Posted on April 21, 2017
Podcasts provide a wonderful method for balancing the dreary routines of everyday life with a touch of something more interesting. I walk to work on most mornings, and use the time to listen to the latest episodes of my favorite podcasts. If the podcast is especially informative, a ten-minute commute can quickly be turned into a ten-minute educational session; you’ll be wiser when you arrive at your destination than you were when you left.
Having listened to true crime / mystery podcasts since around 2007, I think I have a pretty good idea of what’s worth listening to out there.
Here’s my top 5.
- THINKING SIDEWAYS
This cast hits the perfect balance between funny and informative. The hosts are entertaining to listen to, and it’s clear the group do their research before pressing Play on the recorder. The trio have a great chemistry, and the exchange of thoughts and theories is effortless, making it a joy to listen to. This podcast also earns a “+” for featuring some relatively unknown cases along with the usual, famous ones; I have discovered plenty of entirely new material through Thinking Sideways, despite my years-long immersion in these topics.
The show has a commendable realistic attitude toward its topics. Rather than searching for the weirdest explanation to add to the quirkiness and entertainment value of their show, the hosts will readily apply Occam’s Razor and go with the simplest, most logical explanation. Someone got lost at sea? Maybe it wasn’t alien abduction after all – perhaps the guy just drowned…
2. THE PARACAST (pre-2011)
This was one of my most beloved discoveries in the Internet. I first came across this podcast while desperately looking for something to listen to at a boring summer job. Discovering the musings of Gene Steinberg and David Biedny was like coming across a casket full of treasures. I still have fond memories of placing my earphones in my ears at the start of a working day, and letting my body go about the mechanical work while my mind was transported from one dazzling idea to the next.
Sadly, I can’t fully recommend the show after the departure of co-host David Biedny at around 2011. Biedny (a Yale faculty member and photo imaging expert) brought a critical attitude to the guests’ stories, which added to the believability and, thus, enjoyment of the show. Biedny would genuinely challenge the guests, thus pulling out aspects of their stories and cases that other hosts would never even think about discussing with their guests.
Luckily, the show’s archives are still available to listen to, which means it’s not too late to discover the days when Paracast truly was (as their tagline says) “The Gold Standard of Paranormal Radio”.
3. MISSING MAURA MURRAY
Most podcasts will feature one case per episode, which can serve to create an interesting array of topics and a wide variety of phenomena covered. However, the flipside of that is that, sometimes, you only get a very superficial taste of a case, lacking an understanding of the intricacies that go into the creation of a mystery.
Missing Maura Murray is a refreshing exception. The entire podcast is dedicated to exploring the various facets of the disappearance of Maura Murray in 2004.
If there is one disappearance that justifies such deep digging, it’s this one. Murray’s disappearance is incredibly bizarre, and it seems that each answer you find just leads to a hundred new questions.
Adding to the quality of this podcast is the fact that, rather than just discussing the aspects of Murray’s disappearance among themselves with a recorder on, the hosts seek out experts and witnesses and interview them in person. This gives the show a lived feeling, a sense that there is a real human being missing, not just a face in old photos.
4. THE LAST PODCAST ON THE LEFT
Of all the entries on this list, this one is probably the most well known. And for a good reason – the hosts of this show bring a much-needed comic relief to the world of dark mysteries and unsolved crimes.
Topics vary from Jack the Ripper to more obscure cases of disappearances and UFO mysteries, et cetera. Research on the show rarely goes beyond a Wikipedia article, but that’s not the point: this is a show that aims to entertain mystery buffs and provide laughs; TLPOTL does not attempt to solve the cases it features, or even go much deeper than the average TV show.
The absolute best episode so far features the Amityville horror case, and the DeFeo murders preceding it. Charlatans and psychopaths get what they deserve from this funny trio, and co-host Henry Zebrowski, a professional comedian, is at the top of his game in lampooning the various money-grabbing leeches that have attached themselves to the Amityville mystery over the years.
