Terrible Lizards

The Terror Tourist is my occasional segment on the Heavy Leather Horror Show, a weekly podcast about all things horror out of Salem, Massachusetts. These segments are also available as an email newsletter. Sign up here, if interested.

Tourists, our journey today takes us to a place but also to a time — approximately 66 million years ago. We’re headed to a day, actually — the most horrifying and deadly single day in the history of life on our planet. Grab your snacks and lots of water. If you have a Kevlar body suit, pack that too. OK let’s go!

We are off the coast of what is now the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, just to the northwest of a small fishing village called Chicxulub on the Yucatan. It is the end of the Age of Reptiles. Humans do not exist yet and won’t for 65 million years or so.

Hey, follow me!

Dinosaurs dominate every continent of Earth and have for several hundred million years. Some of the most popular dinosaurs in our current public imagination are here now — T. Rex, Triceratops, Ankylosaurs (the armored ones), Pachycelphalosaurs (the one with the giant ramming dome on its head), and Velociraptors. They are all around us, whether we see them or not; they see us.

We look up and a light appears in the northeast sky. It’s becoming larger and larger by the minute. It’s a meteor — a chunk of the early solar system that just happens to be on a collision course with Earth. Meteors had collided with earth before and will again, but this time the chunk is large (more than 6 miles across) and fast (traveling at about 12 miles per second). In the blink of an eye the meteor slams into the shallow ocean with the energy of 72 trillion tons of dynamite. 

All horror, fictional or real, pales in comparison to what comes next.

The K-Pg impactor

Everything within 100 miles of the impact is instantly vaporized. Life anywhere within 1000 miles of the impact zone is destroyed only slightly less quickly by 620 mph winds, 330’ tall mega-tsunamis, and earthquakes whose magnitude would not even register on our current Richter scale. Dinosaurs here are the lucky dead.

The impact ejects 25 trillion tons of sea floor into the atmosphere. Hot dust, ash, steam, and rock are tossed so high that some achieve escape velocity and scatter throughout the solar system (giving rise to the not entirely implausible theory that there could be dinosaur fossils or even mummified body parts on the moon). But most of that 25 trillion tons of junk falls back to earth, heating to molten temperatures on re-entry. And this is where the real hell on earth begins. 

The infrared radiation and heat generated by all this returning material cooks the air globally (our planet’s rotation spreading the heat evenly like a giant earth-sized rotisserie). The air itself is on fire. Basically if you are a living creature and you can not burrow deep into the earth or dive deep underwater you are incinerated by the scorching air. And let’s face it, most dinosaurs are large and not adapted for digging or submersion. Wildfires ignite — only further raising ambient temperatures. This happens all in the course of the first day, nearly everywhere on earth. 

Some life survived, obviously, or we wouldn’t be here as tourists. But even most of the initial survivors would eventually perish. All the smoke from those fires only adds to the carbon-rich gunk that is now lodged in the high atmosphere, creating a years-long “impact winter” that basically blots out the sun permanently. Photosynthesis stops so plant life ceases. Without any food herbivorous creatures die. Then any carnivores which eat the herbivores die. In the end 75% of all life on earth is wiped out. A few of our ancestors, tiny burrowing mammals, thankfully make it past this extinction boundary and here were are, ready to talk about dinosaurs in horror movies.

Today’s itinerary is called Terrible Lizards, the literal meaning of the word “dinosaur”.

Dinosaurs are perfect for the big screen in so many ways. They are, of course, some of the largest creatures ever to inhabit the earth. But they also fascinate because of the length of their dominance atop the food chain — and their cataclysmic demise. But most of all apex dinosaur predators are scary. There’s a reason the T. Rex’s arms were so laughably tiny. With a neck so strong and teeth so long the head was all that’s needed to do what a T. Rex does so well: rip its prey apart.

Cinemagenic and terrifying! So obviously there are hundreds of dinosaur-based horror movies, right? I am here to regretfully inform you, fellow travelers, that the answer is no, no there are not. Dinosaur horror, such as it exists, seems to bend toward action-adventure, thrillers and even comedy. There are very few straight-up horror movies involving dinosaurs.

Terrifying Saturday morning childhood programming

Certainly creature features owe much of their power to our culture’s knowledge and latent fear of dinosaurs. From the Black Lagoon to Godzilla reptilian predators have been a staple of horror and horror-adjacent films for almost a century. But these baddies are almost always not quite dinosaurs. Take the Sleestaks from the television show Land of the Lost: reptilian, sure, but also humanoid and even insectoid with their giant unblinking eyes. Are they scary? This tour guide child of the 80s is here to say: you bet they are. Are they dinosaurs? Not really. The Loch Ness monster — centerpiece of at least one not-great group watch on this show — is, if anything, a plesiosaur. We won’t get into it here, but these large marine reptiles are not dinosaurs, frightful though they are. The Megalodon? Not a dinosaur either.

And yet, dinosaurs have been the subject of filmmaking almost as long as it’s been a medium. From their first depiction in 1905’s Prehistoric Peeps to the seminal model animation of 1925’s The Lost World up through the 1993 blockbuster Jurassic Park, dinosaur films are a massive part of the history of cinema. There’s even a dinosaur museum in the middle-of-nowhere Utah called, uh, The Dinosaur Museum, with a truly impressive permanent exhibition on the history of dinosaurs in film, including a physical recreation of how stop-motion and forced perspective were used to achieve their presence in early film. If you’re ever in Blanding, Utah you should visit.

The Dinosaur Museum, Blanding, Utah

So why so few true horror movies with dinosaurs? I have a few ideas.

  1. The size and complexity of dinosaurs make them difficult to portray convincingly. Doing so requires ample budget, something our beloved genre often lacks. For much of movie history the technology to portray dinosaurs well simply did not exist widely. Claymation and stop-motion only go so far. 
  2. Dinosaurs are not great villains. Big and reptilian doesn’t automatically mean scary. Many dinosaurs just munched on treetops. Even the Rex and raptor were just doing their thing, looking for prey — like a lion or a wolf. They wanna eat, that’s their motive. Concerning if you’re a delectable human, sure, but not horrifying.
  3. Related to this is that many people grow up loving dinosaurs. They are a staple of children’s programming. Many people have a favorite dino. Few children have a favorite serial killer or zombie. Those who do grow up and participate in podcasts about like this one.

So, yeah, almost zero horror movies involve dinosaurs. Almost, because there are plenty that attempt it, but they are never played completely straight. Or, the terror is not sustained for the entire film. The original Jurassic Park is a great example. The scenes of running from a rampaging T. Rex or hiding from door-handle-operating Velociraptors is without question frightening. But this is the punctuation rather than the grammar of the film. (It could also be the music.) And we may have Jurassic Park to blame for the relative crap that exists today calling itself dinosaur horror. That movie’s advances in CGI inspired legions of filmmakers to pop dinosaurs into situations that would otherwise have been cost-prohibitive. But without a blockbuster Hollywood budget nearly all these films become laughable the moment the CGIsaurus appears.

Let’s visit a few of these films, my tourist friends.

1993 wasn’t only the year of Jurassic Park. It was also the year of Jurassic Park knock-offs. Enter our man Roger Corman. His film, Carnosaur, was meant to directly compete with and capitalize on the marketing machine behind Spielberg’s film. Roger Ebert called it the worst film of 1993. It’s probably the best dinosaur horror film I have seen. Make of those two statements what you will. Featuring Diane Ladd and a young Clint Howard, Carnosaur’s main plot point is the use of infected chicken eggs, which contain a lethal virus that impregnates women with dinosaur embryos, to exterminate the planet of humans and repopulate it with dinosaurs. There are, alas, almost more chickens in this film than dinosaurs. And being a Corman flick the actual dinosaur effects here are all puppets and animatronics — not horrible for what they are, but still pretty bad. Ironically, Carnosaur gets the science a bit more right than even Jurassic Park. The main baddie is a Deinonychus, a more accurate depiction than Jurassic Park’s Velociraptor which is in actuality is the size of a turkey, partially feathered, and did not hunt in packs, but it has a cooler name. The climatic battle between a T. Rex and a guy operating a front loader is straight out of Aliens. Carnosaur spawned four sequels/knock-offs, almost all using the same models and/or footage from the original because … Roger Corman.

One year later in 1994 we get perhaps the strangest entry in this tiny sub-genre, Tammy and the T-Rex. This film answers the obvious question: what if Frankenstein but with a dinosaur and set in a high school? Featuring Denise Richards and Paul Walker, Tammy and the T-Rex is about a teenager killed by bullies whose brain is then implanted in a robotic Tyrannosaurus rex by a mad scientist. The bullies get their due, naturally, at the disproportionately small hands of this cyborg Tyrannosaur. This is a bizarre movie, but it’s fun and absolutely not something you’ve seen before. In 2019 Vinegar Syndrome restored much of the original, intended gore removed upon release. Find that one for the full experience. 

Hands-down the winner for best title in all of dinosaur horror is 2017’s The VelociPastor. You know what you’re in for even just seeing the title in print as the P in “velocipastor” is intercapped uppercase to make absolutely certain you understand the play on words. The VelociPastor is many things, but subtle isn’t one of them. Because none of it makes any sense whatsoever I’ll just lay it all out as a sequence of words: distraught priest being pursued by ninjas finds an enchanted artifact that turns him into a dragon (which is really a dinosaur) who then sets about killing criminals with the assistance of his prostitute sidekick. For what it is, this movie succeeds. And what is it exactly? A $36,000 film that uses an actual discarded high school dinosaur mascot costume for its protagonist. There’s even a scene of a car explosion where no car explodes and a caption reads [insert VFX here]. Sometimes when you have a title this good the movie it’s attached to doesn’t actually matter.

Claw from 2021 seemed promising, as it is built on classic horror tropes. A stand-up comedian and her agent are driving through the American west and have car trouble. They end up stranded in a “ghost town”, one of dozens of tourist attractions that prop up the facades of buildings from a forgotten past. Good start, yeah? They meet the proprietor of the ghost town, a gent named Ray, who also collects dinosaur fossils. Turns out there’s a living raptor on the property as well — we’re never told how or why — and almost the entirety of the remainder of the film is just an extended scene of the protagonists hiding from the beast in and around a camper trailer. But wait, there’s almost a one-year-later epilogue that involves a dream sequence and a T. Rex nowhere near the ghost town. Claw goes to show that the pieces to make real dinosaur horror exist, it just didn’t put them together very well.

