James Ellroy's LA: City of Demons

James Ellroy, author of L.A. Confidential and The Black Dahlia has a new show premiering tonight (Wednesday, January 19) at 10pm Eastern on Investigation Discovery. It's called "James Ellroy's LA: City of Demons." It focuses on true crime in Los Angeles, primarily in the 40's, 50's, and 60's. And it's one of the weirdest things I've seen on cable TV in a long time. Here's the trailer:

The Fascinating Weirdness of James Ellroy

Ellroy is a man obsessed with crime victims. And he has good reason: in his memoir My Dark Places, he goes into detail about his mother's murder when he was just ten years old. That murder remains unsolved, despite various attempts over the years (including a remarkable chapter in My Dark Places detailing how the murder was featured on Unsolved Mysteries in 1996).

The first episode of Ellroy's new TV show is entitled Dead Women Own Me (a phrase that also appears in My Dark Places), and discusses his mother's murder in some depth, including some of his own efforts to solve it in the 90's. Ellroy doesn't shy away from this intensely personal topic -- after all, he's been talking and writing about it for decades, so he seems completely comfortable with the material. This episode is well-crafted, and if it interests you, you'll want to read at least My Dark Places and perhaps his more recent memoir, The Hilliker Curse.

But what's weird about Ellroy is his bombastic tone, and how that tone interacts with what is fundamentally a reality TV series -- albeit one with a historical focus. Ellroy speaks with a choppy cadence, in a style honed over decades of public readings and press interviews. It comes across as a ferocious mix of hep-cat 50's lingo, alliteration ripped from the pages of Confidential magazine, and a level of personal grandiosity developed from many years being hailed (probably correctly) as America's premiere crime novelist. As a viewer, I came to understand Ellroy's attitude as a character he created as a result of his history. This guy has created a public version of himself, his remarkably dark early life has influenced this character, and what he presents should often be taken with a wink. If you take everything Ellroy says at face value, you're certainly missing something.

To some, Ellroy's personal style will come off as completely unwatchable -- and that's rough, because the show actually has interesting things to say, and not just about crime. The show has a lot to do with cultural obsessions with crime, why people care about murderers, misogyny, personal effects of crime on family members, and Ellroy's own intriguing personal story. But let's put it in context: this is a man who no longer reads books, doesn't listen to modern music, and does not participate in pop culture in general (and hasn't since sometime in the 80's or early 90's). I can see how stewing in his own crime fiction, listening exclusively to classical musical (he has a thing for Beethoven), and not reading books for 20-ish years would heighten his style, but also detach him from the mainstream. Thus, trying to enter a modern mainstream genre like reality TV seems like an odd move. For some, the resulting weirdness will be a hook -- much like David Lynch's general strangeness can add surreality to a story, as long as it doesn't distract the viewer or yank him out of the narrative. For others it'll just be too much, or it'll come off as pure affectation. Ellroy does have affectations -- insanely over-the-top ones -- but he's so consistent with them that they become pretty appealing.

I should also emphasize that you see a tender side of Ellroy in the second episode, when he speaks with Lana Turner's daughter Cheryl, and when he speaks about the murder of his friends' daughter. All of his affectations are gone in those segments, and you see a man who is very interested in getting to the truth of a person (in these cases, all women), and respecting the people who were affected by the crime. Of course, he goes right back to "the full Ellroy" moments later, but it's useful to know that there's Ellroy the man and Ellroy the performer -- and we get to see both in this series.

Barko, the Computer-Generated Talking Crime Dog

It is particularly remarkable that Ellroy -- a man who doesn't use computers or cell phones -- chose his for his dramatic foil a computer-animated talking crime dog named Barko. (Barko is nominally an LAPD K-9 cop, though he's also a literal talking dog...don't think about it too hard or you'll just get lost.) In the series, Barko acts as a bad influence on Ellroy, leading him down a dark path. In the two episodes I've seen, Barko seems to have Ellroy under his spell, so I can only assume that Barko will lead Ellroy into some very compromising situations. (A version of Barko has appeared before in Ellroy's writing, and is named for a real-life dog Ellroy had in years past.)

But let's pause here for a minute. Ellroy is America's premiere crime novelist and he is talking to a computer-generated dog in significant portions of his television show. How wonderful that this is happening in 2011, and how very strange.

The Audience

This show is not for kids. Period, full-stop. It is full of lurid details, shocking photos (with the most shocking bits blurred), and plenty of bleeped language. So get the kids out of the room or they'll be talking to their own animated crime dogs soon enough. This show's subject matter includes sordid, dark topics -- murder, tabloid journalism, and the glamorous-but-dangerous mixture that was midcentury Los Angeles.

So who is this show for? I'd say it's for adults who are interested in true crime, American history, or pop culture of a bygone era. It doesn't hurt if you like a little weirdness or have read (or seen the better film adaptations) of Ellroy's novels. The second episode explains Confidential magazine (which made a fictionalized appearance as "Hush-Hush" in L.A. Confidential). Without ruining anything, I'll just tell you that this was a bit of tabloid history I knew nothing about before seeing this show. Ellroy and other experts explain how Confidential managed to print unbelievably scandalous material and avoid lawsuits. It's a remarkable lesson in business and legal rights, not to mention an incredible story in its own right.

