Tag Archives: Television

Valar Morghulis and What Makes Good Storytelling

Warning: Massive Game of Thrones spoilers here. Don’t read unless you’re all caught up!  So my first premise here is that I haven’t read the books. I’ve got to get that out of the way. I’m a novelist myself. I’m a big reader, but fantasy isn’t really my genre, and I don’t have a lot of time to tackle Martin’s Westeros tomes. But I’m also a huge television fan, and from everything I’ve heard, I’m very happy to be on the show-train as my first experience. Sometimes film does it better, sometimes just differently.

(Edit: I also want to clarify that many folks who have responded to my opinion present the argument that the big problem here that I worry over is all good because it’s “the way it was in the books!” And so I’m referring to D&D and Martin as “Martin and Co.” because, though it’s “canon”, the story can still go down a problematic route, no matter whether it’s a show decision or a book decision. I’m not taking issue with the show. I’m taking issue with the story)

Anyway though, I love the narrative. I love the way it’s honed very directly. It’s good tight storytelling. But that’s what I want to talk about today: storytelling. Screen Shot 2015-06-24 at 12.34.41 PM A week ago, I watched Jon Snow die before the credits rolled on the season five finale of Game of Thrones. GoT is a show fraught with controversy and the occasional misstep, but I love it. I think it’s rich and meaningful and smart. But the death of Jon Snow gave me some serious pause. If I were to look deeper, I’d probably realize I went through all the grief stages in about a week or something.

My first reaction was denial. Nope, I thought, he’s coming back. Right? He has to. He can’t be dead. I mean, nope. Just no. Then I read an interview with Kit Harrington that filled me with dread. Both Kit and the creators insist Snow is dead. Dead is dead.

In the week that has followed, a million posts have come to light calling for the resurrection of Jon Snow and the various clues that point toward it. From Lady Melissandre to the White Walkers to.. well, this whole article, really. But I want to approach this from a different angle.

Freaking out on Twitter, I announced that this was the first Game of Thrones death that (if it stands and there is no resurrection) makes me wonder if Thrones has finally lost the plot in favor of meaningless shocks. All the deaths before this, even the most shocking ones, were trimming the fat and honing the story. When you hone the story, you’re focusing in on the heart of the work: what’s moving toward the big end-game. It wasn’t Ned. It wasn’t Robb. It wasn’t Robert or Joffrey or Tywin. When I posted this, I was met with agreement, but also some jaded Thrones viewers who were now used to losing anyone and everyone on the show (“All GoT is about is Martin just killing off our favorites”), and some jaded Thrones readers who’d been chewing on this information for a year now (“…maybe Jon wasn’t as important as we thought”).

They defended it that, you know, one of the big Themes of GoT has been that people die. It’s a sort of a reality-based, dark world, where the hero doesn’t ride in on a white horse and save the day. There are few heroes, and many, many deaths. Just like real life, people don’t always reach their dreams, they don’t always fulfill the expectations people have for their lives. They make mistakes, and mistakes big enough to lead to coups.

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For the Watch!

And that’s a valid point. The deconstructionist in me wants to love it. The fantasy genre is filled with hero-stories about saving the day. It’s a defining characteristic of the genre, even. While there’s always exceptions to the rule, how cool that Martin and co. are subverting this tradition in such a shocking, public, and moving way? Build someone up, strip them down, remind them that life is a bitch.

Good theme. A cool way of illustrating it.. but… it still doesn’t sit right with me.

And that’s when I started to look at the value of art and storytelling. Here, we have this story, the Song of Ice and Fire. Fan theories have abounded, but in the same way as a writer, I feel around in the dark until I feel that one plot point that makes me say “holy shit, that’s it. That feels right. That looks right. That fits right. That’s what’s supposed to happen!” The R+L=J theory had that effect on me. It fit the story too perfectly. It gave weight and a central nature to the story. As half Stark (Winter) and half Targaryen (Fire), Jon Snow was literally the embodiment of the Song of Ice and Fire. The series is about winter meeting dragons, coming together in an epic clash amidst which people are both desperately trying to survive or take the Throne (or take their revenge, I suppose). So we’ve got these light and dark themes constantly shifting, constantly graying, amidst a very polarized backdrop. Maybe I’m biased because I love watching the themes of a story interplay and shift, but this theme, so intricately connected to the plot (I mean, it’s in the name), this is the story of Ice and Fire. It’s not the story of real world shocks. And Jon Snow, as the literal embodiment of this theme, I’d decided, was the main character. It’s a song about him as much as it’s a song about Whites and Dragons. It’s an intermixing of those themes in the characters and their decisions, which is crucial to this story because it’s so character driven at its heart.

And so we have two directions stemming from the end of season/book five. Jon Snow is dead, or Jon Snow will come back. If he’s dead… great? I guess that’s the priority theme. Pulling the rug out from under people. Screen Shot 2015-06-24 at 12.35.05 PM But there’s something about storytelling that I balk at here. And that’s that I live in the real world. I know people die when it’s least expected/preferred. I know nobody really grows up to be the hero. I know that real life is flat and bland and only as romantic as we restructure our perspective on it. And yeah, there’s Literature that’s all about these themes. It’s all about taking whatever your angle is (depressing or otherwise) on the Real World and putting that into a painful artistic fiction. And I know that that’s sort of the defining characteristic of the Literature genre so upheld by academics over “genre” fiction. But that’s not really what I think Thrones is about. This show has always been about the conclusion. Whether happy or sad or triumphant or a letdown, it’s telling one complete story that has a beginning, middle, and (hopefully epic) end.

The Real World doesn’t have an End — capital E — Where we all look around at eachother and nod with satisfaction and go sit in a room for the rest of eternity because We’ve Done It. We’ve ended. That’s death, and as we’ve already established, death in the real world is random and painful and rarely tied up with a bow.

And so I worry that if the Real World is Martin and co.’s theme here, the ending that’s been such a direction for this entire series won’t really be an ending. In fact, if the Real World really is a theme, well, let’s Simpsons and Soap Opera this shit up, let’s let Thrones run for thirty seasons, because life will always go on past each end.

