Sunday, August 28, 2011

Ouija--child's game or devil's playground?

Heavenly wine and roses
Seem to whisper to me, when you smile
--Sweet Jane, The Velvet Underground
It was a dark and stormy night. 
Ok, not really, but I like to embellish.  I was in seventh grade, one of the fortunate few who was invited to Stacy Smith’s** birthday party.  It was a night of many firsts for me and my burgeoning adolescence.  I experienced my first kiss, a Lady and the Tramp moment thanks to Truth or Dare, the class boy slut, and the vegetable plate Stacy’s mom provided as party food.  As an unfortunate result, “celery” was my nickname well into junior high.  

**names have been changed to protect the innocent
However, the most eventful part of the night was not Frenching with Veggies 101, but playing with a Ouija board for the very first time.  I still remember that musty smell as it slipped out of the cardboard box--like a crypt had been broken open.  Some of the girls were scared to even touch the thing; the guys were fighting over who got to ask it when they would get laid for the first time.  I don’t remember what else we asked it; I’m assuming maybe deep existential questions like why was New Coke necessary or other stuff that was important in 1985.  But before we could get into the nitty gritty of our futures, Stacy freaked out, too panicked to continue.  Mr. Ouija is probably still locked in the hallway closet of the Smith home, waiting to be the gateway board game into harder things, like Dungeons and Dragons.

Although there are some accounts of spirit boards being used as early at 600 B.C.,  the Ouija board in America found its beginnings during the modern Spiritualism movement in the mid-1800s.  Spiritualism, quite simply, is the belief that the living can communicate with the dead.  During its heyday, seances to contact the deceased became a form of entertainment and many mediums enjoyed celebrity status.  Two of the most famous mediums were the Fox sisters from Hydesville, New York.  They devised a method of “rapping” in which they would question the dead and the spirit would answer via a code of knocks and pops.  Later, one of the sisters admitted that the entire thing was a hoax--the sounds were the controlled popping of their toe joints.
During this time, a French spiritualist named Planchette invented a device that looked like a heart shaped table with a hole for a pencil.  He quite cleverly called it . . . a planchette.  By placing his fingertips on the little table, he used it to channel the spiritual connection into written word--a sort of aided automatic writing.  He then collaborated with a friend who was a coffin maker to develop a wooden board preprinted with letters, numbers and yes/no to make the channeling even simpler, even for a novice.   They sold this idea to an attorney named Elijah Bond and his associate, Charles Kennard, who then patented “the talking board” as a parlor game in 1890.
The “talking board” got its official name from Kennard, who claimed the board named itself during a seance.  “Ouija” was supposedly an ancient Egyptian word for “good luck.”  According to Egyptian scholars, that’s not the case, but it made no difference as sales of the board flourished at $1 a pop.  By 1892, Kennard had been ousted from the company.  William Fuld took over marketing, reinventing the story of Ouija, claiming the name was a combo of Oui and Ja, the French and German words for “yes”.

After years of battling patent infringements, Fuld fell to his death in 1927 when a support beam he was leaning against gave way while working on a flagpole at the company.  His death only added to the forbidden aura of the Ouija board, which had gained popularity as a true divination tool for occultists.  His family sold the board in 1966 to Parker Brothers, who continue to market it as a game for ages 10 and up.


The first Ouija boards were made of coffin wood, and the planchette used a coffin nail as a pointer.  In 2010 a hot pink version and a glow-in-the-dark version were sold at Toys ‘R’ Us, much to the chagrin of those who see the Ouija as a tool of the Devil.  Ouija opponents cite scripture in which God condemns those who commune with the dead.  Old Testament Law supposedly supports the execution of anyone who is a medium or channeler, which spells bad news for Jennifer Love Hewitt.  In 2005, Christ Community Church in New Mexico burned Harry Potter books with Ouija boards as “symbols of the occult”.  Certainly there have been instances where people have cited spirits from the Ouija board telling them to kill or harm others.  These claims are difficult to substantiate, given those involved are often considered clinically insane at baseline.
Even in seventh grade, I remember making everyone around the Ouija table pinky swear they wouldn’t purposely move the pointer.  And that first time the planchette moved “by itself”, I certainly thought the spirits were with us.  So what really fuels the mystique of the Ouija?


