The Heartbreaking True Story Behind Welcome to Marwen

How Mark Hogancamp recovered from a horrific attack and inspired a film starring Steve Carell.

By Billy Nilles Dec 24, 2018 11:00 AMTags
Mark Hogencamp, Welcome to MarwenTim Knox

When Mark Hogancamp woke up in an unfamiliar room, his body in terrible pain, he wasn't sure of much. 

All he knew was that it was 1985, he was in the Navy, and the room he found himself in had to be on the island of Ibiza in the Mediterranean Sea off the southeastern coast of Spain. The rest? A puzzle. 

And even more puzzling? The response when he told the man standing over his bed what year he believed it to be.

"No," the man told him. "It's 2000. Five guys beat you almost to death. You've been in a coma for nine days."

For all intents and purposes, on April 8, 2000, Mark Hogancamp died, the victim of a horrific assault at the hands five men outside a Kingston, N.Y. bar. Nine days later, he rose again. And what he did next, well, it's the sort of thing that gets movies starring Steve Carell made about you.

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The events of that fateful April night still remain somewhat of a mystery for Hogancamp. "My brain is protecting me by not allowing me to remember," he told The Guardian in 2015. But culled together from evidence at the eventual trial, what he knows goes a little something like this. Deep in the throes of alcoholism, he'd gone to a local bar call the Anchorage for the evening, where he struck up a conversation with five guys, in the teens and early 20s. According to witnesses, they were getting along well, having fun and cracking Nazi jokes. (Hogancamp and one of the men both had German ancestry.) Having had a bit too much to drink, Hogancamp decided to let his new friends in on a secret.

"I was given the ultimate truth serum, which is alcohol. I guess I thought people could handle it," he said. "But apparently not."

His secret? He was a cross-dresser who enjoyed wearing nylons and heels. "I didn't wear the stuff out in public," he added. "I kept it very secret."

When he eventually left the bar, long after the quintet did, Hogancamp found them waiting outside for him. "And, from what I hear, I talked to them for a bit, then I turned around and started walking home, and they attacked me from behind," he told the publication.

Courtesy of Universal Pictures

The attack carried on for a full minute, with all five men repeatedly stomping on Hogancamp's head with both feet. When he was found and rolled onto his side, he had blood pouring out of his nose and mouth. "The doctors had to take my eyeball out, put it on my cheek, clean out the bone fragments, and put my eye back in," he said. When he woke up, which was a miracle in and of itself, his memory was wiped out. He'd suffered extensive brain damage and would eventually need to relearn how to walk, talk, eat, behave. 

The first thing he said upon hearing about the attack for the first time?

"I forgive them."

His friend Tom, the man who was standing over his bed when he woke from the coma, responded, "You wouldn't forgive them if you knew what they did to you."

He spent 40 days in the hospital, until his insurance wouldn't cover it any longer. Then the physical therapy began, as did the anger, but it was slowly working. He'd learned how to walk again and his hands were shaking less. But after a year, his insurance company struck again. "The guy said: ‘You have to come up with $157 a month,'" Hogancamp explained. "I said: ‘I can't afford that.' So the asshole on the other end said: ‘Well, I guess you don't have therapy anymore!' And he hung up."

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"When my therapy was cut off I hated every man on Earth," he added. "I felt like I'd been kicked out of the tribe of men on planet Earth. But after a month of hating everything I thought, ‘I have to do something or else this hate and anger is going to build up and kill me.' I needed to do something."

He had a choice to make. By then, he'd begun to piece together the sort of life he was living before, the one that had been beaten out of his brain, thanks to drawings and diary entries dating all the way back to 1984, as well as what others had told him. He'd been married for five years and divorced, though he does not remember his wife at all. (Sometimes he watches his wedding videos at night and thinks to himself, "Wow, she's hot," he said.) He'd been honorably discharged from the Navy after five years and eventually fallen deep into alcoholism, designed retail showrooms for a lighting company, suffered spells of homelessness, followed by attempts at rehab. He loved to draw and, by the time of the attack, was drinking vodka by the half-gallon.

"I needed help from God," he said. "And so he sent five horsemen."

Universal Pictures

Though his injuries stole from him the ability to draw, it also wiped him of the idea of what alcohol even tastes like. With his love for wearing women's shoes returning like some sort of muscle memory—Upon returning home from the hospital, he saw the shoes everywhere and, after being gently reminded that they belonged to him, tried a pair on out of curiosity. "And that's all it took," he told The Guardian. "One pair of shoes and I was, 'Oh wow!'"—he's never allowed himself even a drop of liquor. "That's what scares me about booze," Hogancamp explained. "One sip and I'll be back to half-a-gallon a day."

Feeling as though the world had turned on him, he began to create his own, a tiny society he called Marwencol. Named after himself and two women he had crushes on, Wendy and Colleen, and built out of scraps of plywood and other recovered materials, Marwencol began to grow in the yard alongside his trailer. Populated by Barbies and World War II action figures, Hogancamp began crafting narratives surrounding an American fighter pilot, Captain Hogie, rescued by the fictional town's all-female population, as they take on Nazis. "I'm building an army of women," he explained to The New York Times in 2011. "Women rule the world. We're just here to keep them company."