But I take a step back. I have to question myself. I’ve trusted Martin and co. this far, why not trust them some more? Frankly: I do. I’m gonna still hit season six with excitement and curiosity, but a wariness now.

Another step back: it’s Martin’s story. He’s not under any obligation to write it how I want — how I think it should go. The same way he’s not my bitch, I’m also not entitled to a Great Story That I Like. I’m only entitled to the story that he is writing.

But, as a reader, I am entitled to an opinion about whether or not it’s any good. That’s where the buck stops with writers, is that readers get the final say. As a writer myself, I’ve accepted that. I might think my first novel is the best thing I’ll ever write, and it may never get more than the 15 amazon reviews it’s got. I accept that. That’s what sharing your art is. So, I’ve got to say, if Jon Snow is dead (like, dead dead), I’m not sure that was the best move. Maybe it works out. Maybe it’s brilliant and satisfying…

Just a totally misleading photo so you can share this  post without being burned alive for spoilers.

Just a totally misleading photo so you can share this post without being murdered for spoilers.

But, in the wake of all the resurrection brainstorms from people, we’ve got two options really: resurrection by White Walkers, or resurrection by Lady Melissandre. Which is to say, resurrection by fire or ice. And holy shit, how brilliant! Suddenly I’ve come around to this death plot point because THEMES! Kill the boy, let the man be born! Jon is already Ice and Fire, but holy shit, if he’s resurrected by one of the two (or both?), he’s even further the LITERAL manifestation of these themes. How does that carry out? Is he some leader of the Whites? Is he corrupted by them or the Lord of Light? (shoot, even corruption is better than death. Though I’d miss good-hearted Jon Snow, this is a show about grays between good and evil, and it’s Jon’s story… just let him have a story). All of these questions, as they directly pertain to fire and/or ice are a seriously richly thematic sandbox to work with. And it’s a sandbox that is furthering the plot in a possibly BIG way toward the final showdown between the ice and fire that we’re all so excited about in season 7! (or eight I guess, but please no more than that, HBO!) And having a character embody those themes rather than just having characters caught up in those themes… well that’s good writing.

But the alternative? The real world sucks. Just go and enjoy Dani and Tyrion while you’ve got a chance. Maybe Arya and Bran will do something cool. Maybe they won’t. The world’s a crummy place, after all.

That’s our big overarching narrative theme? That’s depressing (and this coming from a guy who LOVES depressing — seriously, The Road, amazing piece of literature).

But I want a good meaty story. Unhappy ending? Sure. Kill Dany and Jon and Tyrion as they reach the throne. Put a White Walker on it. Or zombie Joffrey. I don’t care. Just get our people where they need to go, or better yet, crop your story to the right people’s stories. Tell those stories. Don’t blue ball us at the expense of great theme. Play with those themes in big, character-driven ways, as you have to this point. Bring it together and then end it how you like. But… I mean, actually bring it together.

Jon killed at the end of season five as the Walkers descend, by his own grouchy Night’s Watch, and poof. That’s that? Our Theme Personified made a misstep and now he’s done? Somebody else takes up the mantle of White Walker Herald and things just go on? Just, no…

We need our big crazy titular themes. We need our heroic face of Winter.

Our Winter needs Snow.

Karl Pfeiffer is a novelist, photographer, and ghost hunter. He’s the author of the novel Hallowtide, the short story collection Into a Sky Below, Forever, and the forthcoming Amarricages. He won the first season of Ghost Hunters Academy, went on to work with the GHI team, and now lectures across America and leads the weekend ghost hunts at the Stanley Hotel. He’s also a portrait photographer and conceputal artist based in Northern Colorado. Follow him on Twitter: @KarlPfeiffer

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Dear HBO: Keep GoT to 7 seasons.

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Last night, the first episode of Game of Thrones, Season 5, premiered in London. Chatter about the end-date for Game of Thrones, mixed with premiere reviews discussing the way season 5 feels like it’s moving the wheels toward an endgame has me wanting a soapbox.

Now, it’ll be very, very interesting to see what this show does in terms of telling a complete story. I think much of we’ve seen from the broadcast renaissance is reaching its pinnacle in Game of Thrones, specifically in terms of narrative and storytelling.

TV in the 80s, 90s, and much of the early aughts has been transitioning from procedural, episodic, killer/monster-of-the-week plots to overarching, narrative-heavy, serial dramas. That’s a transition. Network executives love to cash in on a prize show for as long as possible. In the days of the procedural, this was easy enough, because the more minor overarching story arcs could be manipulated and dragged out for ten seasons or more. Look at CSI (and the various spinoffs, since it’s the same show), Law and Order, NCIS, etc.

The X-Files was one of the earlier shows to try on a bigger narrative thread, and it was the first to be met with criticism for lasting far too long beyond its run. The creator’s plan for the show was a five season arc with three movies to wrap up the story. Instead we got five seasons, a movie, a renewal, four more tired seasons, a tired movie, and perpetual chatter of a third movie and possibly a reboot (both of which I think are needed, as despite the #9SeasonsAnd2Movies run, the story is yet unfinished.

But the X-Files didn’t teach network execs much Supernatural, for instance, went for five perfectly good seasons, blending monster-of-the-week procedural with a BIG story arc that became the show’s driving powerhouse for its final two seasons… Well, I say final, because after they wrapped the end of the world apocalypse plot, the creator left, his original five-season-arc being told… and CW renewed the show because fifth season was so successful. And then they renewed it again. And again. And now we’re in season, what? Eleven? Though the fanbase is strong, I’m sorry to say the story has been told.

Lost was a crucial transition to present-day TV as we know it. Lost set the perfect balance of episodic problems in the midst of a huge overarching narrative that continued to promise and promise (all on JJ Abrams now-exhausted Mystery Box theory) that the writers knew where the show was going. Though the show went maybe a season too long, and despite now hearing too many suggestions that the writers never had a plan past season 2, Lost set an end date (and one long before some whimpering season 12 finish) and the network went for it (even on a powerhouse network show like Lost) and it was a HUGE success. Sure, not everyone liked it. Sure, a lot of people completely misunderstood the end. But the show was a success. ABC treated the finale as a network event, and the finale saw ratings better than it had seen in two seasons.

