News you may have missed...
November 1999

"Blair Witch" town haunted by devotees

BURKITTSVILLE, Md. (Reuters) - They cruise slowly along Main Street's dips and turns in cars and sport utility vehicles with license plates from California, Florida and Maine. They roam, cameras clicking, in search of clues among the century-old headstones of the Burkittsville cemetery on the hill behind town, whispering in English, German or Japanese about a murderous witch who is said to prowl these parts. They have literally invaded tiny Burkittsville, Maryland, population 190, and it is safe to say the village will never be the same. "This was a very, very quiet town until that movie came out and we got waves of tourists coming by in the hundreds," Trude Head, who lives on its Main (and only) Street, said.

"That movie" was the "The Blair Witch Project." And for the first few weeks after its U.S. release this summer, Burkittsville looked like a scene out of Steven Spielberg's UFO saga "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." The serene village was turned upside-down by hundreds of visitors from around the world searching for traces of the fictitious witch made famous in the gritty independent movie that cost $30,000 to make and has so far grossed $140 million. Even though the town hall telephone message declares, "If this is in regards to the 'Blair Witch Project,' it's fiction," believers come -- and some carry off a piece of the local property as a souvenir when they go. "The antique sign was stolen from the cemetery. The Welcome to Burkittsville sign was stolen," Head said, adding with a smile and a shrug, "It's the witch town now."

Burkittsville had a brief respite from the ghoulish limelight in September, but the crowds have started to trickle back with the Oct. 22 video release of "The Blair Witch Project" and the approach of Halloween, which the locals fear could produce a fresh invasion of thrill seekers. The movie claims to be real film footage left by three young filmmakers working on a documentary about the Blair Witch legend in the woods near Burkittsville. According to the film, the three disappeared while filming, but the footage in the movie shows the terrifying details of what happened to them. Margaret Kennedy, an abstract painter whose studio fronts Main Street, said one family traveled all the way from Colorado to find the Blair Witch and were crestfallen when she told them the witch was a hoax.

That family may have been the last to know that the creative team behind "Blair" fabricated local history in their cinema-verite film, but even the knowledge that it is not true is not keeping tourists from making the macabre pilgrimage. The Baltimore Sun reported that a Tennessee firm is planning a Halloween "Blair Witch Hike" and overnight camping excursion for the woods in back of town. Burkittsville Mayor Joyce Brown said part of the village's $3,000 annual budget for extra police patrols is being used to augment Halloween security, just in case Blair crowds arrive. She even phoned officials in Amityville, New York, scene of another cinematic legend, "The Amityville Horror," for a consultation, though Brown said the call came to nothing.

But mostly Burkittsville is taking the phenomenon in stride. The village has been invaded by strangers before -- the last time in 1862 during the U.S. Civil War. The town was established by landowner Henry Burkitt around 1824 at the base of South Mountain in western Maryland amid rich farmland and lush forests. Its brightly painted wooden homes, with gardens thick with boxwood, weeping willows and flowers, date from the mid-19th century. The town is pastoral in the extreme. But in 1862 the forest behind Burkittsville was the site of the Civil War battle of South Mountain, a warmup to the slaughter of Union and Confederate soldiers at nearby Antietam. Wounded from the fighting streamed into Burkittsville, where any available public building was turned into a hospital, said Mark Hudson, executive director of the Frederick County Historical Society. "There are reports there were some bombardments of the town of Burkittsville during that time, but most of the battle took place just above the town," he said.

Far from being haunted by the fictional Blair Witch, the town still has the feeling of being haunted by those Civil War battles. Maps along South Mountain point to battle sites, and the German Reform Church on Main Street boasts a plaque that describes its service as a hospital for wounded troops. Not surprisingly, legends have sprung up over the years that the ghosts of some of the Civil War dead still roam the hills near Burkittsville. Brown said one of the tales involves Spook Hill -- a point on the west end of town where drivers, though motionless, feel as if they were moving forward. "They say it's the Civil War spirits pulling you along," the mayor said. Before the Blair Witch, it was the Civil War that brought people to Burkittsville to wander along the street that, aside from the cars, looks much as it did a century ago. There are no convenience stores, no restaurants and no service stations.

Kennedy said she was in Burkittsville for 12 years before the summer of Blair and her studio had only a few visitors each year. But in the past few months her door has swung open with such regularity she has had to post balloons outside when she is "receiving" so as not to have her painting interrupted. Like other town residents, she gracefully accepts the Blair Witch hordes. Like Trude Head, she is even capitalizing on it a bit, selling Burkittsville postmarked postcards and T-shirts. Head sells samples of the rocks and sticks that so terrified the three young filmmakers depicted in the movie. She even sells a mix of "witch chasers" herbs -- just in case the filmmakers were on to something.

