Part Two of My Interview About “The Unseen Hand” on Where Did the Road Go

A few posts back I gave some links to some radio shows and podcasts I’d been on recently, and just as I promised, right here is part two of the interview I did on Where Did the Road Go with Seriah Azkath. There will also be a part three up soon, plus an extra interview with me was recorded for their Patreon supporters, so go support the show and get some extra content from yours truly. Thank you, and keep it creepy. 🙂

Horror Double Feature: Starry Eyes and The Invitation

It’s yet another Double Feature day at Chez Hellfire, and damn, if all the movies I’m going to be watching for this series are as fantastic as these two, then I’m going to be a very happy horror nerd indeed.

Like We Are Still Here, discussed previously, Starry Eyes also premiered at the South by Southwest film festival, albeit a year earlier, in 2014. Written and directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer and partially funded through a Kickstarter campaign, the film has received tons of positive press, and it’s not hard to see why. Starry Eyes is essentially an homage to classic 60s and 70s Satanic cult flicks (Rosemary’s Baby, To the Devil a Daughter) filtered through the dark-side-of-Hollywood motifs of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire, with a giant, sticky dollop of gruesome, Cronenberg-style body horror thrown into the mix. The film is intensely disturbing, gloriously gross and violent, blackly comic, and absolutely riveting from start to finish, not only a fun (if extremely grim), gory ride, but also a startlingly cynical meditation on the lengths people will go to for fame, the soul-sucking nature of the Hollywood system, and the corrosive effects of unfettered ambition.

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Easily the best thing about the film is the astounding breakout performance of lead actress Alex Essoe, who goes to unbelievable lengths for the role and makes her tragically flawed protagonist not only completely grounded and believable, but also simultaneously sympathetic and monstrous. Essoe plays Sarah Walker, one of millions of aspiring young starlets trying to make it in L.A. To pay the bills, she works at a dreary Hooters-type restaurant called Big Taters, but she feels she is destined for bigger things. To this end, she has been constantly going out for auditions and getting rejected, all the while trying to tamp down her extreme insecurity and self-hatred by pulling out her own hair and going into psychotic rages where she feels she must punish herself for her failings.

Not helping matters are the “friends” she surrounds herself with, only a few of which (particularly her roommate Tracy, played by Amanda Fuller, and aspiring indie film director Danny, played by Noah Segan) seem genuinely supportive of her goals. One friend in particular, a rather passive-aggressive bitch named Erin (played with cunty relish as well as surprising depth and humanity by Fabianne Therese) continually chips away at Sarah’s self-esteem with her denigrating comments.

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As unsure of herself and relatively unstable as she is, Sarah does manage to pull off a decent audition for a horror film called The Silver Scream, produced by a long-running production company called Astraeus Films. The only problem is, her performance is really nothing special, just like all the others, and she is summarily dismissed by the intensely creepy casting agents (played by Maria Olsen and Marc Senter). In the bathroom after her audition, she looses her frustration in a torrent of primal screaming and hair pulling, and wouldn’t you know it, the casting agent happens to come into the bathroom and witness the psychotic episode, which piques her interest anew, prompting Sarah to come back to the casting office to re-enact her terrifying tantrum for them, so they can see “the real Sarah.”

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As the story goes on, Sarah is called back for more auditions that get weirder and sketchier until she eventually gets called to meet the producer, a perpetually leering and overly tanned old creep who predictably wants to make a Faustian bargain with Sarah, essentially asking her to give herself up body and soul for the tantalizing reward of fame. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that Sarah is not being recruited for a horror movie so much as initiated into a Satanic cult of Hollywood elites, one that will of course require sacrifice in order to achieve Sarah’s final transformation from struggling actress and breastaurant waitress to glamorous Tinseltown screen idol.

