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April 28, 2003

Why Wisconsin? (Why, Wisconsin, Why?)

"Dig a bit in the history of this place. You'll find a ... steady stream of fairly odd occurrences. Now, I believe this whole area is a center of mystical energy, that things gravitate toward it that ... that you might not find elsewhere."

- Rupert Giles, "Welcome to the Hellmouth"

Wisconsin. America's Dairyland. Located smack in the center of the Midwest, sometimes dismissively referred to as "flyover country", it's the state second only to Iowa in its reputation for wholesome, corn-fed blandness. And someday, after the police arrive to unearth the corpses of nineteen pizza-delivery boys in its basement, it's the state that Illinois will describe to television reporters as the quietest, most unobtrusive neighbor it's ever had.

Because, see, there's something eerily, gloriously off about Wisconsin. It's something you can feel the moment you cross its borders. By the time you've passed your second or third roadside guns-cheese-and-fireworks stand, you're no longer surprised that Jeffrey Dahmer, Ed Gein, that guy who was arranging mail bombs in a nationwide happy-face pattern and the notorious "thong thief" all called this state home.

Ah, Wisconsin: that "fucked-up fairyland of horrors", as the tourist brochures put it. Where Florida has Disney World, Wisconsin has the Dells, a sprawling garden of grotesque fiberglass monstrosities clamoring in the shadow of Tommy Bartlett's pseudo-entertainment empire. Where California has the Watts Towers, Wisconsin has a remote stretch of desolate road populated exclusively by a lonely craftsman's army of screaming robot sculptures. Washington, D.C. has the Smithsonian; Wisconsin has the Baraboo Circus Museum. New York has the Guggenheim; Wisconsin, the House on the Rock. If you can find it elsewhere in the country, there's a good chance that you can find its hideously deformed twin lurking somewhere in Wisconsin, gnawing on fish heads and burbling to its Precious.

Nowhere is this phenomenon better documented than in Michael Lesy's excellent book Wisconsin Death Trip, published in 1973. (The book was later adapted into a documentary, but it's not available on video and had an extremely limited run in theaters.) Simultaneously disturbing and hilarious, Wisconsin Death Trip is a collection of photographs and newspaper clippings depicting a small town in Wisconsin in the final decade of the 19th century, replete with bizarre stories of crime, insanity, hauntings, witchcraft and demonic possession. To flip through this book is to realize that whatever the hell is going on with this twisted funhouse mirror of a state, it's been going on there for a long time.

posted by whitey at 12:37 PM

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