Thursday, January 23, 2014

Guest Post by Chris Kullstroem: Travel Research Project "Drawn to the Dark."


Running from September 2013 - September 2015
by Chris Kullstroem 

I am happy to report the progress of the first three months of my current traveling research project: Drawn to the Dark! This endeavor involves researching "dark-themed" events and celebrations around the world for a book I'm currently writing. The book describes creative portrayals of dark-themed characters, venues and celebrations of life and death, and how they actually benefit the people of their communities in various ways. The book and project are entitled Drawn to the Dark: Enhancing Community Health through Dark-Themed Tourism.

In September of 2013, I left my job and apartment in Connecticut to travel for two years on this project. The first month was spent in New Orleans, yet the remainder of the year would involve being outside the United States to focus on events in various cultures. The following year, beginning in the fall of 2014, will involve travelling around the United States and holding presentations about my research abroad.

In September I arrived in New Orleans by train. For the first week I was hosted by two wonderful Couchsurfer hosts, Paul and Ray, who introduced me to New Orleans life and my first New Orleans cemetery: Lafayette Cemetery. For one month, I researched several themed tours run by multiple tourism companies. The tours were based on Voodoo beliefs, vampire myths, local cemeteries and tales of the supernatural. During my stay in the city I was happy to become friends with several tour guides and learn about what life is like in a city of parties, crowds, crime and corruption. I learned that most guides enjoy the opportunity of showing and describing New Orleans life to tourists so that they a more accurate representation than what is commonly portrayed in the media and the movies.

For the remaining three weeks in New Orleans, I was invited to stay with a tour guide named Randy and his roommate Joe, a street performer, who lived in a very poor area of the city. Despite the poverty and remaining destruction from Katrina that people live with on a daily basis, I was happy to see close friendships between these wonderful individuals who allowed me to share their lives for a short time. In addition, two of the tourism companies I was involved with donate a portion of their cemetery tour proceeds to restoration and preservation project of the city's cemeteries. It was inspiring to see these tour owners understand the importance of maintaining these important aspects of the city's culture, lest they become deteriorated beyond repair over time.

The most memorable experience I had during my stay actually took place outside New Orleans. I met a guide, Jennifer, who gives vampire and ghost tours in the city and owned and operated a small haunted attraction in Mississippi called "Nightmare Hollow." During an interview with Jen, I learned that she had a very interesting method for organizing Nightmare Hollow's crew. She invited a group of young people who had chosen to live on the streets of New Orleans to spend the weekend up at the haunt. For two weekends in October, anywhere from 3-6 of these young adults were driven to Lumberton, Mississippi for the weekend. There they worked as actors while also getting to enjoy a weekend of camping, free meals and fun with their friends. For one weekend in October, I worked at Nightmare Hollow with Mad Max, Space Man, Voodoo and Pop Tart. These young adults had been living on the streets of New Orleans from as little as a few weeks to as long as a few years. During my time with them, I witnessed their transformation from unmotivated "gutter puniks" as they were called in New Orleans to professional actors, set designers and builders with the opportunity for using their talents and creativity that Jennifer had given them.

On October 24 I left New Orleans and flew to Oaxaca, Mexico for their Dia de los Muertos
celebrations. I was unable to find a Couchsurfing host in the city, and therefore spent the first week in a boarding house with four retired women from California who had come to Oaxaca to learn Spanish. I also had the pleasure of meeting Janice, an American who had just moved to Oaxaca, and Ruben, a native Oaxacan who had just moved back to the city. Together, Janice, Ruben and I enjoyed many activities for Dia de los Muertos. We witnessed countless pieces of sand art in which artists expressed their personal connections with life and death through skulls, skeletons and coffins, flowers and sunlight in brightly colored sands. The three of us danced well into the night in camparsas: lively parades in which the crowd dances with costumed Katrinas, the Mexican skeletal icon who represents the inevitability and natural process of death. We also visited Oaxaca's cemetery that had come alive for the week-long celebrations. We witnessed families sharing food, drinks and stories by the graves, mariachi bands playing for the dead, stilt walkerrs and other costumed characters walking among the stones. Through the artwork, dancing, creativity and community, Janice, Ruben and I got to experience the celebration of not just the lives of those who have passed, but the celebration of life itself.

