Rituals of Fear

ghosts

Photo illustration by Mark Riechers. Original images by David Clifford/Adam Muise/Bruno van der Kraan/Isabel Galvez/
Mads Schmidt Rasmussen/Chander Mohan(CC-BY)

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Original Air Date: 
October 26, 2019

Be still. Prepare the altar. Gather around in a circle. Light the fire. And join us for rituals that will put fear in your heart. Because what if experiencing your fears — the dread, the horror of it all — is good for you?

A poison garden
Audio

Amy Stewart is a serious gardener with a side gig – writing about all the plants that could kill you.

Length: 
06:38
Poison tea
Audio

Kathryn Harkup is a chemist with an expertise in poison. She’s made a close study of a famous poisoner that employed everything from arsenic to cyanide to knock off close to 300 (fictional) victims: Agatha Christie, the mystery writer.

Length: 
12:05
texting people in the dark
Articles

Could being digitized be a way for all of us to become immortal? Maybe, but not in a way we would particularly enjoy, as this story from listener Mark Pantoja illustrates.

Length: 
6:06
Horror
Dangerous Ideas

Writer Gemma Files' Dangerous Idea? There are upsides to embracing horror — spending time playing out negative scenarios in fiction can lead to a more positive life.

Length: 
3:11
haunted grocery store
Audio

Dan Chaon’s collection of short stories, "Stay Awake," is horror. But horror in a way that many of us can relate to. It’s stories of people who are alive but feel like ghosts.

Length: 
11:24
haunted burger
Articles

Listener Jonathan Blyth sent us a ghost story that might make you think twice about what — or whom — is on your plate.

Length: 
2:29
satan
Articles

Former Church of Satan High Priestess Blanche Barton says that worshipping the devil is "ridiculous." She calls Satanic worship less an act of evil, and more an act of subversion and questioning norms.

Length: 
06:66
demon lake
Articles

Listener Sophia Derbes sent us this ghost story about a boy, a girl and the divide between them.

Length: 
2:40
president ghost
Articles

A ghost story for the election season from listener Eric Van Vleet.

Length: 
3:34
Extras

Show Details 📻
Airdates
October 26, 2019
October 31, 2020
Categories: 
Full Transcript 📄

Anne Strainchamps (00:00):

It's To The Best of Our Knowledge, I'm Anne Strainchamps. The thing about Halloween is most of the year we do our best to keep fear at arm's length. We steel ourselves against nightmares and then this one time of the year, this one day, we let it all out. It's like this national collective exorcism. Today, to help you get in the mood, let's think about something sinister, something toxic, something that's hiding all around us, sometimes in plain sight, poison.

Amy Stewart (00:44):

I was visiting a scientist who works on developing new varieties of lilies. He's a lily expert. As we were getting ready to leave he said, "Hang on a minute, I want to show you something else I have growing in the corner over here but don't tell anyone about this. I don't want my boss to know that I have one of these." The plant that he had was circulating among students on campus. Students were telling him, "We're growing Erythroxylum coca" which is the plant that cocaine comes from. It was a South American shrub. It would be very hard to grow. The traditional Bolivian way to consume coca leaves is to chew on it.

Amy Stewart (01:41):

This guy was immediately suspicious and said, "I don't think that's what you have. I don't see that growing in a dorm room. I'm worried about what you kids are doing with that plant." But it took him a long time to get anyone to trust him enough to bring him a specimen of this plant. Sure enough, it was not Erythroxylum coca. I don't remember the name of the plant but it was quite deadly, it was quite toxic. If you chewed on enough of those leaves, your throat would close up and you wouldn't be able to breathe and you'd have to go to the hospital. That's what he had and that's what got me thinking about how easily it is for people to be mislead or fooled. Look, I go on a walk either through a garden or on a hike with someone and they'll pluck a berry off a bush and go, "Here, try this." I'm always like, "You know what? I'm good." Pick your poison carefully.

Amy Stewart (02:49):

I got to thinking, there are a lot of famous stories in history about poisonous plants. Socrates was killed by hemlock and on and on. I thought it would be interesting to tell those stories not to write a field guide to poisonous plants but to talk about when plants have actually killed someone or been used in warfare or for some dark and nefarious purpose. Amy Steward is a mystery writer. She's the author of the bestselling Kopp Sister series. She is also a serious gardener with a side gig, writing about wicked plants. She introduced Shannon Henry Kleiber to a few of her favorites.

Amy Stewart (03:37):

Abraham Lincoln's mother was killed by a plant. She was killed in a very indirect way. The plant is white snakeroot, it's poisonous. Cows would graze on this plant, the poison would make them sick but also get into their milk and people would drink the milk and get sick and die. That was called milk sickness. It was a real problem throughout the 1800s in fact.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (03:59):

The mystery part of it is interesting.

Amy Stewart (04:01):

It took us a long time to understand how plant poisons work in part because how do you even do those experiments. The KGB starts assassinating people with ricin, which is an extract of the castor bean seed. We did not, in medical science, even know how much ricin it took to kill a person. As late as the 1970s, we're doing experiments where we're figuring out what would be the lethal dose for a pig that weighs roughly the equivalent of a human. It's amazing how much we still don't know about toxins and plants.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (04:35):

I read that you have a poisonous plant garden and that it's been listed as one of the, I think 18 most unusual gardens in the world. Tell me about that.

