Bringing the supernatural to reel life

Nick Twemlow’s creative work focuses on altered states, paranormal worlds and supernatural phenomena, and the violent realities of the bucolic Midwest.

When you ask about his background, it’s easy to see why.

The University of Iowa graduate student in film production grew up in a Victorian house reportedly haunted by a mysterious presence. Legend had it that a room in the cellar, only accessible by sliding aside a concrete block, had once been the site of an illegal abortion clinic. There also were rumors that a teenage girl had committed suicide in the house by hanging herself from the chandelier.

Photo by Laura Iancu.

Twemlow investigated and was unable to confirm the stories, but through the years, his family and others who lived in the house witnessed strange events. Pictures would move and shake on the walls. An ethereal pink mist would appear, settling on a bed in a bedroom his sisters began to call “the entity room.” Occasionally people reported seeing a hunched, gnomish figure. Once, his sister saw his stepmother folding laundry upstairs, only to discover that she had been downstairs the whole time.

“I was absolutely terrified of this house,” Twemlow says. “My room was at the end of a long hallway upstairs, and up until age 10 or 12, I had to have someone take me to bed. Once you buy into the narrative that there’s this presence, even if it’s irrational, it wreaks havoc on your imagination.”

Also fueling Twemlow’s captivation with the paranormal was the fact that his father was a doctor who moved the family from New Zealand to study at the Menninger Clinic, a psychiatric hospital in Topeka, Kan. There his father met Charles Tart, a psychologist known for his work on altered states of consciousness, and Robert Monroe, who studied out-of-body experiences. As a child, Twemlow was exposed to the marvels of spoon bending, channeling, and biofeedback.

“The seeds were sown early for a fascination with the paranormal and supernatural,” he says. “I’m not a ghost hunter, but I’m curious about it constantly.”

Twemlow earned a degree in cognitive psychology from the University of Kansas, intending to go on for a doctorate in the field. But he had always loved to write, and when he was accepted to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, his career turned toward the humanities.

He studied poetry at the workshop and is the author of a forthcoming poetry collection, Palm Trees. Today he’s a senior editor at the Iowa Review, and is working on his MFA thesis in film and video production through the Department of Cinema and Comparative Literature in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. His films have screened at Tribeca, SXSW, FLEX, and Athens International, and he was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to pursue a creative project in New Zealand. Recently, he received a highly competitive honorarium from the Princess Grace (Kelly) Foundation, which supports emerging artists.

Twemlow’s 2010 film The Laying on of Hands explores the relationship between faith healing and one-touch or no-touch knockouts in martial arts. With found footage of the phenomena, Twemlow developed a fictional, first-person narrative about a son whose father teaches him the “death touch.” The son augments his skills to become a faith healer, all the while searching for his lost mother.

The trailer for The Laying on of Hands:


“It premiered at the Slamdance film festival, and mostly the response has been of wonderment at the images, because they are really amazing. People want to know, ‘Is that real? Did that really happen?’

“Studies have shown that a significant majority of Americans have room in their lives for some belief of the paranormal,” Twemlow says. “People are intrigued by it. A close friend once said to me, ‘If I could have perfect proof that, at some level, the paranormal exists—ghosts or the like—I’d give up everything and study just that. I’d devote my life to it, because what else could be more interesting?’”

Twemlow recently produced The Trapper, a short narrative film set in rural Iowa. Shot on a farm near Nichols and at Lou Henri diner in Iowa City, the film is about a waitress caught between two awful men—her husband, and a coworker who is harassing her, both of whom trap rabbits. The brief tale details her vengeance against the men, and her escape from violence in rural Iowa.

Artwork by Kyla Medina.

“The experience of working and studying here has been nothing short of amazing,” Twemlow says. “People and businesses in Iowa City bend over backward to help with a film. The UI film program is well known in the documentary and experimental world, and it’s one of very few film programs in America that offer graduate student funding. That helps the program attract very talented people.”

His MFA thesis project, The Directory of Possibilities, involves video, photographs, otherworldly recordings, texts, and an iPhone app, which investigates the paranormal world he grew up in. For the project, Twemlow is making plans to interview Charles Tart, the aforementioned father of altered states of consciousness, and to travel to the Parapsychology Foundation archives in Long Island. He and his father will also visit a suburban neighborhood near Houston, Texas, where a housing development was built over a cemetery. For three decades, families have reported odd activity, akin to the film Poltergeist.

As for the “haunted house” in Topeka that inspired his creative work …

“It used to be a nice place with pretty grounds, but the house hasn’t been painted in years, and there are weeds growing up through the sidewalks,” he says. “It had to have developed a reputation, because it’s abandoned and dilapidated now. It still scares the hell out of me to even be in front of it.”

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