Though the plot is, as I mentioned, essentially a retelling of the Faust tale and therefore familiar territory, the real fun of the film is in watching Sarah slowly spiral downward as she siphons off bits of her soul to achieve her dreams. After accepting the cult’s invitation, Sarah begins to physically deteriorate to a horrifying degree, so much so that the viewer is simultaneously revolted and intrigued, not particularly wanting to see whatever disgusting indignity is coming next, but also unable to look away. Again, Essoe is outstanding in the role, laying herself bare in every way imaginable and completely going for it in the gross-out department (there‘s a lot to be said for the dedication of an actress who is willing to fill her mouth with real maggots). Her performance is such that as I watched it, I found myself hating her for her weakness and naivety, empathizing with her outsider status, insecurity, and desire to achieve her dream, and actually rooting for her to go all the way with her horrible deeds to get what she wanted in the end. The fact that I could feel all these emotions at once is a testament to Essoe’s extraordinary talent.

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All the other actors in the film are great too, and I thought it was fantastic how even characters like Erin and Big Taters manager Carl (wonderfully played by Pat Healy) that were supposedly “villains” (at least from Sarah’s perspective) were given dimension and humanity; even though they did and said some shitty things and were seemingly standing in the way of Sarah‘s aims, they did still genuinely care about Sarah’s well-being, which made her act of viciously turning on them near the end all the more devastating.

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The special effects were also top-notch, with Sarah’s bodily disintegration especially grotesque and nauseating. The violence was also wickedly nasty and brutal, portrayed in an unsettlingly matter-of-fact fashion, with one kill in particular (in which the camera barely flinches as someone’s head is pounded into pulp) being almost unwatchably grisly. Topping the film off with a flourish is a fantastic score and terrific sound design that really adds to the atmosphere. Put it all together and you’ve got one skin-crawling, black-hearted blast of a movie that I would not hesitate to wholeheartedly recommend, though definitely NOT to the squeamish.

Another South by Southwest festival alum comprises the second movie in our double bill, and even though it’s a completely different style and experience than Starry Eyes, it is equally stellar, and likewise comes very highly recommended.

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2015’s The Invitation was directed by Karyn Kusama (of Girlfight and Jennifer’s Body fame) and features a splendid ensemble cast that includes Logan Marshall-Green (Prometheus), Tammy Blanchard (Into the Woods, Moneyball), and John Carroll Lynch (Fargo, Zodiac, “The Walking Dead”). The film is actually far closer to a thriller than a straight horror film, but don’t let that dissuade you, because this thing had me perched on the edge of my seat biting my fingernails the entire time; it is fantastically, unbearably tense.

The setup of the plot is this: Will and his girlfriend Kira have been invited to a dinner party at the home of Will’s ex-wife Eden and her new husband David. No one has really seen Eden and David for two years, so the couple claim they’re having this get-together for all their friends so everyone can catch up. It’s also established early on that Will and Eden divorced shortly after their son was killed in a freak accident (after which Eden also attempted suicide), and Will is not entirely sure he’s ready to see Eden again, as well as return to the house where the tragedy occurred, but with the help of the supportive Kira and all their other friends, he’s hoping he can make a go of it.

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At first, everything seems fairly normal, if a little awkward as everyone feels each other out and gets reacquainted after such a long time apart. The weirdness begins to happen in very small increments: Eden and David introduce Sadie, a woman who is living with them and is obviously their lover. They have also invited a man named Pruitt, who seems polite enough but is also ever so slightly menacing. Eden is putting on a somewhat creepy façade of serene happiness, but early in the evening she has a bit of an episode and slaps one of the other guests, though she recovers her composure fairly quickly. Will notices David locking the doors, and when Will asks about this, David brushes it off by saying that there has been a recent home invasion in the neighborhood and he just wants to keep everyone safe. While Will is snooping around his former home, he comes across a bottle of phenobarbitol in the nightstand of David and Eden’s bedroom.