Amy Stewart (04:46):

I wanted to grow these plants. It's weird to write a book about plants that you've never grown and maybe never seen. Some of them are pretty hard to get. You can't just walk into a garden center and say, "I would like 12 mandrakes." They're just not for sale. But as I'm doing these interviews and reaching out to people in the horticulture community, plants started getting offered to me.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (05:10):

Kind of secretly?

Amy Stewart (05:12):

Actually, yes. I really did go visit a farm that grew a lot of very poisonous and strange plants including some illegal plants. It was up in the hills. Before I went up there, where I knew there was going to be no cellphone coverage, I remember calling my husband and going, "If I don't call you back in an hour, something has happened up there."

Shannon Henry Kleiber (05:31):

What plants?

Amy Stewart (05:33):

Ayahuasca, maybe you've heard of?

Shannon Henry Kleiber (05:35):

Yeah.

Amy Stewart (05:35):

A hallucinogenic plant from South America. Things that maybe are not quite illegal but that the DEA is very aware of and that are hallucinogenic plants. But they were growing straight up. It was a pot farm. They were growing other straight up illegal plants as well, opium poppies-

Shannon Henry Kleiber (05:51):

You started collecting these plants-

Amy Stewart (05:53):

Yeah so I start collecting them but then need to go somewhere so I planted a poison garden and I really made it, I had fun making it creepy. Rather than plant markers, I had these cement tombstones that identified what the plant does to do, madness or blindness. I found a company that makes resin skeletons for medical schools and they sell their factory seconds online.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (06:21):

Oh cool.

Amy Stewart (06:21):

I had all these slightly defective skulls and hands.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (06:25):

That sounds incredible.

Amy Stewart (06:26):

Right, like a skeleton buried. It was creepy and wonderful but not terribly practical.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (06:31):

Was it beautiful? I mean, opium poppies are beautiful, right?

Amy Stewart (06:34):

Yeah. A lot of these are very pretty plants. I was growing foxglove, digitalis, which is a heart medication. It's a great example of a plant that's both medicine and poison depending on the dose and who is taking it. Tobacco is beautiful, it flowers depending on which one you grow it can be quite large and impressive looking plant. A lot of them are very pretty.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (06:58):

I've heard that some people think plants have a consciousness. I was reading something about maybe the nightshades have an ability to hate. Do you think that's true?

Amy Stewart (07:08):

Well, I'm fascinated by this and it is something that we're finding out more about. One way that plants communicate is through root exudates. They exude chemicals out of the roots into the soil. Those root exudates can attract certain microbes or other living creatures that might help the plant do better or ward off enemies. There are also plants that do the same thing above ground. If they're under attach, they can release a pheromone that can attract the predator of the bug that's attacking them. In other words, they can signal for help. This certainly suggests that they're able to react to stimuli around them in a way that we didn't know was possible. We're just starting to figure out.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (07:55):

Do you think that there's a reason that we have these toxic plants in our world?

Amy Stewart (08:01):

Sure, they're just defending themselves. This is something I try to remind people of is that you don't have to be terrified of poisonous plants, they're just trying to make a living. They're trying to protect themselves against predators. It's a mistake to think that because something is green and comes out of the ground that it's all natural and it's therefore good for us. We tend to think anything that's plant based is more healthy and superior in some way but strychnine is 100% plant based, so is cyanide, so is ricin. They're just trying to keep from getting eaten. Plants are rooted in the ground, they don't have opposable thumbs, they can't run and hide, they can't fight back. But that's why plants have thorns or spines or stinging nettles. They're all just trying to keep predators away. They inflict pain and suffering on anyone who tries to eat them.

Anne Strainchamps (08:58):

That was Amy Stewart. She writes mystery novels in addition to books like Drunken Botanist and Wicked Plants. That was Shannon Henry Kleiber talking with her. One of the really fascinating things about poisons is that in small doses, they can cure but in larger doses kill. So much power in a simple leaf or a mushroom or a white powder. So much potential for the right or wrong person that can be tempting.

Anne Strainchamps (09:38):

Kathryn, if I wanted to poison someone today, what would be the best way to go about it.

Kathryn Harkup (09:44):

First of all, I assume that you want to get away with it.

Anne Strainchamps (09:48):

Absolutely.

Kathryn Harkup (09:48):

In that case, what you need to do is a very good study of a person's health and if they have any particular diseases. You want to pick a poison that mimics some of the symptoms. What you're trying to do is avoid the autopsy. The other alternative, of course, is to poison someone using whatever you want and then flee the country to somewhere that doesn't have an extradition treaty. That's your only real option if you want to poison someone and get away with it.

Anne Strainchamps (10:25):

What about delivery mechanisms?

Kathryn Harkup (10:28):

It's really person specific. Contact poison, poisons that have been inhaled, injected, swallowed, added to food.