I could go on, but you deserve better than all this, my travel buddies. If you need more for some reason, just search any film database for the word “Rex”. Ebola Rex, Poseidon Rex, Anonymous Rex, Theodore Rex. All lizards, all terrible. Dinosaur Prison, The Dinosaur Project, Hatched, Area 407, and last year’s 65 with Adam Driver. Not worth your time or, frankly, worth the legacy of the amazing creatures they depict.

If this is your thing, my recommendation is to go back earlier — discard some of your need for pure horror — and watch more sci-fi entries like Dinosaurus (1960), Valley of the Gwangi (1969), The Land that Time Forgot (1974), or Planet of the Dinosaurs (1977). These aren’t masterpieces but they aren’t parodies either. Best of all: zero bad CGI.

And if you are a filmmaker this is your opportunity. Which one of you will make the first truly great dinosaur horror film? We have the technology and the more science teaches us about dinos the more novel story lines abound. Let me leave you with two ideas, royalty-free:

  1. For real-world crazy, creationists can’t be beat. Did you know that one of the centerpieces of their belief is that dinosaurs and humans existed side-by-side? There’s even a museum in Texas that purports to show early human footprints next to dinosaur tracks. This is of course complete bullshit, but … what about a horror movie that somehow plops creationists into the world 66 million years ago? They look for fellow humans, find none, are hunted by dinosaurs, and ultimately take a giant meteor to the face. I’d watch that.
  2. Fossil hunting itself presents plenty of great opportunities for horror. There’s secrecy about and danger all around the dig sites (super hot, dangerously dry, poachers, snakes, bears, etc) and tons of potentially lethal digging and blasting equipment. Someone give me a serial killer paleontologist. Living dinosaurs not even required!

OK everyone, I’ll leave you here. Don’t forget to tip your tour guide. We look forward to seeing you on our next journey.

Land of Fire and Ice

The Terror Tourist is my occasional segment on the Heavy Leather Horror Show, a weekly podcast about all things horror out of Salem, Massachusetts. These segments are also available as an email newsletter. Sign up here, if interested.

Greetings travelers! I hope you are prepared for an adventure — properly dressed in layers, extremities covered, feet shod in crampons — because we are going to Iceland. I’ve compiled an itinerary by watching every horror movie ever to come out of this small island nation. But before we take that excursion let’s pack our bags with some context.

Pro tip: you can access Iceland any direction from here

Iceland is Hawaii upside-down, a largely self-contained ecosystem in the middle of a vast sea perpetually remaking itself directly above a hotspot vent in the Earth’s mantle. Like Hawaii Iceland has been a prize of sea-going conquerors through history: the Vikings of course, but also the kings of Norway and Denmark, and even the occupying forces of Britain and the USA during World War II. 

Both geologically and culturally Iceland straddles North America and Eurasia. In addition to being the morphing volcanic crown of the mid-Atlantic, Iceland exists right on the boundary of two tectonic plates, just kissing the southernmost boundary of the arctic circle, and slowly moving away from their one-time embrace. This position between two worlds enabled Icelander Leif Erikson to discover what would come to be called North America 500 years before Christopher Columbus — though Leif and his compatriots left behind only tool shards rather than genocidal European pathogens. 

Icelanders know how to live between worlds. For example, some 35% of people in Iceland believe in elves. Called Huldufólk, these “hidden people” appear human but live in a parallel world overlaid on our own, popping in and out of our reality at will. How can you tell them from us? It’s subtle. Huldufólk have a convex rather than concave philtrum below their noses. So, yes, I spent much of my recent trip to Iceland staring intently at people’s upper lips. Awkward and uncomfortable for all parties involved, but this is my responsibility as the director of this terror travel agency.

Iceland hosts all kinds of supernatural creatures, most of which you will find in their amazing literary legacy known as the sagas. Part history, part genealogy, part mythology, these tales are unique to Iceland and date to the 9th through early 11th centuries. If interested look up Snorri Sturluson, Iceland’s revered national poet and historian. Actually just say his name — Snorri Sturluson — and feel a smile come to your face.  

The one and only Snorri

The sagas feature draugr what we’d call “ghosts”, the aptrganga literally “again-walkers”, the haugbúi literally “mound-dwellers” as well as trolls, giants, witches, sorcerers, and devils. All of these nightmares fall into the category of reimleikar or “hauntings”. Interestingly what often gets translated as “ghosts” in Iceland are actually corporeal. These things have physical bodies and can do physical harm. There’s also the legend of the Útburður — literally the “out-carried”, babies left outside to  die of exposure — unwanted because of rape, incest, or conception out of wedlock who return as ghosts. That one kinda messed me up.

So you pause here with me on our journey, travelers, and ask the obvious question: Are all the scary things in Iceland fantastical? Aren’t there any humans to be feared? The answer is: not really. Iceland is consistently ranked the #1 safest country in the world. (The USA comes in a 131 out of 163.) And there is honest-to-Odin only a single known serial killer in all of Icelandic history. In the late 16th century a farmer named Axlar-Björn was convicted of killing 9 people, mostly boarders and farmhands, variously by axing them to death or drowning them. He likely killed more than 9 as a search of his farmlands yielded many more bodies. Ol’ Axlar was executed for these crimes by first having his limbs shattered with a sledgehammer, then his privates severed and tossed to his pregnant wife, then he was beheaded and dismembered — each severed body piece receiving its own display on a stake. His children weren’t much better people, frankly. Years later the last words of his son who was being executed for robbery and murder were “If I were free I would kill you all and eat your flesh.” 

But honestly other than that particular family, there isn’t much to be afraid of in Iceland … except Iceland itself. That is, literally, the ice and the land. 

Let’s start with the darkness. Like all places as far north (or south) as Iceland much of the year is very dark. The sun barely peeks above the horizon in the winter. It’s a gloomy vibe, not quite pitch, but certainly unsettling — like a permanent eclipse. As a sidenote, this seasonal darkness may explain why Iceland and Finland have the highest percentage of metal bands per capita in the world. And not just Viking metal. This is perhaps obvious if you have ever tried to pronounce an Icelandic word as basically every other term in an Icelandic dictionary would make a great black metal band name. And Iceland officially does not allow foreign terms in its language. So when a new concept emerges, like the computer did in the 1940s they make one up. In this example, they joined the term for number (tala) and witch-doctor or prophetess (völva)  A computer is thus a number witch-doctor and the new word is … Tölva. Which is my last name. I am, unfortunately, 0% Icelandic.

But let’s get back on the path. Iceland is called the land of fire and ice and that’s no marketing slogan. Well, actually it is, but it is for truth. There are more than 30 active volcanos ripping their own scabs from the land. At any given time quite a few of these are actively spewing lava or scalding mud and ash. In fact, when I was there a few weeks ago we witnessed a crater field which had been dormant for a few months fissure and begin erupting right before our eyes. Icelanders live with this peril, indeed embrace it as the source of many good things, but not incautiously so. 

Actual lava from actual lava rocks (made molten in a non-volcanic furnace)

In fact what worries Icelanders more than volcanos is what sits on top of them, which is usually glaciers. We all know that our planet’s glaciers are melting at a worrying rate, but detonate a geothermal bomb underneath them and, well, they melt really quickly. In an eruption all that molten rock and ash mixed with millions of cubic acres of now-melted ice cap hastily seeking lower ground will ruin your day right quick. And Iceland’s biggest city Reykjavik sits on one of the most volcanically active peninsulas of the entire island. Iceland would not exist without vulcanism and one day, hopefully later rather than sooner, it will likely cease to exist because of vulcanism.

Then there’s the sea itself. The North Atlantic is an angry place. Got an unsinkable ocean liner? It’ll take care of that. The waters are rough, rogue waves are commonplace, the whole thing is plied by an unruly fleet of icebergs constantly calving off from increasingly-unstable glaciers, and the water, naturally, is freezing. Typically if you find yourself bobbing in said water you will live as many minutes as the number of degrees celsius the water is above freezing. So let’s say you were lucky enough to spill over into a warm patch of ocean, say 5°C/40°F, you’d live for approximately 5 minutes. As a darkly humorous aside, there is a huge culture of swimming pools (indoor obviously) in Iceland. This is a legacy of a realization in the early 20th century than an above-average number of sailors were drowning due to incidents just offshore that otherwise would have been close enough to swim to safety. Thus Iceland made it mandatory — which it is to this day — to be able to swim. It’s part of childhood educational curriculum. I pause to wonder why the people of a nation literally surrounded by the ocean, criss-crossed by waterfalls, and in a constant state of glacial melt sogginess wouldn’t have previously thought knowing how to swim was important, but who am I to say?

One last way that Iceland wants to kill you. All the aforementioned geological instability produces a lot of earthquakes. No need to delve into that particular kind of calamity except to note that Iceland is one of the only places on earth where there is a non-zero chance of being crushed by tectonic plates underwater. The Silfra Fissure in beautiful Thingvellir National Park is a glacial lake that straddles the cleft made as the North American and Eurasian continental plates slowly move apart. It’s a popular snorkeling and diving site where you can touch both plates at once. And if there’s an earthquake while you’re down there, welp, that’d be a pretty great way to go, no? Reclaimed by earth itself. And yes, it was cold in that drink: 35°F. If not for our drysuits my son and I would have spent our last 1.5 minutes together.

Eurasia to the left, North America to the right

OK let’s catch our breath on this hike. In and out. In and out. We’re warm, we’re dry, nothing is erupting on us, let’s move on … to horror movies. 

Here’s the thing. Given the landscape, Iceland seems like the perfect place for the horror imagination to run wild. Match a hostile environment with centuries of ghost storytelling tradition and the fact that it’s exceedingly easy to become isolated in such an unpopulated place. But honestly horror just isn’t a huge genre in Icelandic cinema. This may simply be due to size. Iceland just doesn’t produce as many movies as, say, the much larger, much more populous countries of Sweden or Norway.

