Monthly Archives: November 2016

Your Favorite Supernatural Movie: THE SIXTH SENSE

International Screenwriters' AssociationBy Scott Markus

For my day job, working with the International Screenwriters’ Association, I asked our membership to tell me what they feel is the most well-written supernatural movie.  I defined this as ghost story movies, demon, exorcism, possession and witchcraft movies.  I posited the same question on our WhatsYourGhostStory Facebook page.  (Also, if you are a writer, I highly suggest clicking the logo above and joining our free online community for writers)  The plan was to then do a blog post on the leading vote-getter, YOUR favorite supernatural script:

Well, the many votes are in when it comes to your picks for the best written supernatural movie.  I have to say, my favorite thing about how the open voting went was what a wide range of films and eras were covered.  However, the stand out winner was “The Sixth Sense.”  I was a little surprised that “Exorcist” or one of my personal favorites, “Poltergeist,” didn’t get more love.  That said, it’s hard to argue against “The Sixth Sense.”  For one, it was a box office sensation, bringing in $672.8 million internationally in 1999.  Domestically, it did nearly double the business as “The Matrix” in the same year, so you know it reached a lot of people.

“The Sixth Sense” set the bar during a great a year for supernatural films in America.  Its $293.5M domestic take easily beat experimental indie phenom “The Blair Witch Project” ($140.5M), “Sleepy Hollow” ($101M), “The Haunting” $91.4, “Stigmata” ($50M), “House on Haunted Hill” ($40.8M) and the tragically unheralded “Stir of Echoes” ($21.1M).

Sixth Sense, Stir of Echoes, Blair Witch Project, International Screenwriters Association, Stigmata, horror movies, best ghost story movies, house on haunted hill, the haunting, Sleepy Hollow

Honestly, this might be a hall of fame year for spooky cinema.  So, how did “The Sixth Sense” stand out in such a crowded pack?

DJ MacHale interview with the International Screenwriters' Association. Creator of Are you Afraid of the Dark, the Pendragon YA series & Flight 29 Down.

We’ll all jump to that “you gotta see it to believe it” twist, which M. Night credits to great storytelling in an episode of DJ MacHale’s “Are You Afraid of the Dark.”  Listen to DJ talk about “The Sixth Sense” with ISA’s Max Timm by clicking on the image to the left (the portion that discusses “The Sixth Sense” starts at 53:30).

However, that twist is meaningless if we haven’t gotten fully involved with our characters.  Even in the trailer, you can see a tremendous amount of character development and you get a feel, not just for the adventure that the characters are embarking on, but how they are handling the challenges that they’re tasked with.  Re-live that trailer here:

Even from the trailer, a you can see the characters dealing with the weight and difficulty of their challenges.  Of course, you can’t deny the quality of the acting performances as well.

While the premise, the world and the depth of the characters are important, there are a million times where this film could’ve fallen apart.  Writer/Director, M Night Shyamalan talks about how he early on had to establish the “rules” of the story to make sure continuity and believability tracked throughout the script.

This is a great way to think about approaching any script.  “The Sixth Sense” has an element of fantasy in it because we are dealing with the supernatural and concepts that are only theory.  So, it’s easy to see how the writer would benefit from creating a set of rules for their story and character to live by.  But why limit it to fantasy?  Our stories and characters all have plot hurdles and personality flaws that they need to address before the story can end and the character arcs can complete.  Why not think of our scripts in the terms of “rules that cannot be broken” unless some other need is addressed that allows for change to happen logically?

Whether it’s “The Sixth Sense,” “Ghost Story,” “The Changeling,” “The Innocents,” “The Eye,” “The Others,” or one of the other great supernatural films, the only real difference is the setting/world/arena and the specific second act adventure activities.  Otherwise, it’s all about solid script writing as usual.

Editor’s Note:  My personal top five favorite supernatural films include the original Thai version of the Pang Brothers film “The Eye,” “Poltergeist,” “Stir of Echoes,” “The Conjuring” and “Rosemary’s Baby.”

