A Word with J.W. Ocker, author of The New York Grimpendium

The Headless Horseman galloping through Sleepy Hollow, NY. (Photo © J.W. Ocker)

After J.W. Ocker’s first book, The New England Grimpendium, came out in Fall 2010, northeast residents and visitors may have wished they could unread all the hellish reminders of why nightfall anywhere in New England is its own real-time horror film. Some of us, though, are just more at home in graveyards or poking around grisly murder scenes.

To keep the bloodthirsty quenched, Ocker, who curates OddThingsIveSeen.com, a chronicle of the hundreds of the oddities of culture, art, and nature he’s visited around the country and world, found it only (super)natural that his next undertaking be to plumb the awful depths of New York State. After all, this is the state that gave us the Headless Horseman, Son of Sam, Rosemary’s baby, Rod Serling, the Addams Family, the electric chair, Troma Studios, Typhoid Mary, Sing Sing, and the Amityville Horror, to name a well-known few.

The New York Grimpendium, just released, is part travelogue of Ocker’s investigation of hundreds of the sites, attractions, and artifacts he drove more than 9,000 miles to see, and of course it’s a guidebook for Empire Staters and visitors to keep handy as they navigate their nightmares.

To get a better sense of Ocker’s own thirst for the macabre and what in his adventures has truly given him the creeps, we shined the interrogation lamp right on him.

Q.: Have you always been this way? Like, when you were a kid, did you love the dark? Did you try to summon Queen “Bloody” Mary through the mirror because you had a set of questions for her? Seriously, wherefore the deeply morbid curiosity?

J.W. Ocker: I could be remembering this wrong, but I think my indoctrination into the dark was a gradual one. I did have some propensities toward it as a child. I remember being drawn toward monsters in my toys and shows. As a teenager, I used to memorize Edgar Allan Poe poems in my room. I also had a Christian upbringing, so lots of violent martyrdom and demons and hellfire and such. But the macabre wasn’t anything I identified with or pursued actively until college. Once I became fascinated by it, I certainly made up for lost time, marathon-ing horror movies, treating Halloween like a holy day, reading horror literature, and visiting every graveyard I could find.

But, like I said, you could ask somebody who grew up with me, and they might give you a different answer.

Q: You’ve been to dozens, if not hundreds, of places and landmarks where plainly awful things have happened, such as the site of the Boyd-Parker Torture Tree in Leicester, NY, or the infamous Lizzie Borden House in Fall River, MA, where you stayed for the night…in Lizzie’s room! Ever gotten the feeling some thing was watching you?

JWO: I have definitely spooked myself on occasion. But not in the places you’d think. I mean, I’ve walk through graveyards at midnight alone, slept at murder scenes, touched ancient dead bodies. But the only times I’ve ever really frightened myself is in my own home.

Hartsdale Pet Cemetery & Crematory, Hartsdale, NY. (Photo © J.W. Ocker)

You see, I expect my imagination to mutiny a bit when I’m running around a defunct prison at the witching hour and am pretty much prepared against it as a result. However, when it does so in my own kitchen, in a place that’s supposed to be known and safe and stocked full of gin and Goldfish crackers, it can be absolutely terrifying.

So, yeah, murder scene no problem. My own living room with the lights out, problem.

Q: That’s part of the charm of living in New England, right? That most old houses are probably haunted. What kind of thing have you had to explain away with a swig of gin and “it’s only the wind”?

JWO: Ha. Yeah, my house is about 120 years old. But I have a little black cat, and I blame her for everything. Especially at night, when my wife and toddler are in bed and I do most of my writing. Something falling in another room? Cat. Something swoops by the doorway to my study? Cat. Transparent headless corpses raiding my fridge? Cat.

Q: Is it even possible to narrow it down to your top three creepiest/coolest places visited?

JWO: It’s really hard. I’ll give you a different answer to that question every day you ask it. But here is your answer for today:

1) The Capuchin Crypt in Rome: Rooms full of the skeletons of ancient dead monks stacked in piles, arranged into art pieces, and berobed in habits like they could walk out at any moment. Very Tombs of the Blind Dead.

2) Joe Coleman’s home in Brooklyn: Artist who paints serial killer portraits in an apartment wall-to-wall with his macabre collection of life-sized wax figures, strange taxidermy, mummified body parts, religious icons, and murderbilia. One of the highlights of my life.

3) Dr. Seuss National Memorial in Springfield, Massachusetts: An entire courtyard brimming with full-sized bronze statues of about a dozen Dr. Seuss characters: The Cat in the Hat, Horton, Yertle, the Lorax, Thing 1 and Thing 2. My nightmares have never stopped.

Painter and “murderbilia” collector, Joe Coleman. (Photo © J.W. Ocker)

Q: The new book has an excellent entry on Joe Coleman and your visit to his Odditorium. At one point, trying to explain his grim fascinations without sounding trite, he says of his killer subjects that he’s “trying to show the passion of these really dark characters as part of the human experience.” So when you think about your own propensity for the macabre, was your time with Coleman and seeing his collection illuminative in any way as to what keeps you—pardon the expression—digging up bones?

JWO: The evening I spent with Joe and his wife was probably my favorite moment in all my travels for the book. And, yes, definitely illuminating. I actually felt humbled by his devotion to the dark part of the human experience.  For me, personally, there’s a distance to all this stuff that I happen to  maintain, and it’s probably a dishonest one. Granted, it’s also one that other people might not even describe as “a distance”…but those guys have never seen the inside of Joe’s apartment.

Q: On your blog, Odd Things I’ve Seen, your “collection” is huge and traces the globe. Recently you pointed to the discovery of an army of skeletons buried in a Danish bog, and took the time to let us know about the sixteen severed hands that archaeologists had unearthed in Egypt. If you could make a Grimpendium of anywhere else in the world (or the U.S.) where would you go?

JWO: The UK. I took a train trip all over England and Scotland a long, long time ago, but it was before I really knew how to make the most out of travel opportunities. As a result, I have some serious, serious unfinished business there.

That place is, after all, the location of the Elephant Man’s bones, sites connected with infamous grave robbers Burke and Hare. Jack the Ripper, too. It has Highgate Cemetery, Loch Ness, Hammer Studios, the resort where they filmed the 1960s series, The Prisoner. And that’s just off the top of my Google.

Kid in a candy store there. Demented kid in a demented candy store.

J.W. Ocker, looking nothing like Chewbacca.

Q: What’s your greatest Halloween costume of all time?

JWO: Home-made Chewbacca costume, circa 1981. So this was back when Star Wars didn’t have all the baggage that it has today. I was 4 or 5, and my brothers and some of our friends from the neighborhood all went as different Star Wars characters for that particular Halloween. Well, except that one kid that wanted to be different so he went as a vampire cowboy. He remains today the visionary he was then.

My mom made the costume from scratch, and, crazily, I don’t have a single pic of me in it. I don’t even remember what it looked like. I do, however, vividly remember what it felt like to wear, and I’ve been searching for that feeling my entire life. I also remember that part of the costume was a store-bought black, plastic lone ranger-style mask that I wore over my eyes.

So I probably looked nothing like Chewbacca—which as an aside, will probably be the title of my memoirs.

Further Creepy Reading:

The New England Grimpendium
by J.W. Ocker

Old Ghosts of New England
by C.J. Fusco

Vintage Vermont Villainies
by John Stark Bellamy II

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