But this is an opportunity for our itinerary, my weary travel buddies! It occurred to me that I might be able to watch the entire output of a single country’s horror film industry. And that’s exactly what I attempted to do over the last few months. Did I succeed? Well … I watched 11 films, but there are a few festival-only shorts, made-for-TV specials that were never rebroadcast or put online, and at least one film which does not exist with any subtitles or dubbing. So, no, I did not see everything. But I saw almost everything and certainly the best things. 

First a note on Jóhann Jóhannsson, the peerless Icelandic composer. (His albums Englabörn, IBM 1401, and Fordlandia will change your conception of what classical music can do.) For our purposes though it should be noted that Jóhann wrote the music for the 2018 revenge bloodbath Mandy. It was his final work prior to dying of heart failure at the age of 48. If you’ve seen Mandy you know how crazy its score is. Panos Cosmatos, Mandy’s director, said of Jóhann “[he] went above and beyond, and I suspect to the limits of his sanity, to make the music for this movie.” Growing up surrounded by Iceland’s black metal music scene and having seen and loved Cosmatos’ previous film Beyond the Black Rainbow, Jóhannsson reportedly pled his case for the job saying “Holy shit, you guys are making something … that is in this nightmarish, psychedelic metal world that I was born and bred on”. Cosmatos hired him and said “I basically wanted it to feel a little bit like a disintegrated rock opera, and Jóhann responded to that. We developed a kind of shorthand almost immediately.” The movie was made, Jóhann died tragically, and now Cosmatos says he cannot bring himself to revisit the soundtrack. “I’m almost afraid to listen to it in isolation, because I still have emotional strands attached to it.” Have a rewatch — or more specifically a re-listen — of Mandy if you want to get a real flavor of Icelandic horror genius.

These 11 films are representative both of the thematic diversity of Icelandic horror and in various ways are uniquely Icelandic. Here we go!

This splatter shlock features a cameo from Iceland’s most famous — perhaps only legitimate — horror movie celebrity: Gunnar Hansen. That’s right: Leatherface. (Gunnar’s family moved to the USA when he was 5-years-old and the rest is history.) In this movie I learned that there are good reasons Leatherface was non-verbal in the original film only some of which have to do with the story itself. Hansen is just not a good actor. The plot finds a group of tourists stranded on a malfunctioning whale-watching boat who are picked up by a bunch of homicidal whalers running what amounts to a floating torture chamber. The whole thing is weirdly xenophobic with lots of uncomfortable stereotypes about the different nations of the tourists. There are some decent kills, including with harpoons, but this movie goes on for a least one act too many. It was already overly-long when it occurred to me that I, the viewer, had not seen a single whale. Fear not: stock footage to the rescue! There is indeed one kill from an orca. If this were shot on film you could probably see where this scene was stapled onto the existing celluloid reel.

Tilbury (1987)

This made-for-TV movie is classic WTF-did-I-just-watch? Based on the folk belief in a tame imp called a Tilbury which would suck milk from other people’s cows, return to its owner (almost always a woman), and then disgorge butter for her. When not stealing milk for re-processing the Tilbury feeds from a nipple inside its owner’s thigh. Oh and these imps are brought to life using communion wine served between its owner’s breasts. With that all as preface, it’s no surprise that this the visuals in this movie are vile. The story follows a modern day Tilbury conscripted into the British occupying forces during WWII. 

Thirst (2019)

Billed as “MOST BAD-ASS GAY VAMPIRE ZOMBIE SPLATTER MOVIE YOU’LL EVER SEE…EVER”. Not four minutes into this film — which I’ll note that I watched on an airplane — we get screaming, gory vampire fellatio. This is so not a movie to watch on an airplane, certainly not with strangers next to you. It basically follows an elderly vampire who kills by ripping his victims’ penises off. Clearly this is done for comedic effect. At one point he even eats a penis in a hot dog bun. Not surprising when you consider that a top ten tourist attraction in Reykjavik is the Iceland Phallological Museum — a gallery of preserved penises and penis ephemera from various species. Thirst itself is a decent film and super gory, particularly a scene when a person is ripped in half top to bottom with the vampire’s bare hands in the snow. It’s part detective story, part commentary on Christian cults. But mostly it’s just goofy fun.

Lamb (2021)

Maybe the best movie I watched on this journey. It’s quintessential folk horror and apparently the highest grossing Icelandic film (of any genre) to date. Featuring Noomi Rapace who you may have first seen in Prometheus. Set on a farm in rural Iceland the style is ultra-realistic, beautiful and minimal, with no soundtrack. Noomi and her husband nurse an ill, hybrid newborn lamb to health, keeping it indoors, nursing it with a bottle, swaddling it to sleep in a bassinet. Hybrid you say? Yeah, it’s half human, but not like a centaur, just some of its limbs. It is bipedal though which is disturbing enough having a toddler with a lamb head running around the house.  The lamb’s mother keeps showing up looking for it. Noomi has grown attached to her new “baby” so she kills and buries the mother lamb. This turns out to be a very bad idea. An excellent movie, but don’t expect to leave this movie with a warm fuzzy feeling.

Graves & Bones (2016)

This film is partially a response to the financial crisis of 2008 which hit Iceland abnormally hard — three banks failed, the largest economic trauma to any country relative to size.  It opens with a little girl, Perla, stopping the swaying of someone we later find out was her father who has hanged himself. Gunnar is awaiting the decision on his appeal of a conviction for financial fraud — it was Gunnar’s brother, also connected to the fraud, who hanged himself, Perla his daughter. Gunnar and his wife head to a country house to assume responsibility for their now-orphaned niece. It’s a ghost house, of course, but more than that this is a movie about a marriage falling apart over grief — and an external financial crisis — which manifests in horrific ways. The juxtaposition of martial strife bordering on combat and elements of the supernatural are surprisingly effective and affective — it was tough to watch. Eventually you learn the backstory of the house and it all crescendos into a satisfying if bleak climax.

It Hatched (2016)

Another story of a childless couple in rural Iceland who unexpectedly get a baby, as in Lamb, which turns out poorly for everyone involved. Two isn’t a trend, but I’m still trying to figure out if there’s something deeper going on. In It Hatched, a couple moves from Nashville to a place way out in the middle of nowhere in Iceland. Turns out there’s a pit to hell in their basement from which emerges a ghost-devil who impregnates the lady of the house. She eventually gives birth to an actual egg, which of course hatches a seemingly normal baby, at least at first. This film has real promise with setting and premise, but the acting is odd and suffers from pacing issues. Scrambled, you could say.

Bokeh (2017)

Remember The Langoliers by Stephen King, a short story turned mini-series about a guy who wakes up from a nap on a flight and 90% of his fellow passengers are gone? That’s Bokeh, except it’s American tourists, Jenai and Riley, in Iceland who wake up one morning (after watching the northern lights the night before … in the summer, somehow) and there isn’t a soul left around. It’s a great conceit in any context, made especially so set in Iceland whose landscapes seem to exist without relation to (or care for) human agency. The couple experiences the various stages of apocalyptic realization: confusion, panic, welcoming the rapture, acceptance that there is no rapture, hey wait! laws/social norms/money no longer matter — let’s party! You could excerpt parts of this movie as a tourism promotion as these two just wander around beautiful landscapes and the unpeopled streets of Reykjavik. 

But eventually it all falls apart. The couple frets about how they will ever get off the island. The geothermal grid starts to fail, water stops flowing. They bicker over the proper order in which to eat expiring food. It’s a dark psychological drama underwritten by a low-grade end-of-the-world vibe. But it’s also in part a morality tale about living in the moment. Eventually our Adam and Eve meet the anti-Job, a guy who is still somehow still alive living in a cabin and determined to give up. He teaches them the Welsh word hera: grief for a home to which you cannot return. I’m not sure there’s anything specifically Icelandic about this emotion, but Iceland certainly makes for a great setting for its exposition. 

⅓ of the entire cast of Bokeh is Maika Monroe who made her debut in It Follows. Reddit of course links the two films: “This movie is a sequel to It Follows and the main character, played by the same actor, had sex with someone and then they had sex with someone (and so forth) until everyone died/disappeared. The old man was the last person to go before it was Jenai’s turn. The reason Riley survived was because he never had sex with her as he was waiting for marriage. (Obviously).” And now I want to dream up other unintended sequels linked by mutual actors.

Child Eater (2016)

If you thought the incessant repetition of “This ends now!” and “Evil never dies!” from Halloween Kills was cringey, boy have I got a movie for you. I debated including this one, as it is set (and shot) in the Catskill Mountains of the USA, but its writer and director, Erlingur Thoroddsen, is from Iceland. Child Eater ultimately is part cabin-in-the-woods, part stalker babysitter, with a dash of Jeepers Creepers and A Nightmare on Elm Street — which you might otherwise think was an homage, but this is really just a mess. You see, there’s a gnarled old guy living out in the woods, abducting children, and then eating their eyes in an effort to keep himself from going blind. That’s it. That’s the movie.

Rift (2017)

Not to be confused with The Rift (reviewed on the previous Terror Tourist), this ambitious story of two former lovers centers on the sexual and emotional trauma that characterized their relationship. Amazingly this thoughtful, beautiful, haunting film comes from the same writer-director as Child Eater, Erlingur Thoroddsen — and only a year later. The guy’s got range is what I’m saying. Like most of the other films here, Rift uses the tension between the sublime and the outright terrifying of Iceland’s landscapes metaphorically. Mind the rifts wherever they appear. This film may be too slow for some viewer’s tastes and those who desire firm closure might be disappointed. But it’s worth it just for the two leads’ performances. Maybe make it a double feature with Child Eater just to test the limits of your cinematic taste?

I Remember You (2017)

Probably the most ambitious film in the mix, I Remember You is two intertwined stories, one a mystery of a child lost in the city (naturally Reykjavik), the other a more straightforward tale of haunting at a remote seaside cabin. Some of the fun of it is simply trying to figure out why these two strands are being told in the same filmic container. Your effort will be rewarded in the end, thankfully. Keep your ears open for the wonderful sound design and your eyes peeled for the Exorcist III hospital corridor call-back. Óskar Thór Axelsson, director and co-writer, knows what he’s doing.