It paved the way for creator control over when to end a show in a landscape of serial television that’s now cropping up everywhere, from cable to network. Breaking Bad is one of the perfect examples of such a show, which may have meandered for a season or two before finding its groove, but once the writers saw their story arc clearly, it was full steam ahead to either an epic finale, or, well, Meth-Selling, the soap-opera.

And now we have Game of Thrones. The series whose end is mentioned in just about every article written about it. Largely due to whether or not the show will surpass the book series before it’s completed by Mr. Martin. But Game of Thrones is a show that’s been based on a book series that will be finished at some point, and it’s always been a show that asks “Who Will Win?” Fans are foaming at the mouth to know who will take the iron throne before we Cut to Black.

Right now, it’s a show that’s been telling a tight story. Political intrigue, betrayal, amassing armies on a (semi) realistic scale that takes time to do. But it’s too easily a show that could get lost within itself. With no promise of the end that’s so needed, we just watch old enemies form alliances, and then new friends betray each other, over and over, until the numbers have dwindled so far that the network finally cuts the life support. And Game of Thrones has never been a show that’s wanted to do that.

So when Weiss and Benioff start talking about how they see seven seasons (and maybe a movie) to wrap up their show, I’m over here fist-pumping like a champ! Let’s do it. Let’s wreck shit. Let’s see who winds up on that throne and what it’s all going toward.

Certainly everyone brings their own perspectives to a post like this. Many fans just love spending time every week with their characters, like friends on the screen, and every episode is going to provide the needed escapes week to week.

But what I lobby for is good, powerful, tight storytelling. A story with a beginning, a middle, and a fucking crescendo of an end. Kill everybody, I don’t care. Just follow through on the promises the show has made through its run, rather than stringing what once was a good story with big promises into a soap opera of old situations between different characters.

And then there’s the network execs, who say, “Well, gosh, I love this show! The fans love this show! And as a fan I don’t want it to end! I’d love to see ten seasons or more of such a great work of art!”

Which leads me to two retorts, the first being that dragging a good story on for too long (like a bad joke or a, well, bad story that a friend may be subjecting you to) stops it being a great work of art. And the second being that it’s a bit scary to start reading between the lines of the HBO executives comments, who, even in text online, appear to be saying one thing with a forced smile while making murderous hand gestures. Says HBO President of Programming Michael Lombardo, “We’ll have an honest conversation that explores all possible avenues. If they weren’t comfortable going beyond seven seasons, I trust them implicitly and trust that’s the right decision—as horrifying as that is to me. What I’m not going to do is have a show continue past where the creators believe where they feel they’ve finished with the story.”

So, sure, on paper, he respects the creators knowing when a show is going to end! But when a person who has “President” in their title at the network your show airs on uses the word “horrifying” to describe ending the show at seven seasons, and suggests having an “honest conversation to explore all possible avenues,” that hair on the back of your neck has gotta be standing up at this point.

I can only hope it’s seven or eight seasons. I can hope that Weiss and Benioff stand their ground and pull this thing together in a spectacle of awesome. And I just really, really, do not want to see this thing go for ten to twelve seasons.

Nobody wants to see a rusty iron throne by the time some old, bored, actor/actress gets there.

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Karl Pfeiffer is a novelist, photographer, and ghost hunter. He’s the author of the novel Hallowtide and the book, Into a Sky Below, Forever. He won the first season of Ghost Hunters Academy, worked briefly with the Ghost Hunters International team and now travels the world lecturing about approaches to paranormal research. He’s also a portrait photographer based out of Colorado. 

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AHS: Freak Show – Monsters Among Us Review

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After months of speculation, fan-made promos, teasers, and hauntingly beautiful official promos, we’re finally met with the premiere of the fourth season of the anthology juggernaut, American Horror Story, this year in the Freak Show.

If it’s not already abundantly clear, I’m a huge fan of this show. But because of that, I hold it to a very high standard. First season was excellent. Smart, well-filmed, challenging, and stylized. Second season started to lose me in the near-mess of horror tropes thrown at the audience. But it regained my trust in the final few episodes, which, while to some fell a too-rapid shift in tone, for me it brought together the themes the season played upon in an elegant and subtle way. The aliens were stand ins for divinity and the achievements of science, the asylum stood as a sad pinnacle of religious corruption and our lack of progress at the time. Together, binaries were fuzed and meshed and reversed and the entire season came off a huge artistic success.

Then, of course, season three hit. True to form for third-season-ruts (see: Supernatural), Ryan Murphy and co. decided to lighten the show’s tone after Coven, which I was fine with. The shots were still beautiful. The eeriness blended well with the synth-heavy musical score, given a fresh, modern feel on the witches genre. It worked. Until it didn’t. The first episode gave us a taste of what could have been to come: female empowerment, reversal of race issues, sexuality (as always), the struggle against mortality. It was trimmed down from Asylum, sleek… and then it just stopped. Halfway through, the season became witches being bitches, and the race dialogue was lost in throwing away our black characters because the plot ran out. It tried to pull an Asylum and save it in the final episode, but the big themes were pushed aside. Literally, too little, too late.

Now, I know, some were fans, and some were not. Indeed, that’s my first point going into this review of Freak Show today. Horror is a tricky genre because everyone approaches horror with different tastes and expectations. What scares one person won’t phase another. Some want to simply be scared and entertained. Some want to be intellectually challenged.

So before going into Freak Show, I want to set my expectations of the show. After seeing how smart a show it could be from the moment I hit first season, and the moment Asylum floored me, I knew this show was brilliant. The very premise, even, that in the horror genre, yes there are frightening monsters, but the most frightening issues are the societal ones. Boom. That’s it. There’s our one-sentence show pitch.

But along the way, AHS picked up some brilliant cinematography and editing. The show is a breath of fresh air compared to much of television in its uniqueness of style. The acting was great, with Jessica Lange perennially stealing the show. And the scares, well, like I said, everyone has different triggers. But compared against most of TV? It’s happily in the horror genre.

