Today the Skeleton Key excitedly presents an interview with J.W. Ocker, a travel writer who specializes in visiting the spookiest locations on the planet. In addition to providing a window into fascinating dark places we may not otherwise get to visit, he really knows how to bring readers into his experiences, infusing them with such entertaining wit that reading his description about a place sometimes seems better than actually being there.
I first discovered Ocker years ago while obsessively researching a favorite horror film, Session 9, online. Amid the imdb links and movie reviews was a blog article entitled “ex-Danvers State Hospital, Revisited.” I realized with astonishment that it was a description of watching Session 9 within the walls of the former asylum in which is was filmed! Now that’s impressive journalism.
And he has sought out and chronicled lots of other equally amazing experiences—psychic readings, strolls in the footsteps of famous authors, and nighttime graveyard visits, just to name a few.
The dude’s prolific. Somehow, amid his travels (and despite some spotty wi-fi on the road, presumably), for years he has maintained a regularly updated blog about his eerie explorations called Odd Things I’ve Seen (O.T.I.S.), which magically transforms into one of the best Halloween blogs ever this time of year, with tons of original seasonal content.
Furthermore, Ocker also pens legit books that can be found at bookstores and on Amazon. His newest release, an ode to Salem, MA, comes out tomorrow! The book might be possessed by witchcraft … or at least bewitched by the charms of the colonial town. You should definitely buy it.I hope you all enjoy this glimpse into the mind of someone who has probably seen more oddness than all of us combined. On with the questions!
Q: As a travel writer, you’ve taken so many awesome trips. What is the most “macabre and ghastly site” you’ve ever visited? What is your favorite place on Earth?
A: “It’s gotten to the point for me that it’s hard to compare oddities in any way. Like, take this: what’s more macabre and ghastly, Rome’s Capuchin Crypt, where human bones are ornately arranged in rooms while skeletons in monk robes are interspersed throughout, or Prague’s Bone Church, where the crypt is decorated with bone chandeliers and massive skull pyramids? And those are both big tourist destinations, which complicates the answer. It didn’t feel too ghastly being there. It was normalized by being surrounded by people taking photos with iPads. I felt way more creeped out and exposed at, say, the grave of the Boston Strangler in Massachusetts or the hardware store where Ed Gein took his last victim in Wisconsin. Macabre sites that you’re not really supposed to go to on purpose.
The other issue is that the macabre can be cut so many ways. There’s historical macabre like the Witch Trial monuments in Salem, MA, or the hallowed battlefields of Gettysburg, PA. There’s disturbing macabre like the crime sites in the above paragraph. There’s scientific macabre like brain collections and medical museums. There’s even fun macabre, under which I would classify such places as Sleepy Hollow, which is themed around a spook, or haunted house attractions. So it’s really hard for me to say, although that range should offer an idea.
As to my favorite places in general, London, maybe, because I’m an anglophile, the Hudson Valley of New York, perhaps, because I’m an autumnophile, and of course, New England, where I live … because of both reasons, I guess.”
Q: Like me, you celebrate Halloween for at least a month and a half. Why do you think Halloween warrants its own “season”? What makes this holiday special?
A: “The mystery of it. Absolutely, 100% the mystery of it. The country just transforms in a way that doesn’t quite make sense. I mean, in summer, we’re suddenly showing skin and heading to water. Makes sense. Around Christmas, everyone becomes nicer, we’re more giving. Makes sense. But Halloween and fall, it’s harder to parse. Why are we sending kids out to get candy from strangers? Why are monsters suddenly appearing on all our food packaging and in all our television commercials? Why are convenience stores selling gummy severed fingers and jawbreaker eyeballs? Why are we decorating with dead people? Why are we cutting mazes into crops and having scarecrow-building contests? I mean, we know the literal answers, all the stuff that’s laid out in Ray Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree—all the fighting off the dark and preparing for winter and all the ritual and symbolism of death, smiling in the face of the Grim Reaper’s bony grin. But why that resonates with us today in this era of electric light and 24-hour McDonalds and robots on Mars is a mystery. To put it more succinct, every year we gut pumpkins into monsters. That transformation is the mystery. And that just makes this time of year more interesting and makes me want to hang out in it a bit longer.”
Q: You’re also an authority on Edgar Allan Poe. What is the best Poe story, and why?
A: “The best Poe story is his death and after-death. He’s found unconscious under mysterious circumstances in a city he’s not supposed to be in and dies there of mysterious causes after three days of feverish raving. He’s buried in a small Baltimore graveyard with eight people in attendance. He doesn’t even get a headstone because a train derailed near the sculptor’s studio and destroyed it. About 50 years later, some people in Baltimore decide to erect a monument to him, but it won’t fit on his grave, so they dig up his bones and move him to the burial plot of his mother-in-law/aunt, who happened to die in the same building as Poe and was buried in the same graveyard as he.
Again, though, the monument wasn’t quite right for that area of the cemetery, so they dug up Poe again, as well as his mother-in-law, and moved them both and the monument to the front of the cemetery, where it stands today. But they also re-interred Poe’s wife/cousin there as well, after having her shipped from New York. Her remains had been stored under the bed of a Poe fan who claimed to have rescued them during the razing of the cemetery she was buried in.
Later, about half the graveyard is turned into catacombs when they build a church above it. Poe’s grave was saved from being stomped on by the church, but the fact that the guy who wrote “The Cask of Amontillado” is now 20 feet from catacombs just adds to the story.
So, in the end, Poe’s an author whose most lauded work is dark with death and tombs, and his death and grave is more interesting than any story he wrote.”
Q: Will you ever write a fiction horror novel?
A: “I hope to. I might technically have already done so. I recently signed a contract for my already-completed debut fiction, which should hit next fall. I’d call it a horror story, but it’s also a kid’s story. Think (in tone, not in quality) Neil Gaiman’s Graveyard Book or Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. I hope it’s readable by both kids and adults. Or neither group. And it takes place in New England in the fall. Of course.”
Q: You wrote such a beautiful tribute to Salem, MA, last year when you spent the whole month of October there, and now your book about the city is about to hit the shelves. What was the most unusual thing you discovered or experienced while you were there?
A: “It was a tie between my quietest moment in Salem and my most chaotic. I’ll start with the former. At one point, I walked the entire gallows walk of the 19 convicted witches, from the site of the courthouse (which no longer stands) to the site of the jailhouse (which no longer stands) to the site of the executions (which is not as yet commemorated in any way … it’s just a ledge of rock behind a Walgreens). Hanging out there on that ledge and knowing that about a mile away was a massive, city-wide, month-long Halloween party that only existed because of the tragedy that occurred on this spot was just a weird, weird feeling. Not a wrong feeling, mind you, just a weird one.
The chaotic moment was Halloween itself. The city went from 40,000 residents in eight square miles to a record-breaking 100,000 in a single day, all squeezed into just a few blocks of those eight square miles. I had to spend an entire chapter describing that day and night, a day that including trick-or-treating, witch ceremonies, costume balls, fireworks, crowds of monsters, booze, street preachers, and all manner of black-and-orange adventures. Meanwhile I assume that aforementioned ledge was empty and quiet except for the infrequent pharmacy drive-through customer.”
Thank you, Mr. Ocker, for the interview!
All images from the O.T.I.S. site.