January 18, 2009

More Alien Communiqués


It wasn’t an obsession, exactly. Not yet. It was simply a recurring memory, but one too distant and smoggy, too sparsely detailed to really take solid hold of my consciousness. Still, it had been tickling at my brain on a fairly regular basis for years now.

            There was a film they showed us in grade school on several occasions between (I’m guessing) 1971 and 1975. I don’t know how many times I saw it in total—at least three or four—but it was enough that I’d remember.

            It was a very colorful, loopy, low-budget affair about a witch living in the suburbs with a mother and son. For some reason, one day the witch whips up a batch of magical pancakes. Everyone who eats them becomes deliriously happy (you could tell this by all the colorful dots that flashed on the screen whenever anyone took a bite, and all the giggling that followed). Before long, there was a line of people out the door and around the block, all of them eager to eat some more happy pancakes.

            I don’t remember anything else about the film itself, but I do remember having three thoughts about it as I watched:

            1. I enjoyed it, mostly because it was so damn weird.

            2. I had no idea why we were being shown this film in school, as it didn’t seem to have any educational value whatsoever.

            3. It was obviously a drug film—that was clear to me even way back then—which just made it all that much stranger and funnier.

            Memories of that film came back to me again and again over the years, and part of me was curious to see it again, just to see if it really was as twisted as I remembered. Far too often, my brain will give memories like these a life of their own, disconnected to any tangible reality. But I didn’t know the title, didn’t know anything else about the film apart from half a plot and a scene or two. The memory faded as other things took its place, as did the desire to spend a few hours tracking it down.

            As I learned more about movies and movie directors and took a special interest in low-budget weirdies, my memories of the happy pancake witch movie seemed to synch up with the work of Ray Dennis Steckler, the ultra-low-budget auteur who gave us confounding gems like Rat Pfink A-Boo-Boo and The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed Up Zombies. He once even took a stab at a mind-bending live action Saturday morning show, The Lemon Grove Kids, but it didn’t last long. The happy pancake witch movie could have easily been a side project from the same period.

            If I was right about that—if they really had shown a Steckler “drug film in disguise” to a bunch of third graders in the Green Bay public schools—I would’ve been extremely impressed. It might also help explain why I still remembered it thirty-five years later. But a quick search through the Steckler filmography revealed nothing like it, at least plot-wise. Thinking about it, I wasn’t that surprised—a lot of movies and TV shows aimed at kids in those days had a wacky psychedelic vibe to them. Anybody could’ve made it.

            But again, I forgot about it and moved on.

            When I learned that Steckler had just died, however, my thoughts returned to the happy pancake witch film. This time I was determined to find out what the story was, and finally track down a copy if I could.

            I hate saying this, but sometimes I’m very grateful for that interweb business. I typed in the words “happy pancake witch” and boom, there it was—not a listing of technical details about the film, but rather a story written by someone whose memories of the film matched my own exactly. It was a little creepy how similar our memories were. In the author’s case, however, those childhood memories morphed into an obsessive hunt for the film that went on for years. Moreover, during his hunt he uncovered a small underground of people from across the country with similar recurring memories of having seen this odd little film when they were children in the early seventies.

            This fellow’s search eventually paid off, and he discovered that the happy pancake witch movie was a twenty-two minute short called Winter of the Witch, made in 1969 by someone other than Ray Dennis Steckler. The film is now readily available all over the interweb and in bootleg DVD form, as well as through the original distributor. And everywhere you look, there’s someone telling an eerily  similar story—vague memories of the happy witch pancake movie that haunted them well into their adult years.

            It’s a phenomenon I’ve encountered once before, when my childhood memories of an oddball 1966 Christmas album by Tex Johnson and His Six-Shooters got the better of me. As soon as I started writing about it, I began hearing from people from across the country, all of whom told exactly the same story of memories they couldn’t shake.

            It wasn’t like remembering episodes of Gilligan’s Island or The Flintstones. That is, there weren’t thousands and thousands of people with the same recurring memories. Not even a few hundred. Just a couple of dozen, whose memories were consuming them—they needed to find that album again. This likewise seems to be the case with Winter of the Witch. There are just a few dozen people who share that consistent memory, but my god they can’t get away from it. That’s what makes it all the stranger.

            I can’t help but be reminded in this case, as I was when the Tex Johnson underground began to reveal itself—of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. All those people with the same implanted memories driven, for reasons they couldn’t explain, to gather at a chosen spot to meet the arriving aliens.

            Who knows what it was about the happy pancake witch film that affected us all in this way? Was there some subliminal message in the film that only stuck with a few of us? Or maybe there was something to the obvious drug metaphor. Who knows? Perhaps the day will come when the connection between Tex Johnson, Winter of the Witch, and the impending arrival of aliens in bell bottoms and hair shirts will finally be revealed.

            And it may well be revealed next week, when my copy of Winter of the Witch arrives.


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