Halloween a la Francais

Halloween is everywhere in France this year. It all began about a decade ago when various outposts of "Anglo-Saxon" civilization here -- American restaurants, Irish bars and English-language bookstores -- began organizing parties and Halloween-themed promo events. But now the night of ghouls and goblins has a Gallic life of its own. Aside from the usual costume parties, there are scores of events with a decidedly French flair: The caterer Lenotre is offering a cooking workshop to teach French children how to make pumpkin-shaped butter cookies (last year they tried pumpkin pie, but the kids hated the taste). The children's singer Carmen Campagne is touring France with a "Halloween Holiday" show, opening at the Olympia music hall on Oct. 31, and featuring French songs like "C'est Moi la Belle Citrouille" ("That's Me the Pretty Pumpkin"). The City of Paris is supporting the floating of 350 jack-o'-lanterns in the Bassin de La Villette, in the 19th arrondissement, on Halloween night. In fact, more than 100 neighborhoods and towns in France have organized Halloween activities -- everything from parades and balls to blood drives -- according to a count by the Parisian marketing firm Optos Opus, which owns the "Halloween" brand for all food products in Europe and licenses it to manufacturers.

Every respectable French store now has a Halloween display and Halloween products for sale: pumpkins at florist shops as well as hypermarkets, special cakes decorated with goblins and witches at bakeries, even black and orange underthings at lingerie shops. There are microbrewed pumpkin beers, pumpkin-flavored lemonade and a Bordeaux nouveau labeled "La Cuvee du Chateau Potiron" ("Vintage Chateau Pumpkin"). At department stores, Halloween takes over early in October. Au Printemps was the first one to start selling Halloween goodies and costumes, with a single display, in 1993. This year it boasts three boutiques as well as special contests and activities, including face painting for the kids. Printemps expects to completely sell out well before the date -- as of Oct. 20 stocks were nearly exhausted -- doubling sales over last year. (The store could've done better, a spokesman said, but was late in ordering from its U.S. supplier.) The best-selling item? The witch's black hat, with or without hair. The Gally Farm, a pick-your-own near Versailles, has imported American pumpkin seed -- enough to grow 10,000 pumpkins over 12 acres -- to meet the demand for carvable pumpkins. France has its own varieties of pumpkins -- the citrouille, a deeply scalloped decorative gourd, and the delicious potiron and its smaller cousin the potimarron, which have smoother skins -- but they are difficult to carve.

Although the French are adopting Halloween -- along with other borrowed celebrations like St. Patrick's Day, Mother's Day, Secretary's Day and Chinese New Year -- with the fervor of converts, one still hears grumblings. The typical complaints are listed on the Optos Opus Web site under "10 Reasons Why You Hate Halloween, " with No. 1 being "It's Yankee colonization." But most French people, if they care to form an opinion about it at all, are beginning to mouth a new line. As the special pumpkin menu at Chez Clement, a chain of French bistrots, puts it, "Halloween is a festival of Gallic origins that the Americans borrowed from us."

While the origins of Halloween are sketchy, there is a wee bit of truth to the new mythology. About 500-1,000 B.C., the Celts, who at the time inhabited Ireland, Great Britain and northern France, celebrated Oct. 31 as their New Years' Eve -- their most important holiday. It was a pagan event celebrating the harvest and preparing for winter. The belief was that dead relatives could visit families on that night, so masks were worn to ward off the evil ones; food enticed the good ones. Around 700 A.D., the Catholic Church, wanting to co-opt the event, instituted All Saints' Day on Nov. 1, which was observed starting the evening before with what became known as All Hallows' Eve in England. While Celtic traditions died out in France (except for some vestiges in Brittany), they lived on in Ireland and Great Britain, and were transplanted to the U.S. in the 1840s to become Halloween. The irresistible French claim is thus: Since the Gauls were the richest and most numerous of the Celtic tribes, Halloween is, well, largely French. In the spirit of what comes around, goes around, that's having your pumpkin and eating it too.