Part of Ellroy's signature writing style (notably his use of alliteration) came from Confidential, and it's fascinating to see what this magazine was, and how important it was to Hollywood culture starting in the 1950's. You can take a look at how Confidential operated, and then step back (possibly in horror) to recognize how its approach to media and celebrity gossip permeated our popular culture over the following decades. Although Confidential is gone, its influence lives on, and not just in grocery store tabloids -- today most of this stuff happens on gossip blogs.

Without this series, I probably never would have known that Confidential existed, or that some of the events described in L.A. Confidential were closer to the truth than I could have imagined. So it is genuinely educational, if a bit lurid around the edges. And who doesn't like some racy stuff along with educational content? Oh right, I'll say it again: KIDS.

An Interview With James Ellroy?

I had hoped to include my interview with James Ellroy in this review, but due to scheduling and technical problems, you'll have to wait for next week to read it. I hope to post it by next Wednesday, before the second episode of the show airs. Let's just say it's tough to get the man on the phone for long, on the day his show premieres. Assuming we get the kinks worked out, the interview will focus primarily on this show, with some more discussion of Barko, Ellroy's grandiose character, and what it's like to take his work to the small screen.

In the meantime, set your DVRs for the Investigation Discovery channel, 10pm Eastern, Wednesdays. (I'm on the west coast, and my cable company is airing it at 7pm -- so check your local listings.) The show is set for a six-episode run to start; if you like the first episode (a brief trailer is below), you're gonna want to check out this James Ellroy character some more -- he's a hell of a writer, and I want to see where he'll take us on this weird, wild ride through the heinous history of Los Angeles.

If You’ve Ever Seen a Ghost, Science May Explain Why

Despite all the reports of ghost sightings (28 percent of Americans report having ghostly encounters), there’s zero evidence to support the presence of supernatural beings among us. Science may not prove the existence of ghosts, but it can help explain why people think they see ghosts in the first place.

In this video from Vox, paranormal investigator Joe Nickell identifies some of the phenomena believers may mistake for paranormal activity. One possible explanation is infrasound, or the sound waves that fall beneath levels of human perception. Though we can’t hear these noises firsthand, our bodies sense them in other ways. This can cause chills, feelings of unease and depression, and even hallucinations.

Other contributors may include sleep paralysis (when you wake up while your body is immobile and experience waking nightmares) and grief. There are also a few less common possibilities that aren’t covered in the video below: Mold poisoning, for instance, can lead to irrational fear and dementia. Suddenly, a visit from a poltergeist doesn’t sound so scary.

[h/t Vox]

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Charles Dickens, Part-Time Mesmerist
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Madame Augusta de la Rue dreaded the end of each day. After settling into bed, her anxiety kept her alert with visions of a figure that followed her into her dreams. When it wasn’t insomnia, she dealt with headaches, a nervous tic, convulsions, and a “burning and raging” mind that was impossible to quiet. Her symptoms became so severe that in 1844 she sought a trendy and controversial treatment known as mesmerism. Her mesmerist: the famous author Charles Dickens.

When Dickens encountered mesmerism in the 1830s, the practice was well-established in the medical community. The German doctor Franz Anton Mesmer had introduced it in the 1770s as a means of manipulating something he called animal magnetism—the magnetic fluid Mesmer believed flowed through the bodies of all living things. According to his theory, the state of this liquid energy was closely tied to one’s health: An uninterrupted flow led to wellness, while blockages caused problems ranging from vomiting to hysteria. Fortunately, Mesmer claimed, these conditions could be cured with a magnet and a steady hand.

By guiding magnets along his patients’ bodies, Mesmer thought he could redistribute the fluid, although he eventually ditched the magnets in favor of his bare hands after discovering they worked just as well. Soon, anyone who shared Mesmer’s supposed magnetic gifts could practice mesmerism by laying or passing their hands over the afflicted. (On top of adding animal magnetism to the lexicon, Mesmer is said to have given us the flirtatious phrase making a pass.) Although responses to mesmeric sessions varied, some claimed it gave them full relief of various physical ailments.

Mesmer died in 1815, a couple decades before the start of the Victorian era. With that period came a nationwide obsession with the metaphysical that renewed public interest in mesmerism not just as a medical treatment, but as a form of entertainment. Practitioners would mesmerize patients into trances and parade them around parties. But some were more than performance artists—John Elliotson, one of the most prolific figures in the field, was a well-respected surgeon famous for popularizing the stethoscope. He was also good friends with Charles Dickens.

Dickens first witnessed mesmerism up close at a demonstration Elliotson gave at London’s University College Hospital in 1838. The writer was intrigued, and implored Elliotson to show him more. Not everyone had a knack for mesmerism, but Dickens was a natural. He wrote years later, “I have the perfect conviction that I could magnetize a Frying-Pan.”

