I originally wrote this piece a few months ago, but I don’t think I realized what the piece had truly become. I say it that way because this piece became incredibly personal to me as I was writing it. I started writing about a horror film that was filmed in my area in the 1980’s, but as I dug deeper into my own history with the film, an underlying theme emerged, one delving into my own personal history with depression. It took me a long time to get honest with myself and to really look at the monster I felt was within myself, one which became represented by the hockey masked creature rising out of the water. It wasn’t until losing my best friend that I realized the dark fog I had lost myself in with swirling, negative thoughts. He and I were so similar, he understood where I was coming from, and encouraged me in ways no one has, or ever will again. Unfortunately we both grappled with the same haunting monster inside, one I still deal with to this day. My friend, my comrade, my brother, he made a choice, one that leaves a hole in my heart that will never be filled. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about him. The loss suffered opened my eyes though, and I was able to see through the fog and for a brief instant, long enough to see a light in the opposite direction, one to reach for. Unknowingly this piece about Friday the 13th Part 7 became a reflection of ones struggles with depression and suicide, and the fact that there is always hope, there is always light, and the monster will recede back into the lake. We have republished this piece in correlation with www.openoureyes.org, an amazing group and resource for those struggling. Thank you for reading, and remember, light will find a way.
“There's a legend 'round here. A killer buried, but not dead. A curse on Crystal Lake. A death curse. Jason Voorhees's curse. They say he died as a boy, but he keeps coming back. Few have seen him and lived. Some have even tried to stop him. No one can. People forget he's down there... waiting.”
-Walt Gorney, Friday the 13th Part VII
It was Christmas morning 1990 in snowy St. Paul Minnesota, and I received a gift that forever changed my life. Just like Ralphie in “The Christmas Story”, I ran to our Christmas tree, shaking boxes, when I heard that familiar sound of a VHS tape, clacking in a box. At the tender age of 8, my foray into the horror film genre was about to truly began. Like most kids, from a young age I had always been interested in the classic Universal Monsters (Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolf man, the Mummy, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon), but I was fortunate enough to grow up in the roaring 80’s, the golden age of the serial slasher genre in horror films. In the pre-internet age, the only access a kid like myself had to this genre was the upper number pay-per view preview channels. Back in the late 80’s early 90’s, pay per view was the way to catch the newest movies, after they left the theaters, but right before they would be released to video. The stations would show extended previews for the movies and provide a 1-800 number to call so you could order the movie. I remember staying up at night, watching the preview for A Nightmare on Elm Street part 5: The Dream Child. I loved the dark, macabre environment of the genre, so I would watch what I could to see the most of it. If only I could own one of these movies, I could watch them as much as I wanted. Back to Christmas morning, 1990, and I unwrapped the VHS tape that changed all of that, and truly started my foray into the horror genre. I peeled back the wrapping to reveal the iconic hockey mask that graces the cover of Friday the 13th, part VII. Triumphantly, like at the end of a teenage underdog film, I raised my fist, movie in hand, in victory. The montage music played, and I owned my own piece of the horror genre.
*Let it be known, I do understand the repercussions of an 8 year old watching a rated R slasher film, and I am not advocating anyone having their children do this, but it was the 1980’s. We children of the 1980’s were exposed to probably some of the most offensive, violent movies that have existed. Movies and television shows made for kids at that time were probably worse than late night cable movies today. Anyone remember “Monster Squad”? We all remember it as a hilarious Halloween romp, but rewatch it, you will see what I’m talking about. Single handedly one of the more offensive hours I have had in a long time. I am definitely not advocating a child watching Friday the 13th Part VII, or any movie in a similar genre, and I am completely aware of the effects of violence on kids, somehow I turned out somewhat sane, at least my wife claims so.*
Little did I know, living in St. Paul Minnesota as an 8 year old, that particular movie was filmed in the area I would be spending a majority of my life at, where I would discover the magic and meaning of tattooing, where I would meet my beautiful wife, and where we would raise our amazing daughter. I could have never imagined, while watching Jason Voorhees battle a psychic girl on a rickety pier, that one day my life would revolve around the same body of water they were fighting in.