Anne Strainchamps (10:39):

It's a very intimate kind of killing, don't you think?

Kathryn Harkup (10:42):

It's a statement. It is quite staggering and terrifying, the amount of thought that goes into these processes. It's very, very devious and unpleasant.

Anne Strainchamps (10:57):

Kathryn Harkup is a chemist with an expertise in poison. She lives in Valencia, Spain, I won't speculate as to why but we reached her by Skype. She's also made a close study of a famous poisoner, someone who knocked off a good 300 victims using everything from arsenic to cyanide. Her name? Agatha Christie, the mystery writer.

Kathryn Harkup (11:22):

She was so good. You just mention Agatha Christie and you can imagine a body on a library carpet with a half-spilled cup of tea next to them. That's what Agatha Christie was about.

Anne Strainchamps (11:34):

One of her favorites was arsenic, how come?

Kathryn Harkup (11:38):

It was extraordinarily popular among British poisoners in the 19th century. It was used a frightening amount to dump off spouses and various rich relatives.

Anne Strainchamps (11:52):

Wasn't it called the inheritance powder?

Kathryn Harkup (11:55):

Yeah, the French gave it the glorious name of inheritance powder. It was embarrassingly easy to get ahold of. Certainly before the 1850s in the UK you could just walk into almost any shop and just ask outright for arsenic. They'd just hand it over to you.

Anne Strainchamps (12:14):

It's a pretty gruesome way to die, isn't it?

Kathryn Harkup (12:17):

It's horrific. I think TV and films, they do a massive disservice because if you watch TV poisonings, people take a forkful of food, they choke a bit and they're dead on the floor in seconds. That's not how it happens in the vast majority of cases. Poisoning takes, depending on the poison but in most cases, poisoning takes hours and it is an agonizing few hours. It is very upsetting for all concerned.

Anne Strainchamps (12:47):

Which brings me, actually, one of the things that always makes me a little uneasy reading especially Christie's novels, she usually uses poisons that people can get ahold of, sometimes that they can just brew up themselves, say from plants growing in the garden. I always used to read them and think, "I don't think you should be letting people know this." Has anybody ever actually copied her murders in the real world?

Kathryn Harkup (13:10):

There are a few examples where that has happened. There was a case in France where a man, for reasons I don't know, he took a strong dislike to this particular woman who was a great friend of his uncle's. He had a particularly devious ploy to get rid of her. He added atropine to a bottle of wine and gave the wine to his uncle as a gift, knowing that his uncle very rarely, if ever, drank wine. He thought his uncle would be safe but special occasion when the friend comes around, they'll open up the wine and the woman will die. Unfortunately, the uncle saved the wine for Christmas Day.

Anne Strainchamps (13:54):

Oh no.

Kathryn Harkup (13:55):

He and his wife drank it and unfortunately, he died. Now, the uncle was quite old, people put it down to natural causes but when they went round to the uncle's house to kind of clear up and prepare everything for the funeral, there was this bottle of wine on the table. This is France, they're like, "Well, it's wine." They toasted the uncle and these people got sick as well. This was the first alert that it was something sinister going on. They went round to this guy's flat and they searched his flat for evidence. They found an Agatha Christie book. The book just happened to fall open at the page with the atropine poisoning in it. He was convicted.

Anne Strainchamps (14:40):

Oh my gosh, that's the first case I know of, murder through literary influence.

Kathryn Harkup (14:47):

As I always point out to anyone who is thinking of using Agatha Christie as inspiration, the murderer always gets found out.

Anne Strainchamps (14:56):

In some of those classic murder mysteries, I remember detectives referring to poison as a woman's weapon.

Kathryn Harkup (15:03):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Anne Strainchamps (15:03):

With some contempt. Like, if you're a man you're going to stand up straight and bludgeon someone to death but a woman will sneak arsenic into your dessert while smiling in your face.

Kathryn Harkup (15:14):

It's complete rubbish. Yes, women use poison more often than men but in terms of pure numbers, there are more male poisoners than female. Women still use other methods more often than they use poison. Unfortunately it's a bit of a myth that poison is a woman's weapon. Agatha Christie, which you mentioned, she was rather egalitarian about the whole thing. I think she had a 50/50 split for her poisoning.

Anne Strainchamps (15:50):

Equal opportunity poisoning. Kathryn is a chemist and writer and author of A is for Arsenic. We tracked her down in Spain where she's currently investigating another classic literary poisoner, William Shakespeare. Coming up, an argument that the dread, the fear, the horror of it all is good for you. I'm Anne Strainchamps. It is To The Best of Our Knowledge, from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.

Anne Strainchamps (16:40):

From San Francisco, listener Mark Pantoja sent us a scary story. It's called Reset.

Speaker 5 (16:47):

Yeah, that document is a little behind schedule but it's shaping up.

Speaker 6 (16:53):

Can we review it in the next hour?

Speaker 5 (16:55):

Yeah, no, sorry about the delay. I'll send it your way this afternoon.

Speaker 6 (16:59):

Okay.

Speaker 5 (17:00):

Just make a quick call and we'll wrap things up.