5. PERTTU HÄKKINEN (Finnish radio show/podcast)
Each week Häkkinen does Finland a huge favor by preserving its esoteric history (and present) onto audio files and broadcasting them for the nation to hear. His show airs on YLE Puhe Tuesdays at 13.00 o’clock.
Guests feature researchers, experiencers, authors, philosophers, and various types of people relegated to the margins of Finnish society due to their beliefs or experiences. The discussion is respectful, and Häkkinen takes his guests seriously, rather than inviting them on to lampoon them (like many Finnish television shows with idiot hosts do).
Häkkinen has also authored an excellent book on the history of Finnish esoterica, entitled Valonkantajat (2015).
Posted on April 14, 2017
As I’ve mentioned at my Instagram account, I’m about halfway through writing a book about Finnish (and northern European) unsolved mysteries. Disappearances, unsolved homicides, UFO cases, haunted houses – you name it, and there’s probably a chapter in Northern Lights Sonata about it.
The easiest cases to write about have been cases of UFO sightings and poltergeist activities. Why? Probably because, as history has closed its books on these incidents, they are somehow “complete” in a way an unsolved disappearance or crime is not.
Easily the trickiest chapter to write (so far) has been one about a series of unsolved violent crimes in sourthern Finland possibly involving a serial killer. The killer lurks in the details of the cases that imply his presence, and just when you think you’ve nailed him, you notice that, actually, it might not be that open and shut at all.
Another factor complicating the writing process is the seeming lack of a precedent for a case like this in Finland. Whatever the reason, we are apparently not a nation of serial killers, despite our country’s tendencies towards violent crime. As far as I know, I am the only person who has written this deep and detailed an examination of this bizarre Finnish crime case.
What’s the case, then? Well, it consists of three elements.
1. A brutal attack on a woman, with a clear intention to kill.
2. The savage murder of a woman named Tuula Lukkarinen, pictured in the post mortem photo above.
3. The disappearance of a woman fitting the victimology of the supposed serial attacker perfectly.
The police believe the cases are connected, and that there are most likely other cases out there that are the handiwork of the same killer. I concur.
The cases are all tied to a creepy sandpit in Hausjärvi, Finland. This year on the anniversary of one of those crimes, I’m going to head there, in the middle of the night preferably.
Let’s hope someone else doesn’t get nostalgic about his past deeds and decide to show up, too.
Posted on April 10, 2017
After a long dry spell in reading I decided to trust one of the greatest storytellers of our time to take me back to the routine of absorbing the pages. I wasn’t let down. Shakespeare he isn’t, but that’s not the point – King tells a story better than pretty much anyone, making you turn the pages hungrily to see what awaits on the other side of the paper.
The synopsis is familiar to most people who haven’t spent the past 30 years in a barrel. A young family exchange the urban buzz of Chicago to the serenity and privacy of a small town in Maine. Located just outside of the perimeter of their property is something unusual: a pet cemetery.
After the family cat dies, old-timer neighbor Jud introduces Louis to a part of the cemetery most people don’t know about – a secret, hidden portion of the graveyard with a creepy history of supposedly bringing animals buried there back from the dead…
I hate book reviews where the main portion of the text consists of a re-iteration of the plot of the book being reviewed; hence, I’m going to leave the description of the plot there. Read the book – King will tell you the story better than I possibly could.
King’s genius has always been in being able to turn the familiar into the unfamiliar, to make us notice the shadows in the familiar rooms of our homes. He has probably never done it better than he does it here. The Creed family’s domestic bliss quickly starts turning into a nightmare when father Louis realizes the price he has to pay for keeping his shaky world intact.
The atmosphere is tense throughout. The most memorable instance of King’s tension-building ability is, in my opinion, Louis’ and Jud’s first trip to the secret portion of the cemetery. The dreamlike logic of the trip, the surrounding trees, the incapability of either man to stop what’s taking place – the sequence is perfectly written, and makes the hair at the back of your neck stand up.
