The Devil in the Cornfield: Short Stories from the Summer Writing Contest

Weird Darkness host Darren Marlar reads the top entries from the Milwaukee Paranormal Conference/Cult of Weird speculative fiction writing contest.

Over the summer Cult of Weird and the Milwaukee Paranormal Conference teamed up to present a summer speculative fiction writing contest. Submissions had only three requirements: A 1500 word limit, a paranormal theme, and it had to be set in Wisconsin.

We received 40 amazing entries, the top 3 of which were read at the conference earlier this month. A recent episode of the podcast Weird Darkness, in which host Darren Marlar “presents stories of ghosts, demons, cryptids, unsolved, mysteries, aliens, and other things dark,” features the top 3 stories, as well as the two honorable mentions.

These stories are:

  • Beware the Bindlestiff by Carolyn Toms-Neary
  • Stopping Sirens by Cassie O’Rourke
  • Thinning the Herd by Eric Montag
  • The Fortune Teller of Rhinelander by Marlin Bressi
  • The Devil in the Cornfield by Zelia Edgar

Thank you to everyone who submitted a story for the contest!

via Milwaukee Paranormal Conference

DIY DEATHstination: Win Great Stuff by Digging up Stories from Your Local Cemetery

What fascinating stories are laying buried 6 feet under? Share a story for your chance to win a great prize pack for the DIY DEATHstination contest.
DIY DEATHstination giveaway

Did you miss your chance to win a pair of antique coffin screws from the memento mori Instagram giveaway this month? Well it’s not too late! You have one more shot at winning some Victorian funerary hardware and other ghoulish goodies from some amazing contributors for @DEATHstination‘s latest DIY DEATHstination contest. Mortician Laura Hardin tracks down the fascinating lives behind gravestones she visits and shares them on her popular Instagram account, which just surpassed 4k followers. To celebrate, she’s hosting a giveaway that includes:

Here’s how to enter:

Follow Laura now at @DEATHstination

The Spirit Photography of William H. Mumler

Who created the first spirit photograph? Here’s the history behind the final October Instagram giveaway question.
William H. Mumler created the first spirit photograph

Since we’ve been giving away copies of Colin Dickey’s new book Ghostland all month in memento mori-themed “Boxes of Weird” for the October Instagram trivia contest, it only seemed fitting to reach out to the author himself for the fourth and final question.

Mr. Dickey graciously accepted the challenge, asking “Who created the first spirit photograph?”

Interestingly, the question highlights a quirky bit of history. In 1862 a New York jewellery engraver and amateur photographer named William H. Mumler created what is considered the first spirit photograph when he accidentally shot a double exposure image. He joked with a friend that it was a ghost. The friend believed him and began spreading the word. Soon business was booming for Mumler as people who had lost loved ones in the civil war flocked to him for one last photo of the deceased.

Mumler even captured a photograph of the widowed Mary Todd Lincoln with what appeared to be the spirit of her assassinated husband, President Abraham Lincoln. Mumler claimed he didn’t even know who the woman was when he photographed her, so he couldn’t have faked the photo.

William H. Mumler spirit photograph of Abraham Lincoln
Spirit photograph of Abraham Lincoln by William H. Mumler, c.1872

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Ironically, P. T. Barnum took him to court in 1869. The showman, who was responsible for numerous hoaxes himself, was accusing Mumler of fraud. Mumler, he said, was taking advantage of people whose judgment was clouded by grief. He supported this with claims that some of Mumler’s spirits were still among the living, as well as accusations that he had broken into people’s homes to steal photos of the deceased. The famed spirit photographer was found not guilty, but the accusations were enough to end his career.

While Mumler’s original photo is considered the first official spirit photograph, a man named W. Campbell from Jersey City actually did it first. A year prior to Mumler’s photo, Campbell took a test shot of an empty chair. But when the plate was developed, the image of a small boy had appeared in the chair. Campbell was never able to reproduce it, though, so Mumler’s uncanny ability to capture ghosts again and again was favored by the burgeoning spiritualist movement.

While the answer we were looking for was William H. Mumler, technically W. Campbell could not be discounted.