Serial slayer killed 140 Colombia children

BOGOTA, Oct 30 (Reuters) - Colombia was in shock on Saturday after a self-confessed serial killer admitted to raping, torturing and beheading 140 children in a seven-year orgy of bloodshed. Chief government investigator Pablo Elias Gonzalez on Saturday described Luis Alfredo Garavito Cubillos, 42, as an "assassin without brakes", who traveled across the country preying on children from poor and peasant families. Authorities have so far unearthed the remains of 114 of the young victims of Garavito, a wandering handyman who was known by the nicknames "Goofy", "The Priest" and "The Madman".

In what they dubbed Colombia's worst serial murder case, authorities said Friday that Garavito posed as a monk or a street trader to lure his mostly male victims, aged between eight and 16, to their grisly deaths. "We're not talking here about a criminal genius. We are faced with an individual who was an assassin without brakes when it came to killing," Gonzalez told reporters. He led the investigation into the killing spree that began in 1992 and stretched across more than 60 towns in 11 of Colombia's 32 provinces. Authorities are also investigating evidence that Garavito may have been responsible for the disappearance and deaths of a number of children in Ecuador.

In a broadcast about the gruesome case, the Caracol TV news network dubbed Garavito "The Monster". The respected El Espectador newspaper, meanwhile, ran a banner headline "Horror!". The leading El Tiempo daily printed the story under the headline "The Man Who Killed 140 Children." Garavito was arrested in April this year in connection with the attempted rape of a boy in the eastern plains city of Villavicencio. He only confessed to the nationwide killing spree during questioning late Thursday, however. Colombian prosecutors began probing a wave of disappearances in the lead-up to Halloween last year after corpses of 36 children were found in shallow graves in scrubland on the outskirts of the city of Pereira, also in the coffee-growing region. At the time, authorities speculated the youngsters may have been slaughtered in a Black Magic ritual.

At a news conference Friday, Chief Prosecutor Alfonso Gomez said Garavito wandered the length and breadth of the country looking for odd jobs. He frequently loitered outside schools and befriended pupils from poor and peasant families. He would then invite them to take a long walk to isolated rural areas. When the youngsters became tired he would tie them up with nylon cords, ply them with alcohol, torture and rape them and finally slash their throats or behead them, Gomez said. "This is the most important investigation of its type ever carried out in Colombia," Gomez said. "Garavito has admitted the murders of about 140 children of which we have so far found 114 skeletons...which were beheaded and bore signs of having been tied up and mutilated."

Images, broadcast by Caracol and apparently filmed by prison authorities shortly after his arrest, showed Garavito sitting behind a thick glass screen gesticulating wildly with his arms in the air and grimacing. He then grabbed a pencil in his fist and began scrawling a crude image of a child on a sheet of blank paper. Gonzalez said Garavito was abused by his father during his childhood in the town of Genova, in the central coffee-producing province of Quindio, also the birthplace of Colombia's most notorious guerrilla leader Manuel Marulanda. The case was the talk of Genova Saturday morning but nobody appeared to remember Garavito or his family. "Everybody is talking about this. But I've lived here all my life but I've never known any Garavito Cubillos family," Albeiro Cubillos, owner of the Almacen Aguila supermarket told Reuters by phone.

Colombia, a country of 40 million inhabitants, has one of the highest murder rates in Latin America with some 25,000 reported cases each year. About one-fifth of those are blamed on the long-running war between Marxist rebels, right-wing paramilitary gangs and government security forces with the rest attributed to common criminals. The Guinness Book Of Records lists Colombian, Pedro Armando Lopez, dubbed the "Monster of the Andes", as the most prolific serial killer of all times. He allegedly murdered 300 young girls in Colombia, Peru and Ecuador and was jailed in Ecuador in 1980 on 57 counts of murder. Last year, self-confessed Ukrainian serial killer Anatoly Onuprienko admitted to murdering 52 people.

Legalising Dutch brothels may boost prices

AMSTERDAM, Oct 27 (Reuters) - Four years ago Pascal Geerts gave up prostitution in Amsterdam's Red Light district after cut-throat competition sent prices plummeting. "The prices were so low, I thought I've got to do something else because I can't make enough money like this," said Geerts, who now works for Red Thread, a group fighting for prostitutes' rights. But Tuesday's vote by the Dutch Senate to legalise brothels should be a key step on the road to eliminating exploitation, creating a smaller, more professional sector and boosting prices. In the upper house of parliament, only the opposition Christian Democrats and small religious parties opposed the law -- the final legislative step needed. It was passed by the lower house in February.

