Filmmaker Ted Faye’s “Weird Tales” remind us that Death Valley is, well, yeah, pretty weird
The uninitiated call Death Valley many things. Bleak. Barren. Lifeless. Its victims — from stranded 49ers to obsessed prospectors — have coined more personal names, frequently incorporating some reference to hell. But for award-winning documentarian and Gold Creek Films producer/writer/cinematographer Ted Faye, one word fits more accurately than any other. That word is weird.
“Weird-wise, it’s got three factors going for it,” says Faye. “Most of us grew up thinking about the West and its deserts without a lot of complexity. Wrong. Everywhere you look is another legend.”
Discussing the subject with an expansive enthusiasm usually reserved for best friends, he has a flawlessly logical unified theory of what makes the desert unique. “Factor one would be the banks,” he says. “The symbol of the West probably wasn’t a log cabin. It was probably a bank. So if you’re looking for a story, you follow the trail of money, which in turn leads to treasure, then buried treasure, then the ‘lost’ factor — lost mines, lost maps, lost souls — and spirits that won’t rest. Plus, factor two, you need buildings to have a haunted building. Death Valley’s full of abandoned structures. And factor three is the aliens.” Of course — how would we forget about the aliens?
“All that remoteness for them to operate in secretly,” he continues. “Quite a potent combination, wouldn’t you say? Death Valley has endless stuff that’s lost and buried, spirits still searching for it, and aliens who want to conquer the globe. So I find myself specializing in tilted history, the unusual side of reporting the West.”
Although the Mission Hills, Calif.-based Faye has not labored exclusively in Death Valley — having produced, for instance, a home video program on fire safety for senior citizens starring Jonathan Winters — he clearly has a first love. He has an extensive archive of Death Valley material, and has consulted for PBS’ “Nature,” WQED’s “Mojave Desert Project” and the History Channel’s “Death Valley Chronicles.” Gold Creek’s documentaries have aired on PBS television stations throughout the West. Having dedicated the last 20 years to ventures and adventures that promote the desert, he lectures widely and his DVDs sell throughout Death Valley and the Eastern Sierra.
He has gamely climbed, crawled and tunneled to expose its secret spaces with night-vision cam or ghosthunter gear in hand, and his gung-ho approach coupled with his analytical perspective have attracted a devoted fan base with his films The Ghosts of Death Valley Junction, Death in the Desert: True Tales of Death Valley’s Victims and other intriguing accounts that appeal to diehards and skeptics alike.
“Ted has more than a passion for Death Valley, and he does such a great job of bringing it to the public,” says Death Valley Chamber of Commerce president Amy Noel. “He scares us with ghosts, taunts us with buried treasure, and educates us about this amazing place.”
Where have all the buzzards gone?
Faye’s trek to the desert began when he moved to California in 1979, an Easterner awed by images of “heat, vultures, and dead people lying on the ground.” He moved from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles to break into acting, and that December went camping in Death Valley “because it would be hot.” He brought a tent, wore shorts, almost froze at night, and failed to see a single buzzard or corpse. The experience disillusioned him, yet the desert refused to release its hold.
Faye did some acting, formed a small production company, and before long got into documenting the ins and outs of the California Desert Protection Act. He also encountered people who put him back on the path of desert lore: A Death Valley mining engineer referred him to Richard Lingenfelter’s landmark history book, Death Valley and the Amargosa. It opened a world of drama and characters. A Death Valley curator urged him to speak to everyone who had ever known a colorful desert denizen. He did, for his first film, Death Valley Memories, and had former President Ronald Reagan appear in it with a nod to Reagan’s earlier role on TV’s “Death Valley Days” that ran from 1952 to 1970. This led Faye to other topics such as the railroads and mining, as well as access to the Twenty Mule Team archives.
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“I made another straight history, but by this point I’d begun to notice the undertones, the stranger side of the desert,” he says. “I started a list that evolved into the Weird Tales series.”
Faye pursued it with Weird Tales 1: Death Valley’s Ancient Underground and Weird Tales 2: Into Death Valley’s Underground. Both explored one of the most persistent legends, about an entire underground city beneath Death Valley. Native Americans talked about an ancient subterranean civilization; in the 1930s, F. Bruce Russell claimed to have found it. Some sources maintained that giants lived there and raised families contrary to Darwinian evolution, and the costumes on their strangely clad remains resembled prehistoric zoot suits fashioned from the skins of unknown animals. But wait. It gets better.
“Cavern temples. Hieroglyphics. Reptilian aliens living under there with an agenda for planet Earth,” recalls Faye. “I was hooked.”
Weird Tales 3: The Pioneer’s Lost Trunk examined an old trunk discovered by hikers in 1998. Some believe that 49ers had left it behind. Then, in 2010, Weird Tales 4: The Ghosts of Death Valley Junction, catapulted Faye to a new level: “I was at least a little skeptical, but I saw things that were, hands down, the weirdest that ever occurred on a shoot.” He had a PX box that ghosthunters use — a speech-synthesis device programmed with an embedded database of words. Depending on environmental readings such as electromagnetic waves, it will “speak.”
“I was with Peaches Veatch, of California Paranormal Private Investigations, and she asked what I was working on. I’d been researching George Lundbloom, a prospector who had died near Death Valley Junction. I mentioned Lundbloom and the box uttered, ‘George.’ The PX box was alive that night. In the café, I walked by a refrigerator with a glass door. The box said ‘milk’ and ‘dessert.’ I mean, it’s not like the box had any way of identifying what was inside, or even recognizing a refrigerator.
“And it goes on. Paranormal investigators watch for EVPs, electronic voice phenomena. You don’t hear them, but if you’re recording them, you can pick them up. That evening, Peaches called out into the room with the blanket statement, ‘If you’re around, say something.’ We listened. Nothing. But later, in the editing bay, alone and surrounded by darkness, I cranked up the sound and heard, ‘This is terrible.’ Around midnight, I phoned Peaches. I was terrified.”
Ghosts and living legends
Faye spoke at length to living legend Marta Becket at Death Valley Junction. The legendary Becket had danced at Radio City Music Hall and on Broadway in her youth, then much later relocated to Death Valley where she performed a long-running one-woman show at her Amargosa Opera House and Hotel. Becket has promised Faye that her ghost will linger after she departs for the hereafter. Stay tuned.
Weird Tales 5: The Strange Case of Rhyolite, Nevada considered the murder of a young girl whose grave is reported to be haunted. Faye’s Weird Tales 6: The Desert’s Lost River of Gold, premiered on Sept. 27, as the kickoff event in Ridgecrest, California’s first annual Weird Tales Festival. Lost River of Gold reveals the story of Kokoweef and Earl Dorr, who received a map from Native Americans in 1927. According to legend, he followed the map to an underground river with black sand and chunks of gold. Allegedly the Indians could always find it, but the Mexicans never could. Says Faye, “To this day, there are people seeking that Lost River of Gold. Is the river there? That’s what the film is about. We’ve met some who have been looking for 40 years.”
The Weird Tales Festival came about after Faye presented The Ghosts of Death Valley Junction for the Historical Society of the Upper Mojave Desert headquartered in Ridgecrest’s Historic USO Building. “I had the ghost hunters with me. After the show, we went to the old schoolhouse on the Historical Society grounds and detected evidence of paranormal activity. This got us thinking about the possibility of a program for the public.” If the growing interest in his films — and now festivals — is any indication, people like their West when it’s a little weird. “Experiencing this sort of mystery is part of the desert, the heritage of the West,” says Faye. “Why not embrace and celebrate the weirdness?”