For some, that’s an easy answer--the messages are from beyond the grave, spelled out by a spirit drawn to a piece of mass-production cardboard.
But if you are of the skeptical ilk, the automatism theory is for you.  It relies on a concept described by William Carpenter in 1892 called ideomotor action.  This theory states that unconscious motor behavior is the basis for the seemingly involuntary movements of popular divination materials, i.e. dowsing rods, pendulums, and of course, the Ouija board.  Carpenter believed that muscular movement could be initiated subconsciously--thus the user of the board is responsible for the board movements but is not aware of it.  He cited as examples of other ideomotor based actions:  automatic painting, automatic writing, and sleepwalking.  Proponents of this theory believe that when the Ouija user concentrates, they enter a mild state of hypnosis, opening a conduit into the subconscious.  This is the basis of modern day hypnotherapy.
The area of psychic phenomena was examined in the laboratory setting at Duke University by an American scientist named J.B. Rhine.  He later established The Journal of Parapsychology, which still is in print.  Rhine’s research refuted the idea that demons produced the movements associated with popular tools of the occult.  He popularized concepts like the ideomotor effect, facilitated communication, and self delusion to explain the seemingly unexplainable.  Rhine’s wife, Louisa, in the newsletter of the American Society of Psychical Research said this:
“In several ways the very nature of automatic writing and the Ouija board makes them particularly open to misunderstanding. For one thing, because [such communications] are unconscious, the person does not get the feeling of his own involvement. Instead, it seems to him that some personality outside of himself is responsible. In addition, and possibly because of this, the material is usually cast in a form as if originating from another intelligence.”
In the late 60s and early 70s, many self proclaimed Ouija channelers were discredited with simple blindfolds and letter rearrangement during psychic testing.  But despite those who call the board simply a romanticized tool of hoaxery (Penn and Teller have a fairly colorful offering on their video Bulls**t), you’re not alone if you still believe in the mystical power of Ouija.  Writers seem to have a certain affection for the less tangible explanation--the most famous being Arthur Conan Doyle who supported the belief of Spiritualism.  Pearl Curran channeled a spirit she called Patience Worth through the Ouija for twenty years.  Their collaboration led to several poems, novels and short stories in the early 1900s.  Pulitzer Prize winning poet James Merrill wrote The Changing Light at Sandover, an epic narrative of his communications with angels and spirits via the Ouija board.

Cinema also highlights the less Candyland side of Ouija.  The Exorcist is loosely based on the story of a boy in Maryland who experienced unusual symptoms (i.e. possession by evil spirits) after playing with a Ouija board in an attempt to contact his dead aunt.  In the movie, Regan refers to the spirit she contacted via the Ouija board as Captain Howdy--aka Pazuzu the demon of pestilence.  One of my favorite Robin Williams’ flicks, Awakenings, starts with the discovery that Robert de Niro’s character is thinking on a subconscious level and can communicate via a game of Ouija.  And last, but certainly not least if you love cheesy horror flicks was Witchboard, in which a young woman becomes obsessed with talking to a malevolent spirit via her Ouija board.  Not long on plot, but all the dudes in my high school gave it a thumbs up for showing Tawny Kitaen (of Whitesnake hood ornament fame) naked.

The Ouija board has a checkered past, but whether you believe it is just a parlor trick of self-deception or truly a portal to the spirit world depends a lot on your own beliefs about the afterlife.  But just in case you are considering a trip to Toys ‘R’ Us later, keep in mind some of the rules of Ouija:
  1.  Don’t play alone or if you are ill--you’re spiritually susceptible to possession
  2.  Don’t play in places where death has occurred or risk possession (i.e. no graveyards)
  3.  Do not let the board go thru the whole alphabet or numbers in order--it’s an attempt for the spirits to escape
  4.  If the planchette goes to all four corners or in a figure 8, you are in the presence of an evil spirit.  If you want to   prevent this from happening, place a silver coin on the board to stop the evil spirits from coming through
  5.  In order to destroy the board, one must break the board into 7 pieces and sprinkle with holy water, then bury it