After putting it to vote, the winner of the 4th and final question this Halloween season is:

Spirit photography
Spirit photography by Troy Walter @fiend4halloween

There were a couple other really great contenders:

Spirit photography
Art by T. Davidsohn @thmdvdshn

William Mumler spirit photography
Mumler Family Photo by Squid @spookysquids

Memento Mori

Memento mori box of weird featuring macabre oddities

Thank you so much to everyone who played along this month, there were so many great entries! And HUGE thanks to Viking Books for contributing copies of Ghostland by Colin Dickey, Dead Sled Brand for the Hearse Drivers Union buttons, Grave Digger Candles for the black beeswax spine candles, and Poison Apple Printshop for “The Pallbearers” patches!

Happy Halloween! Follow @cultofweird on Instagram. And don’t forget, when you find weird things on your adventures tag @cultofweird or #cultofweird.

Here are the results of the previous weeks:

Little Bastard: The Disappearance of James Dean’s Cursed Car

After touring the US for several years as a grotesque cautionary exhibit, the wreckage of the car that legendary actor James Dean died in vanished without a trace.
The wreackage of James Dean's car on display after his death
The wreckage of James Dean’s car, with sheet metal added by George Barris to provide stability.

James Dean was killed on September 30, 1955 when he collided with another vehicle doing a reported 85 mph in his brand new Porsche 550 Spyder. He was breaking in the new car on the way to weekend sports car races in Salinas, California. Upon impact, the silver Spyder, which Dean had nicknamed Little Bastard, was reduced to a crumpled pile of aluminum and steel. His passenger, factory-trained Porsche mechanic Rolf Wütherich, was thrown from the wreck and survived. Dean was trapped inside the car, his foot crushed between the clutch and break pedal. A nurse passing by stopped to assist, and said she had felt a weak pulse. Dean’s friend Bill Hickman, a stunt driver for Warner Bros. Studios, had been following about ten minutes behind. When he reached the scene of the accident, he pried Dean from the wreck. It was said that Dean died in his arms. When the actor finally arrived at the hospital an hour later, he was pronounced dead.

He had a closed-casket funeral to conceal his severe injuries in his hometown of Fairmount, Indiana.

The wreckage of the Little Bastard was bought by Dr. William F. Eschrich, who stripped out the mechanical parts for use in his Lotus IX race car. He then gave the mangled remains to George Barris, the Hollywood customiser who created the Munster Koach and Drag-U-La casket dragster for The Munsters television series, the original 1966 Batmobile, and many others. For the next several years Barris showcased the car at car shows and other events, calling the exhibit “James Dean’s Last Sports Car.”

The car crash that killed James Dean

Then, while returning from a show in Florida in 1960, the Little Bastard disappeared. Barris claimed that when he opened the semi trailer it was being transported in, he found it empty. Many believe morbid curiosity had run its course and Barris invented the story to retire the wreckage while perpetuating the legend.

In his 1974 book Cars of the Stars Barris alleged that there had been numerous incidents involving fatal accidents and other serious injuries, such as Dr. Eschrich dying while racing the Lotus powered by the engine he removed from the Little Bastard. While a few minor mishaps have been corroborated, researchers have found no evidence to support most of Barris’ claims.

The whereabouts of the Little Bastard are still a mystery, but one man may have the answer. On the 50th anniversary of Dean’s death, the Volo Auto Museum in Illinois offered $1 million for the car. 10 years later, a few months after an episode of Brad Meltzer’s Decoded aired which featured the disappearance, a man contacted the museum. He claimed that, at the age of 6, he had accompanied his father and another man as they hid the car behind a false wall in a building in Whatcom County, Washington.

The man remembered some key bits of overheard conversation that lent credence to his claim, and he passed a polygraph test. However, he has declined to reveal the location of the building until he has a signed deal for a portion of the reward money. The museum will only pay if it gains legal possession of the car, and ownership is in question. Barris owned it in 1960 when it vanished, but if it is walled up in a building in Washington somewhere, who owns it now?

The last photo of James Dean
The last photo of James Dean, taken just hours before his death.

DEATHstination: Interview with ‘Morose Mortician’ and Grave Tripper Laura Hardin

In her spare time, mortician Laura Hardin wanders around cemeteries telling the fascinating stories of the interred for her popular Instagram account.
Laura Hardin, proprietor of the popular Instagram account DEATHstination
Visiting the gravedigger in the pioneer cemetery of Goldfield, Nevada.

