With his popular novels HORRORSTÖR and MY BEST FRIEND’S EXORCISM, Grady Hendrix has put satirical spins on the supernatural as it pertains to some of life’s most commonplace routines. Lately, however, he has demonstrated his skill for not just the written word but the spoken one, and exploring a couple of extraordinary lives, with SUMMERLAND LOST: A GHOST STORY, a one-man show he’s bringing to the New York area this weekend.
SUMMERLAND LOST, which Hendrix performs this Saturday, October 15 at 6:15 p.m. at Brooklyn’s Triskelion Arts (106 Calyer Street), as part of the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival, chronicles the fascinating and tragic story of the Fox sisters. During the mid-1800s, beginning when Maggie was 15 and Kate was just 12, the two girls began to claim that they could communicate with the dead. Managed by their older sibling Leah, they began demonstrating this ability to audiences of increasing size and status, which helped lead to the rise of the Spiritualist movement and brought the sisters great fame and fortune — but also a great deal of skepticism, tied with sexism on the part of scientists and others who sought to debunk them. Hendrix ties his observations and feelings about the Foxes’ saga with his own personal experiences and emotions concerning the subject of death, making for a riveting and revealing evening of intimate theater. (Go to Brooklynhorrorfest.com for more info on the festival and its attractions.)
Hendrix spoke with us about SUMMERLAND LOST following a highly praised engagement at this past summer’s Fantasia film festival in Montreal.
BLUMHOUSE.COM: What was it about the story of the Fox sisters that especially appealed to you?
GRADY HENDRIX: The Fox sisters were super-appealing because they were the beginning—they were literally the first people to ever do this. They wound up having these lives that took them from a peppermint farm in upstate New York to doing readings for the Tsar of Russia to dying destitute and poor. You could not come up with a better arc if you wrote it as complete fiction. It was almost too perfect when I read their story; in fact, I avoided the subject for a long time for that reason.
BH: It’s interesting that that story hasn’t been told before in a movie or TV movie, or some other media outside of the written word. Do you have any thoughts on why that might be?
GH: I think that with the Fox sisters, and the whole story of this spiritualist section of American history, everyone gets hung up on the question of, was it real or not? Was it fake or not? For me, that’s the least interesting question, you know what I mean? When you have these women convincing a room full of people that they’re levitating and flying out windows, it doesn’t have to be real. That’s fascinating. When you have Kate teaching herself how to write French with one hand, English backwards with the other and talk to another person at the same time, and she turns that into a living that makes her briefly wealthy, it doesn’t matter if it’s real or not. That’s a story. When people get distracted by that question, they ignore all the interesting and amazing stuff around it.
BH: What led you to decide to tie their story in to your own experiences, which is what makes your performance so engrossing?
GH: What these women were doing was saying, “We’re going to talk to your dead friends and family,” and that’s a tremendous thing; if you’ve lost someone, that’s enormously seductive, and enormously engaging. Even Houdini, who really did not believe in this stuff at all—when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle said, “My wife can actually speak to your dead mother,” even Houdini gave it a chance. He thought it was complete b.s., but as much against it as he was, it is such an appealing idea. Who wouldn’t want to talk to the people they’ve lost one more time? I went through a chunk of my life when I was young when about five people died who I was very close to, who were very young; it wasn’t like my grandparents, it was people in their teens and their 30s. So death has always been a factor in my life, and those pieces just fit together.
BH: Where did you first perform SUMMERLAND LOST?
GH: It was at Pangea, a small performance/dinner club space in Manhattan, and it was simply because a friend of mine had a regular gig there, and she was not going to be able to perform there for a month of her weekly shows. So she and the guy she works with, Kevin, whom I’ve known for a long time, asked me if I wanted to do a piece, and I was like, “Er, sure…” And then, agreeing to it sort of forced me to put this all together.
BH: Do you think there’s a particular appeal to the Foxes’ story now, with all the other interest in paranormal phenomena going on?
GH: Well, I think the appeal is that there’s so much here beyond, was what they were doing real or not? It’s a fascinating story about two women who had no advantages in life, who carved out an amazing career for themselves. And it’s about a bunch of Americans who were trying to figure out the meaning of life by sitting in dark rooms and sort of collectively hallucinating. I think that’s really appealing; though I don’t know if it appeals particularly to the moment; it’s kind of eternally intriguing. There’s only one real question: What happens when we die? Everything else pales in comparison.
BH: Do you personally believe in life after death?
GH: I think believing in life after death is a choice you make, because it doesn’t matter. I mean, the same thing’s going to happen, and you’re not going to be able to tell anyone about it. For me, it brings great peace and comfort to think that the horrible, agonizing last moments of life for the people I know and love are not all there is, or not the culmination of their lives. Whatever that afterlife is, though, I like to keep vague.