SO: Freak Show.

If my rambling prologue there wasn’t indication enough, the first episode is usually strong. The show has history with getting rough as it gets going. So the first episode review should only be taken as far as you can throw it.

That said, I mostly totally dug it.

The cinematography was still gorgeous. I love the wide angle shots that have become staples. And the twilight carnival shots with the lights… well that hits me right in the feel goods. That’s my sandbox right there.

The acting, of course, is always exciting to see how the actors mold to new characters, and it was done well. Good to see Jessica Lange staying steady as the manipulative matriarch with some well-buried brokenness.

Twisty the Clown was trending all Wednesday night on Twitter, and I can see why. web_ins_gallery_detail_series_dsktp_ahs_01

He’s probably the scariest clown I’ve ever seen. I’m not scared of clowns, myself, so perhaps some folks would disagree, but he’s creepy as hell. Perhaps overdone? But dirty, dark, gritty, murderous, and with secrets yet to be revealed, I like it.

I thought it was a curious decision, but one that I wound up liking, to reveal Twisty first in daylight. It seems to me that this speaks to the team’s confidence in their creation sustaining scares no matter what the time of day. It worked for me. The creepy Louisiana (okay, “Florida”) wilderness tied to a violent illustration of just how dark humanity can be was very reminiscent of HBO’s True Detective, which I was very okay with. In the end, yes, the folks who don’t like clowns aren’t gonna like Twisty, and he’s dark enough that he could literally scare some away, but I’ve never gotten the impression AHS cares too much.

The real heart of the show though is the themes. And AHS has seemed to strip this season down to, literally, just freaks. What makes someone a freak. What physical deformity means socially. How freaky are human beings in general. What’s the appropriate response to social marginalism.

Of course, some won’t have it. Some will. And likely there’s gray space in between where the show is actually operating. I watched headlines before the premiere about what a terrible show it is to exploit the disabled as horrific. I just read a Buzzfeed article about how AHS isn’t as progressive as we think. And it goes on.

For the ones who won’t have it: AHS, as I said above, is about reversing many illustrations of what’s monstrous. There’s always extremes (usually the big bad murderer) for the scares, but the heart is in reframing what should be scary. If it fails, a la Coven, and winds up reinforcing these social issues, then yeah, it should be held to that. But I think the intentions are here, it’s a matter of the skills of the writers, and so far, given the pilot episode, we have a lot to work with. The deformities are played upon, but that’s of course the AHS style. It’s always right in your face.

Ariane Lange’s Buzzfeed piece was accurate. If AHS is as progressive as we think/want, it needs to do more than normalize the inner human of the disabled, and instead examine them as abnormal, but abnormal because of society’s treatment and their experiences due to that treatment and to the disability.

To which I say, A) give it a chance. we still have 12 episodes yet to see if Murphy and co. will move beyond the “they’re just people too” theme. But also… B) I think it’s already going beyond that. If we want to examine the true ways that “freaks” are abnormal, which is to say, who they’ve become because of marginalization and efforts in a world that doesn’t provide for them, then this is an excellent space for it. Right off the bat, we have two murders by the “freaks” (three more if you count Twisty), and an instant questioning of where those murders fall on the morality line. I think that by reframing “freaks” as “normal” so quickly that we can jump right into looking at the moral nuances that their situation provides, AHS is already being relatively progressive. I very much don’t expect to find the conclusion of the season being that freaks are freaks and normal people are normal.

We’re not in AHS’s sandbox until we’re questioning everyone and watching the plot unravel because American culture is really, really good at being freakish and horrific. That will again and again be the attempt of the theme of this show.

Now, of course I’m worried that there’s not going to be enough to chew on to stretch this out for a season. Already in episode one we’ve had emphasis on society’s sad treatment of the “freaks”, we’ve had illustrations of their experiences and humanity, and we’ve got the classic AHS plays on what’s freaky, what’s justified freaky, what’s extreme freaky, what’s human, and how much of the horror is in our nature.

All those things I want to see twisted and reversed and changed and explored further, but I worry it’ll be tired by January.

But also, I hope. I hope that with all that time, Murphy and Co. will address those issues that Lange points out, and progress a good, dark, Asylum-level dark (but smart) story.

That’s one that time will tell. But there’s more than enough here at the start to keep me on board and happy… even if they always start that way.

Karl Pfeiffer is a novelist, photographer, and ghost hunter. He won the first season of Ghost Hunters Academy, went on to work with the GHI team. He’s the author of Hallowtide, and Into a Sky Below, Forever. He contributes to the TAPS Paramagazine, leads the weekend ghost hunts and the Stanley Hotel, and shoots conceptual and portrait photography in Colorado. More can be found at http://www.KarlPfeiffer.com

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Future Seasons of American Horror Story

I wrote a post very similar to this one after the end of Season Two and, while I kept that post updated, it’s beginning to fall a bit out of date, and so I wanted to revisit the post with some new ideas and sexier photoshop work.

So, a bit of a recap, shall we? American Horror Story is a show defined by iconic marketing imagery, a frantic-yet-elegant cinematic style, an ensemble cast that’s always excellent, pitch perfect thematic studies, and interwoven anthology plots.

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In season one, we visited the Murder House. The setting was a haunted house in California, and it allowed the writers and directors to study such American Horrors that the supernatural horrors are only caught up within: the real horrors — the way people react to and perpetuate social issues. Adultery. Abortion. Gay rights. The 21st Century family. School shootings. Depression. Teenage romance. Bullying. The themes that circle the home.

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With second season, we had a big switch, moving into the Asylum. Though first season was dark, it was so in a sexy, elegant, nature. The scares crawled around inside your head a bit. But with season two, Murphy and Co. turned it up to eleven. The sexiness was out the window. The show was a period piece for the 60’s, a time that’s beginning to seem almost pre-historic to us. The setting and time period allowed the writers to explore the big issues of the time (many that are unfortunately still very prevalent), and what made the season brilliant by the final episodes was the way the writers spring-boarded from social issues to philosophical issues. Women’s rights, civil rights, gay rights, the role of the Church in the world and within institutions, the treatment of the mentally ill, the ways science can twist and corrupt, and the ways science can redeem. We got some supernatural scares, but not so much of the ghostly, super-powered variety. We saw aliens as a brilliant stand-in for God, we saw possession unrecognized in a place of god, and of course we saw our seasonal historical murderer.

