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Don't Haunt Me Because I'm Beautiful: Filmmaker Stephanie Michel is taking her chances trying to make a feature film about the curse of Santa Cruz.

The Ghost Stays In the Picture

One woman's screenplay ties together the many legends of a Santa Cruz curse

By Sarah Phelan

STEPHANIE MICHEL has the kind of looks--pearly teeth, blonde hair, tanned skin--you'd expect from a model/actress who's done commercials for Diet Coke and rock videos for the Scorpions and the Stray Cats. And, of course, she has.

But Michel, who also does standup comedy and has written a sitcom, left all that behind when she moved to Santa Cruz to embark on a weird and wonderful quest: tracking the curse of Santa Cruz.

Michel's quest began, as many do, on a cold and foggy night, which was how Santa Cruz looked the night she pulled into town two years ago, having just turned her back on Los Angeles.

"The moment I got here, I became aware of this extremely weird energy vortex, and then a few days later I was at a party, and someone mentioned there was a curse," says Michel.

"After that, I asked around for weeks and got lots of different responses, none of them the same. Some of them [were] totally bizarre, like the one that said all male-female relationships are doomed and that young men will live promiscuously here until they are 30 years old," Michel recalls. "Many of the stories stemmed from some kind of old Indian curse, but no one was sure what it was, so anytime something bad happened they blamed it on the curse."

Michel also noticed how the city is torn into two sections--"those that want to preserve it and those that want growth"--and how Pacific Avenue "is like a fault line" where the rich and poor come face to face.

Intrigued by "this strange meeting and clash of values in such a beautiful place," Michel started digging into the town's history with the help of Rachel McKay, an archivist at the Santa Cruz County Museum of Art and History, and Patrick Orozco, an Ohlone Indian elder and shaman.

Between all their research and stories, not to mention a research thesis about turn-of-the-century entrepreneur and developer Fred Swanton, Michel put together a 90-minute screenplay titled The Curse of Santa Cruz.

"The film [title] refers to 16,000-year-old findings of human remains, saber-toothed tigers and mammoths in Scotts Valley, and the argument between archaeologists, who say people migrated here from Asia, and the Indians, who believe their ancestors have always been here," says Michel, noting that during that period the area was a "Garden of Eden, with thousands and thousands of birds everywhere, so many fish you could just stick your hand in the water and grab one, and game that was like a wildlife sanctuary with bears, coyotes and wildcats roaming free and plentifully."

Curse on Film

While stories about the curse abound, Michel's Indian sources pinpointed it to missionary times and claimed that the curse has carried over to the present. But though Michel based her screenplay on actual events and dates, she admits to having filled in the spaces here and there to make the film both funny and frightening.

"The story will scare the crap out of people," says Michel, adding that sometimes she has even scared herself while writing late at night. "I got the feeling this ghost is gonna get me!" she says with an excited laugh.

Michel won't divulge exactly what she thinks the curse is--"You'll have to wait for the movie to come out for that"--but she will say that it has to do with "unadulterated greed "and "taking people's lives for your own benefit."

She also lets slip that Santa Cruz' status in the 1970s as the "murder capital of the world" is linked in the screenplay to the curse, as are many of the area's turn-of-the-century ghost stories.

"When they built all those Victorians on Beach Hill, little did they know they were building them on sacred burial sites, which is why so of those homes are haunted," she says.

One such home is Sunshine Villa. Located at 80 Front St., this classic Victorian was the blueprint for the house featured in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, but today it's been converted into a retirement home.

"One of the former employees always gives me crap for saying this, but the truth is that nobody has kept ownership for very long because the place is haunted. But now it's full of poor helpless old people, who can't scream and run out!"

Across from Sunshine Villa stands 924 Third St., which was built in 1891 for one Major Frank McLaughlin, who married a divorced woman with a daughter named Agnes.

"There are whispers of incest, and Agnes never grew up to have a relationship with any guy, which made her the talk of the town since she was very rich and beautiful," she says.

Michel's research indicates that on the second anniversary of his wife's death, Major McLaughlin shot Agnes, then took cyanide and ran down the street to the house where Michel currently lives and confessed to the then owner.

"It was too late to help him, since there were no telephones, but some of Agnes' hair was placed in one of 924 Third St.'s many stained-glass windows," says Michel, "and the current owner has intimated that Agnes' ghost still wanders in that house, which was also built on a sacred Indian burial ground."

While Michel insists there are no ghosts in her house, she does feel "this whirlwind of strange energy that comes from building on sacred burial grounds, which always leads towards disaster."

Power Station

That said, Michel says she believes 100 percent that Santa Cruz is one of the great power centers of the world.

"There is nowhere else I'd live--well, other than Maui, which has the same energy level. But on the other side of this positive power is this feeling of wicked impending doom, which is equally as strong. So, wherever you're at in your life, that's what you'll attract, meaning that if you get on a negative trip, that's what you get back."

Michel says her screenplay recounts how the Ohlone civilization was ripped away, its tattered remnants communicated through oral stories across the generations.