Spell (2018)

Here’s Iceland through an American tourist lens. A man, Benny, escapes to the island after the tragic drowning death of his fiancee. Their difficult relationship comes through in flashes throughout the film as a backstory. There are several interesting things about Benny. He has a compulsion to lick things, like surfaces and rocks — pica, sorta — which is only mildly disgusting until he visits the (very real) Icelandic Phallological Museum when it becomes farcically disgusting. Benny is also an unfulfilled illustrator. This matters as a plot point when he meets some Icelanders that want to show him off-the-beaten path sites. Benny’s runic scribblings apparently convince his creepy tour guide that he’s “chosen” (for what we’re not entirely sure). Spell is a movie about grief, dumb Americans in Europe, mourning, mental illness, and superstition. There’s something comfortable about the rhythm of this film. The beat seems to be building to a compelling climax. But the drum kit falls off the riser in the end — which is a shame since the other 90% of this film is very entertaining. 

I suppose what I learned on this journey through a small genre from a small island is that Iceland very much does its own thing stylistically. Certainly there are homages and influences from other countries’ film traditions, but every one of the films we just visited have elements that are unique to Iceland’s traditions, location, or circumstances. And the country continues to produce. Recently The Damned, a 19th century shipwreck period fright,premiered at Tribeca. Iceland even has its own, singular horror festival called Frostbiter this year from Nov. 15-16. So if you’re in the area, check that out!

Thank you for traveling with me today. Until our next excursion, may your itineraries be horrific and fulfilling!

Doom Shanty

The Terror Tourist is my occasional segment on the Heavy Leather Horror Show, a weekly podcast about all things horror out of Salem, Massachusetts. These segments are also available as an email newsletter. Sign up here, if interested.

Welcome back to The Terror Tourist. This week our journey leads straight under the waves. We don’t have a map since only about 25% of the sea floor has been mapped in detail — and we’re not going anywhere near those places anyway. We’re headed to maria incognita in this segment called “Doom Shanty”.

Here’s a great word for you: Thalassophobia [noun]: the persistent and intense fear of deep bodies of water, such as the ocean, seas, or lakes. Not to be confused with aquaphobia, which is classified as the fear of water itself. Thalassophobia can include fears of being in deep bodies of water, the vastness of the sea, sea waves, aquatic animals, and great distance from land.

Does this scare you?

But water aside, what’s to fear? Well, here is a non-exhaustive list of all the different ways to die underwater:

Attacked by a shark. Does it happen? Yes. About 80 times per year. Only three species really account for these attacks — Great White, Tiger, and Bull sharks — and usually it’s a case of mistaken identity. Stop swimming like a seal or with actively bleeding wounds and you’ll be fine.  For comparison, humans kill approximately 80 million sharks per year. So the ratio is, you know, lopsided.

Not an herbivore

Swallowed by a whale. This has happened as recently as 2021 off of Cape Cod. Usually when this happens, it’s a brief, accidental gulping-down of plankton and whatever else — like a hapless human — happens to be in the water. And then a big ol’ regurgitation. But it does happen. Note for book-lovers: Whalefall by Daniel Kraus takes the concept of interior monologue to horrific depths.

Cephalopod attack! Lotta creatures in this category, but mostly we’re looking at giant octopus and squid. Obviously the tentacles are an issue, but so is the very hard and pointy beak. Also, all octopuses are venomous, though almost none can deliver a fatal dose to humans. Except the greater blue-ringed octopus whose venom in one dose can kill 10 people. (So … don’t touch that one.) For what it’s worth, cephalopod attacks are extremely rare. But you gotta admit that going down in a writing mass of tentacles, while being stabbed by a beak, and filling with poison — oh, also while drowning — seems a terrible way meet Davy Jones.

Speaking of poison, there’s a lot of it under the waves. Basically every category of critter — from invertebrate slime to complex things with backbones — has some member of its class that stings with the nasty juice or which simply cannot be touched because they’re covered in it. (Terminological note: venom is injected; poison is ingested.) Stung by a box jellyfish? Hope your affairs are in order. Walking in tidal pools without foot protection and whoops! that wasn’t a rock it was a stonefish. You’re an idiot and also in for the worst pain imaginable, possibly death if you’re not near help. There are sea snakes, pufferfish, even snails whose toxins will kill you. Oh and the lionfish? That bugger found all throughout the Caribbean because someone no longer wanted it as a pet decades ago? Invasive and venomous. (I blame the first Naked Gun movie.) Even the pretty things that can’t move at all — like coral — are full of nasty. Many coral contain palytoxin, the second most poisonous substance on the planet. Palytoxin kills by way of rhabdomyolysis which is the process by which your muscles literally disintegrate into your bloodstream. You basically melt into yourself. So be on the safe side and don’t inhale or ingest coral.

Everything in this photo can hurt you

OK those are all ways to die from being attacked. But what about just being in the water in a human body that long ago evolved away from being able to live in water?

Of course you can be stranded where, eventually, you will tire to the point that you can’t stay afloat. Likely you’ll succumb to dehydration or hypothermia — much worse ways to go — before this happens since the human meatbag itself is positively buoyant even if you’re exhausted. 

Let’s not forget air embolism, which is why you never hold your breath when ascending from depth (whether you’re snorkeling, scuba diving, or whatever). For every 33 feet you go underwater the pressure on your body (and lungs) increases by one sea level air pressure. And the reverse is true when you ascend. So if you hold your breath while coming up the air in your lungs will expand sorta like hot air balloons that expand as they go up into less dense air. This is a problem as it can rupture your lungs, especially if they were already “full” down deep in high pressure. Explosive decompression of lungs is bad, I think we can all agree. But it’s worse: the body keeps air in all kinds of places — the eye balls, the ears — those will explode too. 

Then there are the bends — also known as decompression sickness. This is related to air embolism except in this case the rapid ascent makes nitrogen gas in your blood expand rapidly into bubbles. Those bubbles can go anywhere in the body but often settle in the joints causing people to bend over in excruciating pain. You can die from the bends or be permanently impaired. It can be cured though, if you’re close enough to a hyperbaric chamber — which is a whole different kind of misery. There is also in-water recompression if you’re too far away from help. But this requires going back underwater to depth while you are in excruciating pain. And often doesn’t work.

This cage gave numerous people embolisms … for a game show

If you’ve seen the end of the movie 47 Meters Down you are familiar with nitrogen narcosis. Simply put, the way our bodies react to otherwise harmless gases at sea level can be very different to those gases under pressure. In this case nitrogen at depths over 100 feet causes an anesthetic, sometimes delirious change in consciousness. That in itself is not a problem, if you recognize it. The issue is that being nitrogen drunk can cause you to lose track of time, air availability, where you are, who you are, etc. The good news: all you need to do to get sober is ascend a little bit. A great device for screenwriters!

Speaking of gases, guess what becomes literal poison is you inhale too much of it? Oxygen! The very thing that normally keeps us alive. The air we breathe on land is 21% oxygen but sometimes scuba divers bump that percentage up for all kinds reasons. Suck that down for too long and you can suffer convulsions and death. With oxygen, like water, it’s fine line between life-giving and life-taking.

Look, there are a zillion ways to die underwater. You could be boiled alive near a geothermal vent or poisoned by accidentally ingesting too much salt water. You and your flimsy tourist sub could be crushed by the incredible pressure way down deep. (Interestingly, physically the human body can go a lot deeper under pressure than you might think. As humans are mostly just squishy flesh and liquid it all compresses fairly well. The problem is the parts of our bodies that hold air. That stuff only compresses or expands so much before your insides look like they’ve been puree’d.)

This won’t help

I’m often asked — sometimes by family members who I have forced to scuba dive with me — what’s the most scared I have ever been under the waves. It isn’t sharks. I have never encountered a shark that wanted anything to do with people. It isn’t equipment failure. There’s so much redundancy built-in, it’s just not an overwhelming concern. What has scared me, though, is solitude, the very few times I’ve lost track of my buddy or group. This is tough to do in the crystal waters of tropical reefs, but somehow I’ve done it. Only for a minute or two. But it is terrifying. There are procedures for locating other divers — e.g., look up, because everyone exhales and those long bubble ribbons can be seen from far away — but it is still heart-pounding. Much easier to lose people in murky water or cave systems. Which is why I don’t dive those without a really good reason. 

Because of all this danger and unique ways to meet one’s end, there’s a long tradition of underwater horror in fiction. In film you can go back at least as far as 1955’s It Came from Beneath the Seaprobably further, though the technical challenges of filming underwater — hell, the technical challenges of breathing underwater — really only made using it as a film setting possible from the 1960’s onward.

Why do I love this sub-genre so dearly? Maybe because you don’t need much: simply, the environment surrounding you is a threat, an antagonist, a killer. Strictly speaking filmmakers don’t need a monster or a homicidal maniac or a ghost after their characters. The water itself wants you dead. There are a few films that go this route where this water vs. humans’ inability to live in it is the entire plot. See, for example, Open Water and its sequel. (This may also explain my fascination with space horror. The vacuum also wants you dead. More on that in a moment.)

Travelers, here I am mostly interested in movies that take place underwater. There are lots of ways to tell these stories, so here are some general categories organized by exposure where the majority of the movie takes place underwater as opposed to mostly on top of or near it.

  1. occasionally underwater (e.g., The Reef, The Shallows, Piranha, Jaws)
  2. mostly underwater (e.g., Deep Blue Sea, Sea Fever)
  3. underwater in a vessel/ship/outpost (e.g. No Way Up, Underwater, Below, The Poseidon Adventure)
  4. underwater only in self-contained breathing apparatus (these are very rare! e.g., The Deep House, 47 Meters Down)
  5. underwater supernatural (e.g. Aquaman, The Little Mermaid, no full-length horror movies of this type though there is the delightful non-sequitur of Fulci’s shark-fighting zombie)

One interesting question to ask when watching underwater horror is: if all this water were replaced by the void of outer space would anything be different? In general, if the answer is no you are watching not a great movie. If yes, then you are at least in store for water-based kills and other aspects of the marine environment that make it uniquely terrifying. Indeed many of the scripts for what became sea stories started as outer space stories. The conversion is not very difficult. Sometimes the film-viewing public seems to want stars and planets, but sometimes, like in 1989, they only want saltwater and sea bubbles.

