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Woman Around Town: Mara Lyon—A Real Life Haunting

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Remember the name, Mara Lyon.

She’s the Newburgh resident and director of the upcoming Erie Hall, the Indie film about the real-life haunting of a student at SUNY Geneseo more than 20 years ago. So you’re thinking, “Oh, not another movie about a haunting.” But this one is different. It’s done, not as a pure ghost story looking just for the “scare” factor, but rather it focuses on how the experience of being haunted altered the main character’s views about life and the afterlife.

Lyon, a veteran of the theatre and the technical side of the film world, says she was attracted to the story because it “communicates the reactions and experiences of individuals who have only very recently felt comfortable sharing this account and how it affected their lives.”

The events depicted in the film occurred during the winter of 1985. Over a period of several months, college students living in Erie Hall on the Geneseo campus, witnessed paranormal activity that included apparitions, strange voices, and objects moving. Scary stuff for anyone, but for college students living away from home these experiences had a profound impact.

Erie Hall is being compared to another low-budget horror film, The Blair Witch Project (above). That film’s budget was less than $1 million, and grossed more than $250 million worldwide. Could Erie Hall be a blockbuster? “I certainly believe so,” says Lyons, when asked about the film’s box office potential. The movie was originally conceived, however, to share a “fascinating, spiritually-rich, human interest story.” If it turns a huge profit, so much the better.

Erie Hall’s budget—between $5,000 and $7,000—is miniscule, even for an independent film. But the low budget cost may turn out to be an advantage. “The project relied on contributions and financing from people who took an interest in the events, while keeping an eye on the film’s historical authenticity,” says Lyon.

Most of the filming was done in a non-descript two-story house in Maybrook, on the west side of the Hudson River about two hours north of Manhattan. The upper floor, rented specifically for the film, made up the set. One room featured the green-screen studio where special effects filming was done, while the back room was transformed into the identical version of the college dorm room occupied by the student, Chris DiCesare, and his roommate, John Jeff Ungar. Both are heavily involved in the filming.

To keep the feel of the 1980’s, a period poster lined one wall, some of Chris’ own framed drawings were used for another wall. Dorm room bunk beds were set up, and underneath them, the small study quarters with a desk and chair. “Hard to believe we had over eighteen actors working and waiting around in this little apartment,” Lyon notes, during a recent visit to the set.

Lyon painstakingly decorated the study desks with tattered dictionaries, dated textbooks, and Chris’ trophies to recreate the spot where Chris’ world almost fell apart. Eighty percent of the movie was filmed in that ten-foot square room with some outdoor scenes filmed around Newburgh, including Algonquin Park where the actual Chris ran and competed in sports’ competitions, a fact given prominence in the film. A Presbyterian church was used to recreate the paranormal lecture Chris had attended on the school campus. The famed ghost experts, Lorraine and Ed Warren were giving a lecture, and when Chris went to shake Lorraine’s hand, she “backed up, and refused.” What did that mean? Did she sense something amiss? You’ll have to see the movie and find out.

The part of Chris was the most important role to cast, and after auditioning over 100 actors of varying skills and experience, Lyon and producer, Bill Edwards, decided on a newcomer, Kyle Shea, discovered in a Newburgh TGIF restaurant. “He was one of the hosts,” Lyon remembers. “He had a lot of Chris’ mannerisms, and seemed to be a younger version of Chris.” Lyon recalls watching the two interact over dinner. “It was amazing how much these two people were so alike. It was as if they were the same person,” she says.

Not lost on Lyon is the irony of the dorm building’s name, Erie Hall. Yet that was not the only coincidence experienced. During production, several cast and crew members told Lyon they felt an unseen presence on the set. Items turned on and off suspiciously. What struck her the most was the realization that the first day of filming took place on the twenty-fifth anniversary of Chris’ first haunting experience. “To the day,” she says, amazed, “without any planning, we’d discover again and again that the scene we were about to shoot actually took place on the same exact date twenty-five years ago!”

Backing up all of these facts and figures from the 1980’s were the writings of Chris’ roommate, John Jeff. Chris, realizing something truly out of the ordinary was happening, asked Jeff to keep records of the occurrences so Chris could be accurately diagnosed if his mental state deteriorated. What eventually happened to both gentlemen will not be revealed until the movie’s release.

Born in 1983 in Southern California, Mara Lyon moved with her family to the Hudson Valley. As she writes in her bio, she was inspired by the beauty of the area to pursue a creative career. “It was love at first sight,” she says of her first snowfall, “not just for the snow, but for the awakening to a world so magical and wondrous.” She attended the Hudson Valley Conservancy, winning a scholarship for Master Classes where Shakespeare’s works and other classics were studied and performed. She sang and danced in local productions, wrote and performed her own poetry, studied sound engineering, and eventually moved into the director’s chair.