Prostitution has been above board in the liberal-minded Netherlands since Napoleon legalised it in 1815 but brothels were banned early this century. Over the past decade as politicians clashed in repeated attempts to clarify the legal situation, most local authorities threw up their hands and looked the other way. The legal uncertainty was a boon to shadowy traffickers, who enticed waves of illegal immigrants into prostitution, often treating them like slaves. At the same time, the huge influx of foreign prostitutes hammered prices, experts say. The going basic rate for "window" prostitutes -- on display to gawking tourists and potential customers in Amsterdam's bustling Red Light district -- has remained unchanged at 50 guilders ($24.30) since 1980, a recent study found. "Corrected for inflation, the prices in Dutch window prostitution over the past 20 years have fallen by more than half," said Brigitte Slot of Dutch asset manager Robeco Group. Prices had increased steadily from about 10 guilders in 1960 to 25 guilders in 1970, Slot told the economics magazine ESB.

The freeing up of sexual mores in the 1960s helped lift the stigma on paid sex and boosted demand, forcing up prices. But burgeoning numbers of prostitutes from abroad had the opposite effect in the 1980s and 1990s, she said. Dutch prostitutes earn on average 2,000 to 4,000 guilders a month, Slot said. Geerts said prices vary widely, with desperate drug addicts and frightened illegal immigrants settling for as little as 15 guilders, while women in luxury sex clubs and high class call girls earning hundreds an hour. "Competition in the business is really fierce because of the large numbers of prostitutes. When I was behind the windows, the starting price was 50 guilders or lower. We tried to ask more, but because of the competition, we couldn't get any higher than 60," Geerts said. "Later we changed that to 100 guilders, but then you had to do half an hour -- very tiring," she added. The basic 50-60 guilder rate was for 10 minutes and included no "extras". Geerts also started her own escort service, earning 300 guilders an hour. But the going was still tough, faced with competition from telephone sex lines and Internet sex sites. "You had to advertise everywhere and still you didn't get all that many customers," she said.

Over the past year, the price situation has improved slightly because a crackdown by immigration authorities has cut prostitute numbers. Geerts' group is seeking to impose a minimum starting rate of 75 guilders. The number of prostitutes in the Netherlands surged by a quarter during the 1990s to about 30,000 several years ago, but has levelled out now to around 25,000, said Jeannette Kruize, a social worker with the Hague-based Prostitute Project Foundation. Some 60 percent are thought to be illegal immigrants.

The law lifting the ban on brothels has sparked a wide range of reaction since it was passed by parliament's lower house in February. It is still unclear how it will impact the estimated two billion guilders the country's sex industry earns each year. The law stipulates that the country's estimated 2,000 brothel keepers and owners of "windows" rented to prostitutes are subjected to checks for possible criminal links, while their premises will be checked to ensure they comply with health and safety standards. In addition they must prove they do not employ illegal workers. One in four brothel keepers is expected to fail to qualify, according to the sex club owners' association VER. Geerts hails the law -- which also increases penalties for child prostitution -- as a big step forward in putting the world's oldest profession on an equal footing with any other.

But critics fear it will force shadowy elements further underground, while many prostitutes are wary of burgeoning paperwork and fear losing their anonymity. "You will really have to choose this profession, more like massage, physical therapy or private nursing. You will have to fill out forms, the tax people will be interested and I think a lot of women will just say 'no'," Kruize said. Most local authorities, directed by the law to regulate the sector, are already scrambling to come up with a registration and enforcement plan by a deadline of July 1, 2000. But the Christian Democrat mayor of Harderwijk in the country's religious heartland has vowed to change the city's planning regulations and go to court if necessary to keep brothels out.

Meanwhile, Geerts is planning ahead for the new landscape, hoping to transform the Red Thread organisation into a trade union. But it will take a long time before prostitutes are accepted like school teachers and civil servants, she says. "Usually people in prostitution lead a double life. Many women have difficulty acknowledging it to themselves. You have to cross those bridges before you can stand up for yourself and before you can exercise your civil rights."

Phone sex op gets money for masturbation injury

MIAMI, Nov 19 (Reuters) - A Florida phone sex operator has won a workers' compensation settlement claiming she was injured after regularly masturbating at work, her lawyer said. Attorney Steven Slootsky told Reuters he was not sure whether the Fort Lauderdale woman's claim was the first of its kind, but it certainly was out of the ordinary. Slootsky said his client agreed to a "minimal settlement" earlier this month. He declined to disclose the amount. During the course of her claim for workers' compensation benefits, the now 40-year-old employee of Fort Lauderdale's CFP Enterprises Inc. said she developed carpal tunnel syndrome -- also known as repetitive motion injury -- in both hands from masturbating as many as seven times a day while speaking with callers, said Slootsky, who spoke about the case this week on the condition that his client's name not be revealed.