Laura Hardin didn’t intend to have a career working with the dead. Sure, she enjoyed wandering around cemeteries, but preparing bodies for funerals wasn’t part of the plan. Lately, however, the taphophile turned mortician is making a name for herself educating the general public on the process of embalming and the idiosyncrasies of the death care industry. And when she’s not pumping arteries full of formaldehyde? You can find her searching cemeteries for graves with unusual histories for her popular Instagram account @DEATHstination.

From celebrities to serial killers, Laura digs up the fascinating and often tragic stories of the forgotten lives interred beneath our feet. If you’ve ever walked through a cemetery and wondered who all those people were, whose entire lives are now summed up with mere names and dates etched into stone, or if you’ve ever planned a trip specifically to visit a particular grave site, DEATHstination will be your new favorite addiction.

On a recent podcast, Laura recounted an incident in which she stopped for an impromptu photo shoot with a frog. A dead one. While on a date. The moment I heard that I knew I needed to feature her on Cult of Weird.

CULT OF WEIRD: How did your fascination with death begin?

LAURA HARDIN: That is a difficult question to answer. I cannot exactly pinpoint the moment my fascination with death began. Maybe I was just born with the fascination…? I remember being a child and conducting front yard funerals for insects. My father and I would watch Hitchcock movies together when I was young. As a teenager, I enjoyed staying home and watching Dateline murder investigations. Death, disease, serial killers, what goes into catching murders, cemeteries, etc. always peaked my interest for as long as I can remember.

The gravestone of Janie Porter with a postmortem photo of the deceased
DEATHstination: The gravestone of Janie Porter with a postmortem photo of the deceased. More on this right here.

Why did you decide to work in the death care industry?

LAURA: When I first entered college I had hopes of becoming a great sculptor. Eventually, reality set in and I realized I needed to focus on a career that would allow me to provide for myself, so I began studying Biology. Internally, I struggled to find a balance; how could I continue with my art but also pursue Biology? As fate would have it, I wound up at Cypress College, one of only two colleges in California that offers a degree in Mortuary Science. I never realized that embalming is as much of an art as it is a science. After taking a department workshop, I knew I had to complete a degree in Mortuary Science.

Have you learned anything shocking or unexpected since you became involved in the industry?

LAURA: While completing my course work in Mortuary Science, one of my instructors would constantly remind us students how conservative and, at times, sexist the death care industry can be. I took what my instructor said with a grain of salt until I entered the workforce. My first year as a licensed Funeral Director, I was told by a Southern California mortuary owner that the worst thing he had ever done was hire a woman. Another mortuary owner, after meeting with a family, told me that since the next of kin had tattoos, their loved one must have died from a drug overdose because all tattooed individuals do drugs. The Funeral Director in question was unaware that I have a good portion of my body tattooed as I always cover my art in a professional setting. Rarely am I offended but, in that moment, I wanted to throw off my suit jacket and ask him if he wanted to drug test me. Needless to say, I left his firm after only one week because of continued offhanded remarks such as, “I hope a plane crashes into that new mosque they are building”. Fortunately, more and more individuals, such as myself, are entering the death care industry. Change is definitely coming, however, it is slow to manifest.

Laura Hardin at the grave of
DEATHStination: The grave of stuntman Alfred “Dusty” Rhodes in Colma, CA. Rhodes died in 1948 when a stunt, a leap from the Golden Gate Bridge, went wrong. Read the story right here.

You collect funeral antiques. How did you get started and what are your favorite pieces in your collection?

LAURA: Learning about Victorian mourning practices threw open another death door for me and I started seeking out mourning jewellery. My collection is rather underwhelming, to be honest. My favorite piece, however, is a personal one. My great grandmother on my father’s side was a migrant farmer. Great Grandma Pearl died of pulmonary tuberculosis in Arizona when my grandmother was around 7 years old. Her death left my grandmother and her 4 siblings orphans. When my grandmother became too sick to live on her own, my family and I went through her belongings to determine what to keep and what to donate. My father informed me that my grandfather’s military headstone was hidden somewhere in the house. As I searched for the headstone, I came across a small seafoam green box. The box contained a ceramic cat, a silk coin purse, and a tin plaque that read, “At Rest”. I had no clue what the plaque was but I knew I wanted it. When I tried to only take the plaque my father stopped me and told me I had to take the entire box. When I asked why, he explained that the box contained the only possessions my grandmother ever had of her mother. I later came to find out that the plaque was my great grandmother Pearl’s coffin plate.