Let’s backstroke a bit to the year 1989. Something was in the water, for sure. It’s been called the B-Movie Sea Monster Wars where we got at least six underwater horror flicks all in one year. What the hell? Why?

The public may have been primed for undersea tales of doom by the discovery of The Titanic in 1985 by Bob Ballard. That’s one theory. Hard to deny is that after Aliens in 1986 there was a surge in sci-fi movies centered around blue-collar workers finding themselves up against terrifying creatures, usually in a dark, dank, remote setting. Around 1987 everyone in Hollywood apparently that knew James Cameron, coming off of The Terminator and Aliens, was making an underwater flick, which would eventually be called The Abyss, for a summer release in ’89. It wasn’t initially known whether it would be horror like Aliens mostly was. Of course, The Abyss when released was straight sci-fi. But rival filmmakers couldn’t have known as they ramped up their efforts. So we got a lot of underwater horror in a single year that no one really asked for. Let’s swim on over to the films to wrap up this shanty!

DeepStar Six (Jan. 13, 1989)

This creature feature is basically a Friday the 13th reunion.  Sean Cunningham, director of the original Friday directs here; Kane Holder, the Jason Voorhees in the later films is the stunt coordinator; even Ronn Carroll, who played the policeman at the very end of the first film is in this flick. 

The story here is about to become familiar: a crew is stationed underwater — in this film it is a military installation installing nuclear missiles — when they encounter something nasty. In this case it’s a creature of unknown, possibly alien original. 

The character of Snyder played by Miguel Ferrer is a likable horrible person. He tells the ship’s computer that they are under attack at which point the military-minded computer suggests a nuclear counterattack, which Snyder does. This only serves to basically ruin the station with a shockwave. Snyder eventually meets his end by trying to escape in a pod that somehow is not pressurized. He explodes on ascent.

The creature design here is very practical, cool, and gross. And unlike many of the films of 1989 it actually does feel like the setting is on an undersea station rather than a soundstage. Lest you have forgotten its Friday the 13th connections the conclusion of DeepStar Six is a strikingly similar shock ending to that film, which also involved water.

The Rift (aka Endless Descent — March 1, 1989)

It’s possible the best thing about this film is its tagline: “YOU CAN’T HOLD YOUR BREATH & SCREAM AT THE SAME TIME”. And yet, this is not true, I scream underwater all the time.

The plot: an experimental sub is sent to find a lost experimental sub but in the process stumble upon a whole submarine laboratory devoted to genetic engineering experiments. R. Lee Emery (drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket and later installments of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise) is the stand-out here, though his ability to ad lib demoralizing insults is underused. 

There are some underwater sequences outside the sub, though it is clear the budget demanded that they find an air-filled cave several miles under the sea where they could film more normal walking-around scenes on a dry set. All effects in The Rift are models and practical, though literally nothing would suggest they were on a submarine — almost as though they were going for a 1950s sci-fi look. 

One thing that made me chuckle is that the filmmakers basically avoided the problem of dialogue when underwater. Everyone talks to each other normally with regulators in their mouths. OK. It’s almost like the filmmakers didn’t even care that the story was supposed to be underwater. Like, how is there a lidless aquarium on a submarine? How are people still breathing after a massive, fiery explosion in an underwater cave?

Leviathan (March 17, 1989)

The Rift was released two weeks before our next film, Leviathan, and was also produced by DeLaurentis. Leviathan’s budget: $30M. The Rift’s budget: a hell of a lot less. The plot is basically the same though. Do investors think “You know what, this is a good story, but I think it would do better with laughable production design” because that’s essentially what happened here. Or maybe it was a kind of A-B test: let’s see which film style audiences like more?

In any event Leviathan has a stellar cast: Peter Weller, Richard Crenna, Daniel Stern, Hector Elizondo, Ernie Hudson. But most importantly, Stan Winston and his team did the effects — and oh my did they. The genetically engineered creature is The Thing amped way up. It’s basically a slimy, clawed, tentacled mass of flesh that assimilates anything it comes in contact with. Just wonderful grotesque body horror. Also of note are the deep sea mining scuba suits, which are used to fun dramatic effect. We can thank Winston for these as well. 

If you see only one of these six movies Leviathan should be it.

Lords of the Deep (April 21, 1989)

This film produced by Roger Corman could easily have been made in 1973, aesthetically. There’s a definite Space: 1999 vibe here. Here’s the thing: this isn’t a well-made movie, but it is a well-done movie. If shlock isn’t your thing may I suggest you watch this via Mystery Science Theater 3000 which did a hilarious job annotating it in season 12?

Hard really to know what’s going on here. There’s alien goo and impending global natural catastrophe (as the opening crawl tells us  “In the year 2020 – Man has used up and destroyed most of the Earth’s resources.”) Also there’s a homicidal computer, ala HAL, and an insane station commander.

You might enjoy the earnest overreacting of Priscilla Barnes from late era Three’s Company. Or you might enough the truly laughable puppetry of the creature. Or you might not. One thing is for sure when it is all over you will still not be sure who the lords of the deep are.

Alien from the Abyss (May 27, 1989aka Alien from the Deep)

Never count out the Italians when there is a horror film trend to be capitalized upon. This was one of the last films in the storied career of Antonio Margheriti who brought us Castle of Blood and Cannibal Apocalypse, among other gems.

The story here follows a Greenpeace camera crew investigating a volcano where the military is dumping radioactive waste. It’s basically one extended jungle chase sequence. Lots of snakes. So much so that it doesn’t go underwater until more than halfway through the film and even then not for long. 

You may be thinking radioactive waste dumped into a volcano — this is a 1950’s-esque mutant film right. Incorrect. The baddie here is an alien under the sea. Huh? I have no explanation, but there is great gore and the Kaiju-like creature is pretty great once we’re allowed to see more than its claw. The ending is ripped straight from Aliens as our Greenpeace activists do battle with front loader heavy machinery.

Honestly this was a pretty good film, even if it barely fits into any of our underwater horror categories.

The Evil Below (July 1, 1989)

This is also an Italian film, dubbed as horribly as you’ve comfortably come to love in giallo films. 

The premise here is promising: a crew is searching for the shipwreck of El Diablo, a ship whose cargo included stolen religious artifacts. But also a curse! You see, this is a haunted shipwreck. There are underwater sequences, but they are so poorly shot it is nearly impossible to see much less figure out what’s happening. I’m not sure what the evil was in The Evil Below, but it was below. So no misleading advertising here.

Here’s a handy reference chart for our journey through this unique moment in cinematic history:

Well, travelers, it’s time to surface. I hope you enjoyed our excursion under the waves. Let’s take this slowly and gently. Exhale on ascent. Don’t look down. Who knows what swimming up beneath us?

Occultation in Texas

My son and I intercepted the total solar eclipse on April 8. It was even more remarkable — larger, darker, spookier — than the only other we’ve seen in Wyoming in 2017.

Composite sequence, total solar eclipse, April 8, 2024, Glen Rose, Texas

We were relatively unprepared for the one seven years ago (eye protection, yes; ways to capture the experience, not really). But since then — and with the help of an annular eclipse dry run last October — we were ready this time. We knew we wanted to be as near the centerline as possible but with the ability to call a cloud cover audible if needed.

On the morning of the eclipse we headed south from Fort Worth, Texas to a small town called Hillsboro (excuse me, Eclipseboro) but upon arrival determined the clouds were too risky. So we motored northwest, giving up about a minute of totality for what we hoped were clearer skies. Destination: Glen Rose. We found a public park on a branch of the Paluxy River right in town and set up shop.

Our personal viewing stations

We had three viewing rigs:

  1. Nikon D90 dSLR + Nikkor zoom lens (AF-S 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR) + Haida solar filter. This was controlled via USB connected to a MacBook running AstroDSLR, mostly to relieve the tedium and distraction of snapping lots of photos during totality but also to avoid slightly jiggling the rig with a button press on the camera body.
  2. Celestron NexStar Evolution 8″ telescope + solar filter. I never did turn tracking on as the sun was fairly easy to spot. I probably should have enabled it though. (Next time!)
  3. The new Vaonis Hestia mount for iPhone. This small white box held the phone in place over its magnifying ocular (with solar filter) allowing photography and on-device processing in real time. I used an iPhone 15 Pro Max. It captured remarkably good photos, such as the composite above.

Having done this a few times by this point I was looking forward to the mix of normal people just out to have their minds blown (often with small children) and giant astronomy nerds ready to shout “first contact!” and similar at every moment of the event. I suppose there are other types of people who show up for eclipses — astrology zealots, doomsday cultists, daytime-curious vampires — though none did where we watched unfortunately.

The moments approaching totality were especially surreal as the day, which normally darkens from a fixed point on the western horizon, got shimmeringly dark from everywhere at once. Light through leaves and colander holes reminded us that our celestial flashlight was no longer circular. We peered through obsidian glass (supposedly used by ancient Mayans to view eclipses, which they accurately predicted). While the obsidian monocle seemed just as dark/protective as our ISO-certified glasses in hindsight maybe I should have verified that.

Our only natural satellite sneaks in front of our sunspotted-star

And then it went dark and the protective eyewear finally came off. I’m sure I could look it up to confirm or deny, but it felt like the sun-moon duo was closer in space to us than in 2017 because that scary black hole in the sky looked much bigger. Loopy prominences licked around the edge of the disc while we stared up slack-jawed for both the longest and shortest three minutes and fifteen seconds of our earthbound existence. I couldn’t help but think about how terrifying it all would have seemed for pre-scientific peoples viewing a total solar eclipse. A few minutes of inexplicable darkness and then … right back to normal. (A Navajo friend of mine noted that his people do not view the eclipse as a matter of respect. Tradition holds that it is a time of intimacy between the sun and the moon. Voyeurism is impolite.)

Totality with prominences

While we were dumbstruck in Texas (and as my other son was preparing for the umbra hurtling away from us and towards him in Vermont at 2,000 MPH) my wife was on an airplane over Ohio. She noticed little crescent-shaped sparkles on the cabin wall next to her window seat. This disco ball effect was caused by reflections from the partially-eclipsed sun glinting off her wedding ring! As my wife was the only person in her section who brought eclipse glasses, she eventually had the whole cabin at her seat staring at our moon nudging in front of our star.