"She was told to do whatever it takes to keep the person on the phone as long as possible," Slootsky said. The woman used one hand to answer the telephone and the other to note customers' names and fetishes and to give herself an orgasm during the verbal exchanges. The calls usually lasted about 15 minutes, although callers who asked for the woman by name were given 30 minutes of talk time, Slootsky said. In her petition for workers' compensation benefits, filed with Florida's Department of Labor and Employment Security in April, the woman claimed she received her injury from "repetitive use of the phone." She claimed weekly benefits of $267 a week -- based on an annual weekly wage of $400 -- and also asked to be reimbursed for $30,000 in medical bills after a neurosurgeon operated on her hands to relieve her pain. Slootsky said his client was too embarrassed to tell her doctor the real cause of her injury and the lack of disclosure led a mediator to advise her that she would have difficult case to prove at trial.

Mexican jail warden voyeur falls to death

MEXICO CITY, Nov 9 (Reuters) - A Mexican jail warden fell to his death while spying on couples during their conjugal visits, crashing down next to a Nicaraguan prisoner and his wife having sex, local media reported on Tuesday. Raul Zarate Diaz, prison warden in Tapachula, on Mexico's southern border with Guatemala, fell 23 feet (7 metres) to his death after tripping on a skylight looking over the conjugal visits section, La Cronica newspaper and InfoRed radio said. The warden had with him binoculars and a pornographic magazine, La Cronica said, citing local law enforcement sources. An official answering the phone at the prison told Reuters on Tuesday that police were investigating but refused to provide further details. The prisoner who was interrupted attempted to start a riot, but the intent was squelched by prison security, the newspaper said.

NY professor charged with using grant to buy heroin

NEW YORK, Oct 25 (Reuters) - A former professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice was charged on Monday with allegedly experimenting with heroin while conducting a federally funded study of the drug. He was also charged with using grant money to buy Spice Girls and Michael Jackson compact discs. Ansley Hamid, an anthropologist, was charged in Manhattan federal court with theft of federal funds between June 1996 and November 1997. If convicted, he faces up to 10 years in prison. The charges relate to a grant of more than $2.6 million awarded to John Jay College in 1996 to examine heroin use and distribution in New York City. It was the largest research grant ever given to the college at the time. The college is known as a center for research, consultation and training support for criminal justice agencies. The U.S. attorney's office did not give a total amount that Hamid allegedly embezzled but said it was more than the $5,000 required by statute to charge him.

The complaint alleged that Hamid embezzled and misapplied funds from the grant to pay for unrelated personal and professional expenses. Among allegations is that he instructed another grant employee to use funds to buy heroin for Hamid to give to junkies interviewed in connection with the research project. He allegedly also experimented with the drug while being compensated by federal grant funds. He was also charged with using more than $6,500 in grant funds to finance trips to Florida, Hawaii and Trinidad. According to court papers, an unidentified witness alleged that Hamid asked the witness to go with him to Miami on a federally funded trip for research. The witness alleged that Hamid said "the trip was one big party" and that he did not intend to conduct any research. The complaint also alleged that Hamid used federal money to pay employees to work on manuscripts for books that were unrelated to the grant. One witness alleged that he was paid about $16,539 from grant money but spent most of his time working on Hamid's own manuscripts.

Bras were conductor in British lightning deaths

LONDON, Oct 27 (Reuters) - Two women were killed by a bolt of lightning in London's Hyde Park when their underwired bras acted as conductors, a coroner said on Wednesday. "I think this was a tragic case, a pure act of God," coroner Paul Knapman told an inquest into the deaths. He recorded a verdict of death by misadventure. "This is only the second time in my experience of 50,000 deaths where lightning has struck the metal in a bra causing death, but I do not wish to over emphasise any significance," the coroner said. The two women, Anuban Bell, 24, and Sunee Whitworth, 39, had been sheltering under a tree in the park during a thunderstorm on September 22. Pathologist Dr Iain West said both women were wearing underwired bras and had been left with burn marks on their chests from the electrical current that passed through their bodies. Death would have been instant, he said. Both women were originally from Thailand but were living in London and had been on a shopping trip when the storm struck. The bodies were not discovered until the following day because passers-by thought they were vagrants.

British patient gets an earful from snuggly spider

LONDON, Oct 29 (Reuters) - A British woman who had three sleepless nights with headaches and strange noises in her ear got the shock of her life when her doctor discovered the cause -- a large spider living next to her eardrum. "There was no obvious cause and the patient was keen to be seen, as her symptoms were keeping her awake at night," the Daily Mail tabloid quoted the woman's doctor as saying. "Through the otoscope, I was horrified to see a large spider snuggled up right against her eardrum." The doctor removed the spider with a syringe but also raised an unsavoury possibility -- that the arachnid was a female intent on laying eggs.

Alien Halloween no child's play for UK paramedics

LONDON, Nov 3 (Reuters) - A group of British paramedics had the fright of their lives this Halloween, when they mistook a child's toy found on a London subway station platform for a human foetus and rushed it to hospital. Officials closed down Buckhurst Hill station in Essex, northwest of London late on Sunday -- Halloween night -- fearing a woman had had a miscarriage, a London Underground spokeswoman said. They had found an alien egg toy, the latest toy craze to hit the London area. It contains what looks like an tiny unborn child curled in a foetal position and suspended in a gooey placenta-like substance. "Paramedics thought the toy alien was a human foetus, and the mistake was only discovered when it was examined in hospital," said the Underground spokeswoman.

Texas church defends Columbine scene in "Hell House"

DALLAS, Oct 29 (Reuters) - A Texas church on Friday defended reenacting the Columbine school shooting massacre as part of a "Hell House", a twist on the classic Halloween haunted house that is meant to scare teens away from evil. Trinity Church in Cedar Hill, a Dallas suburb, is one of several evangelical Christian congregations around the country that are staging school shooting scenes as part of haunted houses that preach a religious message aimed at the young. "We're going to keep on with the Columbine scene. We don't see any reason to change now," Trinity Church youth ministry worker Jana Davis told Reuters after a wave of criticism this week in local media and from Littleton.

Trinity's Hell House takes visitors through a series of rooms including a scene where two teenage boys in dark trenchcoats play with guns and plot to kill their classmates, then another when they burst into a library and gun down students there, as happened in Columbine. Visitors then see the two boys led to hell by demons after they commit suicide. One of their victims, who dies after professing her faith in God, is meanwhile led to heaven by angels. Trinity youth pastor Tim Ferguson said the Hell House, which the church has staged for seven years, is a justifiable way to teach teenagers good from evil. "It teaches them there consequences for what you, you will go to hell," he said on a Dallas radio talk show.

News of Trinity's reenactment of the worst school shooting on U.S. history, in which two student gunmen killed 13 people and themselves in April, has provoked angry responses from some relatives of the victims and other children at Columbine High School. Davis said about 7,500 people have paid $7 to visit Trinity Church's Hell House since it opened Oct. 8 and another 3,000 or so are expected over this Halloween weekend. A similar Hell House run by a church in Santa Fe, New Mexico, was shut down briefly this week when sheriff's deputies confiscated two real guns used in their staging of the Columbine massacre. A judge allowed the the reopening of the haunted house Thursday provided it got rid of the real guns and added extra security guards, court officials said

Two churches in Ventura County in California are also reenacting school shootings, the Rocky Mountain News said. The idea of recasting traditional Halloween haunted houses as Hell Houses to present notions about sin, damnation and redemption has spread widely in the 1990s among U.S. evangelical Christian churches. As at Trinity, most Hell House tours take visitors past garish scenes including drug-riddled parties, abortions and suicides and show deceased sinners escorted by demons to eternal suffering in hell.

Japan's Godzilla stomps back for new millennium

TOKYO, Nov 5 (Reuters) - Fans of Japan's favourite movie monster Godzilla who mourned his demise and were put off by his slithery lizard-like U.S. reincarnation can take heart. A resurrected version of the nuclear-spawned villain who first trampled his way through Tokyo 45 years ago will ring in the new millennium in a saga complete with a battle in Tokaimura -- the site of Japan's worst-ever nuclear accident. Sony TriStar's 1998 version of Godzilla, a taller and leaner computer-generated monster that zipped past New York City's skyscrapers at speeds the original could never match, disappointed many diehard fans. "The U.S. version was a bit hard to digest as the real Godzilla," Toho Co's <9602.T> Takao Okawara, who directed the new "Godzilla 2000: Millennium" as well as the 1995 Toho film that recorded his ostensible extinction, told Reuters in an interview. "It was too synthetic. The essence of Godzilla's real character is indestructibility," Okawara added. "So since we are starting a new series, we decided to show the proper Godzilla."

Godzilla, whose return to the screens premiers on Saturday at the Tokyo International Film Festival, is an old hand in the resurrection business. In the original black-and-white 1954 film, "Godzilla, King of the Monsters" was awakened from his prehistoric slumber by U.S. atomic testing on Bikini atoll and went on a rampage of death and destruction that threatened to destroy Tokyo. The movie, made only nine years after the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ended with the clear message that unless nuclear weapons were abolished, Godzilla would return. They weren't and he did, at the rate of once a year from 1962 to 1975. That's when declining popularity put him in deep sleep until his revival in the 1984 "Godzilla", which also packaged an anti-nuclear message with its monster mania. Then in 1995, Toho made "Godzilla vs Destroyer", in which the monster became a walking nuclear bomb who had to be killed without destroying the earth.

Even as that "final" film was being made, Toho admitted Godzilla might well return in response to popular demand. Back for his 23rd appearance, Godzilla this time clashes with a mysterious giant spaceship that has been reactivated after crashing to earth 60 million years ago. The movie has three major battle scenes, including one in Tokaimura, the site of a September 30 accident at a uranium fuel processing plant that left two workers in critical condition and exposed at least 69 people to radiation. But Godzilla's message -- if you're looking for one -- goes beyond the mere focus on nuclear dangers, Okawara said. "Godzilla is a symbol of the fact that humanity is threatened by what humanity itself creates," Okawara said. "It's not just nuclear (dangers) but other things, such as the destruction of the environment and war which are brought forth by humans and then take revenge on humans." Why the long-lasting popularity of the cold-blooded but somehow heart-warming creature, once again played by an actor sweating inside a latex suit? Okawara says it's because he means many things to many people. "Some people see him as the 'heaven-sent' child of nuclear (weapons), some as a...mere monster and some as a symbol of the threat to humans from what humans create," he said. "You can't just sum him up in one simple sentence."

Italy goose chase inspired by Siena's Palio

MIRANO, Italy, Nov 8 (Reuters) - Lola the goose may not escape the oven but at least she's had her day in the sun by winning this year's Italy Goose Palio. Inspired by the famous bareback horse race in Siena, innkeeper Ciccio Covin decided that even geese - pride of farms across the Veneto region -- should be famous for five minutes. So he started the race which ran for the eighth time on Sunday. "I like traditions," said Covin, "So I thought we would not only eat the goose but also make it take part in the race.". Hardly picturesque, the 419-metre (1,375 ft) track passes suburban houses and fields before finishing at a petrol station near the restaurant owned by Covin. Nearly 100 geese, many raised for the event, were carried lovingly by their owners to the starting line. "I had two geese last year but the dogs killed them," said one competitor, owner of Alice the goose. "This year I raised five and I've brought along the best."

Spectators lined the road while the owners, some dressed as 19th century farmers, prepared their geese on the starting line. In pole position was Ettore, last year's winner, who finsihed second on Sunday because of a stubbed foot. Owner Claudio Marzano described Ettore's pre-race training: "No sex, no alcohol and no staying out late dancing. And I talk to him everyday and tell him if you don't do well you'll end up in the oven with roast potatoes." Unlike Siena's Palio, in which horses sometimes have to be put down after suffering injuries, the goose race is harmlesss. However there are strict rules. "It is absolutely forbidden to kick your goose's behind, or that of rival competitors," the rule book says. Any damage to rivals "including by fire arms" will lead to disqualification. Wine is banned for goose and owner, at least before the race. Competitors are not allowed to push, pull or carry their goose, and can only guide it with a stick. Lola, owned by 10-year-old Davide Bovo, finished in less than five minutes. Others were less willing. Several escaped under hedges or into fields. Others sat and refused to budge.

Israeli youths end death camp trip with stripshow

JERUSALEM, Nov 18 (Reuters) - Israeli high school students ended a pilgrimage to former Nazi death camps in Poland by bringing strippers to their hotel rooms for a late-night show, the school's principal said on Thursday. "There was a male stripper and a female stripper," Rachela Yoktan, principal of Ofek High School, attended by youngsters from kibbutzim (collective settlements) in the Galilee, told Israel Radio. News of the stripshow evoked some soul-searching on morning radio programmes in Israel, home to about 300,000 survivors of the Nazi Holocaust in which six million Jews were killed. "Where did we go wrong?" lamented an Israel Radio commentator. "They found cards in the hotel listing all kinds of services that guests could order," Yoktan said, explaining how the youngsters arranged the stripshow. "Several of the students were drunk." Yoktan said the incident took place earlier this month, behind the back of a teacher chaperoning the group of 70 students aged 17 to 18.

In what has become a rite of passage for Israeli youth, thousands of students travel to Poland each year to tour World War Two death camps. Many of the groups schedule a stopover in Prague, in the Czech Republic, to ease the emotional strain. "Not everyone attended (the stripshow)," Yoktan said. "Those who did felt in retrospect that it was wrong and regret it." Yoktan said the school would try to find "an educational response" to the students' actions. "I don't think we can find a punishment that fits what they did," she said. "To say that we failed, no. I think they are wonderful students...good kids. They made a mistake and we will examine where we went wrong." Education Minister Yossi Sarid was having none of it. He issued a terse statement saying his ministry would "instruct the school on the action it should take".

Novelist scoops "bad sex" award

LONDON, Nov 25 (Reuters) - A novel containing what one reviewer described as "the sort of sex that would make a Thai brothel-keeper blush" has won the British publishing industry's least coveted prize, the Bad Sex in Fiction Award. Journalist AA Gill scooped the accolade - intended to highlight the worst, most redundant or embarrassing description in fiction of the sexual act -- for a passage from his latest novel, Starcrossed. The prize was presented at a ceremony in London on Wednesday by James Hewitt, former lover of the late Diana, Princess of Wales. Gill's first novel, Sap Rising, almost won the 1997 Bad Sex Award, and Starcrossed was heavily tipped by reviewers to win this year. The Mirror newspaper commented: "The scene involving a deep-sea diver and a genetically-modified, homosexually- inclined giant squid has to be read to be believed."

Other reviewers were equally startled by the passage, "the rash-rubbed thighs clamped cheeks, bits of liverish flesh draped across his nose and coarse hair scraped his chin. There seemed to be such a lot of her". Auberon Waugh, editor of Literary Review magazine, who created the tongue-in-cheek awards seven years ago, joked: "As the passages were of "an exceptionally high standard, the task of choosing a recipient is becoming increasingly difficult." This year's shortlist also included Irish novelist Roddy Doyle, columnist Julie Burchill and Amanda Platell, who was appointed press secretary in the summer to opposition Conservative leader William Hague. Previous shortlisted entrants for the Bad Sex in Fiction Awards have included Sebastian Faulks, Alan Titchmarsh, presenter of popular television gardening programme Ground Force, and former Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd.

Florida strippers protest lap dance ban

TAMPA, Fla., Nov 19 (Reuters) - Hundreds of exotic dancers, some with children in tow, jammed a city council meeting until the early morning hours on Friday to protest a proposed ban on nude lap dances. In a six-hour city council hearing that ended early on Friday morning, the women said the tentative ordinance requiring them to stay at least six feet (3.6 metres) away from customers and each other while dancing would sharply cut the money they earn to support themselves and their families. "How are you going to support three kids making $7 an hour?" asked dancer Jamie Gates, a mother of three. Exotic dance clubs generally charge $20 for a lap dance that lasts a few minutes. Customers usually tip after the dances, which are also known as friction dances.

Ban supporters said lap dances, in which naked dancers rub against customers, promote prostitution and the transmission of sexual diseases and are bad for Tampa's image. "We think Tampa's reputation as a wide-open city needs to end," said City Councilman Bob Buckhorn, author of the ban. Neighboring cities have banned lap dances. "It's conduct that unquestionably can be viewed as enhancing the transmission of disease," Assistant City Attorney Richard Fee said. The seven-member council will not vote until they hold a second hearing on the ban in two weeks. Among the plan's opponents were children of exotic dancers. "I don't think anything my mom does hurts anyone," one young girl said. The protest was organized by Joe Redner, the owner of Mons Venus, Tampa's best known strip club. He said the adult entertainment business contributes more than $100 million a year to Tampa's economy. Redner, who was soundly defeated in his bid for Buckhorn's seat in March, has fought the city government for years over adult business restrictions. The city council recently ruled that a Voyeur Dorm Internet site violated city zoning regulations by operating an adult business in a residential neighborhood. The Web site offered live, often nude, television pictures of six young women who share a house in Tampa. That ruling was being appealed in court.

Ouch!

If French drivers are bad, and women drivers are bad, what about French women?

Last weekend, Saturday afternoon to be exact, a lady wanted to go shopping at Galleries Lafayette in Paris (Boulevard Haussman). Finding it difficult to park in the busy streets adjacent to the shop, she decided to make for the underground car-park. Unfortunately, the underground "car-park" was instead the entrance to the metro. Unbelievably, she wasn't even fined, but at least no-one was injured...
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