Haunted History
September 22, 2013

It must be fall, since I’m thinking Halloween is right around the corner, and what better way to put myself in the mood than this collection of episodes exploring spooky sites?

The two-disc Haunted History set features eight 45-minute episodes:

  1. Ghosts of Gettysburg (at the Civil War battlefield, an abusive orphanage, and the Jennie Wade house, home of the only civilian victim of that battle)
  2. Salem Witch Trials
  3. Murder Castle (H.H. Holmes, “America’s first serial killer”, in Chicago, where spirits of his victims supposedly haunt the post office built on the site of his former house)
  4. Lost Souls of Pennhurst (a Pennsylvania mental asylum, now a haunted house tourist attraction, with ties to the eugenics and sterilization movements)
  5. Katrina Cannibal (featuring a murder/suicide a year after the New Orleans disaster, said to be demonic possession)
  6. A Deadly Possession (about a dybbuk-infested wine box)
  7. The Torso Murders (the story of a 1930s serial killer in Cleveland-area shanty towns preying on outcasts)
  8. The Manson Murders

These are not your parents’ talking head documentaries (although since the series takes ghosts seriously, that may not be the right word). There are plenty of fast cuts, recreations, and dramatized footage to keep things visually interesting, in addition to interviews with “eyewitnesses”. I don’t buy into the premise, but I still got chills up my spine, just due to the effective video treatments.

Unfortunately, there’s more emphasis on supposed sightings than on the history, although you can glean aspects of what happened in between the amateur video and storytelling. If you didn’t already know the basics, though, you might find it difficult to follow just the facts.

Some episodes are better at this than others — the “Murder Castle” entry, for instance, emphasizes history more than spirit visits, perhaps because that story is scary enough just focused on what really happened. It also includes conversation with a descendent of Holmes who’s written a book on him. I recognized shots from Rick Geary’s graphic novel retelling of the story, although it’s not credited.

I couldn’t finish the “Pennhurst” episode because it skirts closely to becoming about torture of the inhabitants. “Katrina Cannibal” surprised me, since it’s so much more modern than the others, although the link between the gory murder case they want to cover and the storm is tenuous at best, given the time elapsed between the two. That episode seems an excuse to recap the usual haunted New Orleans/ voodoo stuff in a recent context. The “Deadly Possession” episode seemed to have wandered in from some other series, since I didn’t get much historical content from it.

The series overall seems schizophrenic. I recommend sticking with the pure historical episodes about the serial killers, the “Torso Murders” and “Murder Castle” entries. I’d watch more of those, particularly if we could drop the “I felt the spirit!” aspects.

I can see why the set begins with the two most obviously historical pieces, given that this short series airs on H2, the channel for reruns of History Channel content (without the reality shows). You can also watch the episodes on their website if you log in with the right cable provider. (The studio provided a review copy.)

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