The New Blood
In the late 1970’s and trailing into early 1990’s, the horror movie genre felt a resurgence with a string of successful slasher films starting with John Carpenter’s “Halloween” in 1978 (though some would argue, myself being one, that it truly began in 1974 with the release of what is now a timeless classic, Tobe Hoopers “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). Soon more films followed like “The Toolbox Murders”, “Prom Night”, and “Don’t Answer the Phone”. With the “golden age” of slasher films then at full sprint, we get introduced to the now iconic film, Sean Cunningham’s “Friday the 13th”. The success of the film, which grossed nearly $40 million at the box office, inspired sequels, one almost every year, until the end of the 1980’s. As you would imagine, a copy of a copy syndrome kicks in, and a decline in quality grows with each movie. The main character of Jason Voorhees now evolving from a murderous psychopath teenager seeking vengeance into an unstoppable wall of super natural rotten flesh, killing campers one by one at Camp Crystal Lake. Much to the studios avail, Voorhees could also not be killed off. In every film Jason somehow came back, in a more supernatural fashion, once coming back from a lightening strike when he was stabbed in the heart to make sure he was dead. That would be an irony, right?
By the time Friday the 13th Part VII was being tossed around, the genre popularity had started to decline, and studios were doing whatever they could to get the movies out as quick as possible to capitalize on what was left of the genre. Wanting to make one last push in the genre, the studios were planning on making this film a “Jason versus Freddy” piece, tying in the other most popular franchise in the genre, Wes Craven’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street”. With negotiations not working out between studios, a new idea is introduced, the main character, Tina, as a “Carrie-esque” teenager with psychic abilities, that would eventually face off with Jason at the end of the film, becoming his most formidable opponent yet. With so much time lost to studio negations of the ill fated “Jason versus Freddy”, the production was now rushed into overdrive in order to fit the nearest release date of Friday the 13th in the next calendar year. The original title became “Birthday Bash” and the entire production was scheduled, completed, and released within six months. Filming ran from October to November of 1987 in Bay Minette, Alabama, with a majority of the scenes filmed at beautiful Byrnes Lake.
Byrnes Lake is part of the more than 200,000 acre Mobile delta, which is the most biologically diverse river system in the country. A serene fishing spot, Byrnes Lake is a picturesque piece of nature that is found here in the South. During the winter, Byrnes Lake becomes the epitome of Southern Gothic lore, with gnarled trees, reaching out of the water, the sky always being a tint of grey. Byrnes Lake also connects to the Blakely River, the ghost town of Blakely lying on it’s banks. Blakely is known as one of the most haunted places in the South, with paranormal investigators making regular trips to the ghost town. The Bay Minette area, where Byrnes Lake lies, was even more rural in 1987 than it is today. The small crew that traveled across the country to film “Birthday Bash” learned the effects of late nights in rural Alabama first hand.
As someone who grew up in the Southern swampland, I find I take some kind of sick pleasure listening to people from other areas telling stories about visiting our gothic bogs and their fears of gators, snakes, spiders, ghosts, locals, and other Southern beasts. In the book “Crystal Lake Memories” several of the actors from the film recalled the area being a “wild and untamed” location, with a constant fear of alligators and poisonous snakes. Now anyone from our area knows that October to November is prime time for these creatures, prime time for them to be hidden away asleep, not to disturb a soul. Local gator wrangler Leslie Buzbee knew this when he was hired to be the “Gator Man” for the film. He refers to it being a pretty sweet deal for “basically doing nothing but watching the lake”. Actor Terry Kiser, best known as “Bernie” from the “Weekend at Bernies” films, portrayed the evil Dr. Crews in the Friday film. According to an interview with al.com, Kiser doesn’t have such fond memories of his time here, he describes it as “probably the worst experience I had on a movie.”