Speaker 6 (17:03):

Great.

Speaker 5 (17:04):

Thanks.

Speaker 7 (17:20):

Welcome back to re-life. Would you like to talk to a loved one?

Speaker 5 (17:26):

I can only talk to her for a few minutes before she starts to ask all the wrong questions and get upset. I could dumb it down but then that's not who Abigail was. She was always smart, always sharp, always a step ahead.

Speaker 7 (17:42):

I'll get Abigail on the line.

Speaker 5 (17:44):

I talk to her on the phone. When she was alive, it was always text or chat or video. I think that's the first thing that sets her off.

Abigail (17:58):

What's so important you had to call?

Speaker 5 (18:02):

They got her voice right, copied from cell phone and YouTube videos.

Abigail (18:07):

It's what happens when you try to message me.

Speaker 5 (18:10):

They've got her pauses and inflection and laughs down perfectly. There wasn't much of her mind left to draw after the accident. They rendered her from tweets and reviews and comments and likes and Netflix categories and all the crap they used to peddle.

Abigail (18:35):

So cute.

Speaker 5 (18:36):

Useless garbage to her.

Abigail (18:37):

This is the best thing all week.

Speaker 5 (18:41):

They reverse engineered her with marketing.

Abigail (18:44):

I just thought of you. I heart you.

Speaker 5 (18:48):

We talk until she starts to complain about not being able to check her email.

Abigail (18:54):

Why won't my apps refresh?

Speaker 5 (18:56):

She never guesses. Who guesses they're a simulation? But she knows something's wrong.

Abigail (19:04):

Where's mom? Can I talk to her? Why did you call me, Dad? Where are you? Dad? Dad? Where are you?

Speaker 5 (19:24):

I don't know where she is. In the ground? On a server in Russia?

Abigail (19:30):

Dad?

Speaker 5 (19:33):

I'm sorry baby. I just wanted to hear your voice.

Abigail (19:38):

Where am I?

Speaker 5 (19:41):

There are questions I can't ask. I don't want to know the answers.

Abigail (19:46):

I feel like I'm in a movie or something.

Speaker 5 (19:50):

I always end the conversation before any crying. Would she cry?

Abigail (19:57):

I don't know where to begin.

Speaker 5 (19:58):

Does her simulation feel anything?

Abigail (20:03):

I'm confused sometimes.

Speaker 5 (20:06):

Sometimes I think of letting her go. Erasing her.

Abigail (20:11):

What is up with you? What is up with this?

Speaker 5 (20:14):

How many dark rooms out there are filled with people endlessly replaying loved ones? Or Michael Jackson or Elvis?

Abigail (20:23):

Why aren't you saying anything?

Speaker 7 (20:28):

Would you like to save this conversation?

Speaker 5 (20:31):

I never do. I always factory reset my daughter so we have the same conversation day after day. The same brief few minutes when everything is like it was. I had her rendered so I could tell her how much I love her and tell her goodbye but I can't do it. I can't let go.

Abigail (21:03):

I miss you, hugs.

Speaker 5 (21:08):

Was she always so affectionate? It's hard to remember what she was like before. Sometimes I wonder how well they've marketed to me.

Abigail (21:19):

We should hang more often. I miss-

Anne Strainchamps (21:34):

Reset. A story by listener Mark Pantoja, acted by Bruce Bradley and Lila [Rivard-Hoster 00:21:42].

Anne Strainchamps (21:49):

Now, writer Gemma Files makes the case for horror as comfort food.

Gemma Files (21:59):

How can spending all your time playing out negative scenarios in fiction help you live a more positive life? I get asked this a lot as a horror author. I know for myself that Wes Craven's observation about horror being far more comforting than real life because it, at least, has set rules makes a lot of sense to me. By allowing myself to think my way through all the worst things that could potentially happen to me or my loved ones in a fictional space I feel as though I can cultivate at least a modicum of control in the face of the truly uncontrollable. It also supports my general thesis that horror, far from being a narrow, niche market actually involves bedrock human experiences and impulses. The awful mysteries that everyone will eventually be confronted by. Why not take an informed approach to things like mortality and loss, rather than allow them to spring out on you without warning.

Gemma Files (22:58):

By consuming horror, I guarantee that nothing is ever off the table for me to contemplate. I'm thus able to meet things head on, with a well adjusted sense of my own capabilities, even a type of black humor which allows me to emerge from sudden disasters bent and bruised but hopefully never broken. I have a son and my son has special needs, he's on the autism spectrum. I have to say that I believe that my background in horror allowed me to accept that and contemplate both the worst and the best things that could happen in his life with a little more equanimity than a person who hadn't already been used to playing those things out in their head. That's what I believe. It's potentially possible that other people have other things that they rely on, religion perhaps. My husband's uncle is the priest who married us and his father's a deacon. He is a Catholic but I'm not.