"I could never tap the complete history of Santa Cruz, which is very rich, in 90 minutes, so sometimes I feel like I'm cheating my viewers, but I hope everyone can understand that mine is just one story of many," she says.

Her film treatment does include what happened in the missionary years, as well as the story of Fred Swanton, who built the casino and the Boardwalk and had a huge influence in bringing electricity and rail and telephone service to Santa Cruz and was elected mayor three times, "but was not a nice man," Michael adds.

"I'm trying to get Lost Boys star Kiefer Sutherland to play Fred Swanton, because I want to bring Kiefer back to Santa Cruz one more time, and because he has the same chubby, pink-skinned, scary, greedy look as Swanton, who did a lot financially but bears a lot of responsibility for the curse."

Also featured is the story of an Indian whom Swanton exploited, says Michel, a homeless drunk whom he dressed up in a suit and used in a promotion poster that urged tourists to come see "where rich Indians live."

"But once Swanton was done with him, he threw him back onto the streets," says Michel, noting that the story leads to the present day, where Ohlone elder Patrick Orozco is shown as a respected leader in his community and culture, fighting to preserve sacred Indian burial grounds.

Cursin' Safari

Michel has also highlighted James "Gordy" Beard, a surfer, now in his 70s and fighting cancer.

"He's one of the good guys in the story, and one of the first good surfers here, making him an important link to the history of Santa Cruz, where surfing has become a multibillion-dollar industry" says Michel.

"When Beard was little, his mother would leave him at Cowell's Beach while she worked at the Boardwalk, and that's where he learned to surf on a huge hollow wooden surfboard, which had a cork so he could dump out all the water that got into it. He was probably the most popular surfer in his time and was born in one of the oldest houses still standing in Santa Cruz, from which he was evacuated during World War II and to which he never returned until during the movie."

Besides footage of surfers at Steamer Lane, Michel's story also honors all those who have died surfing or falling off cliffs--and who are, according to Michel, more casualties of the curse, which she also holds responsible for the 1989 earthquake, which caused millions of dollars in damage and took precious lives, including that of Robin Ortiz, a young woman who worked at the Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting House.

"She was trapped in the rubble for two days, during which time her friends held vigil, calling her name outside the condemned building," says Michel. "Much to the city's sadness, she didn't make it."

While the stories of the origins of the curse are many, Michel has focused on an incident in which a small group within the Ohlone tribe, tired of being slaves, plot to murder Father Quintana, whom Michel describes as "a very frustrated and abusive priest" whose plan to train the "so-called heathens" was not working, because the Indians were already living in utopia before the arrival of straight-laced freaks like him."

"He was messing with the Indian women in the dorm and was punishing the Indians with this whip with a wire that cut with each lash, so one night they ambushed and tortured him, crushing his testicles, then put him back in his bed as if nothing had happened," says Michel, adding that her screenplay blames his death on "the demon known as the Pogonip Ghost, rather than the Indians themselves, whose entire civilization was wiped out.

"We can read all we want and even hear their descendants tell stories, but we can never know the suffering those people went through."

Michel says she promised Ohlone elder Patrick Orozco to keep the integrity of the Indian story and not sell out to Hollywood, which is why she's trying to raise the money to make the movie independently.

"But I'd like Lost Boys director Joel Schumacher, as well as Kiefer Sutherland, to take a look and give us footage from the Lost Boys set, on which lots of freak things happened." She laughs, then gets serious. "I'd rather have my blood sucked and stay up all night for eternity than have my entire heritage taken. Greed far surpasses the evil of fangs and blood sucking."

Though she herself was drawn here by the negative vortex around this town which includes the curse, Michel says she avoids being sucked into it by tapping into her positive creative side.

"I'm just doing my writing, and I refuse to do the Hollywood dance--I'll never go back to that--and though I was drawn by the vortex, I also saw the beauty in this place and never want to leave it. But the way the town was put together is sad and frightening. If you did the history of every town in the United States, you'd probably find the same kind of thing, but that's not my business."

Michel is currently trying to raise money to shoot and produce the film, and she is trying to get a Screen Actors Guild waiver so she can hire union and nonunion actors, including Ohlone Indians, and use cultural footage from some of their gatherings

"I'm going to get a first-class Hollywood editor, someone who owes me some favors, and I've got approval from the Doors to get one of their songs free, until I get distribution rights."

Michel says her ultimate aim with this project isn't to get rich and famous but to help Orozco and the rest of the Ohlone Indians, who number about 450, to purchase some land where they can build a cultural center.

"We've found 85 acres in Boony Doon, which is already multizoned and approved to build a two-story house, so we can create a center where workshops, field trips and performances could take place. To make it happen, we need to come up with $2.9 million."

She pauses and flashes one of those Hollywood movie-star smiles that make you believe that if anyone can raise 2 mil for a project, it would have to be this lady.

She admits, though, that not everyone around here is comfortable with a feature film about bad Santa Cruz juju.

"Some people ask me, 'Well, why don't you write about the blessings of Santa Cruz, of which there are so many,'" says Michel. "And I say, 'It's just a story,' and that if they want a story about the blessings, they'll have to write it themselves."

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From the October 9-16, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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