Friday, August 26, 2011

Small Towns, Big Characters

Please give me a second grace
Please give me a second face
I've fallen far down, the first time around
Now I just sit on the ground in your way.
--Fly, Nick Drake

I love small towns.  There's something about a sleepy little village in the middle of nowhere that inspires me.  Maybe because there is a deceptive quiet about them.  Bubbling underneath that ordinary surface are secrets hidden from the prying eyes of outsiders.  I think some of the most fascinating characters--alive and fictional--are products of that small town milieu.  For some novels, the small town even becomes a character.  Think of To Kill A Mockingbird.  Main Street's fictional Gopher Prairie.  The series of dying towns in The Grapes of Wrath.  

And where would Twilight be without Forks?  Vampires can't hunt deer in the middle of NYC.

I grew up in a small town just like the one in this video.  And it thrills me to see that the stereotype can always be challenged.  It's long, but at least catch 6:12 to around 7:00 for a smile.  Make sure you watch it with the subtitles if your Spanish is as rusty as mine.

Who are some of your favorite small town characters?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Champagne for everybody!

You’re so perfect, you’re so right as rain
You make me, make me, make me hungry again
--Why Can’t I Be You? The Cure
Very excited to say that today I’m joining Rachael Harrie’s Third Writer’s Platform-Building Champagne.  This event seeks to link those of like mind, purpose, and taste and mesh them into a network of writerly love and Cristal.
Didn’t know anything about this before, but here’s what she’s looking for:
“bloggers in a similar position, who genuinely want to pay it forward, make connections and friends within the writing community, and help build each others' online platforms while at the same time building theirs”
In other words:
*Meet new bloggers
**Meet new writer friends
***Participate in fun bloggy challenges.
For a baby blogger like me, this sounds like a blast.
You can sign up between now and August 31st and the campaign runs until October 31st.  First challenge is September 5th.
But I couldn’t help but wonder, when does the champagne come in?  There are so many possibilities: champagne cocktails, champagne cake, champagne sauce, champagne soup, champagne granita, champagne frosting, champagne vinaigrette. . .I can put Forrest Gump's shrimp to shame. 
What’s that?

Color me embarrassed.
Still good.  And just as bubbly.
Hope to meet you there.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Who you callin' Goat Sucker?

I tried to keep her on a short leash
I tried to calm her down
I tried to ram her into the ground
--Seether, Veruca Salt

First order of business is to thank the lovely Laila Knight for this:
I’m thrilled to know that my ramblings amuse at least one other person than just me.  I stumbled upon Laila's blog one day and have been held spellbound ever since.  And she's a Nebraska girl, which means we are both Children of the Corn.  I hope to someday drink lots of Guinness with her and search for fairy mounds.
Speaking of Guinness, the other night I heard something hurling itself against our patio door.  At first I thought it was just our half-blind Siamese getting her grub on--the cat has a tendency to really enjoy her food.  My next thought was that it was a Chupacabra, so I grabbed the first thing I believed to be a weapon.  I stumbled to the window to see a ball of fur that was much larger than my familiar ball of fur.  But before I could dial the National Enquirer, I flipped on the porch light in time to see five pairs of masked eyes staring back at me.  They were playing street hockey with a bag of IAMS cat food using several stripped stalks of corn from our garden.  I tried to scare them away, but apparently me in a tank top and boxers shaking an Elmo slipper is just not that scary.  I think I heard them laughing as they lumbered across the yard into the night.
Damn raccoons.
Our corn is ruined, but I must thank Rocky and his buddies for my inspiration for this Sunday’s mythbusters:  let’s welcome El Chupacabra.
The Chupacabra is mostly a contemporary legend with the majority of reports of its existence beginning in the mid 90s in Puerto Rico.  However, there have been stories of creatures exsanguinating livestock since Coronado’s time.  The modern Chupacabra is felt to be a folkloric descendant of The Moca Vampire, a creature blamed for the gruesome deaths of farm animals in Moca, Puerto Rico in 1975 shortly after a UFO was sighted in the area.  

