The Remarkable Mr. Russell Hunter

Of all the notable – and macabre – people whom Mani and I have met over the years, Russell Hunter likely stands as the most fascinating.

Russell, who died in 1996 at the age of 67, saw himself as a playwright first and foremost, a composer and musician second, a horror aficionado third and a collector of bizarre curiosa fourth. It was, not surprisingly, his affection for horror that initially drew us to him in the mid-1980s, after a friend of Mani’s introduced us to him.

His primary claim to fame came as the source of the story – officially he got “story credit” – for the outstanding 1980 haunted house film “The Changeling,” a classic to countless horror freaks and a movie so successfully spooky that Stephen King wrote of it at some length, and in a most complimentary tone, in Danse Macabre.

The legendary George C. Scott starred in the film, playing the role which Russell claimed he played himself in real life. While the film was set in Seattle, near a fictional “Chessman Park,” Russell’s haunting took place in Denver, in a now-demolished house near the very real Cheesman Park.

George C. Scott (left) and Russell Hunter (right), fictional and non-fictional hauntees respectively.

 

I won’t go into plot spoilers here, but the real life hauntings Hunter said he experienced were so frightful that he was eventually forced to flee the Capitol Hill house in which he once lived. He would later say that a diamond dust mirror that he took with him provided a portal for the little boy’s troubled spirit that followed him to his new home in southeast Denver, and ultimately stayed with him thereafter.

Russell’s tale of this boy-ghost was originally told in a musical he wrote, Little Boy Blue, which was never produced. He later wrote it as a novel, which also didn’t sell, but somebody in Hollywood somehow got wind of it, hence the movie.

At first, Mani and I simply wanted Russell to take a look at a short story we had just finished, entitled “An Autumn Friend,” which he was kind enough to read, offering both positive and constructive criticism, revealing in the process an amazing knowledge of golem-like scarecrows and harvest imagery in horror literature – a dark and esoteric field if ever there was one.

The actual (left) and cinematic (right) Changeling Houses.

Thus began a friendship that lasted several years, usually consisting of visits to Russell’s home where he often performed something quite beautiful on his grand piano, graciously offered strong drinks and then, with his glass and omnipresent cigarette in hand – in the strangely shadowy and Victorian atmosphere of his otherwise mid-century modern home — he would regale us with stories.

And such stories!  Russell was a raconteur’s raconteur. Many of them were difficult, if not impossible, to believe. Many were undeniably true. Most had something to do with the macabre or outré.  All of them were utterly fascinating, so it didn’t really matter whether they were true or not.

Russell told stories of the old manse in which the events of “The Changeling” took place, accounts of ectoplasmic manifestations he had personally witnessed, legends of Confederate gold hidden somewhere on the antebellum Virginia estate his aunt still owned, tales of a purported visit to that same estate by Edgar Allan Poe shortly before the author’s death, and of a packet of hidden manuscripts that Poe is supposed to have hidden somewhere in the dark reaches of the house.

Russell had quite a Poe fixation, which explained his excellent collection of rare Poe editions, only a small part of a remarkable library in his basement. He even wrote a novel with Poe as the central character, based on the hidden manuscript legend associated with the Virginia estate. He titled it, cleverly, Appropoe, and allowed me to read it.  It was quite good and I sincerely wish that I had secretly made a copy of it, since it’s almost certainly lost by now.

He also had some truly unbelievable oddities stored away in that house of his. He had a bed that he fervently believed Abraham Lincoln once slept in, a Victorian-era child’s tombstone that he said was dug up on his old Capitol Hill property and the infamous diamond dust mirror through which a youthful ghost was allegedly able to travel.

Like a rubber ball, you come bouncing back to me . . .

There was a photograph of Russell and George C. Scott together, taken during the filming of “The Changeling,” and any number of artifacts from that movie and the ghost upon which it was based – the unutterably spooky antique wheelchair, an ancient photograph of the boy who haunted Russell, even the same rubber ball that so terrified Scott in the film, as it bounced with ominous leisure down the stairs of the haunted mansion.

 

 

Mani and I were very saddened to learn of Russell’s death in 1996. In his honor, we composed a short story, “The Collector,” whose protagonist is largely based on Russell. Although our Adrian Constable is considerably more eccentric than even Russell was, we think that we captured something of his unique and wonderfully bizarre personality in the portrayal. (That story, by the way, can be read on this website).

Shortly after Russell’s death, I received permission from his family to purchase a few items from his eclectic estate. I purchased a book or two, and was overjoyed to see that a particular piece of art that I remembered was still there.

I don’t know the title of the work, nor the artist, but clearly remember that Russell told me that he had purchased it at a garage sale from a woman who said that her son had painted it – the day before he committed suicide.

(This might be one of Russell’s tall tales, I concede. I soon discovered that the picture I obtained is not an original painting, but a photographic reproduction, which casts some doubt on the suicidal artist story . . . but, as always, it’s a great story!)

It depicts a derelict (but possibly still spinning) carousel beneath a stormy sky, with horses that are demented or dying or terrified or perhaps something even more awful. It’s quite expertly done and extremely effective as visual horror. I’ve creeped out any number of people by showing it. I remember Russell saying that he originally placed it on his bedroom wall, opposite his bed. It so terrified him, however, that he couldn’t sleep, so he placed it at the head of the bed, where he didn’t have to see – or ponder – its nightmarish vision.

(For the record, I have it in my study, where it provides considerable inspiration for Mani and myself as we strive to conjure our own monsters).

