Transcript

39:

Halloween
Transcript

Originally aired 10.25.1996

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/39

Prologue.

Ira Glass

Every Monday, John, and Thax, and Ericka get together at John's apartment to watch Dark Shadows. You know, Dark Shadows, surely you've heard of it.

John

It was the most popular thing in the whole world, at one point.

Ira Glass

No.

John

It was.

Ira Glass

John used to watch four or five hours of Dark Shadows every day, back in January when he was unemployed. Now he only watches four hours a week and only with his friends. And, in no way, is as hardcore about it as when he used to watch with his friend Catherine.

John

Well, when Catherine was here she insisted that we watch it. And it would be like hard to get her to stop, actually. I mean, honestly, it would. It would be like 12:00 midnight. And she'd go, please, one more, one more episode. And I'm like, you know, I've got to get up for work tomorrow. She's like, please, just one more. She'd be begging. It got really sad.

Ira Glass

Dark Shadows is slow. The sets are cheap. The writing is bad. The acting is stilted. It's a Gothic horror soap opera, produced five days a week from 1966 to '71. And, of course, it is not scary. It is never scary. Though when John was a kid, he was so scared of Dark Shadows, he'd get scared of the actresses lipstick, even the lipstick could do it.

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, and it is the special Halloween edition of our program. Today we bring you stories of things that are supposed to be scary but are not. Act one, Dark Shadows. Act two, Scientist in a Haunted House. Act three, Vampire Girl. Act four, Discovering Evil. Act five, Gang Girl. And Act six, Screams. Those are your screams, your screams as left on our voicemail. I'm your ghost, I mean host, Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One. Dark Shadows

Ira Glass

What I learned at John's apartment about Dark Shadows is that the main point of it, the main pleasure of it, is watching things mess up. It's like watching car races for the car crashes. If the car crashes came every 10 minutes and nobody got hurt. This American Life producer Nancy Updike and I were in John's apartment for, I don't know, 10 minutes when a werewolf exited a scene, and through the open door, we could all witness this figure. Not a shadowy, mysterious figure from the year 1896, but instead--

John

Oh, did you see the prop guy? Did you see the prop guy? Wait. Here look.

Ira Glass

Oh yeah.

A prop guy. There's a lot of rewinding and replaying this video, which John taped off the Sci-Fi Channel. John, and Thax, and Ericka have watched actors forget lines, they've seen scripts left on beds, they've seen props fall over and smash. Periodically, there's an offstage cough. And what Thax describes as the sound of a giant zipper, mysterious, inexplicable, and not part of any story. When the vampire, Barnabas Collins, enters the foyer of Collinswood Manner, he closes the door behind him, and a moment later it swings open again.

John

Oh, there goes the door.

Thax

Yeah, uh huh.

John

There's something wrong with the lock on it. And it's always swinging open after somebody closes it.

Ira Glass

This is the kind of moment they live for. Giant tears in the fabric of the show's fantasy. John says that modern TV shows and movies are way too slick. What he likes are things that are either old, or imperfect, or both. His house is filled with huge sofa-like paintings that he's picked up at garage sales, and recordings where you can hear things fall over in the studio. A fast paced, modern film like Independence Day exhausts him with its relentlessly high production values. Dark Shadows is more human scale.

John

Like you notice the littlest things you wouldn't notice in a regular show. We noticed tonight that people have stopped knocking on the door three times. They're now knocking on the door four times.

Child In Scene From Dark Shadows

I'll go out the back way.

Woman In Scene From Dark Shadows

No, no you won't. You'll stay right here.

Child In Scene From Dark Shadows

[UNINTELLIGIBLE] they'll make me go back if they find-- [FOUR KNOCKS] [FOUR KNOCKS]

Thax

So John thinks they had a lengthy meeting deciding that you have to have four knocks instead of three, to spice up the plot a little bit. It's more exciting.

John

Like the new director said, we've got to get rid of the old ways. Things are going to change around here. No more of this three knock stuff.

Ira Glass

John is also sort of obsessed with trying to figure out exactly when the episodes were filmed. He claims that there is a point, in the 1969 episodes when, suddenly, all the characters started saying, groovy and freaky. By his calculations, the episodes that we're watching this night, were probably filmed in February 1969. One clue--

John

Because in the summer, when it's summer, you can hear the air conditioner running.

Thax

Yeah, and you see the flies.

John

And you see the flies. And I've never--

Thax

There's a lot of flies.

John

I mean, it's like the studio is next to an alley that had big garbage dumpsters, because there's always flies on the set. It's like the thing that's so amazing. There are scenes where flies are sitting all over people's faces, and they're pretending that they're not there.

Ira Glass

It's kind of a character study, which actors decide to shoo the flies away, and which ones ignore them and continue bravely through the scenes.

Thax

But the classic fly scene is like, when somebody was doing an exorcism, and the fly just went right into his mouth. So he just went [BLOWING SOUND] like that to get rid of it.