How does your work and morbid interests affect your daily life?

LAURA: They do not affect my life; they are my life. My every waking moment is dedicated to death in some form or another. Some people do not understand my need to consume as much death information as I humanly can and, needless to say, I do not associate with those people. Just know, if you are ever to become my close friend, I will drag you around a cemetery.

The grave of Louise the Unfortunate in Natchez, Mississippi
DEATHstination: Louise the Unfortunate in Natchez, Mississippi. Get the story behind this unusual gravestone right here.

How did DEATHstination come about?

LAURA: I always admired cemeteries. As a teenager, my mother would often take me to my grandfather’s grave. Beautiful, serene places, full of statuary, I sought the peace of cemeteries to get away from the noise of Los Angeles. On Halloween 2012, I had the idea to go decorate graves with jack o’ lanterns. My friend, Tyler, obliged my unusual request and we headed to Bela Lugosi’s grave in Culver City. After featuring some of the grave photos on Instagram, I began to discover communities of people completely dedicated to cemetery photography. As beautiful as the photos were, no one was bothering to give the history of those buried below. Eventually I discovered Pioneer Park in San Diego; a cemetery turned park. Blown away by what I learned, I traveled to San Diego with my friend, Diana, to visit the park. Sharing the history with my limited Instagram followers, I generated a good response. After that I decided I was going to start visiting as many graves as I could to create a personal scrapbook but instead ended up creating DEATHstination.

What is the most unusual story you’ve uncovered when researching graves?

LAURA: Driving home from the Antelope Valley recently, I spotted some graves hidden amongst weeds. I stopped to look around the property which was vacant and unmarked. Returning home, I set out to figure who was buried there. Originally, I thought they might be native graves or graves of old gold prospectors. Looking through news articles, I found a NBC 4 report regarding a fake cemetery. Come to find out, no one is actually buried on that plot of land. A resident of the area, after finding out that the California high-speed railway may be built through his property, purchased the headstones from the Whittier Museum and created that “cemetery” in the hopes it would deter construction plans. I filmed a two part video about the whole ordeal for my YouTube because it was so completely ridiculous.

Tonopah Cemetery next to the Clown Motel in Nevada
DEATHstination: Tonopah Cemetery, the burial ground beside the Clown Motel in Nevada. More photos: @DEATHstination

What are some of your favorite cemeteries and graves to visit?

LAURA: Ghost town graves! Goldfield, Nevada’s cemetery in particular. Being a prospector was a tough lifestyle. Practically everyone buried in western ghost town graves died in a tragic or unusual way. Getting crushed by rocks, runaway ore cars, mine fires, cyanide induced suicide, saloon gunfights, the graveyards are full of stories that you just do not find in modern day memorial parks.

What does the future hold for DEATHstination?

LAURA: I would love to generate more funding for DEATHstination and recently I created a Patreon crowdfunding campaign for my endeavour. Ultimately, I want to travel more frequently and further. I want to feature gravesites and funeral customs from all over the world. Best case scenario, I would receive a deal to conduct a television series where I can devote 100% of my time to DEATHstination and even begin publishing a series of travel books. While I enjoy working as a mortician, DEATHstination is where my heart lies. I love educating the masses and inspiring folks to visit their local cemeteries.

The grave of the Black Dahlia, Elizabeth Short
DEATHstination: The grave of Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia via @DEATHstination

Where can Cult Of Weird readers find you?

LAURA: My main source for DEATHstination is via Instagram, @DEATHstination. Occasionally I create videos for YouTube when time and electronic storage space permits. Also, as mentioned above, I do have a Patreon crowdfunding account for DEATHstination. By making a monthly pledge to DEATHstination, my patrons receive exclusive access to content that I do not feature on Instagram or YouTube.

Be sure to follow Laura’s cemetery expeditions, and if you like what she does, consider helping make future DEATHstinations possible by contributing to her Patreon.