Around the same time he took on Dickens as his pupil, Elliotson watched his career implode. The medical community was then embroiled in a fierce debate over whether or not mesmerism was a legitimate science. One of its staunchest opponents was Thomas Wakley, editor of the British medical journal The Lancet. Wakley affirmed his suspicions after conducting a trial in which the O’Key sisters, two of Elliotson’s more colorful patients, failed to respond to certain "mesmerized" metals yet produced fits in response to materials they were only told were mesmerized. The results of the trial seemed to prove that mesmerism was fake, and Elliotson resigned from his job at University College Hospital shortly after that.

Throughout the controversy, Dickens remained a loyal friend—he even asked Elliotson to be the godfather of his second child. He also continued pursuing his new hobby. In 1842, while in Pittsburgh with his wife Catherine as part of the research for his travelogue American Notes for General Circulation, he first put his mesmerism skills to the test, with Catherine agreeing to be his guinea pig. After several minutes of waving his hands over her head just like Elliotson had taught him, she devolved into hysterics and promptly fell asleep. Dickens took her dramatic response as a sign of his power, and he considered the trial a great success.

From then on, he practiced his talent on whoever was game. His sister-in-law Georgina Hogarth reacted much like Catherine, slipping into a hysterical episode almost immediately. John Leech, who did the original illustrations for A Christmas Carol, came to Dickens for treatment after injuring his head while swimming. Leech felt much better following their session and Dickens took credit for his recovery. The actor Charles Macready, however, was the rare person who didn’t buy the shtick. After Dickens tried to mesmerize him, Macready described the experience as “very unpleasant,” saying “it could not effect me.”

Dickens’s dabblings with mesmerism culminated with a visit to Italy beginning in 1844. He was once again traveling in the name of research, this time for his nonfiction book Pictures From Italy. While staying in Genoa, he became good friends with the Swiss banker Emile de la Rue. He also became close with the banker's English-born wife, Madame Augusta de la Rue—the woman destined to become his most challenging patient. Madame de la Rue suffered from a host of ailments that stemmed from her anxiety, and after hearing about her issues, Dickens offered to help the only way he knew how.

Their first session, which took place in December 1844, may have discouraged a less-experienced mesmerist. Instead of easing her discomfort, his gestures made her more agitated. Madame de la Rue succumbed to a massive anxiety attack, and Dickens took her sensitivity to the treatment as a good sign. They both agreed to see each other again, and soon the meetings became part of their routines.

Madame de la Rue’s response to the therapy grew more promising with each encounter. Her face, once tense with muscle spasms, started to soften. The volume of her thoughts dropped a few notches and she was able to fall asleep much faster. Satisfied with his success treating her physical suffering, Dickens delved deeper into her psyche. He asked her to describe her thoughts and dreams, hoping to get to the root of her illness. The most persistent vision she shared was one of a “phantom” that dogged her whether she was asleep or awake. Dickens described the power it held over her in a letter to her husband:

“That figure is so closely connected with the secret distresses of her very soul—and the impression made upon it is so entwined with her confidence and trust in me, and her knowledge of the power of the Magnetism—that it must not make head again. From what I know from her, I know there is more danger and delay in one appearance of that figure than in a dozen fits of the severest bodily pain. Believe nothing she says of her capacity of endurance, if the reappearance of that figure should become frequent. Consult that mainly, and before all other signs.”

Decades before Sigmund Freud adopted hypnosis as a psychotherapy tool, Dickens was using mesmerism to trace his patient’s visible symptoms to her subconscious mind.

Catherine Dickens didn’t share her husband's excitement for the situation. She had always been jealous of the women her husband mesmerized, and she felt especially threatened by his relationship with Madame de La Rue. And if she thought she’d have her husband’s full attention when they left Genoa to see the rest of Italy in the spring of 1845, she was mistaken. Letters from de La Rue updating Mr. Dickens on her status followed him around the country. Even though they couldn’t be in the same room, the pair continued their appointments remotely by attempting to connect through telepathy for one hour starting at 11 a.m. each day.

Though her condition had vastly improved since their first meeting, the Madame hoped to see Dickens one last time when he finally returned to Genoa in May 1845. Unfortunately a stomach bug prevented the pair from reuniting. He wrote to her in a letter:

"You must not think I am sending you an excuse in lieu of myself. I am in a hideous digestive state, cross, uncomfortable, bilious, blah and limp. A mutton chop and a long walk, and nobody to be contradictory to, are the remedies I have prescribed myself.”

After he resettled in England, Dickens’s passion for mesmerism cooled. He indulged in other mystical hobbies, however: In 1849, he performed stage magic under the pseudonym The Unparalleled Necromancer, Rhia Rhama Rhoos; in 1852, he wrote a spontaneous combustion scene into his realistic fiction book Bleak House, a decision he defended with conviction after it angered scientists. Like many fads to emerge from the Victorian era, those areas of interest have since largely faded from fashion. Mesmerism, on the other hand, laid the foundation for modern hypnosis—but today the treatment is administered by mental health professionals, not young novelists on vacation.


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