Coincidence?  I think not.  

The killed animals reportedly exhibited puncture wounds and were drained of their blood.  Apparently the beast had a taste for goat, so many locals referred to it as a “goat sucker.”  Which is far more poetic in the native tongue as “Chupacabra.”  Sightings died down until 1995 when farm animals again were showing up deathly anemic in Canovanas, Puerto Rico.  An eyewitness described seeing a creature so frightening that the mayor of the city led a hunting party in search of it--complete with crucifixes, rifles and a caged goat.  He did not find the creature, but he did get re-elected. 
The first American sighting was in Florida in 1995 when 27 chickens and 2 goats turned up dead near Miami, mutilated and drained of blood.  Chupacabra attacks have since been recorded from Hawaii to NYC to Russia.  In recent years, the Chupacabra has rocketed into Kardashian-esque popularity in terms of paranormal interest.  It even has its own Facebook page.
What is the draw of a creature that rarely attacks a human, but is notorious for killing livestock by draining their blood like a Homo sapiens-sympathizing sparkling vampire?  Perhaps it’s the visual:

Who you callin' goat sucker?
Although there have been many descriptions of the Chupacabra, most say it is a creature about 3 to 4 feet tall with black or red eyes, fangs, pointed ears, a wolfish face, spikes or fins on its back, and if you get close enough, the pleasant aroma of sulfur.  Actually, that sounds a lot like my college advisor.  I will never forgive him; I was supposed to be a theater major, dammit.
In some Central American myth, El Chupacabra can also have bat-like wings and blends into its surroundings by changing color just like a chameleon.  It moves by leaping on powerful hind legs or flying, and often emits a hissing noise when disturbed.  Whoever hears it experiences waves of nausea and pain, and possibly amnesia.  This is what I think it might sound like.  After looking through so many pictures, it’s hard not to think that the Chupacabra may have a relative on the cryptozoological tree, the gargoyle.  Certainly, some eyewitnesses describe the creature as gargoyle-esque.
There are many speculations on the origin of the Chupacabra. One theory is that the creature is the abandoned pet of some extra-terrestrial life form that came to Earth eons ago.  Which means that at some point, the Earth became the Humane society drop-off for irresponsible alien pet owners.  I present as evidence of this theory: 
If Stitch is a Chupacabra I totally want one.

If you like conspiracy theory, there’s the assertion that Chupacabra is a NASA gene manipulation experiment gone bad.  The most vocal supporter of this argument is Jorge Martin, a self proclaimed UFO researcher and Puerto Rican journalist.  Martin claims that a Chinese-Russian scientist named Dr. Tsian Kanchen has done multiple experiments splicing the genetic code of different creatures, creating what he calls Anomalous Biological Entities, or A.B.E's.  Martin--although without corroboration by Dr. Kanchen--has asserted that the Chupacabra is the result of one of these experiments, which should not be confused with R.O.U.S.'s of The Princess Bride notoriety.
Artist's depiction of a Chupacabra from
Rodent of Unusual Size.  Uh, wait a minute. . .something looks familiar.
There are also those concrete thinkers out there who believe El Chupacabra is nothing more than a wild dog or other animal getting an easy meal via livestock.  So far, they may be right.  In 2009, a taxidermist in Blanco, Texas, thought he had a chupacabra--turned out it was a type of hairless dog native to Mexico and Central America called a Xoloitzcuintle.  Also known as a Xolo, this breed is over 3000 years old and was revered by the ancient Aztecs as a sacred animal, charged with leading its owner through the underworld when the time came.  They also raised it for its meat, which tells me that sacred to the Aztecs might not have been all it was cracked up to be.
Please don't eat me!
When carcasses of creatures believed to be Chupacabras have been found and studied, none have revealed a new species.  Most are identified as coyotes or raccoons with mange.  Other unusual creatures that have been accused of being Chupacabras include an albino civet cat with a skin disease and in one case, an ocean skate.  The most recent sighting of a Chupacabra (outside a Maryland hospital) actually ended with the animal being lured into a trap and videotaped.  “Prince Chupa” was described as a kangaroo-rat-dog mix, but was ultimately identified by Maryland Department of Natural Resources as a fox with mange.  Apparently this was the same week that the hospital instituted a smoke-free policy.  Nicotine withdrawal can be a bitch.