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And then season three happened. Drawing mixed reviews from critics, season three moved us down south, with Coven. Coven aimed to iron out some of the kinks with Asylum: to give the audience a breath of fresh air from the deep darkness of the Asylum, to shave off some of the abundant themes and plotlines that slowed the second season in the middle of its run. They went after feminism and racism in the south, tracking the split of two witch clans and the battle between them as it was reignited. The first episode was a powerhouse, but the show stumbled along after that, missing the opportunities to sneak in genuine frights, and, sadly, instead of deconstructing many of these themes, wound up reinforcing them by season’s end.

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And now, in the late summer of 2014, we move into the fourth season, where we’ll step right up to the Freak Show. I’m utterly pumped for this season (and utterly disappointed in myself that I never thought of the carnival/freakshow idea in my earlier blog post: thanks commenters!) Where Murphy first confessed he was going for a lighter tone and a funny feel the way of Coven, he realized as he got into the plot that this season was, in fact, darker than Asylum. And, I hope, more on track with its thematic study of the nitty gritty. The promos are already exceptional. The clown is going to be scary as shit. And for the first time in more than half a century, we’re really going to get a piece of film/television that digs around in a very much overlooked piece of American history: the sideshow carnival. Looks for more civil rights type issues, post-WWII racial scares, and another season where the monsters are never the monsters.

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(And of course, the alternate title card used with the actual-footage teasers)

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So where do we go from here?

Ryan Murphy has on multiple occasions mentioned that the season following Freak Show was going to be followed by something very much out of left field. While I’ve got a few good ideas, I don’t think any of them are quite as out-of-left-field worthy for the fifth season as Empty Space. Space has a myriad of setting-style titles, so it could be tough for fans to guess this subtitle. But space is a rich American horror soil, and very much do-able for Murphy and Co. I have regular debates with my good buddy CJ about the possibilities of such a season. He argues that aliens shouldn’t make an appearance to throw viewers, whereas I think they can. Granted, AHS has already done aliens in Season Two, but they were brief and very much an image-centric stand-in. They could easily do some creatures heretofore unseen. But with the potential for deep space survival, fear of unknown planets, rebellious robots, rebellious other ships, and with a wealth of horror-movies to nod to and reference, I think we can count on seeing Empty Space in the near future for AHS, hopefully as near as Season Five.

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Almost equally as obvious and overdue as space in the AHS franchise as my vote for Season Six? I’ve subtitled it the Woodlands. (Part of me fought with debate over calling it “Sticks” — a play on the folk phrase for the backwoods mixed with the River Styx from Greek mythology, a thematic allusion very much up Murphy’s alley). The Woodlands locale is rich for AHS. It’s the setting of many in the classic staple of American Horror: the Slasher film. We set this at a cabin or lakeside retreat, and let havoc play out. We’d get the classic slasher killer (likely somebody historical), but there’s room here to play with more modern manifestations from the woods, like Slenderman or cryptid beasties. Murphy has spoken in recent interviews about the nature of death on television, and how it’s different than in movies. Because of the way a 13-episode television run connects you with characters for six times longer than the average movie, you become far more attached, and so those deaths are more meaningful. While in many ways this can be a deterrent for a slasher season, I think it’s territory to play with those losses as the horror that they are.

Thematically we’ve got play by looking no further than Lars von Trier’s disturbing film, Antichrist. Von Trier, in interviews, pointed out that one of his main thematic goals with the film was to explore the dichotomy between the woods currently illustrated in Romantic tones, as a place of peace and finding one’s self, as a Walden, but whereas historically, the woods are a terrible, terrible place of darkness. That’s where you go to fight for your life, where the food chain spins endlessly, and human wit is tested against animal ability.

So I say, let’s do that. Let’s pit the humans against the wild. (And don’t even get me started on what a gorgeous season that would be to watch, cinematically).

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* * *

THE season I’ve been waiting to see from Murphy. This show had better not run dry by the time we make our detour into Lovecraft Country (perhaps a better subtitle, but it’s clunky). Innsmouth of course is the setting of HP Lovecraft’s classic tale, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, about a small community of inbred and hybrid creatures living on the coastal shores of Massachusetts. Lovecraft has been one of the most defining characters in modern horror, introducing us to Cosmic Horror and a strange philosophical place of Nihilism and mysticism. This topic is hot right now after being constantly hinted at in HBO’s first season of True Detective, so I think it’s time for something more overt to hit the airwaves. Certainly themes are easy enough to play out. Let’s look at science and religion, cults and isolation, the power of nature, sprinkle in some Storm of the Century and tales of epic sea monsters for flashbacks, and we’ve got one of the tightest, darkest, rainiest, and creepiest American Horror Stories yet. Perhaps the topic will dry up by Season Seven, but I doubt it. Lovecraft never leaves us.

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* * *

Okay, fine, Maize isn’t a setting, but it was the best I had, and I loved the play on Maize meaning corn, as well as the wordplay of Maze. Look no farther than the Shining for the maze/minotaur trope in classic horror. Mash it up with Children of the Corn and we’ve got something special. Now, though Murphy says he has as many as 13 different settings in mind, I’m worried themes come less varied than settings, especially if he continues to pack them in the way he did in season 2. Eight seasons is already a bit long, but I think these are the quintessential settings that absolutely have to be covered, and the Maize season would be the quintessential finale, wrapping us up for season Nine. The Native American connection brings the end back to America’s beginning. Dig around in America’s roots, explore the monsters in the soil,  Native American legends, the horror stories from before the genocide, then toss in some Dark Romanticism and Sleepy Hollow, maybe pepper in some Celtic Halloween roots to stir the melting pot, and we’ve got an incredible finale to an incredible show.