Gemma Files (24:11):

Horror is my thing. Horror is my church. I'm already used to thinking about things like, "What if my son gets hit by a car? What if he gets a horrible disease? What if a demon comes into his mouth when he's yawning too wide?" Whatever. That when something does pop up, when for example your father comes from Australia and says, "You know, Cal isn't really responding the way that all the other kids of his age I've seen respond to stimulus, respond to other people." You have your moment of, "Dad, what the hell do you know?" But then after that, you let yourself cry and you get on with it. It's not the worst thing that can happen. Very little is the worst thing that can happen.

Anne Strainchamps (25:05):

Writer Gemma Files with her dangerous idea. You can find more dangerous ideas on our website at TTBook.org.

Anne Strainchamps (25:20):

One of the creepiest books I've read recently is Dan Chaon's collection of short stories called Stay Awake. It's horror but the creep factor comes from their everyday-ness, their ordinariness. It's a whole book of stories of people who are alive but feel like ghosts. Here's an example.

Dan Chaon (25:45):

More and more, he thought, his days at the grocery store were like being in a zombie movie except that he or the undead appeared to be too depressed to be cannibals. You didn't even realize most of the time that they were dead. He had the worrisome thought that he would look up and there would be his mom or there would be he, himself, Patrick Lane, gray skinned and surprised looking standing at the end of an empty checkout aisle. It had occurred to him that if the undead don't realize that they are dead, he might easily be one of them himself.

Anne Strainchamps (26:18):

You were really drawn to the dark side from early on.

Dan Chaon (26:25):

I was, I was and I don't quite know why because I was a really scaredy kid. I was terrified of the dark. I remember being so afraid of the Wizard of Oz that I had to watch it from outside the room, standing in the door so I could slip out whenever the witch showed up. But for some reason, at the same time, I was magnetically drawn to this scary stuff. I think it had to do with wanting to find a way to conquer it or at least to know it.

Anne Strainchamps (26:55):

People are talking about this new book as a collection of ghost stories and you've talked about it too, that way. But we're not talking about the white ghost in the sheet.

Dan Chaon (27:05):

I don't think there's even anything supernatural that happens in most of the stories.

Anne Strainchamps (27:10):

But would you still call this a collection of ghost stories?

Dan Chaon (27:14):

Yeah. To me, ghosts have to do with the things that we can't quite escape even though they're not tangible. I think a lot about the people we were in the past and whether those people still exist in some way. I also think about the ways in which we try to escape our pasts. I think those pasts contain ghosts for all of us.

Dan Chaon (27:41):

He had been a different person back then, a drunk, a monster. At 18, he married the girl he'd gotten pregnant and then had set about slowly, steadily ruining all their lives when he'd abandon them, his wife and son, back in Nebraska. He had been 24, a danger to himself and others. Years later, when he was sober he wanted to own up to his behavior, to pay the back child support, to apologize. But they were nowhere to be found.

Anne Strainchamps (28:16):

We should talk about, for example, the first story in the book, Bees.

Dan Chaon (28:20):

Yes.

Anne Strainchamps (28:20):

The setting is, in some ways, the most mundane setting you could imagine. This character, what, he drives a truck for UPS.

Dan Chaon (28:28):

He's a UPS driver, he's just married, his wife's a nurse. They've had a kid. They're really pretty happy. Then their son starts having these night terrors I guess you'd call them. He wakes up screaming. This brings up a secret that the main character has been hiding, which is that when he was younger, he had another family that he had abandoned-

Anne Strainchamps (28:52):

Doesn't know if they're alive or dead.

Dan Chaon (28:53):

Doesn't know if they're alive or dead but begins to feel very certain that the son that he abandoned is out to get him.

Dan Chaon (29:03):

In the dream, DJ is older. He looks to be 19 or 20. He walks into a bar where Gene is hunched on a stool sipping a glass of beer. Gene recognizing him right away, his posture, those thin shoulders, those large eyes. But now, DJ's arms are long and muscular, tattooed. There is a hooded, unpleasant look on his face as he ambles up to the bar, pressing in next to Gene. DJ orders a shot of Jim Beam, Gene's old favorite. "I've been thinking about you a lot ever since I died" DJ murmurs. Gene puts a trembly cigarette to his mouth and breathes on it, choking on the taste. He wants to say, "I'm sorry, forgive me." But he can't breathe. DJ shows his small, crooked teeth. "I know how to hurt you" DJ whispers.

Anne Strainchamps (30:00):

Then I won't give away what happens but it's very, very creepy.

Dan Chaon (30:05):

Good things don't happen, generally, in this book.

Anne Strainchamps (30:11):

I wanted to ask you about creating the atmosphere of a ghost story because we were talking about America being haunted. I think you see that even in the American landscape-

Dan Chaon (30:23):

Absolutely.

Anne Strainchamps (30:23):

... at least in the landscapes you create in these stories.

Dan Chaon (30:25):

Absolutely.

Anne Strainchamps (30:26):

Is that something you really thought about, consciously?

Dan Chaon (30:28):

Well, I'm drawn to that kind of landscape. I grew up in Western Nebraska which has a really stark kind of beauty but also a sense of emptiness and inhospitality. I think about the town where I grew up which was a little grain elevator town on the Union Pacific railroad line. I Google mapped it recently and it's not there. It's just not there.