Ira Glass

What's interesting about all this is that not only does it defy the way you're supposed to watch horror films, it defies the way you're supposed to watch drama. They do not suspend disbelief for one second. Instead, they construct elaborate fantasies, not about the characters, but about the actors who play the characters.

John

There's like a real vulnerability to all the characters. And even people that you don't like on the show, like the Chris Jennings character, he's this horrible actor, and that Beth character, she's like a horrible actress, but after a while you get really attached to them. Because you feel like you could just see her going off stage and going, oh my god. And people going, oh, you did really well today. There's a life behind it.

Man In Scene From Dark Shadows

What's the matter?

Women In Scene From Dark Shadows

Jewell was murdered at school last night.

Man In Scene From Dark Shadows

What?

Women In Scene From Dark Shadows

--from her teacher. Torn apart by a wild beast.

Man In Scene From Dark Shadows

Yes, it does seem a rather hideous way to die.

John

I mean, I think Dark Shadows has a lot of Ed Wood to it. There's a lot of that sort of putting things together at the last minute. And putting your heart into something even though it's not very good, because I mean, it really does-- I've worked on really bad projects. You work just as hard on a bad project as you do on a good project.

Women In Scene From Dark Shadows

[SOUNDS OF TERROR] It's so pointless. It's happening again. [SMALL MOTOR REVVING IN IMITATION OF WOLF GROWL] No. No. No. Don't come near me. [SCREAMS AND MOTOR SOUNDS/GROWLING]

Ira Glass

John's favorite actress is Grayson Hall, who plays Magda and Julia, and who, inexplicably, enters a lot of scenes sniffing the air, as if there is some bad odor that's never discussed or explained.

John

I know nothing about her. I know absolutely nothing about this woman as an actress except for what she does. But I have this whole sense of what she does after the show. I have this whole world that I've built up around her.

Thax

Yeah, me too.

Ira Glass

What does she do after the show?

John

Well, I just think she sits in a bar and drinks and smokes cigarettes. She's just like one of these people--

Grayson Hall In Dark Shadows

All right. I was angry. I put the curse on you. I said it would be a terrible curse.

John

Yeah, she's got the most incredible facial expressions of any actress I've ever seen. I don't think I've ever seen anybody who's face fascinates me more than Grayson Hall. I don't know. She should have been a huge star.

Ira Glass

You mean, she's good?

John

Well, no that's just it. See--

Ira Glass

Somewhere during the second episode of the night, I realized that, not only are these stories convoluted and hard to follow, they're incredibly boring, boring in a way that invites speculation and embroidery by the audience. For instance, the reliable father figure in this program is Barnabas Collins. And he's supposed to be this really great guy, and everybody loves him, and he's always jumping in and saving people. So why is he a vampire? Thax says it can be sort of disconcerting at times.

Thax

Like you love Barnabas, and they just casually mention how he kills village girls to get his blood.

John

It's like you're supposed just go, oh--

Thax

Oh, that Barnabas, right.

John

I mean, every so often he goes into the village. Doesn't everybody go in the village once in a while, and--

Thax

It takes a village.

Ira Glass

Pretty soon after this, John declares that he has a Dark Shadows bloopers reel, full of funny accidents from the show. He spends the next hour searching among maybe 50 badly labeled tapes for it, popping in one obscure video after another. At one point he shows us a video that he made of a macrame clown sort of dancing in a darkened room to a mysterious song. He never finds the bloopers reel. And, at a certain point, I realize the entire evening has come to resemble a Dark Shadows episode itself, slow moving, full of accidents, convoluted, but really kind of fun.

Thax flips to the Polish videos channel and talks about the Polish Beatles movie he once saw. And John explains his plan to attend his first Dark Shadows convention in a month or two. It's strange, John says, how a TV show that once seemed like the biggest thing in the world could be so obscure now. It makes you think about Madonna, and ER, and The X Files, and what anyone's going to remember 30 years from now.

John

I know what the last line of Dark Shadows is. And I think they were going to go back and do another werewolf plot line or something like that, and then they got canceled. And the last line is, the marks on such and so's neck were discovered to be just an animal, and not anything having to do with the supernatural.

And I was talking to this guy, and he was like completely into Dark Shadows when he was young. And he told me this story about when him and his brother used to just watch Dark Shadows religiously. And it was the last show, and they say the line about, everyone lives happily ever after, and then they're showing the credits. And then the announcer comes on and says, next Monday at this time, stay tuned for Password with Allen Ludden. And he said, his brother screamed at the screen. You bastard! You bastard!

Ira Glass

In a certain sense, things that are scary have a lot in common really with things that are funny. A, they both produce a physical reaction. And B, if something that is supposed to be scary fails to be scary, it's way more funny than something that's trying to be funny, if that makes sense.

It sort of goes without saying, but this is our Halloween show, so I'm going to say this anyway, that for John, and for Thax, and for Ericka, nothing about Dark Shadows has anything to do with things that are scary, with ghouls or spooks or Halloween. They could care less about Halloween.