He goes on to talk about how much he liked the actors and the crew, his problem was lack of night life. “There was nothing,” says Kiser, “ then, when you get to the set, I had a dressing room and couldn't go anyplace and you are in the middle of the swamp. They had an alligator and a snake wrangler to keep away the alligators and snakes.” Insert a smiling picture of Gator Wrangler Leslie Buzbee here, and remember, he spent so much time fighting snakes at that time. Kiser continues, “I felt like I was in prison or something… I didn't get any of the southern hospitality, I didn't go to the Mardi Gras that they had, and I didn't get to know anything about where I was. .. this was nothing ... I didn't do anything. That's why I'm giggling. Not at the production, but as a memory that I'm so glad to go home and go out at night and see someone and not worry about a snake looking at me or something. It was a very strange thing of not being able to enjoy the location of where you are.”
Kane Hodder, who played Voorhees for the first time in the film, had a much different view point on the filming, where he often refers to the film as his favorite that he worked on in the iconic series (Hodder donned the Jason mask more than any other actor in the series). One of my personal favorites is the story Hodder tells that happened late one night during filming. Hodder’s trailer was about a mile and a half from set, which was a walk he was said to enjoy. Hodder is somewhat of a method actor, and would walk back from set, in full makeup, alone. As he walked, he would be more Jason, less Kane. Late one night, around 2am, amidstan all night shoot, Kane decided to head back to his trailer. In the middle of his trek he saw another person walking up the trail in the distance. Once in sight he realizes that he doesn’t recognize the man, and with that he decides to stay in character, in full makeup, Hodder really enjoys scaring people. Once close enough to speak, the man nervously asked in a shaky voice, “Excuse me, are you in the movie?” Hodder, stood silent, looming over the man. In the silence, Hodder’s only response was to slowly tilt his head. Nervously he looks around, realizing they are completely alone in the Alabama wilderness, now more fearfully, the man quietly let out, “You, you, are with the movie…right?” With that as his cue, Hodder grunted and made a quick, short, lunge for him. The man ran, backwards at first, falling right over a tree. With a stumble, he got up and ran, quickly, out of sight of Hodder. Hodder never knew who the man was, but did hear an interesting story from the films director the next day. The director said “Y’know we were supposed to have the local sheriff come out and visit last night (with the trail from Hodder’s trailer being the way to set), and I don’t think he ever showed up.” Hodder just looked around and said, “Oh really.” It takes a lot to scare of a Alabama Sheriff, Jason Voorhees seems to be that.
Years ago I met Kane Hodder at a horror convention I was tattooing at, and I knew I had to get a picture with him. Until that point, I was completely unaware of the move he is known for when posing for pictures with fans. Hodder is very polite, down right kind in fact, and he agreed to a picture with me. Just as the camera was about to click, I felt two gloved hands tightly grab my throat, and complete fear came over me. Just as quickly as started, it ended, and the product being a photo of myself, in a complete state of real fear, with Kane Hodder. His love for scaring people is definitely not a lie, I have experienced it. One never imagines they will have Jason Voorhees squeezing the life from their neck, all for the sake of fun.
This Gallery contains stills from Friday the 13th Part VII, showing the Stockton Fire truck used in the film. Also, there are stills from the film along with photos of the same set locations now present day. The final picture is of Lar Park Lincoln as Tina Shepard using her psychic powers.
Filming finished quickly, even with a few stunt mishaps, and a record for longest uninterrupted on screen controlled burn in Hollywood history. The houses built for set were blown up for the end of the film, and everything was gone. As quickly as Hollywood flew into Byrnes Lake, it flew out (it wouldn’t be until 2004 and the filming of “Frankenfish”) . Unfortunately, Friday the 13th Part VII was heavily edited, including a change in ending. All the original negatives, including the cut footage, was destroyed by Paramount on September 17th 1992. It was ordered by executive Michael Hickney in a note to Jane Buffington that read, “Ok to junk the trims and out on this feature.” With that, any chance of seeing an unedited version went up in flames. “Friday the 13th Part VII” debuted at #1 for it’s opening weekend, at $8.2 million dollars, making more than "Beetlejuice" (which came out that same year) did on it’s opening weekend. By all accounts, Alabama’s time with a serial killing psychopath was through, but what if there was a story of one far before those fall nights on Byrnes Lake?
