Graveside movies draw 900 to Laurel Hill Cemetery

As a humid dusk spread over the city last Friday the 13th, hundreds of Philadelphia –area residents of all ages made a beeline for the graveyard.

When Philadelphia’s Secret Cinema set its sights on an outdoor screening at historic Laurel Hill Cemetery, it was the first time the graveyard had ever hosted a movie night. Attendees were welcome to bring blankets and picnics – if they didn’t mind relaxing atop the graves to watch the giant screen.

Laurel Hill Development and Programs Coordinator Alexis Jeffcoat said that the crowd watching filmmaker Ed Wood’s famously bad “Plan 9 From Outer Space” topped 900 people.

By 8:15pm, attendees of the 9pm screening had already filled the parking lot opposite the cemetery, and a parade of cars entered the gates to pack the graveyard’s narrow roads. Cinema-goers marched up the hill to the gatehouse and then the screening site, burdened with chairs, coolers and blankets. They picked their way between the graves and monuments to join the noisy tribe on the grass amid the abounding fragrance of freshly poured wine.

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Someone’s placid black pit bull methodically gnawed the grass as movie-goers streamed past.

“It’s way cool,” said Jenkintown resident Lee Detweiler of the chance to watch “Plan 9” in the graveyard on Friday the 13th. She and her friends Kellie Flanagan of Fairmount and Barbara Chambers of Willow Grove had set up camp at the foot of a giant obelisk dedicated to the Hatfield family.

“We couldn’t find the McCoys,” they said from their lawn chairs.

Their Friday the 13th had proved a “good day” so far: “No black cats, no cracked mirrors.”

It was the first time attending a Secret Cinema screening for all three. “I wanted to see the worst horror movie ever made,” Flanagan said. The ladies had made themselves comfortable with a small candle in a red jar, glowing on the ledge of the Hatfields’ marker, and an assortment of boxed candy and beer.

The carnival atmosphere also prevailed at the next picnic over, where Jim Pifer and Jody Hobbs sat with their 10-year-old son James. A row of low gravestones made handy footrests.

“I just hope we won’t get our brains eaten by zombies,” James said.

“How can you not go to the greatest cemetery in Philadelphia on Friday the 13th to watch a horrendously bad movie?” Hobbs said of coming to their first Secret Cinema screening. “People are dying to be here,” she added, to the resounding groans of the family.

A sumptuous double-date was underway across the cemetery road. Andy and Tanner Benson and Lucy and Joe MacNichol had spared no efforts in their picnic. They spread their blanket and dined on watermelon and cucumber with feta cheese, a grilled corn, black bean and jicama salad, lobster pasta, and red rice with shrimp.

“So far, nothing weird has happened today,” Tanner said of her Friday the 13th.

“We might have seen a body on Kelly Drive,” her husband piped up. He described a mysterious figure lying by the road that appeared to be wrapped in white. “Or it was the cover to a crew boat.”

As darkness fell over the monuments, the air cooled and a few fat raindrops fell. Camera flashes splashed white against the obelisks in the gloom.

The evening’s first film was a wobbly home movie from 1937 that Secret Cinema’s Jay Schwartz discovered at a flea market many years ago, and which turned out to have footage of Laurel Hill Cemetery. Closer examination revealed that part of it was made on the day of a famous Philadelphia exhumation. Attendees were regaled with the full story of Henrietta Garrett, who died in Philadelphia in 1930, leaving behind a $22 million fortune with no will to clarify which of the 26,000 worldwide claimants were actually her relatives. A court-ordered exhumation in 1937, just in case the will was hiding in her coffin, yielded nothing.

The actual film, while it featured a good view of the cemetery in the 1930s, was not nearly as graphic or ghoulish as cinema-goers may have wished.

“If ever a movie should be watched in a cemetery, it’s ‘Plan 9 From Outer Space’,” local film historian Richard Barrios said, introducing the night’s main feature.

For its largely unintelligible logic and paper-thin production values, this 1959 film posthumously starring Bela Lugosi (with Wood’s chiropractor filling in for the scenes filmed after Lugosi’s death) has been widely dubbed the world’s worst movie.

Aliens who look suspiciously like middle-aged actors in baggy silver suits attack planet Earth by re-animating corpses. Lots of determined UFO sound effects and staggering through misty graveyards ensues.

A steady accompaniment of laughs and wisecracks rose from the audience.

As the film concluded, Laurel Hill staffers and volunteers guided the satisfied exodus with their flashlights, and began the daunting task of making sure all 800 guests were clear of the graveyard before the gates were shut.

“People were very respectful of the space and made sure to clean up after themselves,” Jeffcoat said. Funds from the $10 admission price will go to Laurel Hill’s upkeep. According to Jeffcoat, the evening’s “rousing success” proves that “Laurel Hill is a place for the living as well as the dead.”

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