Ira Glass

So what are you guys doing for Halloween?

Thax

Well, Halloween's my birthday, so I don't like to dress up.

Ira Glass

That's Thax. Here's Ericka.

Ericka

What am I going to do on Halloween? I don't know. Probably nothing. I painted a pumpkin so far, but that's probably about it.

Ira Glass

And finally, John, who hates Halloween, because it's a day when you're expected to be creative.

John

I have my monkey hair cape. I wore that last year. Do you know what monkey hair-- it's made out of monkeys. And I guess like in the '40s, they outlawed it, because they were killing monkeys to make these coats. And they're beautiful coats. I mean, they're insane. And they were real popular in the '20s, and if you--

Act Two. Scientists in a Haunted House.

Ira Glass

Act Two, Haunted House. You know can't do a Halloween show without at least one truly spooky story. And this one we have fits the bill pretty well. But, of course, in keeping with our pledge that everything that is supposed to be scary about Halloween will be rendered harmless during our program today, what we are bringing you is a spooky story that happens to somebody who is completely unafraid, totally unafraid, could care less. A woman named Carol Estler moved into an old house in Massachusetts in the 1970s. And in this story you're going to hear her and her daughter describe what happened.

At first they noticed these patches of wavy air, like when you see heat rise off a barbecue grill. And they heard sounds, people walking, stuff clattering around, when there was nobody around. Once Carol was walking to the barn, and suddenly she says, there was a just a wall in front of her, just this force, this force blocking her way. And she said she waited, and eventually it went away. And she didn't tell anybody about it.

And a few days later, her daughter ran into the kitchen and said she was walking to the barn, and an invisible wall blocked her way. Carol Estler was a professional scientist, and she tried to find other explanations for what was happening other than ghosts. But the data all started to point in one direction.

Carol Estler

One night, I was lying in my bed, and I was just about ready to fall asleep. And the strangest thing was that I suddenly felt my body start to move. It was like, if you could imagine your body was magnetic, and someone was taking a magnet and sort of moving it slowly around your body, and was pulling in kind of a broad gentle way, one way and then the other.

It really felt like my body was being pulled from the outside. And I'm a scientist, so I watched. And I watched, and I got wide awake. And I watched that for almost two hours as my body was sort of pulled one way, then pulled the other way, really a very strange feeling. And I was getting really, really tired. Somehow that pulling was just making me so tired. So I thought I'd try an experiment. And I said, out loud, look I'm really, really tired. Will you please stop? And it stopped.

Now I don't know that I ever really talked to anything. I don't really know what was there. It was just a very strange experience. But still, we kept trying to find other explanations. And for me, I stopped trying to find other explanations when, one night, I woke up, I don't know why, and I just looked across the room, and there was a woman standing there. And she was just standing. She was looking around at things. She wasn't looking at me. She wasn't looking at anything that seemed to be in the room. She seemed to be looking far off. And then she turned, and she walked out of the room, right through the closed door.

I thought about that for a while, quite a while. And I think I've pretty much accepted now that I live in a house where there are ghosts, leftover pieces of other people who don't really see me, because the woman didn't seem to see me or anything in the room. Sometimes, I can see them. Sometimes they can move things and move me in ways that I can feel or see. Sometimes they can make noises. They certainly don't seem to be trying to bother us. I suppose, maybe, even they experience us as ghosts, because we probably look invisible to them, the way she couldn't see me. It's a very interesting house to live in.

Carol's Daughter

The important one I haven't mentioned yet is the crying baby. I have not experienced the crying baby, although she is said to spend a lot of time in my room. The first time someone experienced it, they were sleeping in the small room off of mine. It was a guest. And there were no children in the house that night. And the next morning he said, where was the child crying all night long? I heard a child crying all night long.

There's an old foundation on the back part of the property, which is supposed to have dated back from a house in Revolutionary times or earlier, which had burnt here and, supposedly, burnt in it was a woman and a child.

Carol Estler

Certainly, I had no training in anything like that. I come from three generations of scientists, and ghosts just don't fit. But if you're a real scientist, into research, then one of the most basic parts of you is the principle that everything you know is wrong. Every theory, every model, somehow breaks down. And it doesn't matter whether it's quantum mechanics, or nuclear physics, or super conductivity, in some way or other, the model is incomplete. In some way or the other, the model is wrong.

And the way you learn, in science, is to keep pushing your models until you find out where they're wrong. And I think, living here in this house, I've got some new models in my science.

[MUSIC - DARK SHADOWS ALBUM]

Ira Glass

Well, this song is Barnabas Collins himself, the friendly, fatherly vampire, as played by Jonathan Frid, from the Dark Shadows album.

[MUSIC - DARK SHADOWS ALBUM]

Act Three. Vampire Girl.

Ira Glass

Act Three, Vampire Girl.

Shawna Kennedy

My character is Lady Cassandra, and Lady Cassandra is a vampire. The Lady Cassandra is basically walking, talking sex.

