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Deserts confuse, fogging memory and electrifying the imagination. In 1853, on Utah’s Sevier River, a ritualized killing spawned a folklore of deserts that lives on to this day. Captain John W. Gunnison, an engineer, had detoured into an ambush. Dismembered, decapitated, his heart torn from his chest, he had died, it was said, by order of the Mormon prophet and Utah’s Latter-day Saints. Fabulized over the decades, the tale was contorted with an evil king in a desert kingdom, with ghoulish assassins and restless corpses undead. Folklore saw what historians have been slow to perceive about hauntings in desolation. Memories of trauma run deep in disquieting strangeness. Places presumed to be empty set dark expectations for horror.

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