Benjamin Radford, a paranormal investigator and deputy editor of the science magazine Skeptical Inquirer, believes he has debunked the myth of the Chupacabra in his book, "Tracking the Chupacabra, The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction and Folklore".  After extensive study of the all of the sightings and stories (including a personal trek in a Nicaraguan jungle to find the critter), Radford traced the physical description of the monster back to Canovanas, Puerto Rico to the original eyewitness account by Madelyne Tolentino.  After talking with her, Radford thought Ms. Tolentino described a creature that was eerily similar to the 1995 human/alien hybrid in Species.  Turns out, she had seen the movie only weeks prior to her run-in with El Chupacabra.  
This is Ms. Tolentino's original description of the creature, thanks to

And this is Sil from Species.
Could the Chupacabra just be the subliminal creation of one woman’s mind and spread throughout the world by those who want to believe?  Ms. Tolentino was convinced she saw something that day in 1995, but the beast may have been from Hollywood, not from places unknown.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

My Favorite Songs I Really Have on Vinyl

The world is a vampire sent to drain
Secret destroyers hold you up to the flames
--Bullet with Butterfly Wings, Smashing Pumpkins

So I received this totally wicked blog award from the fabulously avatared Cherie over at Ready. Write. Go.  She is one multi-talented lady--stop by her blog for reviews, writerly wisdom, and make sure you check out her art.  Thanks Cherie!

After I received notice that my blog was on fire (and confirmed that it was not a literal fire) I felt the need to butcher any song with fire in the title.  Kings of Leon was the obvious first victim, so I changed "This Sex is on Fire" to "This Blog is on Fire."  Not a chart topper, but a catchy tune.  And since I couldn't let that go, I started thinking about all the songs with fire in their title and changing them to celebrate blogs.  For all the house music fans there's "My blog, my blog, my blog is on fire."  Old school rock and roll aficionados get "Goodness, gracious, great blogs of fire."  For those who appreciate the attempt at political commentary by Billy Joel in the late 80s, "We didn't start the blog on fire."  And who could forget that Johnny Cash classic?  I've fallen into a burning blog of fire, indeed.

That's when I realized how important music is to me.  I'm always listening to something when I write/run/cook/drive/bathe/kill zombies.  Music can completely alter my mood--it's cheaper than Prozac and doesn't leave me with cotton mouth.  One of my favorite musical activities is playing records in the basement with hubs and the kids.  I'm not sure when my vinyl fascination started--I think I bought a bunch of old records on a garage sale, later realizing that I had no way to play them.  But thanks to nostalgia and the internet, I was able to buy a sleek fancy turntable at Best Buy.  Before that, we relied on my parents' old one which was about the size of a couch and had the acoustic appeal of the tin can telephone.

I love the sound of music on vinyl--it seems different somehow.  The pops and scratches and white noise whisper to me a secret only those with turntables know.  Not to mention that album covers were truly works of art.  Hubby really embraced this hobby; he seems to enjoy going to musty smelling used record shops and communing with hippies over the merits of vintage things.  Explains a lot about his attraction for me.  We have probably about 500 albums now, and it was darn hard to pick just a few.  I sense recurring installment here.  So with no further ado and in no particular order, here we go:

Paradise by the Dashboard Light is my favorite Karaoke song of all time.   This is the first album I think I ever saw--it was in my brother's collection and it scared the holy bejeezus out of me.  Strange that now I like books with burly men riding motorcycles in graveyards.  Subliminal messaging a la Meatloaf.