AHS-S8

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American Horror Story Freak Show: Nails

Still on a roll with our American Horror Story: Freak Show fan posters and teasers. This video might be my favorite we’ve done so far.

As always, huge thanks to our director, CJ, over at Something Random Media for getting everybody together to do these!

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AHS-Nails-Wallpaper

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American Horror Story: Freak Show

(Edit: I’ve added in the more recent couple posters to this post, in order to bring them all together for you guys into one epic AHS:Freak Show post. The one starting us off is a recent re-design on the original that I did in black and white. I was hoping to just change it up to include the new hashtag and real release date — had a fifty fifty chance, sorry — and it pains me that I didn’t see the potential originally, because this one is awesome. )

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Freakshow Clown

American Horror Story Freak Show : Beauty

American Horror Story Freak Show Clown

American Horror Story Freak Show Abracadabra

AHS-Twins-For-Web

AHS-Nails-2So I’ve spent a couple looong days working on this project with my buddy CJ from Something Random Media. Of course it’s just a fan project. American Horror Story has a really immersive and rabid fan-base. That — in addition to the ultra-stylized and image-heavy marketing promos FX releases for each season — pushes a lot of fan speculation on both promo videos, as well as their own posters. Because CJ and I are so passionate about photography and video, we thought we’d toss our hats in to up the fan standard (and, if we’re honest, maybe fool a couple people!) We’ll be posting some behind the scenes type info about how we did certain elements, and we’ll be posting more posters and videos in the coming weeks as we execute more ideas. So definitely stay tuned. But do let me know what you think in the comments section down below! And then a couple wallpapers for you too. Because I’m a photoshop addict. American Horror Story Freak Show Title Card

American Horror Story Freak Show Beauty Wallpaper

American Horror Story Freak Show Clown Wallpaper

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AHS-Nails-Wallpaper

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iTunes TV Show Album Art

Thought I’d toss up a quick blog post for you guys about iTunes Album Art.

I’m an aesthetic person living in a digital age. Where I went through college proudly arranging my TV on DVD collections on display, and a book fetish that involves tossing as many around my room as I can, I’m still all about the look of art that I love, even if that art is brilliant television or literature.

And, appropriately, bad art bugs me. Whether it’s inconsistencies in the spines of series (Thank God for Scholastic’s treatment of Harry Potter and the beautiful packaging for all nine seasons of the X-Files!), or just cluttered promo images, it’s gotta look good.

Given my background in photoshop and photography, I’ve made it a hobby to modify the iTunes Album Art for all of my favorite shows so that they’ll look snazzier in my media browser (ignoring, of course, the update that collapsed all seasons of a show into the most recent cover. Blasphemy, iTunes, blasphemy). And, to boot, I’ve gotten a massive kick out of editing the official promo poster for new seasons of my favorite shows long before the episodes will drop on iTunes.

So if you need to add album art to any shows purchased outside of iTunes, or if you want to modify what’s already there (Right click your season, go to info, and paste into the Artwork tab), here’s a list of some of my favorite modifications.

American-Horror-Story-S1

This is the original iTunes cover for season one of American Horror Story. Though the later subtitle would be referred to as “Murder House”, I love the simplicity of the design, and keeping the images defining which subtitle the season was. So as Hollywood later added subtitles to the art, I kept the minimalist design.

American Horror Story Season 2 Asylum Itunes Art

American Horror Story Coven iTunes Art

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(The better version of this one is on its way when I can find a higher res shot of the face)

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Then, to keep beating the AHS horse, I also have supplied consistent album art with the subtitle of each season, but without the small differences, like FX logos and changing around the logo layout. The season 4 one is an alternate cover because it worked better with the top-hatted lady.

American-Horror-Story-S1-2American-Horror-Story-S2-2American-Horror-Story-S3-3American-Horror-Story-S4-5American-Horror-Story-S5-1

Hannibal’s Season Two poster was so brilliant, it actually brought me back to the first season, which I binge-watched in a week. iTunes has an annoying “Season” two title above the Hannibal title, but this is so much sleeker and closer to the first season artwork of just Mads wiping his mouth.

Hannibal Season 2 iTunes Art

Then of course, a month out of the third season premiere for Hannibal, official season 3 art, and an international variant if you like it better.

Hannibal-S3 Hannibal-S3-2

House of Cards isn’t available in digital yet, as part of Netflix’s push to get you to get a subscription, but if you’ve ripped your first season DVDs or find yourself in sudden possession of digital files in your iTunes library just out of the blue sky, you might just want some nice art to spice them up.

House of Cards Season 1 iTunes Art

Season two took a bit of photoshop finesse, as a simple crop of the promo poster doesn’t quite work, with either useless text or too much negative space, so a touch of title shifting and we’re good to go.House of Cards Season 2 iTunes ArtAnd I’m hot to trot off the presses on turning out the brand new Season Three poster into your itunes album art only two weeks before the big premiere! Might not be quite as sharp as the first two seasons, but it’s still a damn good poster, I think.

House of Cards Season three 3 poster itunes album art promo

Supernatural has always had some of the most inconsistent digital album art, mostly just grabbed from various promo posters, but their DVD art has always been gorgeous and consistent. So I’ve cropped them down for you! (Apologies if you own past season five, but that’s where I’ll always insist the show actually ended. Anything after is just the network leaching off its success. Kripke left, the arc wrapped).

Supernatural S1

Supernatural S2

Supernatural S3

Supernatural S4

Supernatural S5

True Detective is another that you should grab some excellent art for in case it somehow may have appeared on your computer out of the blue. Though the show is chock full of amazing images and great promos, there’s one that truly speaks as a future DVD cover. Most of these as posters so far have a bunch of useless text atop the photo too, but since I couldn’t find a blank one to shop, bad content-awareing will have to suffice. Still does the job though.

True Detective Season 1 iTunes Art

And last but certainly not least, like its HBO counterpart, True Detective, if the new season of Game of Thrones should appear on your computer, you’d better get yourself some spiffy album art.