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There is also the small matter of another guest, Choi, being very late, and of no one being sure where he is since there is no cell phone reception up in the hills where the house is located. As the party goes on, it comes to light that Eden and David have been in Mexico for most of the previous two years, and that while there they joined a sort of spiritual self-help group that has supposedly helped Eden let go of her grief about her son’s death. David, Eden, Pruitt, and Sadie all sing the praises of this group and its enigmatic leader, Dr. Joseph, though the rest of the party guests make jokes about them joining a cult and seem uncomfortable when it appears that David is trying to convert everyone at the party by showing them an unsettling video of Dr. Joseph and two other group members presiding over the death of a terminally ill woman.

The party grows ever stranger, becoming equal parts overtly sexual and intensely disquieting (especially after Pruitt makes a disturbing confession about what happened to his wife), and at one point, another guest, Claire, decides she’s had enough and wants to leave. David tries to prevent her, but Will, who has been getting increasingly suspicious that something sinister is going on, confronts David, and Claire is allowed to go out to her car, though Pruitt follows behind her because he has parked her in. Will goes to the window to watch Claire leave, as he believes Pruitt is going to do something to her, but he is called away before he can see anything.

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The bulk of the narrative goes on in this way, as Will begins to see even the most innocuous actions of the party’s hosts as evidence that something terrible is about to go down. This was the best aspect of the movie by far, because the viewer is left to wonder if there really is something weird going on with David and Eden, or if Will is just having a breakdown because he hasn’t yet come to terms with his son’s death and Eden’s remarriage. Adding to the tension is the fact that none of the other party guests seem to think anything odd is going on at all, and several of them try to reason with Will at various points, leading the audience to think that Will is simply isolating himself from the group, acting like a paranoid weirdo, and letting his imagination run away with him. The film also plays with our expectations by making some of Will’s suspicions come to nothing. As I’ve stated many times before, I really like movies that are ambiguous like this, where you’re not sure if the protagonist is really perceiving things as they are or if their emotions are ultimately clouding their judgment.

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I won’t spoil the conclusion, because it’s really terrific, and the very last scene actually made my jaw drop, due to its devastating implications. In short, this is a tightly directed, beautifully acted thriller that maintained a palpable sense of tension throughout and culminated in a terrifying and satisfying climax. Good stuff.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out.

Horror Double Feature: I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House and We Are Still Here

As regular readers will recall, I had a series on this blog titled Hulu Horror Double Feature. You may have noticed I haven’t written any of those in a while, and you may have also deduced that I stopped doing them right around the time that Hulu went to an entirely subscription-based format and got rid of all its free content. Since our household already pays for a Netflix subscription, I wasn’t gonna pay for Hulu as well, especially since I unfortunately don’t have loads of time to watch stuff. So from this point forward, whenever I do more recent double feature posts, the reviews will be of horror films that are featured on Netflix (or, for older ones, on YouTube‘s or Amazon‘s pay-per-film service). I do realize that this limits my options somewhat, as Netflix isn’t actually known for having a vast horror movie library (though they have improved somewhat this year, and hell, I may pony up for a Shudder subscription one of these days), they have enough decent-looking recent flicks that I can probably squeeze at least a few long-form posts out of ‘em. So consider my Hulu Horror Double Feature category to now be a more generic Horror Double Features. And that’s all I have to say about that.

With that requisite housekeeping out of the way, let’s settle in for our opening salvo in the new improved Double Feature category. The first movie I’m discussing is one I’d been hearing a great deal about since its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival last year, and although reviews were somewhat mixed, most of the negative reviews I read complained only that the movie was too slow, spare, and minimalist. Well, to me, that’s like an open invitation. Because if there’s one thing I love and can’t stop harping about on this very blog (see my reviews on The Haunting, Soulmate, House of Last Things, Yellowbrickroad, and pretty much any ambiguously creepy ghost story), it’s eerie, slow-burn, vaguely surrealist ghost stories that show very little but leave a lingering impression on the patient viewer.