After staying in Oaxaca for the next three weeks I flew to Salzburg, Austria in late November. There I had an incredible time researching and experiencing events based on Krampus: the infamous winter demon that, legend has it, accompanies Saint Nicolas on the night of December 5th. Traditionally, Krampus punishes wicked children by beating them or even stealing them while Saint Nicolas rewards the good with treats. However, in Salzburg, hordes of Krampuses take to the streets in "laufs," or runs, in which they parade and playfully attack spectators with cow tails, horse tails or branch bundles. For one month I attended fifteen laufs in Austria and Balvaria, ranging from one to three hours and sometimes dozens of Krampus groups, or "passes." In freezing temperatures I stood with hundreds of other Krampus fans who had come out to enjoy these free events with their friends. During my time in Austria, I was also thrilled to meet Krampus actors and learn that they portrayed the winter demon to bring a fun show to the crowds who anticipated their arrival all year. One of these actors, Christoph, also ran a website (www.krampuszeit.at) that lists information on laufs throughout the region. Christoph's motivation for the website was to ensure that anyone who wanted to enjoy a lauf knew where to go and when to be there, believing these free events should be accessible to people of all ages.

During my time in Salzburg, my Couchsurfing host Bertram was kind enough to let stay with him for the entire duration of my time in the city. It was interesting to see my interest in the Krampus inspire  not just Bertram's, but other friends I made in Salzburg. Andy, Max and Gerald were all native Austrians, but some had not attended laufs in years. Before long, we were all driving for up to an hour to enjoy monstrous creatures and run from their antics.

After celebrating the New Year in Salzburg, I took a ride through blablacar (www.blablacar.com) and went to Urbania, Italy. A month earlier, a friend had sent me information about a festival held there during the first week in January. The festival was based on Befana, an Italian witch who gives candy to children on the night of January 5th. I was happy to find a Couchsurfing host, Nicola, who lived right in Urbania. Nicola and his parents Franca and Paolo hosted me for the duration of the 5-day festival, and Nicola attended the festival with me every day. Together we saw how the Befana festival allowed Urbanian traditions to be kept alive and also spread to different regions through the tourists who came for the show. The Befana festival introduced me traditional dances, foods I had never seen anywhere else, and gave me the opportunity to meet people from all over Italy. Urbania is a small town with only 7,000 residents, yet I was only one of the 50,000 who came for the festival and as a result visited the Cemetery of the Mummies, palace and town theatre, none of which I would have known about were it not for the celebration of Befana that drew me in.

Currently, I'm residing in Florence, Italy for the next few weeks to research the city's Dante's Inferno tours and enjoy time with friends I've made here. The best part of this incredible experience has been meeting people in each area who are eager to share their stories and join me on these fun, "dark" adventures. Additional areas I will be visiting include Kyoto, Japan for Setsubun in early February, and Akita, Japan the following week for Namahage. From there, I will go to China for the Qingming Festival in early April, Sweden in mid-April for BlÄkulla, and Germany in late April for Walpurgis Night. For the remainder of spring and summer I'm hoping to learn about other events based on dark-themed customs and celebrations from Couchsurfers and others I meet along the way. Finally in August, I'll attend the Hungry Ghost Festival in Singapore before heading back to the United States in September.

Couchsurfing has been a truly life-changing network that has made every aspect of this project possible. It has done so much more than providing me with places to stay: it has been my base for making friends, sharing experiences, and learning from those who like to be part of the adventures. Couchsurfing has ensured that no matter where I go, I will go there with friends who are happy to share their lives.

If anyone would like to contact me about events or venues for this project, I would always love to hear from them. They can also follow my written blog, "Haunter Education: Monster Heroes through Community Involvement," on my website: www.MonstersAndBooks.com. I'm also thrilled to be part of the weekly Paranormal Talk radio show from New Orleans for the duration of this project, which can be listened to live or as recorded podcasts on www.wgso.com.

Thank you for this opportunity to share the story of my travel adventures thus far!

Yours from the dark side,

Chris in CT


3 comments:

Jenny said...

Wow. What a fascinating project! How I would love to travel all over the world for two years to do research on something I was passionate about. It sounds like an unforgettable experience and I can't wait to see what comes of all his experiences!

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