Update: True Detective is now available on iTunes with a free trailer and featurettes. The official cover art for the show looks just like this one, only without the crummy content-awareing, so it’s easy to freely download the trailer and copy paste the art onto your files.

Game of Thrones is usually tricky, as they come out with Character Posters each season, but these are never DVD covers. Last year’s dragon-shadow poster became the DVD cover just this past month, so I’d be willing to put my money on the three-eyed Raven official poster being this season’s media art. A quick photoshop later, and this is my best guess for next year’s digital release art.

Game of Thrones Season 4 iTunes Art

Game of thrones season 5 s5 poster itunes art HBOHope this helps you guys out!

UPDATE:

Penny Dreadful just premiered its pilot and I’ve got to say, it’s pretty good. Hard to find a great promo poster, but this is a modification of the best one I could find.

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And, even though it’s not out on DVD yet, some Hemlock Grove.

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And to celebrate the dropping of season two of Hemlock Grove:

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And if anyone is still watching this trainwreck of a show… well, you’re in good company. Here’s the final season of Californication:

Californication S7

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American Horror Story: Coven – “Boy Parts” Review

AHS-True-Blood-Album-Art
Following the smash premiere of the third season of “American Horror Story” (the numbers registered at five and a half million viewers, more than doubling season two’s finale), episode two, “Boy Parts,” hits the ground running, as the season’s plots begin to take off (like a witch on a broomstick, perhaps?). But I’m already starting to wonder… what’s on the way? Check out the full review over at ParanormalPopCulture.com  http://www.paranormalpopculture.com/2013/10/american-horror-story-coven-recap-boy.html

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American Horror Story: Coven – Premiere Review

FX_AHS_ImageGallery_0000_02Catch the premiere of American Horror Story: Coven last night? Spoiler: it was fantastic. Still trending on Twitter, if I saw correctly. So where’s the season going? What’s working and what’s worrying? Check out my review up at ParanormalPopCulture.com:  http://www.paranormalpopculture.com/2013/10/american-horror-story-coven-recap.html?spref=tw

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How the Series Finale of Dexter Was Brilliant and Why it Sucked

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(Needless to say, there’s gonna be spoilers)

Let’s just get it out of the way first, shall we?

Why Dexter was so Awesome:

1. The final shot. The buildup and crushing rejection of Dexter’s entire growth as a character for eight seasons.

2. Both the thematic potential of Dexter’s new-found family and the parallels with his old family.

3. The way he killed Debra. It had to happen. And it was poetic.

Why Dexter was so terrible:

1. The final shot was unearned. Dexter’s decision came out of nowhere and barely made sense.

2. The family-figures were meaningless. Man of Steel all over again. Simply shells with unearned emotions.

3. There was no tension in the first 11 of 12 episodes in the final season.

* * *

That all said, I want to go a little more in depth on exactly why this episode was brilliant, and how it was equal parts such a godawful letdown.

I want to start with the final shot: Dexter, sitting down in a logging cabin. Isolated. Gray. Alone. Hard.

Though many online took up arms to make fun of Lumberjack Dex, the moment itself was incredible.

The brilliance of this shot came first in the filmography. For a show that fell apart at the seams in the final three seasons in terms of technical appearance (look no further than those godawful Florida skies in the final episode, which could have been photoshopped by the kid who played Harrison), this final shot was commanding and moody and emotive. The symmetry. The careful camera motion. The lighting. It all spoke toward the darkness we know as Dexter.

The only problem with it was the whimpering fade-out rather than a hard cut.

But the emotion was astounding, if overlooked.

One of the staples of old-school television is that the characters don’t change. Networks want to hook an audience and keep them. By changing their main characters radically over the course of a show, the network model believes that this will ultimately alienate the audience that grew attached to such a character in the first place.

Not only does this give little credit to the audience, but it limits the range of good storytelling. Any basic writing class will emphasize that, in short work or long form, the character has to undergo a change.

Dexter has been quietly at the forefront of the changing landscape of the television industry because Dexter himself has been undergoing a radical change for years. He’s becoming a human being. He’s learning that he’s not so much a sociopath as he thinks. This wasn’t just an abandoned season eight plot point, it’s been developing since season one.

Season One: Dexter learns that his need to kill may be less genetic so much as born from his childhood trauma. Season Two: Dexter learns that he can have feelings. Whether that’s in a relationship, in sex, or in the thrill of being on the run. Season Four: Dexter learns that by pretending to be a father, he actually likes having a family. Season Five: He learns empathy, and that trauma-based dark passengers can be lost. Season eight: He learns that he might not even be a sociopath, and that he’s capable of truly loving.

The writers had two places they could go with this progression: they can either let Dexter go off on his happily ever after and embrace the fact that he’s finally human. Or he reverts back to the stone-cold Dexter of first season.

As we watch the final shot push in on Dexter at the end, we see that this is again the Dexter that we’ve always known: the cold, calculating, closed-off Dexter that nods to us in the opening credits each week.

And this feels very right, to see Dexter back here: alone, cold, but back full-circle (a lot of finales seem to love this idea of coming full circle. TV is a very cyclical beast, it would seem). It might not be very happy or pleasant. But it’s very right.

Now, even though the writers recognized the right end, they failed to present it well. They didn’t earn this finish, and that disparity threw most viewers. The immediate impression of the last shot felt tacked on rather than right.

On first viewing, it seemed that Dexter’s decision to bail on his new family was out of the blue. Deb died because of a series of badly-written accidents stemming from Dexter’s decisions. And that was enough to prompt him to abandon the only things in his life that make him happy?

It’s a stretch only if you forget that it wasn’t Deb’s death alone–but also due to the loss of his mother-figure, Vogel, and his son-figure, Zack. The problem here is that, well, I actually did forget this.

For having such an instrumental impact on Dexter as pieces of a life he’s trying to build, their deaths had no drama. I was bored as I watched Vogel bleed out. I was unsurprised to see Zack, dead in Dexter’s chair. And of course Cassie, the passing-love-interest-neighbor, was so clearly a throwaway character that I was betting friends against how long it would take for her to be killed off (Seven episodes. There’s twenty bucks I won’t be seeing again).