Partial eclipse sparkles from 30,000 feet

On the drive down from Denver I learned quite by chance that helium is so named because its presence was spectroscopically determined during an 1868 eclipse in India. The chance part of my learning this was due to my stopping at the Helium Time Columns Monument time capsule in Amarillo, Texas — former site of our nation’s strategic helium reserve. Even though helium is the second most abundant element in the universe, those dirigibles and zeppelins weren’t gonna inflate (or blow up) themselves. So America stockpiled.

Ode to the helium element

But back to Glen Rose. Other than being in the crosshairs of totality, this pretty little town is the jumping off point for two related points of extreme cognitive dissonance.

The Paluxy River flows right through town and into Dinosaur Valley State Park, where over the last millions of years it has eroded various types of rock to expose Early Cretaceous dinosaur tracks of both sauropods and theropods. The fun thing about these trace fossils is that they exist almost exclusively in the flowing riverbed itself. You gotta wade if you wanna nerd up. Often because of high water the tracks are not visible at all. But on my visit they were on full display. It was rainy and wet (obviously) which gave the expedition a slight air of danger but the park is well-signposted and easily accessible. Plus, with water continuing to erode the riverbed, this priceless evidence of dinosaur behavior is slowly being erased. Catch them while you can. (Or go see this entire section that was lifted out and sent to the American Museum of Natural History in NYC.)

A sauropod stomped here

But scientific artifacts are not the only thing this river has gurgled up. Glen Rose is also home to the Creation Evidence Museum where tracks lifted from the Paluxy are purported to prove that humans lived side-by-side with dinosaurs, Flintstones-style, which of course thus proves biblical creationism, an earth only 6000 years old, and other utter fictions. The contortions this museum wriggles itself into to prove that the fossil record synchs with the bible are comical: mapping geological epochs to precise days of biblical flood, building a model of an ark complete with holding zones for Tyrannosaurus rex (seems unwise, Noah), and a giant hyperbaric chamber meant to recreate conditions for bringing non-avian dinosaurs back to life. What.

The centerpiece of the museum are tracks that show impressions of human footprints next to or overlaid on dinosaur tracks. Most of the footprints are deliberate fakes created to sell during the Great Depression but the urge to validate an already-held belief can be powerful and sometimes you build an entire fantasyland around that. Of course, there’s margin for error in all paleontological and geological time estimates but being off by 100 million years is, you know, well outside that margin. We actually find evidence of ancient peoples next to dinosaur tracks all the time. They were as fascinated by fossils as modern humans are, but that doesn’t mean that humans rode Velociraptors bare-back.

Enormous consequences

It was difficult to maintain a straight face in this place, I admit. The cartoonishly white-coated and goggled “scientists” running around a lab full of seemingly legit equipment (what exactly were they testing?); the bus full of home-schooled kids, grist for the generational conspiracy theorist pipeline; the non sequitur side exhibit on the moon landing (presented as real, not a conspiracy — possibly meant to allay fears that the curators are complete crackpots). An entire universe of fallacy meant to make people feel good about not questioning their faith.

We don’t still believe eclipses are a dragon eating the sun, or celestial gods at war, or even a moment of intimacy (the Navajo offer this respect out of cultural tradition). Science advances because we constantly question it. It’s how we discover helium. It’s how we verify Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. It’s how we know exactly where to stand in a beautiful little town in Texas to view a rare astronomical event. So, thank you, science. And thank you Creation Evidence Museum, for the concise if troubling example of what happens when you want to be comfortable in belief rather than disquieted by truth. Go see the next total solar eclipse, friends. (Or better yet, go see the 2027 eclipse over the pyramids of Egypt!).

Happy that the sun re-emerged

Itinerary footnote: this journey included a few other stops related to dinosaurs and crazy right-wingers: An easy hike to the KT boundary in Trinidad Lake State Park (lots of shocked quartz layers from the meteor impact that ended the reign of the dinosaurs 66 million years ago); the excellent dinosaur trackways of Clayton Lake State Park in New Mexico, where tracks became visible when a reservoir spillway was constructed decades ago; and Bishop Castle, the monomaniacal building project of a father-son duo in rural Colorado that is what happens when someone really loves the garden gnome aesthetic and spatial logic of M.C. Escher while also hating workplace safety and all forms of government.

The Ghosts of Colorado

The Terror Tourist is my occasional segment on the Heavy Leather Horror Show, a weekly podcast about all things horror out of Salem, Massachusetts. (Segment begins at 12:12, but you’ll enjoy the whole thing!) These segments are also available as an email newsletter. Sign up here, if interested.

Hail and well met, travelers! I am your guide, your troubadour of horror, for The Terror Tourist — an itinerary of dark destinations, a travelogue of dread, a must-see list of ghastly locales worldwide. Each episode we’ll explore a new place — real or imagined, geographical or psychological.  With these surveys of the macabre as inspiration I encourage you to strike out and blaze your own trail through the darkness!

Today our journey takes us through the state of Colorado, a rectangle of diverse vertical and horizontal lands in the Mountain West of the United States. While your association between Colorado and horror may begin and end with the music of John Denver, I assure it is so much worse. Let’s go for a hike!

Millions of years before it was known as Colorado this land was covered by a great inland seaway plied by the most terrifying creatures ever to make water their home. Take Xiphactinus, the 24’ long angular death machine the inside of whose serrated maw would be the first you ever saw of it and the last sight of your sorry life. Or the fierce mosasaur, a 50’ long monstrosity whose thirds were essentially giant crocodile, whale, and eel — and which even the largest sharks gave a wide berth. None of these creatures survived the meteor impact of 66 million years ago, you may be grateful to know, but their fossilized skeletons — and teeth, so many shed teeth! — form a rich, literal foundation of terror beneath your hiking boots in this land we now call Colorado.

Mosasaur and Xiphactinus, Dinosaur Resource Center, Woodland Park, CO

You might have noticed the signpost at the trailhead for all the supernatural destinations upcoming. We’ll get there soon enough, but, sadly, there are plenty of waypoints of real life horror I want to note here for your future exploration:

In the 19th century colonizing settlers waged a genocidal campaign against the native inhabitants of the lands here, culminating in the atrocity known today as the Sand Creek Massacre. I will not provide detail except to say 1) This slaughter was actually praised in histories and monuments as an act of near-inevitable nation-building until shockingly recently and 2) The belief in Manifest Destiny has justified more horrific acts than the sum of every movie this podcast has or ever will review. (As an optional detour, I point you to the film Blood Quantum, which centers the Native American experience during a zombie apocalypse. Though set in Canada rather than Colorado it is a most creative reimagining of the concept of an Indian reservation.)

You’re not cold are you? You did dress in layers for this hike, right? See, it’s not just human behavior to fear here. The state itself seems to have it out for you. The most 14,000 foot-plus mountains in the continental US of course delivers brutal cold, blinding snowstorms, avalanches, piercing winds, and deliriously low levels of oxygen at altitude. Oh it’s also super dry, so you’ll dehydrate if all the other things don’t get you first. 

The sheer mountain faces of Telluride, Colorado

Did you hear that? That rustling in the underbrush? Don’t panic. Apex predators have mostly been sacrificed at the altar of industrialized agriculture, but we do have bears (no grizzlies though!) and just recently the gray wolf was reintroduced as an experiment in ecological rebalancing. Moose and elk can kill you by sheer size, but they don’t necessarily want to kill you. Actually moose might. The tip here is to walk noisily. Most animals don’t want anything to do with you … unless you sneak up on ‘em and they get startled. 

You may think we’re hiking through the middle of nowhere. But a lot of these places were once raucous somewheres. Only to eventually become ghost towns. Hundreds of ghost towns, from piles of rubble barely discernible in the brush to actual towns full of rotting structures seemingly frozen in time, dot the landscape. Of course ghost towns are spooky, full of memory and loss — ready set-pieces for tales of actual ghosts. Surprisingly few films to my knowledge have actually used these locales at least in Colorado. 

The ghost town of St. Elmo, Colorado

For me, what’s more interesting to ponder is why these booming burgs went bust. Usually it’s some sort of sudden resource scarcity — like the gold veins went dry, or the silver market crashed — or a technological change — a new rail line bypasses the town or a new road with a better grade makes it easier to get someplace else. The idea of these places grimy with miners, entrepreneurs, charlatans, prostitutes and barkeepers one day — and then nothing virtually overnight is the real scare for me. Our market economy is a cheery midwife and a merciless executioner. 

There are two can’t miss destinations coming up before our journey ends. 

Let’s walk back in time to the mid 19th century on the outskirts of the booming new city of Denver. About 160 acres of land is set aside as Mount Prospect Cemetery just southeast of the central business district and what would become the state capitol. And just as Denver is swelling with people coming to the Rockies looking for gold, silver, and a new life, the city cemetery is swelling with those who instead found disease, bullets to the head, and death. By 1898 there are about 5,000 bodies in the dirt here, but times are changing in urban design and this is era of the City Beautiful movement where parks, leafy boulevards, and neoclassical design are all the rage in proving that your city is to be taken seriously. So Denver wants to turn the cemetery — no longer on the outskirts of the growing city — into a beautiful new park. Surely you see where this hike is headed, fellow traveler. 

Photo: Denver Public Library

The city undertook the task of moving the 5,000 graves, but the effort was bungled from the start. The movers were paid by the coffin so enterprising gravediggers would dismember corpses and shuffle parts into smaller, more numerous child-sized boxes. When the city discovered this, they dismissed the whole crew and admitted they were out of money to move the remaining 2,000 bodies. The city gave family members a few weeks to claim bodies, but as many of these graves were of the indigent and unclaimed victims of crime, few people came forward. So, the park conversion continued, bodies still in the ground. (Sidenote: the segregated far southwest of the cemetery filled with the corpses of Chinese immigrants who came to help build the transcontinental railroad was dutifully disinterred by the small Chinese community here and all bodies shipped back to China.) 