In any case, here it is, in all its sinister glory. I would be extremely happy if anyone out there could tell me anything at all about it. And I’m sure that Russell’s specter would find it equally pleasing.

26 thoughts on “The Remarkable Mr. Russell Hunter

  1. this painting is british…the horses are going clockwise. ..if that helps you any

  2. This is a fascinating painting. Have you found any more information on it, as I’d love to try and find a reproduction….

  3. Sadly, no, Jonathan. This website is the only venue I have for finding out anything more. All I know is what Russell had to say about it before he died. Please let me know if you ever discover anything else.

  4. A million thanks for solving this mystery, Jeff. And nice work. Now I’m going to have to take a serious look at Addison’s other work.

  5. Hi Jeff — Just curious: How did the web bring you to the Blood on the Rainbow site? Were you searching for carousels, for Russell Hunter, for spooky images? I’m interested in how people are being led to the site.
    Thanks,
    Chris

  6. As a small boy I knew Russell and worked for him doing odd jobs around his home. He and his dog Loki occupied a amazing home which I remember to this day.

  7. I found the site because Russell is my grandfather’s cousin. I love hearing the stories about him and decided to find out some more on my own. I wish I could have met him because what I hear from everyone is that he was amazing.

  8. Thanks so much for the wonderful things you said about Russ. He was my husbands cousin and my great friend. Last night we were telling our granddaughter some of our fondest memories of him and today she found this site. I am in the middle of reading his book, Pigeons on the Poopdeck. Loving it and missing Russ. We spent a lot of time with Russ and I had some interesting and weird things happen in his last home. We met many of his friends and could possibly have met you. We were lucky to spend time with Russ the summer we lost him. My husband and I visited in July and I was there again in early August. It is strange to me that he entertained us royally with things he had written for years but the last thing he played for my mother and aunts to hear was Moon River. I would truly love to talk to you and your wife. And don’t fret, there is at least one copy of Apropoe out there. Autographed, no less. Again, thanks for your website. Please feel free to ask Georgia if we are family.

  9. Great to hear from you Sharon, and also great to hear that a copy of ‘Apropoe’ still exists. It’s nice to know that Russell is far from forgotten.

  10. I have a nice color print of this picture that was made in the early 1970s by a printer in Chicago. They told me that they only made about 50 prints before they broke the plate and the shop caught fire.

  11. Pingback: The Changeling (1980) | The Holiday Bug

  12. I stumbled on your site while researching Russell Hunter. I’ve been a tremendous fan of “The Changeling” for more than 30 years, and didn’t know until today that it was reputedly based, at least somewhat, in fact. The Denver Historical Society site outlines his story, but says that his claims were largely debunked in a book published, eerily, in the year of Mr. Hunter’s death. I was interested in learning a little more about both sides of the story, and Googled “Russell Hunter Denver Changeling,” which brought me here. So far I’ve only read this page, which was enough to introduce me to Robert Addison (through that primally disturbing painting). As an author and playwright toying with occult fiction for the first time, I look forward to exploring the rest!

  13. Thanks! Russell (like ‘The Changeling’) was memorable, to say the least. We never heard of the book supposedly debunking his experiences in Denver, but one has to wonder: How does one effectively “debunk” the supernatural? In any case, as noted in the blog, some of Russell’s stories were clearly fictitious, some clearly true, some in the foggy area between the two — but all were excellent stories. Best of luck in your own writing endeavors!

  14. I, my partner at the time, and two DU students lived with Ressell in that house. I was looking specifically for the house when I discovered what had become of this talented man after I lost contact in the late 60′s. I will forever be haunted by the occurrences in that house and the little boy, Elwin Brown.

  15. Thanks for commenting, Steve. We really appreciate hearing from those who knew Russell, especially in your case, since you are able to corroborate his experiences in that spooky Capitol Hill house. I have never heard the name Elwin Brown before, even from Russell himself, which is fascinating.

  16. Hi, Chris. I don’t know if you remember me, but I am the one who introduced you & Mani to Russell all those years ago! Glad to know you two are still collaborating. Give my regards to Mani.

  17. I do remember you, Sharon, and both of us are still grateful for the introduction to Russell. I shall give regards to my collaborator, Mani, who will be glad to hear from you. Hope all is good! (Sorry about the delayed response, BTW. We’ve been mondo-busy with lots of other matters lately.)

  18. I knew Russell while I was in early highschool. I performed in his musical production The Wheel of Fortune and he later contacted me to play a part in Little Boy Blue. I spent a few evenings with others at his house (not the haunted one) and was privey to some conversations pertaining to the making of the movie. He was certainly an interesting man.

  19. When Mani and I knew him, Russell had the infamous rubber ball that was used in the movie in his possession. He also had an almost exact duplicate of the child’s wheelchair that scared so many viewers. Going to his house was like visiting a museum.

  20. Wow found this site by accident. I knew Russell through my husband his Chiropractor. I went to one of his Christmas gatherings in the mid 80s . I can still see him sitting behind that incredible grand piano and playing tunes. He showed us the Stradivarius he had and mementos regarding the haunting. Many of his friends were there that night. They mostly seemed from the theater and music business. I loved the stories they told of how W.C Fields hated kids, Rudolph Valentino and other silent film actors escapades! Russell knew a lot of fascinating people! Yah the house was decorated with a very eclectic taste. I was glad I met him and his friends.

  21. That certainly is Russell all the way. Although I never knew he had a Stradivarius. Must’ve been a great story to go along with that too!

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