Anne Strainchamps (30:53):

You come from a ghost town.

Dan Chaon (30:54):

Well, I live in one now. There are a couple of stories that are set in Cleveland post economic bust, 2008 disaster. There's this sense of foreboding in these empty houses and overgrown lawns and boarded up storefronts that I see a lot of. I know the Cleveland Chamber of Commerce is going to hunt me down and kill me but I love Cleveland, I'm not talking down on it. But there is something about that part of the landscape that's really inspiring to me and really interesting, even as it's kind of spooky.

Anne Strainchamps (31:29):

Which makes me wonder, is America haunted?

Dan Chaon (31:33):

It's incredibly haunted. It's haunted by not only the things that we want to reinvent but also by the things that we want to forget, that we don't want to talk about. So much of our politics is about not talking about things.

Anne Strainchamps (31:49):

I wanted to ask about your personal reasons for being drawn to some of the themes that we've been talking about, hauntedness and the ghosts of lives not lived or lives past.

Dan Chaon (32:02):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Anne Strainchamps (32:03):

You were adopted.

Dan Chaon (32:04):

Yeah.

Anne Strainchamps (32:05):

Is that the kind of thing you thought about as a kid? Were you one of those kids who lay awake and thought about what other life could I be living?

Dan Chaon (32:12):

Yeah. Well, I think that's the condition of being adopted in some ways. It asks you to think about some of the questions that other people don't necessarily have to think about. Although I think it applies to everyone. I could have been adopted by any number of people. Would I have been a different person? Would I have had a different life arc than I do?

Anne Strainchamps (32:35):

We were raised by different parents at different stages of our lives.

Dan Chaon (32:37):

Yeah.

Anne Strainchamps (32:38):

It's not as though our parents are the same people all the way through, are they?

Dan Chaon (32:41):

Do you ever have that weird realization when you're hanging out with your kids and you think, "Oh my mom was this age when she was hanging out with me. This is what it felt like to be her." Suddenly you see them in a very different light. That's another kind of ghost, I guess. You get to see the ghost of your mom as she really was or as she maybe was experiencing instead of Mom, which is a completely different relationship.

Anne Strainchamps (33:13):

So far, we've been talking about the creepier side of ghosts but you mentioned you also lost your wife. I know she died a few years ago from cancer.

Dan Chaon (33:23):

Yeah.

Anne Strainchamps (33:24):

Did that bring you new sorts of thoughts about ghosts?

Dan Chaon (33:29):

I think that losing my wife has been a defining thing for me in the last few years and has really altered the way that I exist in the world. I think the saddest aspect of it is that I didn't really get to see her ghost, or I haven't yet. I expected that in some ways, it would be the most natural thing that I would see her. In some ways the most unnatural thing is not seeing her. She's just not there.

Anne Strainchamps (34:06):

She was a writer, too?

Dan Chaon (34:09):

Yeah, she was a writer.

Anne Strainchamps (34:09):

A writing teacher.

Dan Chaon (34:10):

She was my writing teacher. We were actually together since I was 19, basically, my entire adult life was spent with Sheila. We shared a lot of things. We shared a sense of humor, a sense of the importance of writing, we were both teachers. We were one another's biggest fans.

Anne Strainchamps (34:32):

I was wondering if, what you do have is her books.

Dan Chaon (34:35):

I do have her books.

Anne Strainchamps (34:35):

She was a short story writer and she published her first novel, sadly, posthumously. It came out after she died.

Dan Chaon (34:41):

Right.

Anne Strainchamps (34:41):

But you have all those stories, which you must read and reread, find new things in.

Dan Chaon (34:47):

I'm actually in the process of editing her last short story collection, which she was working on when she died. It actually took me longer than I feel was proper to get the guts to go back and start editing it. It was pretty hard. I think it's getting to a point where you can go back to those stories as if you're visiting the lost person. For a long time, it was too hard to visit because you knew that you couldn't stay. They weren't really going to come back with you. I'm just thinking that sales of antidepressants are going to rise after this episode of To The Best of Our Knowledge has aired.

Anne Strainchamps (35:33):

I think the point of what we've been saying and of your fiction is that the state of being haunted is not necessarily such a bad thing.

Dan Chaon (35:42):

No, I don't think it is. I think sometimes that is an American problem, thinking that it would be fantastic to be happy all the time. I don't think it would be fantastic to be happy all the time because I think you need the other side of it to be really happy. The part of going to this other place where you look at ghosts and you think about your own mortality and your own mistakes is one way to go back to your life right now and be happy and grateful for it.

Speaker 11 (36:19):

Stay awake, don't nod and dream.

Anne Strainchamps (36:32):

Stay Awake is a collection of short stories by Dan Chaon. Now for something completely different. An interview with someone who probably takes Halloween way more seriously than you do, the Magistra Templi Rex of the Church of Satan.

Blanche Barton (36:54):

Satan represents indulgence instead of abstinence. Satan represents kindness to those who deserve it instead of love wasted on ingrates. Satan represents vengeance instead of turning the other cheek.