Ira Glass

It's not just that fear is close to laughter, it's also close to sex. Shawna Kennedy plays Lady Cassandra at Haunted Verdun Manor, this huge, annual haunted house and more in Terrell, Texas, about 30 miles outside Dallas. Like Carol Estler, that woman who lives in a haunted house, Shawna is also a scientist, who found a new model for looking at the world. And Shawna Kennedy was always sort of shy. She didn't like scary movies. She didn't like horror novels. She'd never been to a haunted house until last year. And last year, she made a big, big turnaround. Now, every night, she goes out to Haunted Verdun Manor to--

Shawna Kennedy

Roam the grounds, looking for victims. And we basically try to physically and psychologically torment the people waiting in line to get into the house.

Ira Glass

Like how?

Shawna Kennedy

Oh, we stalk them. We will look at the crowd and try to pick the one most likely to give a good fear reaction. And we try to get that person's attention, from a good distance. And then, very, very slowly creep up on them, maintaining eye contact, never breaking the stare. And this is usually enough to give us a good scream, or squeal, or at least a break and run out of the line.

Ira Glass

And are you shooting for a break and run?

Shawna Kennedy

That's always good. It's very entertaining for everyone else in the line. A scream is also good. We like a good scream.

Ira Glass

What do you wear?

Shawna Kennedy

[LAUGHS] I wear a skintight, black velvet dress, with a slit almost all the way up one leg.

Ira Glass

What do you say to men and women when you walk up to them.

Shawna Kennedy

I don't say anything.

Ira Glass

You don't talk at all.

Shawna Kennedy

I talk as little as possible.

Ira Glass

How come?

Shawna Kennedy

Because people in power don't need to say a lot. So if you say as little as possible, it gives people the impression that you are more powerful than they might necessarily feel.

Ira Glass

And how does this compare to who you are when you're not playing Cassandra?

Shawna Kennedy

Oh, I'm a science geek. I work in a laboratory. I play with DNA. I'm just as happy being in the back corner of the lab, by myself, doing whatever.

Ira Glass

Wardrobe of your daily life? What do you wear in the daytime?

Shawna Kennedy

Jeans and a sweatshirt. At night, my clothing will get more flamboyant. Also I'm a belly dancer, so my costuming for that is pretty flamboyant.

Ira Glass

Why do you like scaring people?

Shawna Kennedy

It's an amazing feeling of power to know that, here you are, somebody that generally, in my geek girl uniform, and my glasses, and my hair pulled back in a little top knot, I wouldn't make anybody look twice at me. But as Cassandra, not only are they looking twice at me, but some of them are actually running from me. And I like that. That's fun.

Ira Glass

This is a question I'm not sure how exactly to ask. But I want to ask it, and I'm sure it's something that you might have thought about, given the way that you're costumed when you do this. What is a connection between sex and Halloween, between sex and scaring people?

Shawna Kennedy

The sexual response and the fear response in human beings is similar-- increased heart rate and respiratory rate.

Ira Glass

See, now you're sounding like the science geek.

Shawna Kennedy

Similarities in the way your body responds to both fear and sex. Also, some of the images that we have in Western culture of things that are horrific are also basically sexual.

Ira Glass

Like what?

Shawna Kennedy

The werewolf is the beast within. And, basically, vampirism is just sex from the neck up. You're penetrating a passive person. It really is a very sexual sort of monster.

Ira Glass

So when you're wandering the grounds, do you feel like it's one intense little seduction after another?

Shawna Kennedy

Absolutely.

Ira Glass

Compare the sexuality of doing Cassandra to the sexuality of doing belly dancing.

Shawna Kennedy

The sexuality of Cassandra is dark. She always will have that underlying element of, I could have sex with you or I could kill you. With belly dancing, it is a joyful thing. It is, this is my body, and this is how moves, and isn't it great that it moves this way? Aren't you enjoying this?

Ira Glass

Are they equally sexual experiences to perform?

Shawna Kennedy

Absolutely. Absolutely.

Ira Glass

That's incredible.

Shawna Kennedy

Absolutely.

Ira Glass

Shawna says that she hated scary stuff until a few years ago, when she read this Stephen King book, Dance Macabre. Which makes the case that everybody needs a good scare now and then, and that all cultures have some version of ghost stories to do this. And reading that set her on this path that eventually led to her playing Lady Cassandra. And she says that playing Lady Cassandra sped up this process that she thinks would have happened anyway in her adult life, of learning to be more assertive. She says it's also given her a more complicated picture of herself than she had when she was a kid.

Shawna Kennedy

I saw myself before as being a good Baptist girl, a complete creature of goodness, who was going to be tormented by the powers of darkness. Afterwards, I see myself as a creature of both light and dark. I have both elements in me. And I sort of got the idea that I really wasn't going to go to Hell for it, for having a dark side. It was no longer threatening to me.

Act Four. Discovering Evil

Ira Glass

And this brings us to our next story. This is a story about another Texas girl discovering her dark side. We have arrived at Act [? Three ?] of our program, The Evil Within. And we are pleased to welcome back to This American Life, writer Julie Showalter.