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Unprecedented Access to One of America’s Most Haunted Houses

The following article contains:

  • News about future ghost tours at the Stickney House
  • First hand paranormal encounters
  • An exclusive look inside the historic site

stickneyhouse1Like many in the Chicago area, my first exposure to the Stickney House, tucked away in rural and picturesque Bull Valley, was Ursula Bielski’s “Chicago Haunts” in the late 1990s. The rich history and the seemingly endless claims of hauntings have proliferated the house and its grounds as much as the story proliferated my curiosity.

As the story goes, in 1856 George and Sylvia Stickney moved into this grand house to start a family and be the toast of the town with the second story of the house serving almost exclusively for entertaining.  However, tragedy struck early and often as seven of their 11 children died very young.  That ballroom, housing the first piano in McHenry County, quickly transformed to a séance room where the mourning parents would try to contact their lost children.

stickneyhouse2My first visits to the site in the early 2000s were merely to view the iconic structure from a distance, to see with my own eyes, the rounded corners and the boarded-up second story windows.  Many feel the rounded corners (note the walls blending into the ceiling in the photo to the right, as well as the rounded wall edges in the image below) being tied to spiritualist beliefs that spirits (particularly negative spirits) could get trapped in 90 degree angles.  There is some debate if this was the reason for the construction, but that is the commonly held notion at the moment.  The second story windows were, indeed, boarded up, presumably to keep away curiosity seekers who were getting strange images of ghosts in the upper floor windows in photographs.

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Walking the grounds one October evening, a friend and I heard a masculine voice groan loudly from behind the door that faces the parking lot.  We were absolutely frozen, but no further activity followed.  That interaction is benign compared to other claims of phantom screams, ghostly dogs, children crying and even shadow figures patrolling the grounds around the house.

After so much infamy, the village moved their offices into the home, partially serve as a built-in deterrent to any trespassers or vandals.  It’s easy to respond to a trespassing call, if you just have to walk out the front door, after all.  At this time there were legends that city employees were forbidden to talk about the activity at the location.  Whether true or not, a Chicago Tribune article from 1995 did a lot to pass along that “company line.” (link: “Bull Valley Home Haunted Only By Reputation.”)

In October 2015 I stopped by again, after a gap of many years.  I could see that the restoration of the building was well under way with the front entrance fully rebuilt.  I entered the front door, explaining that I was a local historian who was interested in the site.  Unlike 10+ years ago, this time I was invited in and could see that the “no corners” theme was carried out throughout the building, including a curved front door, built-in cabinets that blend into the walls and the walls themselves blending into the ceiling.  This time it was the village employees who started volunteering their own paranormal experiences.

stickneyhouse4The following October, just a few weeks ago was even more amazing.  I traveled back to the site with local archeologist Dan Melone.  I re-introduced myself to one of the employees I had met the previous year and after some chatting about the paranormal, he gave us the blessing to go upstairs.  I cannot over state my excitement in this moment.  Visiting a place I’d read about and researched for nearly 20 years, and now I was standing in a location that I’d mentally accepted that I’d probably never set foot inside.  Merely entering the home last year was a huge surprise and now, I was creeping up a very worn, narrow stairway, making my way into the largest room and standing in the room where Sylvia Stickney, her husband George and countess other mediums went to make contact and, make no mistake about it, come to terms with their devastating losses.  The gravity of the history and the location gave me goosebumps.  The feel of the room was tense, though likely just my own excitement radiating off of me.

Present day, the second floor isn’t one massive ballroom, as is often reported.  It’s been subdivided into smaller rooms, a far more practical use of the space for the numerous inhabitants after the Stickeys.  With the help of the Stickney Restoration Foundation, hopefully the original layout will be firmly identified and restored in time.

stickneyhouse5In addition to the experience we found out the following amazing bits of information:

In time, the village hopes to move their offices out of the Stickney Home and allow the site to function as a museum.  After it’s established as a museum, they will rent the site out to ghost hunting teams for investigations!