Frank Hammonds, Alabama’s own Jason Voorhees?
Long before Jason Voorhees was stalking teenagers at a lake in rural Alabama, there was the story of Frank Hammonds and Cry Baby Hollow. (This was briefly referred to in my previous blog “Cry Baby Bridge”) According to stories, Mr. Hammond’s murderous activities started in the year 1925 outside of Hartselle, Alabama, with the discovery of three dead bodies. No killer was ever found, and the murderer still roamed the woods of Hartselle. Dead bodies continued to be found over the years, and the stories continued to grow about a looming presence, a killer abiding in that dark hollow, waiting to capture their next victim. Stories tell us that in 1943, Mr. Hammond strolled casually into a local hardware store. Hammonds clothes were throughly stained with blood, and all he purchased was a rope and a hacksaw, nothing too suspicious. With all of this, for some reason the local police followed him back to a dilapidated shack, an old barn some say, deep in the dark woods. What the police discovered can only be described as a horrifying sight, one to that would inspire slasher films for years to come. As the young officers looked around, they found human skins nailed to the walls, lampshades made from tanned human skin, and other odd homemade taxidermy pieces, some that one could only describe as “experiments gone wrong”. The young officers knew that day it was a sight that would haunt there nightmares forever. Hammonds was taken away, in chains, laughing the entire way. It’s said that his laugh was forever ringing in the young officers ears.
Once Hammond was taken away, they tore the shack to pieces, searching for more evidence of his horrific crimes. Seeing a loose floor boards, they began to rip up the rudimentary floor, and discovered a gruesome sight. In his confession, Hammonds would brag about how he starved his poor wife, Loretta May, slowly torturing her, and eventually boarding her into the floor. Her decomposing face, forever frozen in fear, looked back at the officers, sealing Hammonds fate. Hammonds was said to be a quiet man, until it came to his recalling of the events that led them up to that fateful day in the hollow. Time and time again, he went into great detail about every victim, how he lured them to their death, and how he went about taking each ones life.
In 1950, after spending years in a prison in Georgia, knowing he was to be sent to the electric chair, he supposedly took his own life, before the state could. Reportedly his suicide note read, “For the family’s I’ve hurt, this is for you. Now you can’t see me die in the chair. The evil is ready to go home, and get you all. It’s never over, it has just begun.” Proposed as truth, I continued to research and found that no facts lined up, but that didn’t stop the story from spreading like wildfire. This fabricated creation of Frank Hammonds became a ghost that forever haunts Cry Baby Hollow, a place you are said to still hear the cries of his victims, but why? Why the fabrication, why spread this story, why create this monster? Could these monsters, and the monsters in horror films be created as a reaction to real life horrors that we don’t know how to process, confront, and deal with? What is it that can make a person commit such violent, disturbing, and abhorrent acts? What goes through the mind of a killer?
The Southern Gulf Coast’s has had its share of devils passing through
Patricia Krenwinkle was 22 when she was arrested in Mobile, Alabama, by then-Mobile police officers Billy McKeller and Sam McLarty in December 1969. She had relatives in the area and had attended Theodore High School in the 11th grade before returning to the Los Angeles area to complete her education. It was in California in 1967 that she met Charles Manson, and joined his ill fated commune. Krenwinkle was picked up by The Beach Boys drummer, Dennis Wilson, and was the one who introduced him to Manson, starting a relationship Wilson would always regret. Manson’s commune was on it’s way to destroying the “summer of love.”