“When I was growing up, I used to hang out at the Newburgh Ground Round,” she says. “Boy, do I miss that restaurant. Movies were always at the good old Hoyts Cinema (now Showtime Cinemas) in Newburgh. More often, though, one could find me in my backyard on the dock down by Winona Lake in Newburgh. I’d image fantastic scenarios, do gymnastics and sing to the sky. I’d still do it now if I could get away with it.” She laughs.

Though she could still pass for a high school student, Lyon has acquired quite an impressive resume of theatre credentials for someone just 26 years-old. She is quick to credit her years at Newburgh’s North Junior High School for fostering her creativity, “It was really Mr. Glen Northern, my drama instructor, who made me feel like I had a place to belong. He provided venues like talent shows and school plays that allowed me to try to inspire and entertain my classmates and, subsequently to hear feedback from my peers.”

Her first directorial project came in 2007, and was for a PC video game modification or as she explains, “an immersive expansion on an existing PC videogame in the form of 3-D graphics, voiceover work, new quests/storyline, characters, items, and virtual locations.” The game proved so successful, it is currently ranked number one on a top site dedicated to the media, and is now being translated into German and Russian. Two years later, she discovered the screenplay for Erie Hall and knew the subject would be perfect for a full-length movie.

As far as being labeled a “female director,” she says, “It has been a valuable adventure arriving at the administrative end of ‘the business’ as a somewhat young female. I won’t deny that I have faced a share of challenges in perception. A lot of people have a picture in their minds of what a director looks and acts like, and I think it has been a surprise for some when they realize what my role is in the production team. I like to believe that when people come to understand my dedication and seriousness concerning my work and my passion for Erie Hall, any preconceptions dissolve. One of the many fine points of this cast and crew is that they are good, kind people who truly care about what they are working on. I am so incredibly proud of what we are creating; even more than that, I am proud of how we got here.”

Lyon is presently in post-production of the film, whittling down forty or so hours of footage into a 90-minute movie, and working on the sound and the music. She expects to start heavily promoting the film in late summer for the planned December release. “It’s all tentative at this point,” she says. “Ideally, we’d like to get it ready for the holiday movie season and catch this 25th anniversary milestone of the actual events. We are looking to show at various film festivals including the Woodstock Film Festival. We are also relying on our professional contacts in the esoteric literary and entertainment genres as well social media outlets such as Facebook and IMBD (International Movie Database) to create the right buzz for its release.”

Lyons wants more than to just leave her audience shaking, with hearts pounding. “What I hope the audience gets from this movie is not just the experience of a haunting, but to respect the young men who went through it, the spirit itself, and its family.”

For more on this film, log on to its website: www.eriehall.com

Woman Around Town’s Six Questions

Favorite Place to Eat: Sardi’s
Favorite Place to Shop: Elie Tahari
Favorite New York Sight: I’m sure it’s been said before, but I’m happy to be another one of many. My favorite New York sight is the view of the tree and ice-skaters at Rockefeller Center during Christmas-time. Gorgeous from any angle, I especially love this spectacle with a glass of red wine at the Rock Center Café. I highly recommend squinting your eyes just a little so that all of the points of light blur and twinkle just a bit more. Pure magic!
Favorite New York Moment: It happened on one of the first days I lived there. I was 18, and it was just past 11 a.m. in late spring when I’d finished an interview on the Lower East Side. Deciding to forego the subway for a first hand view of my new home, I walked all the way up from there to my apartment at West 110th Street (in high heels, no less). Experiencing the evolution of the city as I passed each new block was thrilling. However, there was a peace in the frenzy, a sense of anonymity amongst the crowds of tourists and residents. It was a moment where I reached a distinct sense of self and independence. Looking up at those tall buildings and the blur of indifferent faces, I felt sure that I was where I was supposed to be, and I was happy.
What You Love About New York: I love that I can experience a whole world of variety and opportunity without getting in a car. I could never stand driving, and the ability to go anywhere or do anything if my shoes are comfortable enough is extremely liberating. The epitome of the arts, fashion and cuisine as well as any number of affordable diners and bargain bins all within walking distance. I vote “Yes.”
What You Hate About New York: I am a cool weather girl so New York’s weather is almost always along my line of preferences. However, the height of summer at noon when you are smacked in the face by the heat from the pavement is, without question, unpalatable. This is particularly true if you’re on your way to a meeting and you didn’t want to look like you just went for a swim with your clothes on.

One Response to Woman Around Town: Mara Lyon—A Real Life Haunting

  1. Alix Cohen says:

    Really really well written article.

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