This is purely a problem in execution. A problem in pacing, in filming, and writing. We didn’t understand whether these people were really important to Dexter. We weren’t convinced that we ever really wanted them around–or that Dexter even really wanted them around. There was no tension, no suspense. No risk.

And so, not only were their deaths relatively meaningless, but they were easily forgotten.

Dexter’s final decision seemed impulsive because we didn’t get to watch him with his struggle. We didn’t understand deeply enough that he blamed himself for these deaths. When we watched Dexter with Hannah and Harrison, we didn’t get to see Dexter questioning whether he deserved such happiness or whether he’d ruin it.

The risks of Dexter’s  lifestyle were never risks to the people most important to him: Hannah and Harrison. His lifestyle was a risk to Deb, and it proved fatal, but he was leaving Deb. The writers had already established that Harrison and Hannah were more important to Dexter than Deb, despite Deb and Dexter’s relationship being the crux of the series.

Instead, for eleven episodes, the characters we had no investment in were the ones experiencing all the risk, and the characters that we actually love, Hannah, Harrison, Deb, and Dexter were only ever at risk due to Hannah’s exploits. And, when it came to risk, those scenes were more awkward than suspenseful, with the final undoing straw being Harrison running on a treadmill and–“Ow. I cut my chin.”

Where’s the tension of season two? Where’s the unraveling of Dexter’s life the way we’ve been waiting for since then? Where’s the edge-of-our-seat tension as we wait for the law to come down on Dexter, as we wait for some master serial-killer to put Dex out of his misery? Where’s the drama of Dexter’s police family unraveling as everything they knew about Dexter crumbles? Where’s Dexter, a wreck, because he’s trying to build a life as it all comes falling down?

Where’s the possibility that now, here, in the final season, literally anything can finally happen?

Instead, the only thing that crashes down–until the final episode–are tacked-on characters we don’t care about.

If we’re going to fully appreciate the final scene, we need to have the appropriate build-up for it. We have to watch Dexter struggle as his world falls around him. We have to watch Dexter’s decision to be a human being crash down far more epically than Deb’s being shot in the stomach. (If not, I mean, at least give us a bit of finesse).

For threatening Deb’s death, did they even bother to take their time with it? To bother with some close ups? Some slow motion? Some kind of emotion in finding Deb shot on the floor of an abandoned hospital?

Nope. Cut to soap opera wide. Deb’s cop family chatting normally about whether they should call Dexter.

The only way that we earned the final scene was in Dexter finally killing Deb. If there were two moments the writers needed to build to in the final season, it was Dexter killing Deb–or vice versa–and the final shot on Dexter, alone and empty.

Dexter killing Deb is massively important because it takes the essence of Dexter (the drive to kill) and puts him in the most dramatic of situations, in which he must finally break his code to kill someone not only innocent, but someone that he actually and truly loves. The flip side is that Deb has to kill Dexter, bending her own morality for the greater good, and in essence becoming the very thing that she’s killing. These types of murderous moral ambiguities have always been at the heart of the show.

Of course, if Deb can’t kill Dexter because we need the final shot of Dexter, then we’re left with the former. And the writers set up a good situation. Deb’s a vegetable. Dexter is forced to kill her to put her out of her misery. If not cliché — with uncomfortably transparent moments for goodbyes and flashbacks — it is a relatively poetic and twisted situation.

Even still, I have to wonder how the show-runners didn’t include a nod to almost every murder from earlier seasons? How did Dexter not run a thumb across Deb’s cheekbone before he pulled the plug? Where he sliced the cheek of his victims as trophies, how did they not allude to this STAPLE of the show in Dexter’s final kill?

It’s oversights like this that characterize the season as a whole. Rushed. Inattentive to the details: pacing; character; the small, dramatic, artistic moments.

The way we earn the final scene is to take our time with these dramatic moments. To pace the play of emotional extremes that are ripping and tearing at Dexter, that push him to turn his back on everything that would make him happy for everything he most truly is. We earn the final scene by watching Dexter make every effort to be human and have those efforts destroy the ones he loves and the life he lives. Have him actually ruminate on the fact that it’s only in his humanity that such hurt stems.

Deb’s death (too little too late, overall) wasn’t enough to convince us. Deb wasn’t Dexter’s whole world. Deb wasn’t enough to make Dexter give up a life. For that matter, Vogel and Zack weren’t Dexter’s whole world either.

As a viewer, I didn’t believe that Dexter’s trying to be a human being would result in tragedy for those he loves. That, single-handedly, is why the ending didn’t work. That’s bad writing. Plain and simple. We have to make that decision with Dexter. But we didn’t.

What could bring us to that decision? What about killing Harrison? What about forcing these moments four episodes before the end? What about giving Dexter some time to deal with the emotional drama of these consequences? Rather than a shot of him standing in front of a thunderstorm, in which we don’t really, fully grasp or share in what is most truly pushing him away from what’s left of the life he tried to build.

By taking our time, by watching Dexter’s world ripped away, only after he loses almost everything–only then would we understand why he’s sitting alone in a logging cabin. This way, we’d understand, immediately, as we slowly zoom in on the beard and the hollow cheeks, as we watch him close his eyes–only then would we see the way he blocks out the humanity he’s discovered. Only THEN would we understand that this is who Dexter truly is: walled-off, flat, hard. And intentionally so. He’s a human being who doesn’t allow himself to love.

THAT’S tragedy. THAT’S drama.

But it seems the writers were more interested in tacking this kind of drama on in the last five minutes and leaving the rest of the season to focus on Masuka’s daughter.

* * *

Karl Pfeiffer is a novelist, photographer, and ghost hunter. He’s the author of the books Hallowtide and Into a Sky Below, Forever. He writes for the TAPS Paramagazine and occasionally contributes to the Paranormal Pop Culture Blog. He’s the winner of the first season of Ghost Hunters Academy, he’s appeared on Ghost Hunters International, and he lectures across the nation about paranormal phenomena. More can be found at http://www.KarlPfeiffer.com

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