May 09, 2017

Paging Dr. Freudstein: Burials Inside Old Houses?

Have you ever seen a horror movie called The House by the Cemetery (aka Zombie Hell House)? It's from 1981, and although it was directed by infamous Italian goremeister Lucio Fulci much of it was actually filmed in Concord and Scituate, Massachusetts.

One British reviewer called it "hackwork of almost awesome incoherence." The story, such as it is, involves researcher Norman Boyle and his wife Lucy moving with their son Bob from New York City to a spooky New England mansion. Norman's boss had previously lived in the house - that is, until he killed his girlfriend and then committed suicide under strange circumstances. For some reason Norman thinks it will be the perfect location to write a book about old houses.

The Boyles move into the house, aided by a local realtor who neglects to tell them that the old house has been the site of many, many multiple murders in the past. But why let some inconvenient history get in the way of a good commission? The house of course is also located next to an old spooky cemetery.
This is actually the Ellis Estate in Scituate, Massachusetts.
Italian horror movies from the 1980s are famous for their almost nonexistent plots, and House by the Cemetery certainly fits that mold. Norman researches the old house. Lucy realizes the door to the cellar is nailed shut. A mysterious babysitter that no one asked for arrives and starts to care for Bob. Everyone hears weird noises. The realtor is killed by something lurking in the cellar. The babysitter cleans up the mess. Bob meets a little girl in the cemetery that no one else can see. The cellar-monster kills more people. And so it goes for 87 minutes of gore and non-sequitur filled dialogue.

I confess: I love House by the Cemetery. It's a terrible movie, but somehow the incoherence and bad dubbing makes it all seem dreamlike to me. It's also nicely filmed. Even though I love it, I don't think Lucio Fulci really understood much about New England when he made it. For example, the house is located somewhere called "New Whitby, Boston." Didn't Fulci didn't know that Boston is a city, not a state?

A sinister babysitter!

There is also a scene that made me roll my eyes. While Lucy is cleaning the house she rolls back an old rug. What's that underneath it? Why, it's a gravestone embedded in the floor. The house's original owner, one Dr. Jacob Freudstein (!), is buried under the living room. Lucy freaks out, but when her husband comes home he calms her down. "Most of the old houses in the area have tombs in them," he says. "That's because in the winter it freezes here."

That's when I rolled my eyes. I have been in innumerable old New England houses, I grew up in an old house, and none of them had tombs in them. Lucio Fulci just made that up, I thought.

But maybe I was wrong. Because at least one old New England might have a tomb in it. Maybe Lucio Fulci was right?

The house in question is the Gideon Straw House in Newfield, Maine. Built in the 1700s, the kitchen of this large farmhouse supposedly contains the grave of Gideon Straw's daughter, Hannah Chadbourne. According to Robert Ellis Cahill's book New England's Ghostly Haunts (1983), her final resting place is marked by a gravestone on the floor that reads:

SACRED to the memory of Mrs. Hannah
Wife of Ira Chadbourne
Who died March 2, 1826 - age 30
Blest are the dead, who die in Christ
Whose triumph is so great. 
Who calmly wait a nobler life
A nobler life shall meet

According to Cahill, the Straw House was used as a hunting lodge for many years, and it was traditional for the hunters to stand around Hannah's grave and salute her with their beers. Cahill also says some of them made rude jokes at Hannah's expense.

Perhaps it's no surprise that the house has a reputation for being haunted. One owner reported strange whistling noises coming from all the fireplaces, while still another claimed to have seen Hannah's ghost looking in the window. That owner also said he awoke one night to find Hannah caressing his cheek. Yikes!

At one point the building was sold to two schoolteachers, who at first enjoyed living in a haunted house. They changed their minds after one particularly noisy night when something unseen slammed the doors and charged up and down the stairs until sunrise. The two teachers left shortly thereafter.

So after reading Cahill's book I thought maybe Lucio Fulci was really on to something. But then I tried to find more information about the Gideon Straw house and Hannah's ghost. It turns out that the story just isn't true. Several past owners have said they never experienced any ghosts, and that Hannah is definitely not buried in the kitchen. The gravestone people talk about was probably just a spare marker kept on the property after the family replaced it with a nicer one. If it ever was on the property it's not there now. All this information is from a site specializing in the paranormal. When even a paranormal site tells you there's no ghost, there's probably no ghost.

It's a little disappointing that the Straw house is (probably) not haunted because it does make for a good story. It would have been nice if Lucio Fulci had included some authentic old New England lore in House by the Cemetery. On the other hand, I suppose he did include an authentic legend, even if it was not true.

Fulci made one other film set in New England: City of the Dead, aka Gates of Hell. This film is set in H. P. Lovecraft's mythical town of Dunwich, but in Fulci's movie it looks suspiciously like a small dusty town in Italy. The plot involves the ghost of a priest that committed suicide who makes people vomit up their innards when he stares at them. Maybe I should see if that's a piece of authentic folklore too?

*****

Just a reminder, I will be speaking about the monsters of Cape Cod on Saturday, May 13 as part of the Provincetown Paracon. Other speakers include Adam Barry and Amy Bruni from the TV shows Ghost Hunters and Kindred Spirits, and there will be a special Traveling Museum of the Occult and Paranormal as well. I hope you can make it!

Me and Paracon organizer Sam Baltrusis talking about the event on What's New Massachusetts.

5 comments:

David Dent said...

Interesting stuff Peter. Apropos of not much at all, I read somewhere once about a guy and his medical student girlfriend watching CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD together. In the infamous guts spewing sequence, his girlfriend calmly remarked; "They're coming out in the wrong order."

Julia Ergane said...

Real History/Archaeology: The ancient Sumerians actually did have their family graves in the basements of their homes. Sorry, there were no ghost/zombie stories to go along with this. ;-)

Bret Kramer said...

Gravestone reuse as pavers is not entirely unonown either, especially with stones that were discarded by gravestone carvers due to carving error or were replaced. The Harvard Historical Society has a donated marble gravestone that was found in secondary use in a local garden; it had been broken and replaced and the original discarded.

Peter Muise said...

Thanks for the great comments everyone. Glad to know there is interest in both burial customs and Fulci films. I had a friend who used to have an unfinished grave stone in his house. I think he bought it at a yard sale!

Anne G said...

I sometimes give tours at the Walpole MA Historical Society and we have a row of 18th-19th century gravestones standing along a wall in the cellar. They came from an old cemetery that was vandalized back in the 60s. It always stops people in their tracks.