Julie Showalter

I was raised a Baptist, a Southern Baptist in west Texas. So I always knew that I was a sinner. But it wasn't until Halloween day in the fourth grade that I thought of myself as a sinful being. Before that, sin was something that could be overcome through hard work, prayer, reading the Bible, and thinking of a way out of coveting Tommy Sue Bailey's new Madame Alexander doll. Afterwards, I knew sin was part of me, in every molecule of my body, and I could never get rid of it.

I was very excited about going to school on Halloween day. Mother had decided I could look like Daisy Mae Yokum, Lil' Abner's wife in the funny papers. She cut off and fringed a pair of old jeans. She found a peasant blouse, which we ripped, then pinned together with a diaper pin. She put my hair in pigtails and painted freckles on my nose. When she finished, she said, you look so cute. Let's take a picture to send your daddy.

Daddy lived 80 miles away in Amarillo. He visited pretty often now, and he and mother wrote letters. I smiled my best smile for the picture, a smile that would show daddy what a good, pretty girl I was and, make him want to come home to stay.

The next day, I went to school bare-legged, bare-footed, bare-shouldered, knowing that about half my friends would have ripped up one of their father's old dress shirts and come as bums, and the other half would have dug out old cowboy guns and cowboy hats and called that a costume. I thought I had a chance at the prize. I imagined my teacher's reaction. Janice, you're just the cutest thing, she'd say, and so clever. Maybe she'd hug me, like she did sometimes.

Mrs. Wells was the first teacher I idolized. She was young and pretty, sweet and vivacious. She dressed in pastels and smelled like cotton candy. She had just married, and her husband was a part-time football coach and a part-time Baptist minister. For a while, I wished my mother would die and she'd adopt me, but I realized that was a sinful thought. So I wished there was some kind of big sister organization, and she'd be my big sister, and maybe my mother would decide I should live with her, because she lived closer to church or something.

On Halloween, I stopped just inside the classroom door, waiting for her to see me, posing a little, excited for her reaction. When she turned, her mouth dropped open. Janice Ray Hopewell, what are you thinking of? That outfit is indecent, it's obscene. You look like a little temptress. Why, you're practically naked.

A temptress? Naked? I didn't know I was naked. Then I thought of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and how they didn't know they were naked. I looked down at my feet and legs and saw them as the feet and legs of a naked temptress. While Mrs. Wells talked to me, she pulled Ernesto Rodriguez's chair to the back. Janice, sit down in the corner. No, not at your desk. It's right in front where anyone walking by can see you. Sit in the back here. Patsy, get the blanket out of the closet. She can cover herself with that.

Leon, go get the principal, tell him it's an emergency. Cover up Janice, you'll cause sinful thoughts. I wrapped the blanket around myself. I remembered asking my Sunday school teacher, how could it've been all bad for Adam and Eve to eat the apple, since they got knowledge of good and evil, not just evil? And she said, they really just got knowledge of evil, everything had been good up to then. I pulled my feet up under the blanket.

The principal came in with Leon Anderson right behind him. What is it, Mrs. Wells? Is one of the children hurt? Mrs. Wells blushed. I guess it's not really an urgent emergency. I just felt we had to do something right away. Janice show him your costume. I couldn't believe it. She'd said I was naked, and now she wanted me to show the principal and the whole class.

Janice Ray, take that blanket off. I stood up and put the blanket on the chair behind me. I looked at the floor. After a minute, the principal said, well, there is a requirement that children wear shoes to school for health reasons, but if she stays off the playground, I don't think anything will happen in just one day. Janice, you tell your mother that your costume next year has to include shoes.

Mrs. Wells grabbed his arm. Can I talk to you in the hall. I could see them talking outside the door as I put the blanket back around me. At first the principal looked like something was funny. But Mrs. Wells didn't calm down. Then he looked mad and did the rest of the talking.

When Mrs. Wells came back in, she walked over to me and jerked the blanket away. Janice, give me the blanket. It seems I have overreacted. Her face was red, and she sounded like she was reciting a lesson. She didn't look at me. There's nothing inappropriate about your costume, although bare feet are extremely unhygienic. Go to your regular seat.

Can I keep the blanket? No, you may not keep the blanket. There's absolutely nothing wrong with your costume. In fact, I think you should stand up in front of the class, so we'll all have a chance to look at it. It will be good for all of us to see what's acceptable, so we don't overreact again.

For 15 minutes, she made me stand there, while the other kids looked at me and giggled behind their hands. I thought about all the temptresses I knew, about Bathsheba, and Delilah, and about Salome who danced nearly naked so they'd cut off John the Baptist's head. I thought of the movie ads with Carol Baker in baby-doll pajamas sucking her thumb, that all the preachers were mad about. And I thought about Marilyn Monroe with her skirt blowing up, looking happy. And how everyone said, Joe DiMaggio had divorced her because her skirt blew up.