Walk with me over here and, if our location and the angle of the sun is right, you can still make out divots in the rolling hills of the park where the graves have ever-so-slightly subsided. Every day, not two blocks from my house people lounge and dogs run about oblivious to the corpses beneath the picnic blankets and volleyball nets. Part of the former cemetery, now called Cheesman Park, was given over to create the Denver Botanic Gardens whose construction expansions over the years continue to unearth graves and corpses — most recently in 2022. Ghost stories in this park, unsurprisingly, are plentiful. I’m willing to believe.

Photo: Denver Post, “Four preserved skeletons unearthed at Denver’s Cheesman Park, once a cemetery“, 2010

There’s an unsubstantiated rumor that the unmoved graves and subsequent development of this park was an inspiration for Poltergeist. Who knows? What is substantiated is the story behind the 1980 film The Changeling, which takes place in a mansion that directly sat on Cheesman Park. Starring George C. Scott trying his hardest not to be irascible, this classic haunted house film was inspired by a story written by a composer named Russell Hunter who was renting the Henry Treat Rogers House in 1968. His recounting is nearly identical to the story in the film: bouncing balls in hallways, a sealed-over door leading to a hidden room, the discovery of a diary from a person locked away from public view, a psychic medium, and ultimately the revelation of the child-swap. The Denver Public Library has tried to verify any part of this tale — to no avail. But it made its way to film and a great one at that! The mansion was demolished in the 70s for a sad high-rise condominium building. Poltergeist and The Changeling — this park has something for everyone, I tell you!

The final stop on our hike brings us to the unavoidable importance of Colorado to Stephen King’s and Stanley Kubrick’s very separate masterpieces called The Shining. Up in the mountains here in a small town called Estes Park is a gorgeous old hotel called The Stanley. Originally created as a retreat for wealthy Easterners suffering tuberculosis and other ailments, the hotel eventually became a high-end stopover for tourists on their way to Rocky Mountain National Park, established in 1915. Given the massive amounts of snow at elevation the hotel was only open in the summer months (until 1983). But back in 1974 the author Stephen King, coincidentally, happened to book a room at the Stanley the day before it was being shuttered for the winter. He roamed the halls of the near-desolate hotel, had a drink at the bar with a bartender named Grady, and spent the night in room 217. The rest is mostly history, though of note to those who know the sizable differences between the book and the film, The Stanley did actually partially explode in 1911 due to a gas build-up. Clearly King learned this during his stay, providing him with the novel’s conclusion. 

The Stanley Hotel, Estes Park, Colorado

The hotel itself is in no way scary. I’ve stayed there several times and it is just a beautiful, Federalist-style set of buildings that seem more at home on the east coast than the mountain west. If you’ve seen the terrible 1997 miniseries of The Shining directed by King (or the 1994 film Dumb and Dumber) then you have seen The Stanley. No hedge row labyrinth, no art deco ballroom, really nothing but the original bar that evokes dread. For decades the ownership of the hotel shied away from its associations with the book and film, especially since none of the latter was filmed there. But eventually they came to embrace the notoriety, planting their own very short hedge maze, offering Shining tours, and even now throwing an annual Shining Ball (which my wife and I have attended). But hotel management is all in now: in a partnership with the horror film production company Blumhouse the hotel is building out a 80,000 square foot film center and museum devoted to horror cinema. It should be open in a few years. I want to work there.

As for the other Stanley, Kubrick, he didn’t have much use for Colorado in his film. Not only was it not filmed here but even the one location-specific reference in the film — the story of the Donner Party that Jack recounts to his family on the ride up to the hotel — takes place in California. There’s a brief establishing shot outside the Torrance’s Boulder apartment — still there looking the same right next to the University of Colorado — but that’s it!

As terror tourists, however, you will likely care to know that Kubrick did use much of the mountain west as inspiration. He cribbed the design of the lobby and Native American iconography from the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park in California (for real, like down to the location of individual light fixtures), gathered exterior shots from the Timberline Lodge atop Mount Hood in Oregon, filmed the opening title sequence at Going-To-The-Sun Road in Montana’s Glacier National Park, and maybe even stole the red bathroom from the Biltmore Hotel outside Scottsdale in Arizona. That said, 98% of the film was shot on a soundstage at Elstree Studios north of London.

This is where I leave you to hike on your own, listeners. There are plenty of other sights for you to explore of course. I’ll note the excellent The Black Phone from 2021, set in 1970s Denver, the Day of the Dead remake from 2008 which isn’t awful, and the unrated Snowbeast from 1977 set in Crested Butte, Colorado. This film is awful in the very best way possible. I highly recommend it. 

Good luck on your travels. Remember to hydrate and stay wary!

The Ampcamper How-To

This is a tale of towing a camper trailer 4,000+ miles with an electric vehicle.

When the summer vacation idea to tool around the Western USA in an RV first was hatched it was pretty traditional. We didn’t own an RV, so we’d rent one, probably a big gas-guzzler that we’d drive around like a bus. But as I started thinking about how I liked to roadtrip — which is to say, stopping at every World’s Third Largest Ball of Twine I come across — a big rig seemed impractical. I would have chosen towing out of the gate but I couldn’t quite get over the downside that we’d all be trapped in a car for large parts of the trip. Eventually the tow setup won out when my college roommate offered his 30-year-old (but redecorated!) Sunline trailer. Seventeen feet of old school camper trailer — for free. I was in.

I knew that my Tesla Model X could tow up to 5000 lbs (about twice the Sunline camper GVW empty) so that wouldn’t be a problem. And thanks to a drunk driver in January destroying my previous car I had a relatively new Model X with 75 miles more range, 350 miles total. This seemed like the perfect setup … except for the charging. 

The charging was worrisome for a bunch of reasons:

  • All Level 3 DC fast chargers (what Tesla calls “Superchargers”) require you to back in to the stall for charging very close to the terminal, something impossible to do when towing anything . As far as I can tell this is because the amperage flowing through the very thick cable disallows the length needed to charge a car pulled in front-first. (Or at least degrades the throughput so much as to make it not as fast.) Tesla occasionally puts a single charging stall perpendicular to all the others for the very situation I would be in: towing something that prevents backing in. But these perpendicular stalls are very rare and often occupied by people who simply don’t want the hassle of backing in. 
  • Given our schedule I would need overnight Level 2 charging (what Tesla calls “Destination Charging”). Many hotels have this; almost no campgrounds offer this. We weren’t staying in hotels.
  • Most of the states we would be visiting are electric vehicle charging wastelands, Montana and Wyoming in particular. There are many reasons for this — lack of density, red state love of the internal combustion engine, and basic market dynamics — so I knew even if the perfect setups existed they would be few and far between.
  • National parks themselves are fairly bereft of infrastructure, period. That’s part of the point. Very large parks (like Yellowstone) actually do have some gas stations and recently Rivian has started installing Level 2 chargers at some in-park lodging (such as The Ahwahnee in Yosemite), but for the most part once you’re inside a national park you are off the grid quite literally.

So how did we do it?

For the Level 3 (on-the-route) fast charging we had backup plans upon backup plans. I visited every Streetview image I could find for every possible DC charger with 175 miles of main destination points (sites or campgrounds). Sidenote: using a site called Smappen I created somewhat beautiful “chargeshed” (not a word, made it up) maps showing me roughly how far I could get before we were doomed.

So from those Streetview images I knew the physical layout of every possible charging stop. This enabled me to plan for one of the following scenarios:

  1. Pull into a perpendicular charger (photo above), showering praise on the gods of electricity. There were maybe three of these total on the route.
  2. Pull forward past the chargers if no curbs or bollards were present. Only the oldest charging stops have no curb and I only ever encountered such a setup on a test run. None on the actual trip.
  3. Pull parallel across a bunch of empty stalls like a complete asshole. This only works in specialty situations when no one is charging and there is a ton of extra room to the left of the leftmost stall. You obviously can’t leave your vehicle if you do this, since others could show up and need the chargers you are now blocking. I did this a few times like a complete asshole.
  4. Unhitch. The option of last resort. We were forced to do this a bunch of times, though by the second week my daughter (“The Hitch Bitch” thank you very much) and I were as fast as a Formula One pit crew getting the rig unhitched and hitched back up.

In total we charged 31 times at Level 3 chargers, all Tesla except once at an Electrify America station. The latter are rolling out slowly, but if you can get a “Hyper” stall they charge even faster than the Tesla Superchargers. 

Of note is that I almost never performed a full top-up at these stops. Pretty quickly I came to understand exactly how far I could go in most terrain towing our load. The car is rated at 350 miles with a full charge. On two test runs I basically calculated that range was cut in half towing, so 175 miles. This obviously was variable based on elevation increase and decrease (and headwind/tailwind, but c’mon), but the car itself started recalculating range based on “knowing” that we were in Tow Mode. It was fairly accurate, but to be extra safe I was mentally calculating that I would need 3x of the total distance to my next charge. If you’re doing the math at home this means that I would not schedule any stop further than about 110 miles out, even though I probably could have. This worked … until it didn’t.

We were ¾ of the way from Hot Springs to West Yellowstone, Montana, the second longest run of the trip, beautiful but empty. We juiced in Butte and, according to the onboard calculation, were set to make it on the wattage equivalent of fumes. But something didn’t seem right. There was a 2000’ elevation gain between us and Yellowstone that I wasn’t sure the onboard range calc was factoring in. With no towns at all en route the only solution was to find something, anything that would give us at least a 220v connection. (I refused to consider plugging into a 110v outlet — what’s known as Level 1. We’d be there charging for days.) Short of stopping at someone’s home and asking to use their washing machine electrical hookup connection (don’t laugh, we did that — more on that below), the only option was to find an RV campground.

And here we have the real hack of the trip. RV campground power is really what made it all work. You could argue that RV campgrounds exist in the first place for only two reasons: they provide a place for recreational vehicles to receive power and to dump waste. In test runs prior to the trip I confirmed that with the appropriate physical adapter I could adequately achieve a Level 2 charge overnight from a normal 50 amp RV hookup. Even better, most campground pedestals provide two connections — one for 50 amps and one for 30 amps — so I could also power the camper (though I brought a splitter just in case).

