H: Helltown (2017)

Searching through the Discovery+ stream for something strange to start my evening, I saw that I had picked Helltown as a possibility back when we first subscribed (My wife is addicted to those house-flipping shows and hey, the complete Mythbusters and Good Eats was much too tempting). The description reads “A former military member sheds light on the 1974 evacuation of Boston, OH.” Now I had never heard of this evacuation of an entire town , so clickedy click and off I go.

We start in 2016 with phone footage from 4 teenagers who were livestreaming their trespassing into abandoned Boston. This is broken up with text in an appropriately Blair Witch-style typeface, telling us that the town had been evacuated for a State Park in the early 70s. It will also tell us the kids went into a restricted part of the park, and that one of them did not make it out alive.

This brings us to a historian professor who has Boston Ohio, or as it is more popularly known, “Helltown”, in his curriculum. He goes through the government acquisition of the town through eminent domain for a state park by President Gerald Ford, backed up by some local TV coverage. The swiftness of the resulting ouster of the townspeople gave rise to many conspiracy theories, the professor tells us. Which brings us to the person we are going to spend much of our time with, conspiracy theorist and YouTuber Terry Greenbaum (Darren White).

Yes, the theorist is played by an actor. Didn’t I mention that the professor is also an actor? Which you probably figured out because the man is way too good on camera to be just any academic. Yep, this is a mockumentary based on the actual Helltown story.

Helltown is a real place, and apparently you can visit it (but stay away from the restricted area, oooOOOooh). It’s story is more prosaic and sad than spooky, but as the professor says, it’s become a magnet for conspiracy theories and urban legends.

Greenbaum will tell us of the many strange tales about Helltown, but the most significant one is an incident just after the evacuation, when an altercation between the military and some recalcitrant Bostonians erupt in violence, leaving all but one dead – Everett MacMahon (Terry Brandon), who has kept silent about his experience – until now.

With the death of the teenage girl in that party (not by a bear attack, Greenbaum assures us, citing Jaws) and his own incipient dementia, MacMahon has decided that the truth must come out, and his narration will be supported by reenactment. A lot of reenactment, if you were still on the fence about this being real. MacMahon was part of a small Signal Corps team sent into the area after the evacuation to record and inventory what was left. But the real kicker for me is that as MacMahon continues his story and Greenbaum his investigation, the story starts veering into folk horror territory, and the reasons for Helltown’s evacuation and restriction are far more terrible and outlandish than originally thought.

That’s all I’m going to tell you. Starting what I thought to be a documentary and finding myself in folk horror, almost Lovecraftian territory, was a lovely surprise.

Not everyone had the same experience, though.

Going through the IMDb and a Google search finds this movie derided and hated, mostly because it’s fake; I see some local historians whose outrage is understandable, but a whole lot more of them seem angry that they got fooled for a while. Hey, I was also fooled for a while, though my willing participation in my own fooling was more hopeful than anything else, that such eldritch weirdness really could be possible in this world. So my reaction was more “Haha, good one, you got me!” than outright anger. The fact that this was originally presented on the show Destination America and is still hosted on the Trvl Channel doesn’t help dispel that anger.

The fact I love folk horror probably helped, in my case. No, it definitely helped. So, sorry Boston OH purists, but I really enjoyed it, and I know some others that might, as well. It was a nice little trick’r’treat surprise.

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