And if part of me was excited that I could be a temptress like Eve, and Bathsheba, and Delilah, and Salome, and Carol Baker, and Marilyn Monroe, and maybe even like Elizabeth Taylor, most of me was horrified that I was sinful, and causing sin in others without even knowing how or why. It was just something I was, not something I did or even thought.

I thought of Daddy seeing the picture of me, nearly naked, and I knew I had ruined everything. He wouldn't think I was a good sweet girl anymore. No one who knew about the costume would ever think I was a good girl again.

I got to spend the whole day at school bare-legged, bare-footed, bare-shouldered, feeling totally naked. At recess and lunch, I rushed to the bathroom, locked myself in a stall, and pulled my feet up so their nakedness wouldn't show.

The next time Daddy came to see us, I was embarrassed and stayed in my room. And six months later, when Jimmy [? Rigga ?] pulled me into an alley and kissed me, I let him, even though I liked Leon Anderson. And the next day, I saw Jimmy whispering to Leon and knew they were talking about me. And two years later, when the principal at my new school got the sixth grade girls alone in the closet and rubbed all up and down our fronts, I was the only one who didn't tell her mother. Because he was a deacon at the First Baptist Church, and I was a temptress.

Ira Glass

Julie Showalter's short story first appeared in Other Voices, a literary journal published by the University of Illinois in Chicago. She's the author of the forthcoming novel, Needle Work.

Coming up, what really scares people today, really, and your screams. It's in a minute, when our program continues.

Act Five. Gang Girl.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, we choose a theme, and invite a variety of writers and performers to take a whack at that theme with short stories, monologues, mini documentaries, whatever they can think of. And it is the Halloween edition of our program. And our theme is, things that are supposedly scary, but are not really scary. We are at Act [? Four. ?] And I actually got the idea to play you this next interview, the interview that will make up most of Act Four, when Shawna Kennedy, that Texas woman who dresses up as vampire, said the following thing to me, about her and her colleagues at Haunted Verdun Manor.

Shawna Kennedy

They all take a real joy in doing mean things to perfectly nice people.

Ira Glass

What's the pleasure in doing mean things to perfectly nice people?

Shawna Kennedy

You can do it. You have the power to.

Ira Glass

This picture of power reminded me of interviews I've done with Chicago gang members. And, in a certain way, gang members are perfect for a Halloween program. After all, what are most people really afraid of? Not goblins, not ghosts, most people are scared of armed urban teenagers who just don't care. They just don't care. And I would make the case, I believe that this fear, like the other fears in our program, is not totally justified. But you can judge for yourself. This is an interview with a young woman who was a gang member for years, who now counsels girls in Chicago gangs.

Gang Girl

I was 12. I was 74 pounds, maybe four foot in all. My mother thought I was her little angel. My grades were decent, my teachers liked me. I didn't get in very many fights at school. It was when I was out in my other neighborhood, this is where I became this big, bad, super person. And this is where I did all my damage. And why? Because I could.

Ira Glass

How did you get rank in the gang?

Gang Girl

Me and a girlfriend went into a school, broke into a school, kind of destroyed some stuff. And we got recognized for it.

Ira Glass

Did they tell you, here's what you're going to do? Here's your mission?

Gang Girl

No, there's kind of-- see, what happened was this. There was a teacher who was bothering somebody else. And what we were to do was go and scare this teacher. So what we did was we waited till everybody was gone and everything. And we broke inside the school. Then we went to her room and tore it up. And that was enough.

Ira Glass

Did you put gang signs on the wall so everyone would know who did it?

Gang Girl

On the chalkboard in--

Ira Glass

In chalk?

Gang Girl

In chalk, because the pen wouldn't write on it. And we didn't have no spray paint. In chalk, and we did do a couple markers on the walls and stuff. And on her desk, we did a nice big one, to let her know like where it came from. Because he threatened her, and we were his threat backup. So she left him alone after that. So I guess it got our point across.

This poor old lady, she didn't know anything. And she wasn't hassling him because she just wanted to hassle him. She was hassling him because he deserved it. Especially now that I work with children, I see that she was hassling him because he deserved to be hassled, because he wasn't doing what he was supposed to be doing. And yet, we just rocked her world. I mean, she was afraid for-- lord knows-- maybe years after that.

Ira Glass

She was?

Gang Girl

She was. She was very scared. Because I went to that same school. And she was very afraid. When we went in that Monday, she was very afraid. I mean, we had tore everything up that was hers, everything. And it was cruel, real cruel. I think a lot of things we did were real cruel.

When we were there, it wasn't like, shh, be quiet. No, it was like, throw everything, scream, laugh about it.

Ira Glass

See, this is the thing. I don't know how to even capture it or explain it on the radio. And that is the difference in reality, if you're in the gang, versus the way you see it if you're not in. I mean the way that you all saw what you were doing was, it's kind of fun. You guys laugh about it.

Gang Girl

It was a power trip. It's power. When you're 13, and you can walk down the street, and everybody looks at you like, there goes the Pope, that's a power trip.

When you're on the street, some people can just walk up to somebody and just smack them, just smack the hell out of them. That would be it. But I was more like, what, you said something about me? You got something to do about that? I would lead it on.

I could get my anger up, before I could muster up my courage, talk to them, argue with them, get your momentum up, get your anger. Get that nice wild flush in your face or something, and then like the nice crowd that's behind you saying, kick her ass, hit her, all this. And then you get this bold stance on you, and then you can hit someone. And you get all your nice anger out. But I couldn't just walk up and smack somebody.

Ira Glass

And the girls who you see now?

Gang Girl

The girls who I see now are lost. They're so lost, they're like that all the time. They think they know everything. And they don't need know reason because they know everything. So all they need to do is go up there and do it. And one time my cousin said, well I just went up there and I clocked her. I said, you clocked her? You just clocked her? You didn't even say anything to her? She said, no, I didn't need to say anything to her. All I had to do was walk up and clock her. I said, so you walked up to her, you clocked her in the face, and that was it? She says yeah. And I'm like, what were you thinking, when you walked-- She goes, I wasn't.

I don't like some of what I did because when I try to reach out, and I try to tell the kids, you shouldn't do this because it's bad, and you'll hurt people. And they'll say, you did it.

Ira Glass

Yeah, but I would think actually that could work to your advantage. You'd say, yeah I did it. And I'm sorry.

Gang Girl

For some of them it does. For some of them it doesn't, because they can't get past-- because I can say to some of them, yes, I did. And this is how I feel about it now, and I regret it. But some of them, they can't get past the fact that I did do it, so that makes it correct. And every time you turn around they say, but you did it, but you did it. And it's not the fact that I did it, it's the fact that I did it, I regret it, and I got out. That's what I want to pass, that I got out, and I regret it.

Ira Glass

See, but what they're saying to you, in a way, is even more interesting. What they're saying to you is, I'm not so bad. I'm not so bad. Look, what I'm doing isn't so bad, because, look, you did it, everybody does it. You're telling me that I'm bad. You're telling me the way I am is wrong. But I know in my heart that I'm not that wrong.

Gang Girl

See, that's like, when I was doing all this. There was nothing wrong. There was nothing wrong. I mean, so what? So I went in there and I wrecked a classroom. So what? So I hit somebody in the head or the ear, they shouldn't have been messing with me. So what?

Ira Glass

Even as you say it, your whole face turns into like a 14-year-old. I mean, you like shake your head, and like you kind of swagger. It's just like your whole personality just transforms.

Gang Girl

That's why, in a way, it's hard for me to talk about this, because I do, I change. And I start the, so what, and I don't care.

We lived on the corner of Beech and Spalding, right there, where they would kill people and hang them from the light post.

Ira Glass

They hung people from light post?

Gang Girl

They hung one person. And what it was, it was around Halloween. And what they did is they put jogging pants and filled it with newspaper, and they put a hood, and they put a banana hanging out of his [? virtuous ?] place. And they hung him from the lightpole. And nobody knew, because it looked like a dummy hanging there.

Ira Glass

But it was a human being?

Gang Girl

It was a human being.

Ira Glass

Dead?

Gang Girl

Dead. Not alive anymore. See that was from a whole big war. And that was our victory or whatever with this person. And he had certain colors on, certain color jogging pants, certain color jogging shirt that he had on, certain color gloves, fingers bent down on the glove and all that stuff to represent.

Ira Glass

In death, they pushed his fingers into his gang sign?

Gang Girl

No, no, I didn't say his gang sign. They just had the gloves on it, and they had the glove taped down, holding upward our gang sign, not his. Not his-- ours up.

Ira Glass

Our you one of the people who did that?

Gang Girl

No. I was too young.

Ira Glass

But you saw them do it?

Gang Girl

I didn't see them do it. I just knew about it.

Ira Glass

People must have laughed about it.

Gang Girl

It was hilarious. I mean, to them. I was too young. I was maybe eight. I remember seeing it. I remember it there. I remember asking my mother why he's there.

Ira Glass

What did she say?

Gang Girl

She said that she don't know, and she don't want to know.

Ira Glass

And what did you think of it at eight?

Gang Girl

At age eight, I just kind of wondered why it was there, and how they got it up there. That was my whole big thing. I think that, as a child, you wonder those things. And I just kept wondering, how did they get it up there? And I just thought it was newspaper. And it was a person.

Ira Glass

And how long was it up there?

Gang Girl

It was up there a couple days. It was up there a couple days. Because it was like stenching, it smelled, and they cut it down. The police came, and they cut it down. And the banana had already fell off. And that was it. And nobody said anything. Nothing went out. There was no screams. There was no nothing. There was just somebody come, cut it down, picked it up, put it in a truck. Police came, scanned the area, came back once. That's it. Nothing was ever mentioned, nothing.

Act Six. Screams.