So this was the solution for a little extra juice on the uphill run to West Yellowstone. We found an RV campground en route (ahem, the only RV campground en route) and pulled in. It was almost full but the office was closed and the whole park was strangely devoid of people. I think a storm had just passed through and everyone was still hunkered in their campers. We found an empty stall, hooked up, and started charging. Problem solved.

I didn’t invent this hack. People have been charging electric vehicles at RV campgrounds as a last resort for a while, but usually this is done without an accompanying recreational vehicle behind the EV — a sure tip-off to campground management that you’re not paying for the privilege. The big campground companies, like KOA, have caught on and have official policies forbidding charging electric vehicles from RV pedestals. They even say you can damage your vehicle doing so. And yet, I hooked a voltmeter to a pedestal on a test run and saw nothing out of the ordinary. And I trusted my car to prevent catastrophe from an unstable connection. (I had in the past experienced this trying to do Level One charging at a very old house with wonky wiring. The car detected it immediately and said nope.) A very few campgrounds do actually provide Level 2 chargers, but these are completely separate from the camping slots (requiring unhitching and unloading, boo).

And that’s really, simply how the trip happened: every night at our campgrounds we charged the car fully via the RV electrical pedestal (Level 2). We did this 25 times.

Importantly charging this way requires the 50 amp connection. 30 amp will take far too long. I’d advise having a splitter just in case as in at least one instance we shared a pedestal with the RV next to us. No campground employee ever made us disconnect and I am certain we were noticed. Hard to miss the sole electric vehicle in the park towing an old camper painted like a Colorado flag. Indeed, lots of campground folk would come to our site and ask how we were doing it, but they were more interested in the towing performance than our charging travails. To everyone other than the corporate management of RV campgrounds charging an EV like you’d juice up your camper battery just makes sense.

There’s such crossover potential between RV communities and EV owners. To some degree if you own a motorhome or a camper trailer you plan your route based on the availability of electricity. Where to power/recharge at night is a factor in planning, even though most rigs can boondock off-grid for a few days. Not only that, most experienced RV people have developed at least a rudimentary understanding of matters electrical (adapters, voltage vs amperage, etc). As the federal government looks to provide incentives and investment for the build-out of charging infrastructure, I suggest focusing some of the attention on RV-friendly communities. They already have the knowledge and some of the infrastructure. I have no data to back this up, but my guess is that culturally these are some of the most gasoline-loving communities in the nation … with the twist that they know first-hand how important electricity is to their lifestyle. 

The tipping point in the RV/EV crossover may be the widespread availability of bidirectional charging. Bidirectionality is the ability of a vehicle to provide its battery charge externally — to a power strip, a home, or even to another vehicle or camper trailer. Annoyingly Tesla does not do this (except to power the brake/turn/running lights on the camper), but the new Ford F-150 Lightning does. And there sure are a lot of regular F-150s in an RV campground. Boondocking potential aside, it makes sense that a camper trailer setup has a single battery source. You plug in at the campground and everything charges at once. Add some intelligence into the connection and you could programmatically make sure that you never use too much juice in-camper to prevent the vehicle range needed for the next day. 

The RV/EV crossover has not really begun (though there are attempts), but it will and I think there will be no looking back. Campgrounds must see the writing on this particular wall. The good news is that there really is no need to install separate EV charging stalls at campgrounds. The wiring is already there. What campgrounds need to figure out is their total electrical capacity and the financial model to make it feasible.

A few final notes. One night we used Harvest Hosts — basically Airbnb for RVs where a farm, ranch, winery, etc offers one or two slots for overnighting. Generally these hosts do not have traditional hookups. We stayed at the lovely Ring of Horns bison ranch whose owner allowed us to run a very long extension cord and 220v adapter into her house to take advantage of her washer/dryer connection. I travel with a trunk full of extenders and converters so this wasn’t a problem. But you need an accommodating host (and some washer/dryer setups run off of 110v so your mileage may quite literally vary).

You may be wondering where solar power was in this Rube Goldberg setup. I considered it, but solar at the scale of photovoltaic panels that a vehicle or camper can accommodate just won’t do it at this point, especially since no vehicle I know of can charge while driving (i.e. when the sun is shining) and most charging needs to happen when parked overnight.

Again, towing was not an issue. It was smooth and uncomplicated, apart from one hiccup in automatic range calculation. Given the torque of electric vehicles with no real drive train I did dial the acceleration back just to take some strain off the hitch. And of course no autopilot, because I barely trusted myself to pilot this rig let alone the car AI.

We traveled 4,192 miles (approximately the distance from Honolulu to Chicago) and consumed 2,134 kilowatt-hours of power (approximately the average consumption of a typical American home over two months). The majority of this electricity was generated using fossil fuels, I’m quite certain. But with 2.5x the miles for electricity created from fossil fuel versus what you’d get burning it in an internal engine, I’m pleased with our footprint. Plus, zero emissions. Feels good to be inside a national park and know you’re not contributing to anthropogenic climate change — at least at that very moment.

Would I do this again? Absolutely if I could solve the Level 3 back-in problem. There are some sketchy after-market extensions available, but I am dubious as actual electrical engineers in the comment sections of these products basically say absolutely do not do this. But if a real, tested solution appeared I would roadtrip like this again in an instant. Less important, though ideal, would be owning a vehicle that allowed real two-way charging. I’d love to not worry about two batteries on a roadtrip.

And that’s how I hauled myself, two teen girls, an 80 lb dog, and a whole load of crap across six states in twenty days using an electric vehicle.

Day Twenty – Home

4,192 miles traveled. 2,134 kilowatt-hours used. 2,013 photos. 117 videos. 6 states. 5 national parks. 0 carbon emissions.

What an epic adventure. It’s going to take me a while to synthesize the last 20 days (but I will — so much more to say than my nightly missives). Many thanks to all who followed along!

Day Nineteen – Hoodoo Gurus

More photos here.

Just my daughter, dog, and I now so we took a day in Moab to ease down before the final journey home tomorrow. I finally emptied the trailer’s gray water (no Cousin Eddie “shitter’s full!” moment as we successfully avoiding pooping in the camper), though you can still smell the tank from 20 yards away. Which was fantastically nauseating in today’s 100° heat. But we were detached and touring around so no stank for us.

We try to pair the majesty of national parks with good low-brow tourist experiences so we started at Moab Giants, basically an outdoor park filled with fiberglass dinosaurs and “museum” buildings of fossil casts. How was it? Well, only four of the nine screens in the 5D Paleo Aquarium exhibit and the volunteer docent was completely phoning it in. Which is about what we expected. They had a mock fossil dig pit, which we haughtily avoided having dug for the real things last week. Fairly up-to-date dinosaur models, though. Some feathers, no tail-dragging. B- overall.

From there to Arches National Park. Though Utah has a ton of national parks and it’s only right next door, this was my first there. Lots of visitors not prepared for the heat (or hiking), but we managed and were generously rewarded. Every turn and vista is stunning, the sandstone carved by erosion into seemingly physics-defying contortions. Having looked at so many things that operate in spans of millions of years (dinosaur evolution, tectonic upheaval, etc) it was refreshing somehow that these arches come and go on the order of thousands of years. Live fast, die with a thundering crash to the ground.

Our last treat to ourselves after this epic trip was an air-conditioned theater and a viewing of the final Indiana Jones film. Fitting in some ways that such a precisely planned trip winds down with improvisation. As Indy says “I’m making this up as I go.”

Next up: home.

Day Eighteen – Roadsnacks

Nothing but driving today pre-dawn until late at night: Grand Teton to Moab. We’re more than halfway home. But first, we urgently need your help to settle some festering disagreements about appropriate roadtrip snacks. Which of these three belong in the car? Please rank in the comments. (Example: 3, 2, 10)

Update: Voting is now closed.

Final results as of July 6, 2023, 11:35 PM MT:

Rye Chips13
Haribo Peach Gummies7
Nerds Gummy Clusters5
Sweet & Salty Trail Mix17
Cool Ranch Doritos14
Corn Nuts (Ranch)7
Reese’s Mini Peanut Butter Cups14
Hot Tamales6
Junior Mints6
Salted Nut Roll1

Day Seventeen – Red, White, and Blue State

More photos here.

My teen July 4th celebrations mostly happened in and around the small town of Galena, Illinois in northwest Illinois. My memory of this is punctuated by 5K races, rural main street parades, rodeos, and lots of fresh fruit. So it was a real pleasure to approximate that experience again in tiny Victor, Idaho today. We walked to the main/only drag here for the festivities which kicked off at 10:30a. It was all blaring fire trucks, classic cars, some local dance troupes, and a slew of rural services with cool vehicles. In a twist I don’t remember from Independence Days past all the floats tossed candy to kids lining the way. A rescue helicopter even buzzed along the street a few times. And of course huckleberry-themed everything, including an actual crew of dancing huckleberry milkshakes. Really pretty impressive for a town of not even 2000 people. And, surprisingly, it was all fairly politically neutral. No effigies of POTUS or shooting of actual weaponry.

Went for a dip in the local swimming hole to cool down, chuckling the whole time that the pond is considered an HOA amenity. Some of us also made a game-time decision to visit the local Teton Valley Rodeo outside of Driggs, Idaho. This was especially nostalgic for my kids and niece who have very fond memories of July 4th rodeos in Galena with my parents. No clowns at this event — I’m not entirely sure how they were protecting riders — but the whole thing seemed less about entertainment per se and more just a normal sporting event. Most of the crowd knew people competing and were cheering for them just like you’d see at a Friday night high school football game. The mutton-busting event — very little kids riding bucking sheep — was especially hilarious.

Fireworks fireworks everywhere, as you might imagine. No single or central show, but seemingly everyone blows off hundreds of dollars’ worth of novelty munitions around here. Which, while glorious, is a nightmare for Owen the terrified dog. The RV park the trailer lives at here is ground zero for detonation so my son is sleeping with doggo in basement bathroom of our friends’ place — a porcelain bunker.

Tomorrow begins the long journey home. We’re dropping the ladies at the airport then it’s just my daughter and I on a completely un-planned roadtrip home roughly southeast to Denver. It’ll be a multi-day trip and we’re winging it. Of course the trailer is a total disaster at this point. It still rolls, but inside looks like a ransacked, earthquake-struck Walmart. What I’m saying is that these last few days should be good content.