Anne Strainchamps (37:08):

That's coming up. I'm Anne Strainchamps, it's from The Best of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.

Speaker 13 (37:26):

I'm haunted by the food I eat. How lame is that?

Anne Strainchamps (37:30):

A ghost story from listener Jonathan Blyth.

Speaker 13 (37:33):

I didn't understand last year why my apartment was slowly accumulating spectral barnyard animals. Phantom pigs rooting in my living room, ghostly chickens foraging in the carpet. Seriously, ghostly chickens. There's a flock of them roosting in the laundry room now. I can't describe the feeling of seeing these hundreds of animals milling around my place knowing I've eaten every one of them. It's not that they're spooky exactly, just that there's so many of them. I was lucky to be standing by the sink when a spectral squid flailed its tentacles out of the six quart pot in which I was boiling rigatoni for dinner, with meatballs. The cow will probably turn up one of these days. Of course, the first time a bear lumbered through the kitchen, I just about wet myself. When did I ever eat a bear? Then I remembered that super yummy homemade pepper sausage my neighbor, Randall, makes from wild game he hunts. Who knows what all goes in there. Anyway, that's how it is now. They're just part of my life. Like memories but more vivid.

Speaker 13 (38:39):

I could go on about the herds of cattle or the clams crusting the toilet bowl but the real reason why I'm now strictly a vegetarian is this. Three days ago, a girl showed up, 16 maybe, pretty with short brown pixie hair. The second I saw her, my mind reeled and I started to feel cold. My stomach began churning. She just looked at me, not angry, at least not at me, just serious and said nothing. Neither do the tall black woman and boy of around 10 who arrived yesterday morning. I don't know where they came from but I can guess. I just hope it wasn't the pepper sausage, because it was really good. You know what I mean? I liked it.

Anne Strainchamps (39:32):

Thanks to Wisconsin listener Jonathan Blyth for that story, read by Stephen Montanya.

Anne Strainchamps (39:45):

What is the best way to confront your fear? It's to poke a stick at it, defeat it by making fun of it, belittling it, mocking it. Blanche Barton embraces this idea to the nth degree. She's the Magistra Templi Rex of the Church of Satan and until recently, it's high priestess. Her book, the Church of Satan is the go-to guide on the history of the religion. Steve Paulson started with this simple question. Does she really worship Satan?

Blanche Barton (40:19):

The idea of worshiping Satan is ridiculous. We worship ourselves, first and foremost. We use the Satanic as a metaphor for calling forth the powers within ourselves that we find enriching or enlivening. Satan is always been a metaphor of defiance, fortitude against all odds, self determination in whatever guises he is represented. There has always been a Satanic figure in every culture from the very beginnings of man and I imagine there always must be.

Steve Paulson (40:51):

But you could call your church the Church of Rebellion or the Church of Defiance. Satan is a very loaded word and frankly, a turnoff to a lot of people. Why choose that figure of Satan?

Blanche Barton (41:04):

We do that, Steve, exactly because of what you just said. It is loaded. Words are very powerful, words are magical incantations whether you're talking about Democrats and Republicans or Osama Bin Laden or Adidas, they're all loaded with something behind them. Satan has a lot of baggage. I think by calling what he started the Church of Satan, Anton LaVey was underlining the fact that we are manipulated by language and that we should use it to our advantage, not be intimidated by things that are sold to us as evil. We should be very careful about things that are sold as wicked.

Steve Paulson (41:47):

Speaking of words, it's striking that you use the name Satan rather than the devil. I think Satan is even more powerful, the word Satan is even more powerful than the devil.

Blanche Barton (41:58):

Satan is the adversary, the other, the outsider. It is potent. Satan in all of his guises, Lucifer, Prometheus, the fallen one, isn't he the best representative for human? We both share the fall from grace and we both use whatever methods we can find for ourselves to redeem ourselves, if redemption is what we want. We can't be redeemed by somebody saving us. We have to summon up the power within ourselves. No one is going to come along and save us.

Steve Paulson (42:32):

What are the Church of Satan's core beliefs?

Blanche Barton (42:35):

Well, we do have the nine Satanic statements, I don't know whether you want me to read them or not.

Steve Paulson (42:39):

Sure.

Blanche Barton (42:40):

Well, this was published originally in 1969 and it's the core beliefs that all Satanists who understand what Anton LaVey put forth lived by. Satan represents indulgence instead of abstinence. Satan represents vital existence instead of spiritual pipe dreams, in all of their guises. Satan represents undefiled wisdom instead of hypocritical self-deceit. Satan represents kindness to those who deserve it instead of love wasted on ingrates. Satan represents vengeance instead of turning the other cheek. Satan represents responsibility to the responsible instead of concern for psychic vampires. Satan represents man as just another animal, sometimes better, more often worse than those that walk on all fours. Who, because of his divine spiritual and intellectual development has become the most vicious animal of all. Satan represents all of the so-called sins as they all lead to physical, mental or emotional gratification. Most importantly, number nine, Satan has been the best friend the church has ever had as he has kept it in business all these years.