Whip It is my four year old's favorite song.   I also desperately need one of these hats. 
Judy is A Punk was my intro to the Ramones.  I admit, when I first heard the song, I thought it was Julie is a Punk, so I was a bit disappointed when I got the album and that was not so.  But I can sing it any way I like.
Are you experienced?  I wasn't, but damn after this album I wanted to be.   Jimi Hendrix was a shining guitar god.
Superstition.  Actually, this whole album is amazing.  And Stevie was on Sesame Street, which is the mark of true greatness.
Norwegian Wood.  I have so many Beatles albums and it was hard to decide, but I love the sitar in this song so much.  This cover is a mess, but the album is fine.  And John looks at you, no matter where you move.  Freaky.
Me and Bobby McGee.  Love, love Janis.  Something about her Port Arthur misfit story resonates with me; it's like real-life fiction.  Gone too soon.
Run to the Hills.  I have a heavy metal fixation, and Iron Maiden was one of the first I listened to.  And it has the awesome VH1 cat video to go with it.
Living Loving Maid.  Led Zeppelin was proof I should have lived in another decade.
I Stay Away.  Beautiful.  Haunting.  Was a song for one of my characters, so close to my heart.

We are the champions.  Always made me smile to see all the jocks from my little hometown singing this anthem.  God Bless Freddie Mercury.
Voodoo People.  Prodigy is your place for songs to dance to until you throw up.
Talk Dirty to Me was part of my hair metal fetish.   Not sure what the attraction was, all the dudes were prettier than I was.  Eyeliner on men, sexy or silly?  Discuss.
Gold Dust Woman.  I have an irrational obsession with Stevie Nicks.  I think I may be her illegitimate magical love child.
Should I Stay or Should I Go?  I think this album started my alternative phase.
Red Barchetta.  I didn't know what a Barchetta was before this song; it sounded sort of like a demon of Beowulf proportions,  and you never know with Rush.   Hubby made me add this one.  He has almost all of Rush's albums on vinyl.
Jack and Diane.  My budding adolescence summed up in one song.    And a shout out to all the girls who wore Bobby Brooks.  That caption is talking to me, baby.
Rio.  Probably one of the first videos I saw--yes, I witnessed the birth of MTV, at least when my family got cable.  And Simon Le Bon on that yacht still makes me want to dance on the sand.
Add it up.  One of the first songs I heard that had a naughty word in it.   Thought I was a real badass listening to this one.  Actually, I still do.
Electric Co.  A song about ECT.  Gotta love Bono,  he's politically vocal with a good beat that's easy to dance to.
Jessie's Girl.  I had the hugest crush on Rick Springfield when he was on General Hospital with that lovely feathered hair of his.  Saddens me to see this news.  Go back to your soap roots, Rick!
Space Age Love Song.  These guys had the best hair, which I tried to emulate with many cans of Aqua Net.   I was downright flammable for most of the late eighties/early nineties.
Crazy Train.  The return of the Oz with Randy Rhoads.  Easily one of the greatest guitarists of all times.
Rapper's Delight.  The first "rap" song I think I ever heard.  And the scene in the Wedding Singer makes me happy.  Everybody would be a lot better off if currency was measured out in meatballs.
One.  I saw these guys in Des Moines pre hair cut and Napster.  And they were awesome.
Back in Black.  Although Angus in his plaid uniform left a bit to be desired, I like to think he opened the door for my highlander fixation.
Satisfaction.  I still can't get no.   
Afternoon Delight.  The naughtiest song that sounds so nice.
Dedication.  These guys were my first boy band.   Scottish dudes in jumpsuits.  What more could you want?

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Terror on the Toilet

What happened to the girl I used to know?
You let your mind out somewhere down the road.
--Don’t bring me down, The Electric Light Orchestra
I just returned from a refreshing week of vacation.  I saw 11 states and a myriad of bathrooms ranging from the good, to the bad, to one that made my five year-old son break down in tears.
My quadriceps still ache from hovering over toilet seats that I found less than inviting to my lily-white loins.
So this week for Sunday myth busting, I veer from folklore myth to urban legend.  Because before I invest in this device, I have to know:  

