The Grin in the Fog

Still from “Chesire, Ohio.”

The village of Cheshire, Ohio was aptly named. It was a place of gradual disappearances, small erosions of land and people and old songs, of ways of living and doing. Above its remnants, in the form of an immense smokestack, hangs the large and profitable smirk of the American Electric Power Corporation; the grin is surrounded by synthetic clouds that give off a stench of sulfur and leave behind dead birds. Eve Morgenstern’s excellent new documentary Cheshire, Ohio is a horror film in every respect: a portrait of a village of the damned in opaque daylight, replete with entities demanding sacrifice to their dark towers, the games of Count Zaroff, and conspiracies out of Ira Levin. And the riddle-cat in its name.

“The story of Cheshire is just… they just scared everybody out” – Gladys Rife, one of its last residents. Denn der Todten reiten schnell.

Ms. Morgenstern’s film opens à la Errol Morris with the voices of the villagers over 8mm films flickering like old nitrate prints, phantasms pressed into a rectangular future. A roving camera picks up the evidence of very common crimes: ruined walls, contamination, greed. Cheshire is slow-killing and removal, not just singular people but also of kinds – which is genocide, which is our patrimony. In 1971, the American Electric Power Corp. (AEP) built its titanic Gavin Power Plant right next to this modest riverside village (the power plant was named after General James Gavin, whom you may remember as Robert Ryan in The Longest Day, and who once liaised with Marlene Dietrich). The village is just upriver from Point Pleasant, where John Keel investigated the apparition of the infamous ‘Mothman’. But Cheshire’s hauntings are purely terrestrial and subject to the strictest logic, or at least to the gray lady of industrial capital.

AEP had picked the perfect site for the plant. There was a coal mine nearby and a natural cooling agent in the form of the Ohio River. The old problem of living bodies on valuable land – traditionally an Indian Problem – was solved by soft power in the form of a buyout. In 2002, AEP gave the citizens of Cheshire $20 million to leave ($4 alone went to lawyers), which worked out to about $150,000 per household. The other head of Cerberus bit Cheshire when many lost even this hardly-princely sum after the 2008 crash (the third head is named Cancer, and we’ll get to that). Residents over 70 were allowed to stay on and take the money, the morbid result being several elderly people waiting to die in the shadow of the flue-gas stacks, walking down evaporated streets or leafing through old scrapbooks, pea-soupers passing by their windows. One of them refuses to sell at all: the unforgettable Boots Hern, who asks for the impossible sum of $1 million to vacate the premises, tends to her beloved husband’s grave, and stands with her shotgun in her little front room like a partisan (Sadly, Mrs. Hern passed in 2006; her house is still defiant in the mists). Throughout the film, abandoned houses fall as houses of cards before the AEP mechagodzillas, making way for a vast fake lawn which looks resembles a golf course for the dead. We eavesdrop on a very moving final Sunday party in the small village gazebo, with an Elvis impersonator and more old stories and group prayer. Perhaps like the Yezidi, they should have addressed their supplications to the Devil, as he clearly holds sway in the lands around Cheshire, his fuming mouths demanding human offerings. “There’s something going on… I don’t know what it is”, as Gladys Rife says.

Sulfur Trioxide; 7 ½ million tons of coal burned yearly. Blisters on the arms and legs; burnt outlines of birds’ feet on the roof (an image out of Them! or an insect Night & Fog); acid rain, and the serpentine ‘Plume Touchdown’ (the latter, with its cute Knute Rockne nickname, happens when clouds of unburned coal-waste descend to street level, as they did memorably on July 6 2001). This circus of horrors was actually the product of AEP’s botched pollution control project, a racket of malicious indifference and fatal corner-cutting in the face of pesky federal mandates. One of the lawyers defending the residents claims that she overheard an AEP operative declare that ‘we’re doing experiments on these people’. Who would doubt it? The vivid unreality of Never-Never Cheshire is the expression of privatized science in industrial research. There are always treatment and control groups, independent variables notwithstanding.

The environs were also ruined by AEP. Excluded from the buyout, people put up ironic signs reading ‘Left Behind’ along the highway, as well as slogans stating outright the real gift the coal industry has given this part of Ohio. AEP had gotten its buffer zone around the plant and it was also able to draw much of its labor force from the area, unionized and well-paid and quite expendable. It is true that ‘good’ jobs were indeed created, but the corporation will probably not have to worry about paying out extended pensions. Smokestacks have emitted over 100 times the amount of smog the EPA declared to be potentially toxic, not to mention the hazardous waste-dumping and malign landfills, which only came to light due to a local Citizens Against Pollution class-action lawsuit. AEP settled in 2006 and now must report its excesses. But to whom? And who will be told about it? Varieties of cancer as complex as they are virulent have invaded a great number of former employees; many of them have since died. Naturally, AEP refuses to admit that its byproducts, flash refuse, black dust, bottom ash and arsenic have anything to do with this (the corporation contributes liberally to both the Democratic and Republican parties and was especially generous to the weepy former Speaker of the House, John Boehner; its bonds are underwritten by Morgan-Stanley, Citibank, Chase, Barclays and Wells Fargo, as might be expected).

The leveling of mountaintops to dump coal slag has produced strange mutations around Cheshire. A half-mock wooded hill looks fine from one side, but it is a match-stick wasteland when seen from the other. Acrid flash seeps into the mineral deposits and ground water, forming new strata of mercury, chromium and nickel sludge. As they shifted FGD dust and circled white ashy craters year after year, workers were told by AEP that there would be no detrimental effects from coal-waste disposal. They were not even given the pitiful protection of small respirators. In order to eat, they were forced to poison themselves, as one former employee says succinctly – a dialectic whose resolution is the synthesis of thyroid, breast and prostate cancer with local full employment. Toxins clinging to work clothes also made their way into the house, spread out by vacuum cleaners and washing machines, so everyone takes their work home with them. Gavin spits out some 15 million tons of carbon dioxide into the air per annum; unlike the Soul, carbon dioxide does possess a tiny fraction of weight.

Speaking of souls, the pitiful EPA drones we see addressing a citizens’ meeting sold theirs long ago. At one point, they ask a man to describe the smell which permeates the area – sulfur, he says – which shows the sort of in-depth investigation carried out by the agency. After the EPA (its acronym an anagram of the AEP) reveals that it had scheduled the hearing months in advance, a young man wonders why the community had only been given 24 hours to prepare and submit their complaints which of course left them no time to gather uncompromised scientific data and commission their own expert witnesses. As if she were fulfilling dire Reaganite warnings of government ineptitude, an EPA hack blames it all on the bureaucracy.

Cheshire Ohio shows that the ruthlessness of power may be more lethargic in Ohio than in Sana’a, but the product is the same, differing only in matters of industry and scale. The lesson here is quiet brutality, deregulation and eminent domain. Little details in the pestilent mists of internal Manifest Destiny, where avariciousness and the reduction of bodies to cloacae are syndicated episodes in a twilight zone down by the riverside. The verses of the Banks of the Ohio play out on the Cheshire elderly in polyrhythms of multiplying dead cells, rising vapors that kill the lowly extractor and anyone else in the way, while the Man at the top continues his course along the major thoroughfares and whistles past petrified trees.

Memories – only a few left anyhow – are fugitives along with those who might have lived them. At the end of the film, Gladys Rife is asked what she recalls of the birth of her village so long ago. “To tell you the truth, I can’t remember”, she says, after trying. I am legend.


Martin Billheimer is the author of Mother Chicago: Truant Dreams and Specters of the Gilded Age. He lives in Chicago.