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Why do some towns go mad? In 1692 Salem, Massachusetts, was paranoid about witchcraft. In 1951, the populace of Pont-St. Esprit in France began wildly hallucinating after eating moldy bread. But nobody has ever been able to explain what triggered a bizarre decade in Black River Falls, a Wisconsin hamlet overtaken by disease, disaster and self-destruction at the end of the 19th century.

Wisconsin Death Trip is a 1973 book by Michael Lesy that chronicles the way random fate — diphtheria, smallpox, famine, economic decline, foul weather — coincided with a mass “psychosis” in a little Midwestern town plagued by murder, suicide, arson, incest, mental illness, religious fanaticism and ghost sightings. The cult bestseller inspired British filmmaker James Marsh to shoot a 1999 documentary of the same name that will be screened Thursday at St. Michael’s College. Both Lesy and Marsh will be on hand to answer questions about their efforts.

The subject matter — and controversy surrounding both the book and the film — may be a bit of a departure for the Colchester college. “This is a pretty conservative private Catholic school, and the documentary is a little offbeat in terms of our usual mainstream cultural fare on campus,” acknowledges Bob Niemi, an associate English professor who organized the event primarily for the genre-film class he’s teaching this semester. “I thought my students might have fun seeing the film and meeting a live filmmaker. It’s probably a little foolhardy on my part. . . I went off the deep end.”

Niemi’s confession may make Wisconsin Death Trip sound even more enticing to cineastes fascinated by the dark underbelly of the American psyche. Black River Falls, settled by Scandinavian and German pioneers, was supposedly much like any other small enclave of the time — until 1890, when chaos took hold. Some suspected Satan had a hand in it.

I remember the book’s eerie appeal, but have never caught up with the film, which does not seem to be available in local video stores. Both the printed account and the celluloid production have generated strong reactions. The Village Voice slammed author Lesy’s “taste for freak-show gothic”; TV Guide suggested the movie’s “bleak, off-kilter wit” makes it “the hellish flip-side to Little House on the Prairie”; Variety hailed the flick as “a Victorian Twin Peaks.”

While a graduate student at Rutgers University in the early 1970s, Lesy discovered an archive of haunting black-and-white photographs that depict the Wisconsin town’s decline. He matched the pictures to articles in The Badger State Banner and to records from the nearby Mendota Asylum for the Insane, where a number of unfortunate Black River Falls citizens wound up.

This hidden history became Lesy’s doctoral dissertation before it was published, to great acclaim, in the waning days of Richard Nixon’s administration. Critics at the time suspected a parallel. What took place in Wisconsin Falls 83 years earlier was seen as a kind of template for the “national nervous breakdown,” as journalist Walter Lippmann once described the Vietnam era.

Be that as it may, the film takes a more contemporary approach than the book. Marsh added edgy color footage of the town as it exists in today’s Wal-Mart world order. He incorporates the old photos and clippings, but also dramatizes certain aspects of the story. Ian Holm narrates the proceedings as an Englishman named Frank Cooper, who covered the strange saga for the Banner. Lesser-known actors portray a schoolteacher who snorts cocaine and smashes windows, an opera singer who fades from fame into dementia, and a teen-age boy who kills an old man for kicks before engaging in a series of gun battles with the Black River Falls posse.

The movie, financed by BBC and Cinemax, is not without gallows humor. But Marsh appears to be a man with a mission. All of his previous work smacks of the macabre: The Last Supper, about the final meals requested by men on death row; Troubleman, which traces the murder of soul singer Marvin Gaye by his father, a fundamentalist preacher and occasional transvestite; The Burger and the King, an exploration of Elvis Presley’s favorite foods; and The Trials of the Animals, a look at the common practice of prosecuting troublesome fauna in medieval Europe.

Niemi apparently can relate, owning up to his admiration for Wisconsin Death Trip as “my own little eccentricity.”

Wisconsin Death Trip will be screened Thursday, April 4, at 7 p.m. McCarthy Arts Center, St. Michael’s College, Colchester. The event is free and open to the public. Info, 654-2536.

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