'Loon Lake': Round Lake native makes feature film based on southwest Minnesota ‘witch’
WORTHINGTON — Growing up in Round Lake, Nathan Wilson was always aware of the legend of Mary Jane Terwilliger, known as the “Witch of Loon Lake.”
Legend had it, if one were to run over her haunted gravestone three times, they would die an “unconventional death.” The rumors became so popular that her gravestone was removed from the Loon Lake cemetery, where many of Jackson County’s first settlers are buried.
Wilson moved to Los Angeles 15 years ago to start his career in the movie industry. Recently, he came back to his hometown to shoot a feature film that will bring Terwilliger’s legend to the big screen.
Wilson’s crew spent the last two weeks filming “Loon Lake” throughout southwest Minnesota, shooting scenes in Worthington’s Pioneer Village, Round Lake and Loon Lake.
The film — dubbed a folk horror and psychological thriller — will explore the backstory behind Mary Jane's death in 1880. It will also tell the story of a young man named Louis Olsen — played by Wilson — who makes the mistake of visiting her gravestone.
“We are going back and forth between 2018 and the 1880s, kind of showing her story about what really happened to her and what she’s doing to this person now,” Wilson said.
Wilson teamed up with Ansel Faraj, a Los Angeles director, to start his dream project. The two have made seven feature films, including “Will & Liz,” which can be viewed on Amazon Prime.
“He’s been talking about this film for seven years, as long as I’ve known him,” Faraj said. “I thought it would be a really cool idea … and now was really our chance to make it happen.”
“Loon Lake” features two relatively well-known performers — Kathryn Leigh Scott and David Selby — who first acted together in the 1971 horror film “Night of Dark Shadows.”
Portraying the Loon Lake "witch" is Kelly Erin Decker, who is also the film’s third producer along with Wilson and Faraj.
There’s many legends about what happened to Terwilliger. Some say she was beheaded by her own father and buried with the axe. Some say she was buried alive. Records say she passed away due to diphtheria while living in Cherokee County, Iowa.
The story of her gravestone is even the subject of the Megadeth rock song “Mary Jane” — written by the band’s co-founder David Ellefson, a Jackson native — that explores her death and the ways in which she would haunt those who disturbed her grave. Some say the owners of the nearby Loon Lake Store made the story up to create a tourist attraction and get more business. The film will provide its own version of the Loon Lake legend.
“We did a lot of research on it and we have our own take on what happened,” Wilson said. “We took that story and evolved it. We’re trying to be as close to the story and to the times as possible.”
The movie was shot almost entirely in southwest Minnesota. Viewers might recognize the inside of the American Legion building in Round Lake or the main drag of Pioneer Village.
Wilson had been struggling to find the right kind of historic church when he noticed Pioneer Village while traveling along Interstate 90.
“Right when I went by it, I thought, ‘Oh my god, that’s perfect,’” Wilson said.
Another scene was shot on Wilson’s parents’ farm by Round Lake. All in all, Wilson said he has received a lot of help from his hometown in making the film.
“The support has been awesome, everybody is really helping out a lot,” Wilson said. “It’s different compared to Los Angeles, where nobody really cares if you’re shooting a film — everybody’s kind of doing it.”
The location was also something Wilson couldn’t get in Los Angeles, featuring large amounts of land and extensive cornfields.
While many of Wilson and Faraj’s movies have been extremely low-budget, this film features a full production crew and a small cast of talented actors.
Selby, the film’s most famous actor, plays two characters, an 1880s pastor and 2018 farmer. The West Virginia native has performed in a variety of movies, plays and TV shows since the 1970s, including “The Social Network,” “Mad Men,” “Legion” and “Castle Rock.”
Faraj is directing “Loon Lake”, which is expected to run about one-and-a-half hours in length.
“It’s a folk horror piece, very much in the mold of films that came out in the ’60s, ’70s such as ‘Witchfinder General,’ ‘The Wicker Man,’” Faraj said. “We’ll have slow burn scares, jumpscares, atmospheric creepy moments where we’re just driving the audience insane with tension that we’re not going to release.”
Once filming is complete, the crew will head back to Los Angeles to start editing. Wilson hopes to have the film picked up and released next year, and said it will be probably be available to watch on an online platform sometime in the future.