By now you may have guessed that I’m going to be talking about 2016’s I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House. Directed by Oz Perkins (son of the legendary Anthony), and starring Ruth Wilson (best known in the US for her work on the Showtime series The Affair) and Paula Prentiss (best known, at least to me, for starring in the dynamite 1975 movie adaptation of Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives), the movie is a master class in using subtle cinematography and sound design to engender a cloying atmosphere of dread that pervades every frame of the film, even though nothing particularly terrifying appears to be happening. One review I read stated that the film was what it would look like if David Lynch decided to adapt a Shirley Jackson novel, and to me that seems to hit it right on the head.

The rather simple plot involves a neurotic hospice nurse named Lily Saylor who is sent to a remote old house to care for Iris Blum, a retired author of pulp thrillers, who suffers from dementia. During Lily’s eleven-month tenure, it comes to light that the house may or may not be haunted by a spirit named Polly Parsons, the subject of Iris’s most famous novel, The Lady in the Walls, whose ghost supposedly told the story of her tragic murder to Iris some years before.

Complicating matters somewhat is the fact that right in the first few minutes of the film, Lily herself breaks the fourth wall and tells the audience straight out that she is going to die, and the fact that Iris insists on calling Lily by Polly’s name, as well as the fact that the theme of ghosts forgetting how they died comes up several times, suggests that something more ambiguous than a simple haunting is taking place, and that perhaps our protagonist Lily is not exactly what she seems.

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The movie is essentially a story inside a story inside a story. Was Polly a real person who was murdered in the house and whose ghost still remains there? Or did Iris just make her up, and is Lily conjuring the spirit out of her nervous imagination? Is Lily, in fact, dead the whole time and acting as the ghost herself throughout the entire film? I Am the Pretty Thing could be read in myriad ways, which is one of the aspects contributing to the creeping unease infusing its entire run-time.

The plot of the film, though, such as it is, is really not the star of the show. That would be the almost unbearable buildup of uncanny dread which makes the viewer feel unmoored in a waking nightmare. The gorgeous cinematography (by Julie Kirkwood) focuses on the house’s stark, neutral interiors to great effect, wringing eerieness out of every unsettling, off-center shot of white walls juxtaposed against blackened doorways beyond, of a stubbornly folded corner of carpet, of an empty chair pushed against a wooden table. The movie’s portentous framing of ordinary objects as sinister is quite Lynchian and very, very effective in building up tension, as the viewer is never sure what they’re going to see. Even though standard “jump scares” are almost non-existent, we are kept constantly on edge waiting for something awful to happen, just because of the way the cinematographer plays with our expectations.

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Also contributing to the film’s sense of free-floating anxiety is the fact that its time frame is never firmly established (though judging by the clothes Lily wears, the phone in the house, and the presence of cassette tapes, I’m guessing it’s the early to mid eighties), and that Lily herself is an almost painfully awkward character, a prissy, repressed throwback to an earlier era. Her uncomfortable interactions with estate manager Mr. Waxcap (played with an almost undetectable straight humor by Bob Balaban) ramp up our anxiety on her behalf, a very intriguing way of making us relate to her situation. In this way, Lily is very much like the character of Eleanor in Shirley Jackson’s brilliant Haunting of Hill House. And similar to that novel, the “haunting” in the Blum house seems to be analogous to the slow unraveling of Lily’s mental state, or alternately her slow-dawning realization that she herself is a ghost, either literally or metaphorically. The fact that most of her early voice-overs are later revealed to be paraphrases from Iris’s novel about Polly Parsons drives this point home rather succinctly, as do the recurring images of rot and fragmented reflections.

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While I will admit that for those who enjoy more straightforward, plot-driven horror, I Am the Pretty Thing might seem like a boring, overly-indulgent slog to nowhere with few big scares, no huge payoff, and long, lingering shots of furniture and faces with very little dialogue or action. But for those like me, who enjoy more cerebral horror that is more interested in building a mood and getting underneath the viewer’s skin with its nebulous oddities, there is much to recommend here, though I would add that it is best watched alone, at night, with no distractions, so that you can get entirely lost in its world and lulled into its creepy spell. It’s definitely a movie that sticks with you long after you’ve seen it, and that in itself is a wonderful thing for any horror film to do.