Can you really get a disease from a toilet seat?
First of all, a toilet seat, or any other hard and non-living object, is an inhospitable environment for most organisms, viral and bacterial.  If dry, most organisms will die within minutes of being left without their host.  Even the very contagious parasitic diseases like crabs or scabies will die within 24 hours and are unable to adhere to the smooth surface.  An added bonus is that they are visible to the naked eye. 
But what about the wet toilet seat?  I guess the follow up question is “wet with what?”  Urine is actually a sterile fluid.  But in other liquid suspensions, theoretically, things could live a little longer.  One study showed that gonorrhea in secretions lived for 2 hours on a toilet seat.  Herpes virus for four.
But before you place an order for the Sanicone, let’s talk about the joy of skin. Unbroken human skin is a remarkable defense against germs.  Even if you touched a herpes blister directly, the likelihood of transmission would be nil without a break in your skin.  So sitting on a toilet seat, even a wet one, may make you nauseated, but won’t leave you with lasting illness.  But what if it was blood on the seat?  Well, I would hope most would back away from a toilet seat covered in blood but in the heat of the moment, things happen.  However, the CDC in its brochure on blood exposure relates that there is no known risk for Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, or HIV transmission from blood exposures to intact skin.
In fact, there are very few proven case reports of STDs transmitted via toilet seat--none for herpes, HPV (the virus that causes genital warts) or HIV.  Two case reports of possible toilet transmission of gonorrhea have been documented--one in 1939 from two patients in a hospital sharing the same urinal (one was infected) and another of an 8 year-old girl using an airplane toilet.  She wiped visible purulent fluid from the seat and then cleaned herself with the same hand.  Which is an epic fail of Bathroom 101.
In 1979, two researchers published a study in the New England Journal of Medicine called The Gonoccocus and the Toilet Seat.  Sort of like The Princess and The Pea, only a totally different sort of mattress problem.  The study authors found that as soon as the organism dried out, it was dead.  But what about that two hours that it took to dry?  That is what is called theoretical risk.  This is where laws of transmissability of disease come into play.  In order to spread disease, two basic things are necessary:  
#1 Enough germs to spread the disease (i.e. the inoculum) 
#2  A way to get into the genitourinary system, the bloodstream, or other orifice. 
This NEJM study is a perfect example of #1.  The authors took cultures from 72 public restrooms and found no gonorrhea present.  Moreover, 38 attempts to culture a toilet in a venereal disease clinic also revealed no STDs.  The study authors concluded that the toilet seat was not a viable mode of transmission, largely due to lack of a significant inoculum.
To address #2, the basic use of a toilet seat comes into play.  In other words, the areas that carry contagion are not necessarily those areas in direct contact with the seat.  I don’t know how you use the toilet, but I try not to rub my naughty bits all over in wild abandon on an unfamiliar toilet seat.  Assuming that your skin is intact where it is in contact with the seat, there is very little possibility of disease transmission.  
Even Dr. Abigail Salyers, the former president of the American Society for Microbiology has said, “To my knowledge, no one has ever acquired an STD on the toilet seat -- unless they were having sex on the toilet seat!”  To which I issue a desperate plea to the masses (and pop music icons):

Those scenes in J.R. Ward’s novels are fiction.  Sex in a public bathroom is NOT hot.
What’s more likely to get you in a public bathroom are diseases spread by your hands--influenza, streptococcus, staphylococcus, bacteria that cause diarrhea, and hepatitis A.  But these things are far more likely to show up on the counters, faucets, and door handles. Microbiologists have found that steering wheels have 100 times as many bacteria per square centimeter than a toilet seat does.  Still, I guess if you touched the toilet seat, then ate a bag of Cheetos (you have to lick your fingers with those things), badness could happen.  But if your immune system is healthy and you employ simple hand washing, the likelihood of transmission is minimal.
And what about those toilet seat covers?  Peace of mind only.  And useless if the toilet seat is wet.  Which is why the Maine legislature refused to make toilet seat covers mandatory in public restrooms in 2009.
My next road trip I will plop down free of worry.  You, too, can rest assured that you won’t contract a disease from a toilet seat.  However, snakes in a toilet bowl are a completely different story.

            Carpet python found in a Townsville, AUS toilet.

                            Always check the bowl.