He built a bar, the Ruined Stocking Catfight Club—"the only one in Belgium"—a town hall, a bank, an ice-cream fountain, a cemetery, a gas station. And for three years he kept Marwencol to himself, capturing his little vignettes on an old Pentax camera, shot from the perspective of the characters he's created. Nearly every day, Hogancamp would capture Hogie or, most likely, the women of the town killing the SS men. "The only species on Earth that haven't attacked me are women," he told The Guardian. "And when they heard I had over 300 pairs of high heels they said: 'We'll take you in our tribe.'"

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With the outlet of physical therapy taken from him, Marwencol was the respite he needed to quell the bubbling anger inside. "Marwencol was solely made up so I could kill those five guys," he explained. "I had no way to do it in real life. I played it over in my head. I'd get caught. I'd go to prison. I'd get the chair. The first time I killed all five of them, I felt a little bit better. That violent hatred and anger subsided a little." By 2015, when speaking to the UK outlet, he admitted he'd "killed" those hateful men "over and over. For 12 years now. I've killed them every which way. I've killed them in ways Satan himself hasn't even thought of."

And as for his real-life attackers, well, they got off slightly easier than their Marwencol counterparts. All five were convicted of their heinous crime; only three ever saw the inside of a jail cell.

Though Hogancamp never intended Marwencol to be for anyone other than himself, a tool for his continued recovery, eventually the world found out about him and what he'd created anyway. Three years into it, a neighbor named David Naugle spotted him walking up and down the side of the road pulling a scale-model military jeep while photographing it. After asking him what he was doing, Naugle, a local photographer, asked if he had any photos to share. Hogancamp said yes and, the next time he went out, put some in Naugle's mailbox.

"And when he saw them, he flipped out," Hogancamp recalled.

Universal Pictures

Naugle sent the photos along to the editor of New York art magazine Esopus, which ran a spread in 2005. From there, there were gallery shows. The following year, famed art critic Jerry Saltz wrote of Hogancamp's work in the Village Voice, "Mr. Hogancamp has an uncanny feel for body language, psychology and stage direction." Eventually, documentary filmmaker Jeff Malmberg, who documented four years of Hogancamp's life following the Esopus spread for the 2010 film Marwencol

The film opened at South by Southwest, bringing Hogancamp greater notoriety, and yet, life remained a challenge for him. By 2011, he was still living disability check to disability check, left unable to work a regular job by his injuries. As he told the NYT that year, he ate only one meal a day to save money. He had to get a new unlisted phone number and cope with his post-traumatic stress disorder whenever a new screening of the film called him out of his Marwencol cocoon. And though they did help calm him, the stocking and heels also provided a new, different anxiety, for, as he told the newspaper, "that's what got me beaten to death."

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Over the next four years, he stayed close with Malmberg, whose wife, Chris Shellen, began co-authoring a book the 2015 book Welcome to Marwencol, which featured some 600 of Hogencamp's photos. "There's only so much we could fit into an 82-minute movie but there's an incredible wealth of information to share," she told Wired that year. "We had 100 pages of interview transcripts, plus Mark archives everything—journals, photos, plans for the buildings. With the book, we wanted to take a closer look at his process, so we gathered all this different material and arranged his stories into a sort of Marwencol encyclopedia." 

And in that time, he'd begun to willingly venture out of Marwencol city limits more often, attending gallery openings that were not his own with a growing confidence in his cross-dressing. "He's become a bit more sociable," Shellen observes. "When you think about what happened to Mark and see how he's been able to brings some order and peace to the chaos inside, I think it's kind of inspiring."

"Things have gotten better, they have gotten as good as they're going to get," Hogancamp told the NYT in 2015. "Except my imagination. That keeps expanding."

By then, he'd already gotten the attention of acclaimed director Robert Zemeckis, whose interpretation of Hogancamp's story, with Carell in the lead role, made its way to theaters this December. "I was channel-surfing back in 2010," the director told The Telegraph earlier this year, "and I came across the documentary on our public broadcast station. It was already 10 minutes in. I was immediately riveted, and when it was over, I quickly saw the potential in being able to make it into a feature film, and tell the story actually beyond what the documentary was able to. So the next morning I called Donna Langley, the head of Universal Pictures, and asked her to get the rights." Co-starring Leslie Mann, Janelle Monae, and Diane Kruger, among others, Zemeckis' film makes use of motion capture performance to bring Marwencol to life right alongside Carell's Hogancamp.

And while the subject hasn't spoken publicly about the finished product just yet, which Zemeckis has emphasized is more interpretation than exact recreation, Hogancamp was kept informed on production every step of the way and, in turn, gave the director updates on how Marwencol continued to evolve.

When speaking about the film, then still in development, back in 2015, he told the New York Times that the idea of it was "scary," though he'd already begun paying homage to Zemeckis by crafting a doll version of the director and referencing a key moment from Forrest Gump in one of his stills. And while the attention might have still been a bit more than he bargained for, at least he felt like he was doing some good. "I didn't know that my fight to get my mind back would benefit other brain-injured people," he told the newspaper. "Now they know they can create their own world that only they understand."

And as for the man bringing him to life? He only had one thing to day: "I hope Steve Carell has nice legs."

Welcome to Marwen is in theaters now.

(E! and Universal Pictures are both pare of the NBCUniversal family.)

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