabont, who was most recently the show runner for season one of The Walking Dead.

We watch as the occupants of a small grocery store find themselves trapped inside when a strange, impenetrable mist rolls through town, and a man runs screaming into the store claiming that something in the mist is killing people. The monsters, which range from giant insects to carnivorous tentacles, do provide their share of scares, but the real horror comes when some of the people in the store start convincing themselves that they are being subjected to the wrath of God, and that the sinners must be sacrificed to the things in the mist. As the people whip themselves into a frenzy, you get a sense of the worst of human nature, made more terrifying by how convincing it feels.

6. Dawn of the Dead (2004)
This list would have been incomplete without a zombie movie, and there were many good choices but Zack Snyder's remake of Dawn of the Dead proved to be my winner. I almost picked 28 Days Later, but passed because that film's director, Danny Boyle, has another movie on this list. Shaun of the Dead was close as well, but while it's a great film, I wanted to go with one that was outright scary.

Zack Snyder's version of Dawn starts out with an intense scene of a zombie outbreak at its peak. It mellows out for a bit while the survivors hide out in a mall, but the threat of danger is always in the background. As the characters start to get too complacent in their hideout, all hell breaks loose. I'll admit it's more suspenseful than scary, but either way, at the end of this movie your pulse will be racing.

For purists who don't like the fact I picked this over George Romero's version, I'm sorry, but the remake had better pacing and a better balance of horror and humor. Also, it didn't have the heavy handed social commentary of the original. (Okay. Consumers are like zombies. We get it. Move on already.) As for those who thought I should have gone with Night of the Living Dead, just remember that Romero is more likely to get royalties from Zack Snyder's movie than the original Night. (Due to a legal technicality, the original Night is now in public domain.)

5. The Descent
The Descent is another example of a B-movie premise that turned out to be far better, and far scarier, than it had any right to be. A group of women go on a cave expedition only to find themselves hunted by a legion of subterranean creatures. It sounds like it should have "direct to video" written all over it, but writer/director Neil Marsall did a great job of crafting a thriller that slowly transitions from a tale of friends having a safe little adventure to one of everything going horribly wrong. It really plays upon the viewer's sense of claustrophobia, as the women realize they are hopelessly lost deep underground and are being slowly stalked by things they can't see. Like in the original Alien, the scares don't come as much from the monster attack themselves, but from knowing they're out there.

4. Fear(s) of the Dark
This movie might not be for everybody either, because it's heavy on the artsy side. In other words, it's French, animated and in black and white. Fear(s) is an compilation of short horror stories, interwoven with each other and is a film that almost certainly needs to be watched in the dark, alone, and late at night for maximum effect.

My one gripe with this movie is that they didn't re-dub the lines for the American release. Having to watch the movie with subtitles slightly ruins the creepy minimalism of some of the stories. However, some of the stories are so minimalist that there is no dialogue.

The stories range from very literal to very abstract, but none of them are about things jumping out at the viewer. Instead, you'll get a slow sense of dread that builds throughout the movie so that when the credits roll, you won't feel safe, but you can't put your finger on why.

3. Shallow Grave
As I mentioned before, I passed on including 28 Days Later on this list, only because director Danny Boyle's debut film was so much more intense. The first time I saw this, I had to double check that it wasn't a remake of a Hitchcock movie because I honestly didn't think any modern directors had it in them to make such an intense suspense thriller set in such a limited environment.

In Shallow Grave, a trio of roommates, two of them played by Ewan McGregor and Christopher Eccleston, decide to take on a fourth roommate. Not long after moving in, they find their new roommate dead with a suitcase full of money. Rather than going to the police, they decide to desecrate the body to hide his identity, bury him and keep the money. When it comes time to mutilate the corpse, they draw straws to decide who has to do the deed, and after the job is done, that lucky individual starts to lose it.

The tension buildup through this movie is slow, but unrelenting. Once the protagonists cross the line by getting rid of their new roommate's body, you as the viewer know that there will be consequences, but you don't know exactly what they will be. It's hard to describe the movie in too much detail without ruining its many twists and turns. The story doesn't rest on one big twist. Instead you watch the characters slowly descend into paranoia towards each other, causing them to behave in strange, unexpected ways. Shallow Grave may not exactly be a scary movie, but its suspense will definitely leave you on edge.

2. Session 9
Lets get this out of the way. Yes, this movie stars a pre-CSI: Miami David Caruso. Don't think that means Session 9 is at all anything corny. In fact, it's very much the opposite.

A team of asbestos removers gets a contract to clean out mental asylum in Maryland, but as they spend more time in the asylum their they start to unravel as individauls. In a way, Session 9 is a haunted house movie, but it isn't clear if there's anything supernatural at play. What is clear is that there is just something wrong about the asylum and that it's having an effect on the removal team.

Unlike the previously mentioned Nightwatch, this movie takes full advantage of its setting and keeps most of the action contained in the asylum, all of which builds up to a truly disturbing ending. It's worth mentioning that this film was actually filmed in a genuine abandoned asylum. The real life location has since been turned into a series of upscale apartments, which prompted one blogger to make a point of watching this cult horror movie in the building it was filmed in.

1. The Ring
The first time I saw this movie, I went in with little to no idea of what it was about. If you haven't seen it yet I almost don't want to reveal any of the plot to you so that you can go in completely unprepared. In my book, this is easily the most frightening movie to come out in the last decade.

I suppose what made this movie so terrifying is that it preys upon a fear that when you watch disturbing imagery, it won't just unsettle you. It can actually harm you. It definitely helps that the cinematography in this movie is simply incredible. Dreary, ordinary visuals are mixed with the surreal resulting in a movie that is both beautiful and haunting. Perhaps it's greatest strength is the way that it messes around with horror movie tropes, taking familiar scenarios and giving them unfamiliar twists.

What's most impressive about this film is that it manage to pull off genuinely scaring the hell out of the viewer with a PG-13 rating. It just proves that to be scary, a movie doesn't have to have buckets of gore.