In cold blood: Revisiting the Lawson family murders
Having kicked off the Halloween season with its Wreak Havoc Horror Film Festival at the Carolina Theatre last month, filmmaker Dan Sellers and Wreak Havoc Productions will add to the suspense of the season – while anticipating the Christmas holidays – with a special screening of the documentary short Trouble Will Cause this Friday at Marketplace Cinemas in Winston-Salem.
The film explores what is undoubtedly one of the most compelling murder cases in North Carolina, that of Charlie Lawson, the Stokes County tobacco farmer who murdered his wife, six of their seven children, and himself on Christmas Day, 1929. The horrific incident rocked the region, and even after almost 90 years conjecture still runs rampant. What caused Charlie Lawson to snap? Was Charlie, in fact, the actual killer? Theories abound, to this very day.
Sellers, screenwriter Jeff Cochran, and cinematographer Zack Fox will be on hand to introduce the screening and field questions from the audience afterward.
For Sellers, co-host of both the Wreak Havoc Film Buffs and the Carolina Haints podcasts, who made his filmmaking debut with the award-winning horror spoof Hank vs. the Undead (2014), the Lawson case has always been a particular point of interest and fascination. Having successfully transitioned to the documentary format with Sammie the Comic Book Man (2016), an affectionate profile of his Wreak Havoc podcast partner Sammie Cassell, he felt ready to tackle the Charlie Lawson case with Trouble Will Cause, which made its premiere at last month’s Wreak Havoc Horror Film Festival.
“Tackling a subject that is so dark and somber was a challenge I was absolutely looking forward to,” Sellers said. “For a documentary that delves into some horrific and true territory, it’s important to get the tone correct. The feedback we’ve gotten from our first audience was incredible. You could hear a pin drop in certain scenes, and I had folks coming to me afterward admitting the film moved them to tears, which I loved because this was exactly the reaction I was going for.”
When Sellers first heard about the case and began studying it, he said he immediately thought it had much potential for a documentary.
“What fascinates me the most is the mystery element,” he said. “It’s not a whodunit … but the great question has always been ‘Why?’ To that end, there have been many scandalous motives presented over the years. I personally thought it was more appropriate to focus on the psychological aspects of Charlie Lawson. In order to help answer the question, we enlisted the help of a forensic psychologist (Dr. Clarissa Cole) who had done some work on familicide and was familiar with the case.”
Cochran, who is also Sellers’s partner on Carolina Haints said Sellers wanted to “analyze the psychological aspects of the tragedy.” He said the Lawson story is fascinating to many people and when he told friends and co-workers about the project, he was amazed at how many people were already familiar with the story and either knew a descendant or grew up hearing the Lawson story.
“It was a particularly brutal murder,” Cochran observed, “and I think the main reason it has resonated with so many people for so many years is that no one knows why Charlie Lawson killed his family. People have come up with a dozen different theories and reasons to explain why Charlie Lawson did what he did. Some of the ideas are extreme and far-fetched, but most of the ideas people have are logically plausible. I think most of the theories people come up with are to satisfy their own need to know. People see this brutal, senseless murder and think there must be an equally extreme explanation behind it.”
The production was able to shoot much of the film on location in Stokes County, although the current owners of the property where the Lawsons lived (and died) are understandably reticent about shooting on that particular piece of land.
“However, we were able to capture some stunning drone footage from a neighboring farm that allowed us to shoot on their property,” Sellers said. “We also commissioned a model of the house, the barn, and the property to be built by local filmmaker Mike Allred, who made some beautiful models which we were able to film and achieve the unsettling tone and visuals we were trying to create. We also relied heavily on old photographs of Stokes County from the era. And we also shot a scene at the cemetery in which the Lawsons were buried as well as the funeral home in which the family was taken, which has now been converted into a small general store and museum.”
Cochran is skeptical of finding a definitive answer for the tragedy because of how much time has passed, but he feels that it is a good thing.
“I hope people never forget these murders and continue to talk about it and pass it down from generation to generation,” he said. “For me, that was one of the reasons behind doing this film. These types of murders aren’t spontaneous, they are planned. All indications suggest that Charlie Lawson planned his actions for weeks prior to the killings. In my opinion, education is the only solution to preventing these types of mass murders. If Trouble Will Cause perpetuates the memory of the tragedy, or if the harsh statistics at the end of the film stick in someone’s mind, or if the signs that Dr. Cole talks about resonates with people, good.”
“I am very pleased with the film and the reception it’s had so far,” Sellers said. “I’m particularly proud of the original score by composer Judson Hurd. It’s a brilliant, dark, and often heartbreaking score.”
As for the Wreak Havoc Horror Film Festival, “it went really well,” Sellers said. “We had a great turnout, and everyone seemed to really enjoy it.”
See Mark Burger’s reviews of current movies on Burgervideo.com. © 2018, Mark Burger.
Trouble Will Cause will be screened 7 p.m. Friday at Marketplace Cinemas, 2095 Peters Creek Parkway, Winston-Salem. Tickets are $5. For more information, call 336.725.4646 or visit www.marketplacecinemas.com/. You can also e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit their official Wreak Havoc Productions website.