The origins of the John Mellencamp/Stephen King/T Bone Burnett musical Ghost Brothers of Darkland County stretch back to a haunted Southern Indiana cabin where one brother killed another. At least that’s the story Mellencamp tells. “I bought a cabin in the early ’90s on Lake Monroe,” he told Salon magazine. “The people I bought it from said, ‘Oh, by the way, this place may be a little haunted.’ I just laughed. Then they gave me a bunch of old detective magazines from the ’30s and ’40s that had a bunch of clippings from this incident in Bloomington.”
From there, Mellencamp and King seem to have spun a tale about the brothers fighting over a girl. One hits the other in the head with a fireplace poker and kills him. The brother and girl drive off, lose control of their car, and drown in the lake. Wild animals tear apart the other brother’s remains.
As ghost stories go, it’s sufficiently creepy—and probably about as real as any you’re likely to hear. In other words, not very. For one thing, Lake Monroe wasn’t built until 1964. And the list of places with no record of such a crime includes Indiana University’s Folklore Department, the IU Archives, the Monroe County History Center, and the Brown County Historical Society. But in the end, whether Ghost Brothers is real history or a figment of Mellencamp’s imagination is about as relevant as the true identities of Jack and Diane.
The story has since been reset in Mississippi, moved closer to the present day, and reimagined as “a Southern gothic supernatural musical of fraternal love, lust, jealousy, and revenge.” It’s more like a little ditty about Cain and Abel, with a tasty soundtrack of old-timey Americana music that includes performances by Elvis Costello, Kris Kristofferson, Sheryl Crow, and Rosanne Cash. Sometimes funny (“When you’re burning up in hell’s fire/I’ll give you a water break/I’m such a liar,” Costello sings on “That’s Me”) and sometimes lovely (a song called “My Name is Joe” is a little brother’s ode to his bigs), the tunes take listeners through a story of familial love and hate.
The theatrical version of Ghost Brothers, which visited Clowes Hall in October, featured a star-studded cast—including Bruce Greenwood, who played JFK in the film Thirteen Days—performing what director Susan Booth describes as “a mashup of a ghost story, a concert, and live radio theater.” If the show swings back through the Midwest in 2014, you have the makings of a night very well spent—hummable songs that stand on their own, performed live by some of Mellencamp’s bandmates, and, most importantly, a horror story from the master of that genre. Stephen King’s written words are frightening enough. But King in a live setting where lights and sounds play tricks on you? Otherworldly.
And as far as Booth is concerned, who cares if the story that spurred the musical is true. “I’ve always suspected there are some elements of it that are wholly apocryphal, but I’m just going to suspend that,” she said. “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”
This article appeared in the December 2013 issue.