Krenwinkel was convicted along with Manson and two other female followers in the seven separate murders. She admitted during her trial that she chased down and stabbed heiress Abigail Folger 28 times at the Tate home on Aug. 9, 1969, and participated in the stabbing deaths of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca the following night. Both homes were defaced with bloody scrawling. She was convicted along with Manson, Leslie Van Houten and Susan Atkins. Another defendant, Charles "Tex" Watson was convicted in a separate trial. All were sentenced to death after a tumultuous 9-month trial. But their sentences were commuted to life when the U.S. Supreme Court briefly outlawed the death penalty in 1972. Krenwinkle sits in The California Institution for Women in Chino, California, her paroled denied time and time again.
On February 15, 1978, shortly after 1 a.m., a Volkswagen Beetle was stopped by Pensacola, Florida by police officer David Lee on the out skirts of town (right outside of the Alabama/Florida state line). When the officer called in a check of the license plate, the vehicle came up as stolen. The driver then scuffled with the officer before he was finally subdued. As Lee took the unknown suspect to jail, the suspect said "I wish you had killed me." At his booking he gave the police the name Ken Misner (and presented stolen identification for Misner), but the Florida Department of Law Enforcement made a positive fingerprint identification early the next day. He was immediately transported to Tallahassee and subsequently charged with the Tallahassee and Lake City murders. He was later taken to Miami to stand trial for the Chi Omega murders. In the end, the suspect, Theodore Robert Bundy, or Ted Bundy as he was known, confessed to thirty homicides in seven dates between 1974 and 1978, and was executed on January 24th 1989.
Perhaps the most frightening true story is that of Donald Henry Gaskins. Gaskins was known as the meanest man alive. At a year old he was said to have drank a bottle of kerosine, which caused his to have convulsions until the age of three. Gaskins suffered from night terrors and severe abuse from his family, which shaped the entirety of his life. Gaskins was in and out of jail throughout his life, developing a mindset that can only be described as pure evil. Starting in 1970, Gaskins picked up hitchhikers throughout the American South, even passing through our area of the Gulf Coast following I-10. These hitchhikers were never seen again, an action repeated for over five years. When Gaskins was finally caught due to a confession of a business associate, he confessed to murdering, and even in some circumstances, cannibalizing the victims. He confessed to over 100 homicides in this short time period. In prison, Gaskins committed one last murder, with the victim being a fellow inmate. Gaskins initially made several unsuccessful attempts to kill Rudolph Tyner by lacing his food and drink with poison before he opted to use explosives to kill him. To accomplish this, Gaskins rigged a device similar to a portable radio in Tyner's death row cell and told Tyner this would allow them to "communicate between cells". When Tyner followed Gaskins' instructions to hold a speaker (laden with C-4 plastic explosive, unbeknown to him) to his ear at an agreed time, Gaskins detonated the explosives from his cell and killed Tyner. Gaskins later said, "The last thing he [Tyner] heard was me laughing." Gaskins was tried for the murder of Rudolph Tyner and sentenced to death. Donald Henry Gaskins, the meanest man alive, was executed at 1:10am on September 6th, 1991, his last words were “I am ready to go.”
Interviews with Gaskin quote him saying that he had "a special mind" that gave him "permission to kill."
Could our interest in horror films and these true crime stories be something more deep rooted, something that lies deep within our own individual psyche? From the earliest records we know that humans gathered around the fire and exchanged stories. Humans created monsters like Humbaba from the "Epic of Gilgamesh", or the Golem from early Jewish folklore, the changeling’s of European folklore, and even the father of them all, the devil. Each monster created can be traced to human actions that are considered violent, murderous or sometimes just misunderstood in the eyes of most human cultures. In the end, these monsters reflect our human condition. We all grapple with the monster, fighting the ideas, the thoughts, the lies we tell ourselves and the battle to fight against committing actions that separate us from them, with the death being the final act. Could the phone calls have been coming from inside the house all along?