Next up on the double feature is a far less experimental film that had its premiere at another recent film festival (in this case South by Southwest back in 2015), and although the movie was highly lauded, favorably compared to the splendid It Follows, and ended up on a lot of critics’ “ten best horror films of the year” lists (including Rolling Stone’s), I honestly wasn’t all that crazy about it, though it did have some entertaining moments.

Directed by Ted Geoghegan and packed with horror movie all-stars (Barbara Crampton from Body Double and Re-Animator; Lisa Marie from Ed Wood, Mars Attacks, and Lords of Salem; writer/actor/director Larry Fessenden from Session 9 and much, MUCH more), We Are Still Here has a fairly standard horror movie set-up. The main characters are a middle-aged married couple, Paul and Annie Sacchetti, who move out to a remote house somewhere in New England following the death of their college-age son Bobby in a car accident. Shortly after they move in, a few little things happen around the house that suggest maybe Bobby’s ghost has come along for the ride, but it doesn’t take long at all before the audience realizes that something far more infernal is going on than a harmless lingering spirit.

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It is in fact this nearly immediate blowing of the entire horror wad, as it were, that I think is one of the film’s main weaknesses. It gets off to a promising, low-key start, with some effectively eerie shots of the roads and the isolated house all covered with a blanket of snow, with very spare dialogue that nonetheless conveys the deep grief the couple is feeling, and with very understated hints that something in the house might not be quite right: a picture falling over, a strange noise in the cellar, a ball rolling down the stairs.

The choice to set the film in 1979 was also a decision I’m on board with, as not only does it help to evoke a golden era in horror cinema (also evidenced by a few subtle references to classic horror films of the period, such as The Changeling and The Shining), but it also gives it an otherworldly feel and more of a sense of dread, since the problems that arise can’t be solved by Googling stuff or calling for help on a cell phone.

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But really, as soon as the couple’s obviously not-to-be-trusted neighbors show up about ten minutes in and start going on about the house having been a mortuary and the family living there supposedly being run out of town for stealing corpses back in 1859, and making reference to the house needing “fresh souls,“ it all just gets a bit too on the nose and seems to move along too quickly with no regard for subtlety or restraint. And then once the electrician comes and the audience is pretty much shown exactly what happens to him, all sense of anticipatory dread is lost, for we have already seen everything there is to see. From that point on, it’s just more of the same, only bloodier.

Clocking in at only an hour and twenty-three minutes (and a not insignificant chunk of that is the long end-credit sequence), I think the movie might have actually benefited from being a bit longer, so that the characters and story had more room to breathe before everything went all demonic and wacky.

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That said, I think the film also would have REALLY benefited from taking everything down a notch or ten. While I generally don’t have a problem with copious gore or jump scares per se, there is a point at which you’re going so far over the top that the story is just not scary anymore and veers over into unintentional comedy. The burned-looking ghosts were cool, for example, but I didn’t need to see them in my face every few minutes, which significantly lessened their impact. The gore was fairly well-done, but I didn’t need everyone to die in enormous, ridiculous sprays of blood and chunks like the second coming of Dead Alive.

In fact, I think the entire reason that this movie didn’t really click with me was because its tone seemed all over the place: on the one hand, it seemed to want to be a serious horror film, but then on the other hand you had these kinda goofy, over-acting characters who shamelessly chewed the scenery and dropped boatloads of exposition at pretty much every opportunity when the audience could have figured out the story just fine without all the over-explaining. Either do a serious horror film or do a horror comedy; it takes a very deft hand to make a decent film balancing elements of both, and I just felt like this wasn’t really getting there.