Obviously, the book is partly about death, its inevitability, how different people approach the concept, and how our personal experiences of loved ones passing on shape our attitudes towards death. However, deep in its buried, gravestone-covered heart Pet Sematary is about identity – specifically, how we conceive of each others’ identities, firm in our beliefs that our conception of another person is the definitive version, the Final Truth about who that person is. King uses the mysterious cemetery as a literary device to examine the human mind in a predicament where this comfortable (albeit delusional) sense of certainty about other people is erased, leaving the protagonist adrift in a setting once familiar, now a landscape of a waking nightmare.
The most interesting “clue” to this theme being explored and symbolized in the book is a scene where Louis approaches Jud while the sun is setting, and realizes how close he has to stand to Jud to truly be certain it’s him and not someone else. In the next scene, the two head to the hidden, creepier portion of the pet cemetery, and during the journey the same uncertainty hits Louis: Jud acts completely differently from how he usually does; the old man is suddenly fearful and uncertain of himself. Louis doesn’t really know Jud, doesn’t know his memories or his fears, no matter how many evenings the two have spent chugging down beers and exchanging anecdotes from their lives.
Pet Sematary is a delightful example of how a book can entertain and be profound at the same time. This is a Story, with a capital “S” – not a writer examining his own navel, expecting us to stay interested because, well, he’s just so profound, man! King laid out his work ethic in his fantastic memoir On Writing. A writer has to work hard to make a book interesting and entertaining, and not just expect people to read his works because he thinks he should be listened to.
Ultimately, the most beautiful gift the book leaves to the reader is the realization that, as the famous line from the book goes, “sometimes dead is better.” Being able to let things go is not a matter of just turning your back and walking on – it’s something to be worked on, pondered, an attitude to be cultivated. Hard though it might sometimes be, the alternative can be worse – a LOT worse…
Posted on April 7, 2017
(photo from the film The Nightmare, 2015)
I received my first indication that dreams are not always a respite from the stresses and fears of waking life when I was a small child. My childhood home was located right across from my school, the only thing separating the school and my house being a large, sandy playing field for football and baseball.
My nightmare began with me “waking up” in the dream to the sound of a distant knocking from outside of my bedroom window; I could also hear faint sounds of talking, and I had a distinct feeling that someone was about to kidnap me, and was going through the plan of action aloud, reciting it to himself so as to not forget any important detail.
Despite my fear, I went to check who (or what) was making the noise, disturbing my dreaming. I peeked slightly from the side of the curtain, making sure I would not be seen, and that’s when a flash of red light transported me to the next section of the dream.
Next thing I knew, I was being carried across the sandy playing field towards a nearby river located behind the school by somebody dressed as a janitor or a maintenance man. The figure was wearing red overalls and was carrying a shovel. From what I could see of his face, he had a strong stubble, and was constantly making a guttural sound resembling speech but not quite sounding off legible words. The color red was somehow distinct in this dream – it was even “in the air” somehow; it seemed as though everything outside was lit up with that type of red light you see in submarines.
I was totally petrified, unable to use my hands or my feet. Then it hit me – I was about to be buried somewhere near the river. I started fighting with all my might, trying desperately to move my hands and my feet. Suddenly, I could feel my feet moving, and I started waving them like crazy, trying to kick the figure, to make him drop me from his grip.
I finally woke up for real, absolutely covered in sweat and terrified. No shame in admitting that I went to sleep next to my parents for the rest of the night.
Nightmares come and go, but for some reason, this one has stuck with me throughout the decades. It was the first time I had felt (or at least remember feeling) absolute, mortal fear. My life up until that point had been summers with my friends, Ninja Turtles, and Ghostbusters. Sure, I had seen the occasional scary movie or TV show, but as a small town kid I had been effectively sheltered from true evil and the horrors of the world by two loving parents who devoted their entire lives to their children.
The second most vivid of nightmare of my life I had when I was in the Finnish Army, around the age of 19. I was on leave for a weekend, and I suppose the stresses and hardships of serving as a soldier finally led to something of a climax one night when I experienced the terrifying phenomenon known as “sleep paralysis.”
I woke up from a perfectly pleasant dream to the feeling that someone was in the room. I had my face towards the wall, which meant that the “presence” was behind me, right behind my back.
I tried to roll over to face the presence, to see what it was and what it wanted, when I realized I couldn’t move. I was locked in that position. That’s when a feeling began to rise up in me that what was in my room was somehow pure, categorical evil. I don’t mean a “mean person”, or someone simply wanting to do me harm. What I mean is that I felt like I was in the presence of some ancient, eternal source of all things evil under the Sun.
I started shaking in panic, and that’s when I could feel my left hand slightly moving somehow in rhythm to my shaking. I realized I had gained control of it, and the control slowly, terrifyingly slowly, spread to all my joints, and after a moment I was totally free.
I rolled over to see what was behind me. Nothing. I was fully awake, no longer stuck in limbo between the two worlds of “awake” and “sleeping”.
For a while, I thought this was something only I had ever experienced, which made it all the more terrifying. This is common among us people, this thought that we’re alone with our scary, depressing experiences. Later, to my HUGE relief, I read about sleep paralysis and connected the dots. There was even an excellent documentary made about the phenomenon, entitled The Nightmare (2015).
What’s the scariest nightmare you have ever had? Have you ever experienced sleep paralysis?
Posted on April 6, 2017
(2008 Bronson Club Productions. Director Antti-Jussi Annila. Screenplay by Iiro Küttner)
The unfortunate fact is that Finland produces very few genuinely interesting films. Most Finnish films are formulaic, and deal with mundane, uninteresting matters: relationship problems among young urban professionals in Helsinki, biographical films about ultimately uninteresting people, et cetera.
Once in a whole, though, you find yourself surprised when you buy a ticket to a domestic film. This nearly paranormal experience happened to me in 2008, when I went to see Sauna.
The setting alone is interesting and totally different from anything I’ve seen before. After a long, bloody war between Sweden and Russia comes to an end in the late 1500s, two brothers and their convoy are sent to draw a map of the new borders between the huge nations. One brother is a battle-hardened soldier, still re-living the nightmares of the kill-or-be-killed world of the battlefield. The other is an educated academic, on board to carry out the scientific part of the mapping.
On their journey the posse come across a bizarre village that, for some reason, has not been marked in any previous maps. Why? And why is the population of the village the exact same number as… actually, let’s not say anything more – that would be spoiling the plot.
The film is directed with expertise you wouldn’t normally expect from a guy who has only made a few films before this one. However, Annila hits all the right marks both in terms of horror and drama. The film has a tense, spooky atmosphere that lingers in the air like an ominous premonition, and at the start of the film we only get a few glimpses of what might be behind the curtain (such as a scene where the mapping group come across an animal that has seemingly gouged its own eyes out for some reason).
I’m not entirely certain if the film will completely “open up” to people who don’t speak Finnish, or who have never lived in Finland. To us Finns, however (at least those of us with the capacity to contextualize art in philosophical and historical terms) Sauna is a beautiful, haunting musing on guilt, war, mythology, and our forever-strained relationship with our neighbor to the East, Russia.
The cinematography is gorgeous, almost enough of a reason in itself to watch the film. I’ve never seen the endless Northern European forests filmed this way. Having grown up in the countryside, I immediately connected with Annila’s and cinematographer Henri Blomberg’s vision of Finland’s nature: beautiful, vast, but also somehow ominous in the all-encompassing might its trees cast over life in this Northern periphery.
The film should be fairly easy to find at this point; there are DVDs available with English subtitles.
Let me know in the comments what you thought if you decide to watch the movie!