“We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.”
As I sit in my car, which is parked in the small parking lot at the end of a long country road, I stare out at Brynes Lake, watching the water slowly lap on the shore. Trees rise up out of the water, writhing and winding, spinning up through the foggy mist floating on the shore. This site of a horror film made almost 30 years ago, is actually one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. Years ago my friend Aaron and I made the trek to find the site of the ruins of the house the first "Evil Dead" movie was filmed in. There are a few memories that stay with me about that experience. One being the "Twilight Zone" like experience of being lost in the Tennessee wilderness and ending up face to face with a trucker whom had no clue how he had gotten there. The other was how beautiful the site the movie was filmed on was. Maybe its the magic of a film we love being made there, or the scouting of an obviously good looking site, I honestly don’t know. What I do know, is that as I sat in my car, looking onto one of the most beautiful sights I have been fortunate enough to see, I can hear my beautiful wife and daughter sleeping right around me, and a smile comes over my face. I began to think about the first time I saw that lake so long ago, on a scratchy VHS tape in St.Paul Minnesota.
At 8 years old I knew I loved horror; the films, stories, imagery, all of it. I had no real reason why at that age, I just knew I did. I think horror became a way out of where I was at the time. As a young kid I had seen and experienced a lot, with a parent suffering through mental illness, my only choice was to grow up quickly and create my own foundation and truth. There were a lot of painful lonely nights, nights where sleeplessness and confusion were my only companions. Trying to make sense of the actions, the words, or the complete lack of connection. Truth and reality were a hard thing for me to find through family, so I worked to create my own, to create my own world. Horror became my escape. Tragic events come along in life and change us, they leave a mark we will never fully understand, and death is one that creates the deepest scar. Death leaves us searching for answers to why we won’t get to see those we love again, answers for why people suffer in pain, answers for why these horrific experiences can even happen at all. Every human life is valuable, deep down we all know this, and that’s why we work so hard to create stories to a least find some sort of meaning to explain the reason this void is created in their absence. If we can define the source of this pain, the monster, then we create the narrative of the situation, we can control what happens with the rest of the story. No longer does the pain happen to us, we are no longer caught alone in the woods. With story telling, the monster’s fate is now in the hands of the story teller. The story teller can now direct the fate of the reader, and happily ever after can happen. The monster, the pain, it was all a dream, and the hero made it through the night unscathed. Unfortunately, this isn’t true in the act of living, and no one will get out unscathed. Scars will exist, and the monster will never be found, only the destruction left in it’s wake. Stories are just that, stories.
Watching light jumping back and forth on the lake I am reminded of that 8 year old kid, Christmas morning 1990. The pain, the confusion, the loneliness all comes back to the surface, and for that brief moment I can feel them ripping at me again. My heart skips a beat, I struggle to catch my breathe, and I look out onto the water. In a distance, through my blurred vision, I can see what looks like a figure, rising out of the water and coming towards me. The familiar demon I know all too well, making eye contact from a distance. My heart begins to race, and just when I think I know what’s next, I hear the soft, goofy giggle of my daughter. I look back at her, in her car seat, as she looks my way, eyes wide open. A monster voice comes from my mouth, as I grab her feet, and she laughs hysterically. That laugh pulls me out of the haze I was in, and as I turn to look back at the lake, my wife stretches, waking up, and asks, “Everything ok?”. I look out onto the water, the fog now receded to reveal a crystal shine on the water, and the looming figure is gone. The monster has also receded. “Yeah, yeah, everything is good,” and for once, it is.
Perhaps horror reminds us that its up to us whether or not we will let the creature we fear inside of us dictate what we do next. Stephen King said that “Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes they win.” But sometimes, we win, and for that day, the monster sinks back into the lake.
This piece in written in memory of my beloved friend Jason Reeder, whose light shined so bright, it was impossible for him to see the brilliance it cast on the world around him. I am so grateful to have the memories with you that I do, and I will forever miss you.