Typically speaking, Marylanders are the type of people who focus on the positive. But the flip side of that coin is that for better or worse our skeletons tend to stay buried deeply in our collective closet. Especially here in the Baltimore area, we often like to think of ourselves as a thoroughly modern and polished city; the rival of NYC or Philadelphia. But once in a while our old Southern Gothic roots spring to life whether we want them to or not.
Mum is often the word on atrocities that occur here in Baltimore. When we have cases like those of John Thanos or Joseph Palcyzinski we prefer not to dwell on them, but to seal away the ghosts of the past from our civic memory.
But before John Allen Muhammad, before Palcyzinski and even before John Thanos there was an event here in the Baltimore area that was more terrible and terrifying than any of those cases, and which the media and the good people of Maryland have taken great pains to bury behind them once and for all. Of course we’re talking about the Webber House.
Baltimoreans tend to be a bit callous about murders since our city sees so many of them year in and year out, but what happened at the Webber House was no ordinary crime. When someone is killed in the drug game or by an estranged lover or in a botched gas station robbery it’s something we can all wrap our heads around. We can rationalize and tell ourselves that that could never possibly happen to us. But what happened there is the sort of horrifying acts we tell ourselves can’t happen to anyone.
By way of background: this was the 1980’s. The Reagan era. Attorney general Edwin Mess was on a nationwide witch hunt against all things pornographic or blasphemous and organizations like the Eagle Forum and Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority were high on the hog and spent most of the decade dictating goodness and righteousness to the rest of the nation. It was a pre-Internet, pre-smaprtphone era when preachers like Jim and Tammy Faye Baker and Jimmy Swaggart had transformed the revival tent into the modern civic auditorium and through the power of TV had brought the entire country inside.
The 80’s was also the tail end of the pre-cable era in television. Cable was only available in very limited areas and it was not the 500-channel reality TV crapfest we’ve all come to know and love. Cable was even more expensive then (as a share of household expenses and accounting for inflation) and most families were still using rabbit ears. Most people refer to this time in the media as the “Three Channel Era,” but that’s not strictly true. Public television was always an option, of course. And some areas had what was known as public access, sort of the YouTube of its day. And beyond that there were a few odd-men-out. These other channels were local stations with no affiliation to a major network.
Baltimore’s WBFF (Fox 45) was one such station for many years before Fox became an actual nationwide network. WNUV Was another, which eventually affiliated with the WB. Less popular, lesser known, and widely forgotten was an even smaller Baltimore station from that era, WNUF.
Although the Chop was just a kid in the 80’s, we remember WNUF fairly well because it happened to be on a lot in our house. It was actually the station with the best reception on our rabbit-ear set, and channel 28 would run some programs that Mama Chop was partial to like an aerobics hour and some lesser-known soap operas.
It also had its own small, shoestring news team based at the station. They could never compete with the big guys on TV Hill who had larger budgets, more powerful broadcast ranges and network support, so they did whatever they could to pull in eyeballs. For example it was WNUF sportscaster Tom Moore who was responsible for Manager’s Corner with Earl Weaver, which later became popular when it was re-animated as a cult hit on YouTube.
But overall the WNUF news division was forced to resort to tactics that were at best questionable and at worst tabloidist and muckraking. Their staff, and especially investigative reporter Frank Stewart did things that other stations’ news teams simply couldn’t or wouldn’t do like spread rumors that Nick Charles and Oprah Winfrey were sleeping together at WJZ or charge in to the Haussner’s ladies’ room to catch Helen Delich Bentley smoking a Salem light 100 and taking a crap.
But never did WNUF stoop so low as they did on Halloween in 1987. That was the year that the station featured a special report on the Webber case, which had mercifully come to a close a few years prior and which all of Maryland was eager to forget. Unlike the Ariel Castro house in Cleveland which was recently razed in short order for similar reasons, the Webber House had sat empty after a string of horrible crimes and murders which are too graphic to describe here, but which were consistent with Satanic ritual. The house remained vacant and became a magnet for curious teenagers, depraved loners and every manner of occultist from Wiccans to Palladists to the followers of Santa Muerte.
When WNUF’s Frank Stewart explored the house for that special he brought in a priest to perform an exorcism as well as a pair of ‘well respected’ paranormal researchers to contact the Webbers via seance. When it originally aired in October 1987 the WNUF Halloween Special garnered little notice. After all, it was Saturday night and a holiday so most of the few thousand people who liked Channel 28 news were otherwise preoccupied either with their kids or with a night out on the town. (Yeah, your parents did Halloween in Fell’s Point too, and Hammerjacks used to have giant costume parties.) Besides, people weren’t exactly eager to talk or even think about the Webbers any more.
But in the days after it aired there was something of a ripple in the pond effect. As we mentioned above the Religious Right was at the height of power and once the WNUF Halloween Special came to the attention of the Moral Majority types all of their ire was pointed toward Baltimore. Frank Stewart’s contract was canceled in short order and he left town before Christmas that year.
Channel 28’s station manager very nearly escaped federal obscenity charges. On a clear night, much like AM radio UHF channel signals could shoot off in unpredictable directions, and even a lower-powered station like WNUF could reach PA or Northern Virginia in the crisp October air. The charges didn’t stick because no one could prove after the fact that it had aired across state lines. No one out of state had their VCR on.
Luckily for the station, 1987 was Joe Curran’s first year as attorney general of Maryland. Curran was of course a capital D Democrat and not particularly enamored of the Religious Right. As most Marylanders know the Curran family are also staunch Catholics of long standing. Part of what raised the Right’s ire so much was the presence of Father Joseph Matheson and his belief in exorcism in the report, which is a large and significant historical difference between Catholics and Protestants that has always existed and still continues to irritate the Protestant Right today.
But while there were ultimately no charges, there was quite a lot of pressure behind the scenes in Republican politics and after the Halloween Special WNUF found itself under increasing scrutiny from the FCC, FTC and other bureaucratic entities. The station ultimately lost its broadcasting license in 1988 and little has been said about it or about the Webber case since.
Until now. Perhaps occasioned by events like the closing of Video Americain and the emergence of curated flea markets VHS Copies of the Special have been surfacing more and more often, some traveling as far as the newsroom at the NY Times.
It’s only natural that something so bizzare and horrific, yet at the same time so campy and Bawlmerese as this news report would catch the attention and the imagination of a pair of local filmmakers like Chris LaMartina and Jimmy George. The pair, who were the minds behind locally produced horror films Witches’ Brew and Presidents’ Day have remastered the original 1987 WNUF Halloween Special and screened it for the first time since it originally aired last week at the Creative Alliance.
Tonight they’ll host a second screening at Hampden’s Atomic Books, which also functions as a release party marking the first time ever the Special has been available on DVD. Throughout the course of working on the project LaMartina and George have become the defacto foremost experts on both the Webber case and WNUF, and unlike most other folks with knowledge on the topic (some of whom deny such a house or crime or special ever existed) they are more than willing to discuss all of the events described here, and will do just that as well as take questions at tonight’s screening, which starts at 7 pm.