There are reports of a Civil War era soldier that is seen in the front room, nearest to the parking lot.  Speculation is high that he died of wounds here after being injured in battle further south.  This would line up with the pained masculine groan I heard come from that room some 16 years earlier.

One village employee relayed the following first-hand account: I am a marine, I saw combat, I was a police officer on the street, but the only time I’ve ever frozen was right here.  Working alone, late at night and a man screamed.  I knew no one was in the house.  It took me a good five minutes to be able to move again.

Dan and I did not wait long to return for another visit.  Shortly after another successful Chicago Ghost Conference, this time held at the haunted Willowbrook Ballroom on Archer Avenue (which tragically burned to the ground a couple weeks after the conference), we brought event organizer, and writer of the “Chicago Haunts” series, Ursula Bielski, to the Stickney House.  She’s an important part of the Chicago ghost lore tradition and, again, the person who, through her writing, first informed me of this location.

stickneyhouse6

Again, we were permitted upstairs where Ursula, spirit box in hand, began attempting to make contact with whatever entities may still be on site.  Watching this unfold, it again donned on me that this may be the first time someone, other than a curious village employee, was using the séance room to try to make contact in some 150+ years.  In a small way, a historic moment.  While a couple scattered words did appear over the spirit box, we did not get any longer phrases or sentences, which is what I personally look for to push out my reason of doubt against radio interference.

Stay informed right here as I hope to start a working relationship with the Village of Bull Valley, along with Dan Melone and Ursula Bielski in helping raise funds for the restoration efforts and perhaps seperate fact from urban legend at this amazing site.


Holcombville Cemetery, Final Resting Place of the Stickney Family

holcombvillecemetery1While the home is amazing and the Stickney House Foundation is making serious and steady improvements to the site, the family burial site is, unfortunately, another story.  Just a five minute drive from the Stickney House is the Holcombville Cemetery.  You might as well consider it a ‘pioneer cemetery’ as the location holds the burials of the Terwilliger family, just the third family to settle here.  Their house also still stands and is rumored to be a safehouse location on the underground railroad.

sylviastickneygraveUpon finding the Stickney family plot, the thing you notice most is the gap.  Sylvia’s grave, once toppled and now lying face up over her grave is slowly eroding away and there is a large spance before finding the gravestones of a number of her children.  George’s grave is nowhere to be seen.  While records and oral history in this more remote land may be lacking, we are lead to believe that George and Sylvia laid to rest a number of children before they, themselves died.  Presumably, most of the members of this family would be interred at the same cemetery.  The mere gap between Sylvia’s grave (?-1879) and those still standing graves of Silona (1857-1868), Caroline (1849-1851), Adeline (1841-1842), along with the fallen, but still existing stone for Rosira (1843-1843) indicate a likely location of burials without headstones.  The obvious question is, “What happened to those stones?”  Damaged into obscurity? Stolen?  Did they ever even exist?  One would imagine that the stone for George Stickney would’ve been cast.  However, after out living so many children and his first wife, perhaps George was done thinking of funeral plans by the time he died in 1897.  This means a number of stones for children and George’s second wife, Lavina, are not present.

While I do feel it’s important to recover and re-mark the missing stones, let’s turn all of our focus to the quickly decaying stone belonging to Sylvia, the medium herself.  As mentioned earlier, the gave is lying flat, face-up on the ground.  It was broken free from its base countless decades ago, laying it on the ground seems like a safe way to preserve the stone as it no longer has to fight gravity, nor could it get damaged in a future fall.  However, pulling the grass away from the edge of the stone reveals how much the earth and plant life is eating away at this weakened monument.  Understandable effects of nature and weather aside, there is also the plainly visible recent chip marks caused by lawnmower blades (note the bright white scuffs in the image below).  This has to be one of the most in danger graves imaginable as it’s literally being chipped away on a weekly basis by landscapers who are employed to keep the cemetery beautiful.  While the Stickney House Foundation isn’t yet ready to open as a museum, it is my hope that sooner rather than later Sylvia’s stone can be replaced by a replica and the original can be safely preserved on site, in the Stickney House.

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