Taking a walk on the dark side

RANTOUL — The subject was morbid, but the atmosphere at the Dark History Con on Saturday was upbeat, and the crowd made up of ordinary people.

What they had in common was an interest in true crime, serial killers and horror.

Former Disney animator Philo Barnhart drew a cartoon character with swift, sure pencil strokes. He is making the move from “The Little Mermaid” and other saccharine characters to comic book horror with publisher Charles Moisant for Silver Phoenix Entertainment Inc.

“I always wanted to do something gothic, something scary,” Barnhart said.

The closest he came to drawing “scary” when he was at Disney was as assistant animator on “The Black Cauldron.”

Barnhart has always liked a good scare. He rushed home after school to catch the next episode of “Dark Shadows.” He looked forward to Halloween despite his parents’ concern that it would be too scary.

“It’s a catharsis. People like being scared and then feeling relief,” he said.
Moisant agreed.

“(Horror) is like eating a hot pepper. It’s ridiculous to eat it, but euphoric afterward,” he said. “Horror is an intellectual hot pepper.”
Moisant turned to horror comics when other genres generated lackluster sales. Horror, for example his “Zombie Annihilation” set in Chicago, sells.

One of his titles has been translated into the Czech language.

For Maureen Hughes of Penfield, writing about true crime is about solving a puzzle. Her most recent book, “Sins of the South: Big Secrets in a Small Town,” is an investigation of the supposed suicide in 1956 of a nightclub owner in southern Illinois.

Hughes, who worked in law enforcement at the Robert Taylor and Cabrini-Green housing projects for the Illinois Youth Commission of Chicago and is now a private investigator, said she doesn’t go looking for book ideas. She learned about the “Sins of the South” case from a former Illinois lieutenant governor.

“It was a cold case,” she said. “I solved it.”

A family member told her about the subject of the book she is currently working on, a Bonnie and Clyde bank robbery in Indiana.

Compassion for condemned killers is what drives Kelly Banaski. She writes about women on Death Row and acts as volunteer inmate liaison. Formerly a reporter on the crime beat, according to her web site www.thecondemnedwoman.com, she is the stepdaughter of a career criminal.

When a brother also turned to petty crime, she found herself making excuses for him or bailing him out of trouble. Her experiences have given her insights into criminal behavior and the justice system.

“My vision is for everybody to understand that inmates are human beings.

“Not all inmates are guilty. We have to keep that in mind, especially on Death Row,” she said.

As inmate liaison, Banaski connects long-term prisoners with resources they need to survive. Her web site lists examples: Bible studies, correspondence classes, pen pals, mentors and care packages.

California inmate Eileen Huber, sentenced to life in prison without parole for her part in the “mall killings” in the 1990s, reached out to Banaski.

She describes Huber as a woman who works diligently toward the second chance she may never get.

“Eileen has more hope than people on the street,” Banaski said. “New people at the prison say, ‘Eileen helped me. If it weren’t for Eileen, I would have killed myself.’”

Other exhibitors are intrigued by the personalities of the killer.

“You can only garner so much from the landscapes and florals (inmates) do,” said Matthew Aaron, who collects self-portraits of well-known killers. “There’s more to be gained from portraits.”

The art on display included self-portraits by John Wayne Gacy and “Smiley Face” killer Keith Jesperson. Gacy portrayed himself as a clown.

Jesperson’s is a finely detailed portrait that Aaron estimated took 60-70 hours to complete.

Aaron corresponds with inmates and eventually establishes enough trust to request a self-portrait.

They respond “hesitantly at my request, I think,” Aaron said.

The level of artistic talent displayed seems surprising. Aaron explained that the hobby room is a reward for most inmates. They have so much time on their hands that many turn to art, crafts, poetry or song writing as a means of self-expression or sense of accomplishment.

Richard O. Jones writes historical true crime that spans time from 1884 to the 1950s.

“Very crazy stories, some of them,” he said.

His most recent effort is “Cincinnati’s Savage Seamstress: The Shocking Edythe Klumpp Murder Scandal.” It’s the story of a woman accused of killing her lover’s wife.

Jones covered the arts for the Hamilton, Ohio, newspaper until last year when he was offered a buyout by his employer. He turned to “a life of writing true crime.”

He digs into history for unusual crime stories, documents the details and writes in a style that he said reads like a novel.

Despite the varied settings — Oregon, Oklahoma, Wisconsin and southwest Ohio — he found the stories had common themes: the love triangle, fugitive from justice and poisonings.

When asked if he noticed historical trends, he identified more recent focus on the psychological aspects of the crime as well as a slow down in the speed of the justice system. One of the killers he wrote about he thought might have had multiple-personality disorder. Another was caught, prosecuted and hung within five months.

Jones said some of the stories he has uncovered are too unbelievable to be true.

“Life certainly is crazier than fiction sometimes,” he said.

Dark History Con attracted about 30 people, organizer Brian Ward said.

That’s more than he expected.

“When I first came up with the idea, I thought I’d be happy if 20 people came,” Ward said.

debrarawlingspress@gmail.com
 

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