Ira Glass

Now we move to Act Six, Screams. Well, a few months ago we introduced you to Dr. Greg Whitehead, of the Institute for Scream Studies, who has been collecting screams from around the world. And his thesis is this. He says that we tend to think of the scream as a kind of monochromatic, sort of binary unit of information. Someone either screams or they don't. They express a kind of scream-ness, or they do not.

Whitehead says that is very simplistic. That there are hundreds of different kinds of screams, and there's meaning to divine from screams. And we have to divine that meaning. And he invited your screams, yours, for his collection, for his analysis. And dozens of you called and left your screams on voicemail. And I felt, what would a Halloween program be without screams?

Voicemail Message

[BEEP] Please enter your mailbox-- [BEEPS] Your mailbox is almost full.

Child Caller

Hi, my name is Oliver, and I'm going to leave my scream. [SCREAM]

Male Caller

[SCREAM] I never really thought much about screams, but it is rather purging.

Female Caller

I just got off, and I am completely frustrated with a fellow employee. [SCREAM]

Voicemail Message

The message will be saved.

Male Caller

I live in Scottsdale, Arizona. And I work at a company that works six days a week, 12 hours a day. I'm so sick of it, that I want to scream. [SCREAM]

Female Caller

[SCREAM]

Male Caller

Hi, I'm the lead singer in a band called Hatewave in Chicago. And I heard a little bit about your studies, and it reminded me of the music I play in this band. The lyrics are all screaming, and screaming is a really great thing. And it's a lot of fun to listen to. So I'll give you the first verse from a song called "Vodun Goat". [SCREAM]

Female Caller

Sometimes when I'm depressed, I go by myself into a closet and I scream like crazy. [SCREAM]

Male Caller

I think screaming is a release, but I don't have that much to release, because I think it's kind of funny, after listening to your message. So I'm just going to scream a little, OK? Here I go. [SCREAM]

Female Caller

Yes, hi. I think this a very interesting proposition, because I think screams reveal a lot of subtleties of character. And I've always liked sounds, sound for its own sake. So I think this is really interesting. And when I was growing up, I was not allowed to scream. I was a very, very quiet, good child, so for me to scream, at all, in public is really unusual. So here I go. [SCREAM]

Child Caller

Hi, I'm eight. One thing that makes me scream is-- when I go on a roller coaster, I scream because I'm having fun. [SCREAM]

Female Caller

I think I'd feel dumb if I screamed, so I'll just hang up.

Female Caller

OK, [SCREAM]

Male Caller

Hello, I was listening to the radio the other night, and I heard abou the scream line. And I just thought I'd kind of leave a little story on how I scream, and where I do my screaming. Right now, I'm calling you from a car phone. I work in Sacramento, California, and I live in the San Francisco Bay area.

And I make a drive of 109 miles, not every day, but at least three times a week, back and forth. And so I'm dealing with customers at my job, and I also have to deal with the other participants in this commute. So what I do is, when I'm in the car, and I reach about, well, it's about this point in the drive-- I guess, I'm about 75 miles into the drive-- I always, get all my anger, and stress, anxieties, and everything else with a good old scream.

I really didn't know anybody else did anything like this until I heard your radio show. So here's my scream, and this is what I do. [SCREAM] And I really do feel much better after I do that. It clears my lungs. I actually can see better. Even though I wear glasses, I actually can see better.

Male Caller

[SCREAM] Thank you.

Male Caller

[SCREAM]

Female Caller

Hello, I was just feeling like screaming, so I figured this was the place to call. And it's hard to think of actually doing it. It would be nice to-- I thought when I was going to call this number that maybe it would be requested to scream or encouraged to scream.

But it's so hard to do here in the city. And I'm out in a bungalow on the northwest side of Chicago. And the neighbors are probably about four to, I don't know, six feet away, or maybe 12 feet away with some walls in between. And I just feel like it wouldn't be appropriate to scream.

So I wish I could be someone who could scream. When I was living in the mountains in California, I could sing my screams, and just do it. It was great. It was a wonderful way to express myself and to release a lot of things that I was holding in. But I can't do it in the city. So that's what I wanted to say. Maybe I'll call back another time and say stuff too. OK, thank you, bye bye.

Female Caller

[SCREAM]

Multiple Callers

On the count of three. One, two, three. [SCREAM] There's our power yell from the Los Angeles Commission on Assaults Against Women. [APPLAUSE]

Voicemail Message

The message will be--

Male Caller

[WHISPERING] I'm in the library right now, so I can't scream very loud. [SCREAM] Thank you, I feel better.

Voicemail Message

To end the session-- [BEEP] Good bye.

Ira Glass

That radio experiment from Dr. Greg Whitehead in Massachusetts.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Nancy Updike and myself, with Peter Clowney, Alix Spiegel. Contributing editors Paul Tough, Jack Hitt, and Margy Rochlin.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia, and, and, and, what, what's coming up next?

John

Stay tuned for Password with Allen Ludden. And he said, his brother screamed at the screen. You bastard! You bastard!

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.