Steve Paulson (43:55):

Okay. Let me follow up on number nine. You're saying without the concept of Satan, the church, particularly the Christian Church would have a hard time justifying itself?

Blanche Barton (44:06):

There always has to be that balance. Not necessarily good versus evil but what God represents generally, we're talking metaphorically of course, whether you believe in an actual god or not, that's your business. But metaphorically at least he represents conventionality, predictability, the safety of being within the norms and staying within the bounds of propriety but there always have to be those pioneers, the ones who color outside the lines. The blasphemers, the ones who are unpredictable and unconventional, the bohemians. That is the constant interplay of humanity. That's how we move forward and pull back. That's the swinging of the pendulum. That Satanic element will always be there.

Steve Paulson (44:50):

Now, one thing that's striking about a lot of the Satanic statements is they basically praise selfishness and hedonism. Is that a fair way to characterize what the Church of Satan believes in?

Blanche Barton (45:02):

Well, selfishness is very practical. I think we're all selfish and for a very good reason. Of course, what gives me pleasure is often contributing to society. Those who mean the most to be, my parents, my children, my friends. There is certainly room for love and even sacrifice for a Satanist. But unlike many other spiritual religions, we don't need a good guy badge. Anton LaVey used that as a phrase, meaning a big patch on your chest or on your sleeve that says, "I'm a good guy. I'm doing good things. I'm a white witch. I'm okay." We understand that it's not necessary to do that. You don't have to broadcast but it's necessary and it feeds you. What is selfish for me, it gives me pleasure to see people I love happy.

Steve Paulson (45:52):

When I listen to you, you seem very serious about all of this and yet, as you were reciting these nine Satanic statements, there's a certain element of a joke in all this, or having fun with the whole concept of the commandments. For instance, number five, Satan represents vengeance instead of turning the other cheek. I get the sense that there is a little bit of a chuckle as that statement was devised. Am I right about that?

Blanche Barton (46:20):

There is definitely a chuckle and a wink. Anton LaVey came from a carnie background. He was a man of music, he was a musician in his soul and by practice but he also recognized this sense of humor. A magician is not worth his salt if he doesn't have a sense of humor and a sense of perspective about himself. Pretentiousness is one of our sins and every time, whenever Anton LaVey was interviewed or in his writings, you'll notice if he starts slipping into pedantry, he tends to undercut it with a joke. He turns it around. I think it's always necessary but if you interpret that as saying he was just selling this to people, that would be wrong because Satanists are very serious about this philosophy but we also understand that humor is one of humanity's saving graces.

Steve Paulson (47:15):

There's a popular image of what Satanic worshipers do. There are animal sacrifices and altars of naked women, the black mass. Is any of this what you do?

Blanche Barton (47:29):

We definitely do use the altars of naked women. We glorify the flesh. What's more fleshly and enticing and lovely than the naked female form. In group rituals, sometimes we choose that. In solitary rituals, obviously we don't. But there are no animal sacrifices, actually. If you read the Satanic Bible, it's very clear that we consider children and animals the most native magicians because they're the most influenced by their purest instincts. They don't have the layers and layers of social conditioning laid upon them.

Steve Paulson (48:09):

We've been having fun to some degree with this whole idea. You're poking fun at religious traditions but there is a dark side to the whole tradition of Satanic worship. Some people have really run with this and done some horrible things. Charles Manson, who committed his atrocious murders invoking Satan as I recall. I guess the question is, does your church, the Church of Satan, have any responsibility for some of those people who go off the deep end.

Blanche Barton (48:41):

There are always the darker myths. Satanists, true Satanists use them to combat your own fears and that which holds you back from your best accomplishments. There will always be those who use whatever they want to, to justify their violence or their counterproductive actions. Satanists recognize them for what they are and believe that they should be punished accordingly.

Steve Paulson (49:11):

I'm willing to bet that a lot of people would see the very idea of Satan as a construction of Christianity and the Church of Satan is the flip side of that, the inversion of core Christian beliefs. I guess it raises the question, does your church only work in a largely Christian culture?

Blanche Barton (49:32):

No. As I was saying earlier, there is always the Satanic, whether it's Sumeria or ancient Greece or some imaginable culture in our far flung future, there will always be the outsiders, the pioneers, the blasphemers. They will always, by whatever name they are conjured, they will always be the ones exploring the murkier borderlands where discoveries are made.

Anne Strainchamps (50:07):

Blanche Barton is Magistra Templi Rex of the Church of Satan and until recently she was its high priestess. She's the author of the Church of Satan, a history of the world's most notorious religion. Steve Paulson talked with her.

Speaker 15 (50:21):

Yes, you're going to hell. Yes, you're going to hell.

Anne Strainchamps (50:29):

To the Best of Our Knowledge comes to you from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. Charles Monroe-Kane produced this hour with help from Angelo Batista, Shannon Henry Kleiber and Mark Riechers. Joe Hartdke is our sound designer and technical director. Steve Paulson is our executive producer and I'm Anne Strainchamps. Happy Halloween.

Speaker 15 (50:49):

Yes, you're going to hell.

Speaker 15 (51:00):

PRX.

Last modified: 
November 20, 2020