 

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I admit I did like the séance scene with Paul and stoner dude Jacob, and I sort of liked the overall premise of the movie, which was marginally in the vein of a 70s-style, small-town folk horror type deal, and I sort of liked the creepy weirdness of all the townsfolk being in on this big secret, but other than that, I kinda found my attention wandering during the movie, since I pretty much knew where it was going, and when I was paying attention, I was cracking jokes about it, which I can assure you did NOT happen while I was watching I Am the Pretty Thing. While I can see why a lot of horror fans dug it, it was just way too obvious and over-the-top for my tastes, trying to smack you in the face with HORROR, and it seemed like it was trying to be too many things at once at far too frenetic a pace. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out

 

I’ve Been Flapping My Gums on Some Shows

For those of you out there who simply can’t get enough of me talking about poltergeists and generally making a nuisance of myself, here I am talking about my latest book The Unseen Hand on the Conspirinormal Podcast with Adam Sayne, here I am on Me & Paranormal You with Ryan Singer, and here I am discussing the same book on Where Did the Road Go? with Seriah Azkath. Keep in mind that I also recorded a part two and three for the Where Did the Road Go show, plus some extra stuff for their Patreon listeners, so if you’re so inclined, you will be able to listen to me talk until the heat death of the universe. Enjoy!

13 O’Clock Episode 46 – A Brief History of Life on Mars

Ever since Mars was first observed through a telescope in the 17th century, there has been rampant speculation that the mysterious Red Planet could harbor life. Once the stuff of sci-fi stories, Mars exploration is now a reality, and scientists theorize that there could indeed have once been primitive life on Mars, and even that Martian microbes might have even seeded the early Earth. Further out on the fringe are those wacky conspiracy theorists, some of whom believe that everything from snakes to primates to child slaves to entire civilizations now live or once lived on Mars and that NASA is covering it up. On episode 46, Tom and Jenny delve into the fascinating world of life on Mars, from the earliest speculations to the most recent scientific discoveries to the craziest conspiracies. Fire up your Illudium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator and listen in as 13 O’Clock goes searching for Martians.

Download the audio file from Project Entertainment Network here, or watch the YouTube version here. Also, don’t forget to follow the 13 O’Clock Podcast blog, subscribe to our YouTube channel, like us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter.

13 O’Clock Episode 45 – Villisca and the Unsolved Axe Murders of the 1910s

The horrifying massacre that took place in Villisca, Iowa in 1912 is among the creepiest mass murders in American history. Eight people — a couple with four children and two young girls who were staying the night — were brutally slaughtered with an axe while they slept, for seemingly no reason whatsoever. The crime was never solved, and what’s worse, that dreadful slaying might not have been the only one. Some researchers point out that there was a disturbing trend of gruesome axe murders going on in the Midwest from the period of 1911 through 1914, and it’s possible that some of these crimes were perpetrated by the same person. On this episode of 13 O’Clock, Tom and Jenny return to the most terrifying corners of the true crime genre to take a look at the infamous Villisca Axe Murders, as well as the disturbing series of similar crimes that terrorized the American heartland in the early twentieth century.

Download the audio file from Project Entertainment Network here, or watch the YouTube version here. Also, don’t forget to follow the 13 O’Clock Podcast blog, subscribe to our YouTube channel, like us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter.

13 O’Clock Episode 44 – A Haunting In Florida

In 2001, Edd and Beth Dunham moved into a nondescript home in Deltona, Florida, thinking it would be a great place for their family to grow. But little did they know that before long, they would begin to see apparitions and experience disturbing poltergeist activity, and in the end would come face to face with an evil entity that seemed bent on attacking their baby daughter. On this show, Tom and Jenny are returning once again to their exploration of the real stories behind the best episodes of the series “A Haunting,” and this particular case, aired in 2006, has some personal significance, since it happened very close to where Jenny grew up and to where Tom and Jenny now live, and since Tom has met Edd Dunham in real life and has spoken to him at length about the paranormal activity that befell his family. So sit back and enjoy this tale of a particularly Floridian haunting.

Download the audio file from Project Entertainment Network here, or watch the YouTube version here. Also, don’t forget to follow the 13 O’Clock Podcast blog, subscribe to our YouTube channel, like us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter.