Talking powwows and murder with Hex Hollow documentarian Shane Free

Photographer: Press photo

Earlier today, Los Angles-based documentary filmmaker Shane Free released a trailer to his film Hex Hollow, which tells the tale of a horrifying murder that took place in York in the fall of 1928.

Free was born in York and graduated from West York High School but has been living in the Silver Lake area of Los Angeles since 1999. As a kid, Free heard the about the local legend of the grisly Hex Hollow murders from his father.

“I always liked the murder mystery angle of stories,” Free says. “I like true crime stuff. So this always kind of stuck with me.”

During the day, Free cuts trailers for Rocksteady Studios’ series of Batman video games including Arkham Asylum and Arkham Knight, but the filmmaker was looking for a personal project he could undertake during his spare time.

“I’ve been wanting to do a project in my hometown,” says Free. “I thought why not go back to this since no one’s really touched it – except for a crappy movie in the ’80s that wasn’t really even that true to the story.”

An advanced screening of Hex Hollow is slated to take place in York in the fall of 2015, but for now you can check out the trailer and read our Q&A with Free – the film’s writer/producer/director.


 

Mike Andrelczyk: For people that aren’t familiar with the Hex Hollow murder, can you explain what actually happened?

Shane Free: Basically, Nelson Rehmeyer was a farmer down in the hollow, but he also practiced powwow. He would help a lot of people with powwowing to get rid of their illnesses. This guy John Blymire was having a lot of bad luck in his life and he was attributing it to being hexed. So he would go to powwow doctors and try to figure out who was hexing him. It was a lady in Marietta who actually pointed him towards Rehmeyer. That’s what set the ball in motion. He got two accomplices and they set out to get a lock of Rehmeyer’s hair and his book of spells and bury them in the ground to get rid of the hex. It’s such a fairy tale kind of thing, but these guys totally believed it.

MA: So initially these guys were just trying to get a lock of Rehmeyer’s hair to lift the curse?

SF: Yeah, these guys all knew it each and actually Rehmeyer let them [Blymire and accomplice John Curry] stay over at his house the night before the murder took place. [Blymire and Curry] realized that Rehmeyer was too big to take down themselves – all they wanted to do was hold him down to get this hair, but they knew he probably wasn’t going to willingly give it up. So the next day they went over to the Hess farm to get Wilbur Hess who ended up being the third person involved. They thought the three of them could probably overtake Rehmeyer if they needed to. They went the next night and that’s when the murder happened. No one really knows exactly what happened in that house. We kind of know about how long the fight took place based on the court transcripts. It was about sixty seconds.

MA: What is the powwow culture all about? Were you surprised that it was so prevalent in this area?

SF: The powwow culture is still happening. We actually talked to a few powwow people who still practice for the movie and they showed us some of the techniques. Powwowing is really a Christian-based practice. It’s not this evil witchcraft thing that people think it might be. It’s just another way of healing. [Powwowers believe that] God is using you as the vessel to help heal people. It’s really not used for bad stuff. Back then, a lot of people had this powwow book called The Long Lost Friend. It had cures for everything, whether it was a headache, a fever, making sure your crops grow right, or how to cure your animals. You can actually still get it today. It’s still in print. It’s a pretty interesting read. Anyway, with good comes bad, so in the wrong hands magic can be twisted and that’s what these guys thought was happening.

MA: Do you think there is any power behind powwow?

SF: I think it’s one of those things where if you want to believe it you might feel like you’re being helped by it. I think the mind is a powerful thing.

 

“The powwow culture is still happening. It’s not this evil witchcraft thing that people think it might be. It’s just another way of healing. [Powwowers believe that] God is using you as the vessel to help heal people. It’s really not used for bad stuff.”

 

MA: What was it about this incident, besides that fact that you grew up in York, made you decide to cover it?

SF: I think the main draw for me was the fact that 200 or so odd years after the Salem Witch Trials – where people were accused of being witches and burned at the stake – this murder happened based off the belief that these people thought they were hexed by a man they thought was essentially a witch. For that to happen in such modern times – even though it was the late ’20s that’s still modern times – was really interesting for me. What was going on in these guy’s heads? Where they just simply insane or did they really believe this?

MA: Why did you choose to do a documentary instead of shooting a historical fiction-based film?

SF: Documentary is one of my favorite genres. I’m definitely interested in retelling the story in a fictional way as well, but I thought let’s do a documentary first while there are still people around that can talk about the subject. I thought this could be a good jumping-off point to a fictional piece down the road.

MA: Are you using actors to reenact the events to help tell the story?

SF: I’m not a big fan of reenactments. I feel like that always takes me out of a movie when I’m watching a true-life thing and all of the sudden you see these corny reenactments. I have an artist working on the movie, Wes Blymire, who is actually a distant relative of John Blymire, and he’s drawing some animation to retell the murder. We’re taking what we know and filling in the gaps the best we can to put together a complete murder. We thought this would be a different way to show it and it’s kind of creepy with these images.

MA: Who are some of the people you spoke to for the documentary?

SF: We talked to 24 different people. We talked to John Blymire’s nephew and I learned that was there is actually a history mental illness in his family to this day. But, of course, people can get medicine today. Back in the ’20s mental illness just wasn’t treated really. They would just kind of lock you up in an institution and throw away the key. So you wonder if they had the medicine we have today if any of this even would’ve happened.

MA: You also spoke to Edward Rehmeyer Jr. correct?

SF: Yeah, that’s right. He was fun because he remembers being powwowed as a kid, and his father knew Nelson Rehmeyer. It was cool getting a second-hand account of life back then. His father tried to go to the murder scene right after it happened but the streets were all blocked off and they couldn’t get very close to the house. It’s pretty neat.

MA: So what was the final verdict?

SF: They were all found guilty and sent to prison. The first two to be found guilty were Blymire and Curry. They were found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to prison for life, but they both got out early and they had full lives after that. Wilbur Hess was the only guy that could afford an attorney and not just a public defender, so he was actually convicted of second-degree murder and sent to prison for ten years. These guys all got out and continued with their lives. None of them served their full term.

 

Follow the documentary’s Facebook page for updates on the film’s release.


 

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Posted in Arts+Culture – York, Movies, PROfiles

Mike Andrelczyk is a features editor for Fly Magazine. He is a graduate of Penn State University and currently lives with his wife Stacey in Strasburg. Interests include tennis, playing bad guitar, poetry (poems have appeared in Modern Haiku, The Inquisitive Eater and other journals) and oneirology – the study of dreams – mostly in the form of afternoon naps. His name appears in the title screen of Major League 2.

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