The universe is endlessly mysterious—there’s far more out there that we don’t understand than what can be explained. The desire to face the great unknown is what drives inquisitive minds into physics, astronomy, medicine, and other fields of science, and many of the rest of us delight in asking provocative questions about the nature of existence. Occasionally, all that intellectual snooping leads to some spooky places.
Take the sheer number of extremely credible UFO sightings, or ghosts, or after-death experiences. Science, understandably, takes a hands-off approach to these incidents, but even the experts acknowledge that something unusual occurred that defies a straightforward explanation.
This week, we’re excited to hear from B.J. Hollars, the swashbuckling author of Midwestern Strange, a project Jeff Fleischer reviewed in the September/October issue of Foreword Reviews. B.J. isn’t content to let a mystery off the hook, and Jeff’s not one to shy away from the big questions either, so we knew this conversation would cover some interesting territory. Thanks to the University of Nebraska Press for publishing another fantastic book.
Jeff, you’re on.
How did you first become interested in the kinds of mysterious occurrences you write about in the book?
My history with Bigfoot goes back a long, long way. Growing up, every walk in the woods became a Bigfoot hunt. I couldn’t get enough of the guy, even if I never actually saw the guy. Fast forward to graduate school where, after I assigned my composition class one too many persuasive papers, they revolted. “Why don’t you persuade us of something?” one student asked. I told them I would, and that they could pick the subject. The students mulled it over, until at last one piped up, “Prove the existence of Bigfoot.” As you might expect, things took a turn for the weird. I ended up writing an entire chapbook on the subject titled In Defense of Monsters, in which I set out to “prove” that an array of cryptozoological creatures, as I put it “may not not exist.” (Note the double negative.) Basically, it was an argument in defense of imagination under the auspices of a defense of monsters.
Shortly after I wrote my “persuasive paper” for my students, I traveled to Jeanette, Pennsylvania, to attend my first Bigfoot conference. I did a little hitchhiking, crashed on a motel floor with some strangers, and survived to tell of it. Later, it occurred to me that if I was willing to go to such extremes just to learn about Bigfoot, perhaps I had an obsession on my hands. And obsessions, at least for me, often lead to book projects.
There are definitely lots of unexplained phenomena to choose from. What was your process for selecting which of them you would explore?
My main criteria were that the phenomenon occurred in the Midwest and that it wasn’t overplayed. Mothman is surely the most recognizable creature in the book, but I felt the need to include it because I stumbled upon a rather unique clue as to what the creature might be…(no spoilers here!)
As for the other oddities, there’s a good chance that general readers are unfamiliar with all of them. As much as I’ve prattled on about Bigfoot here, Bigfoot barely makes an appearance within the book (though admittedly, Bigfoot “not making an appearance” is sort of his specialty). It’s not that I don’t want to give time to the better-known oddities, it’s just that I find the lesser-known ones to be a bit richer in new information. Plus, the lesser-known oddities often mean more to the small towns from which they hail. One of the discoveries I enjoyed most from this project is the ways in which small communities embrace the strange—rather than avoid it—often benefit both culturally and financially. With the right marketing, monsters and myths can be big business!
Of the ones you weren’t able to include, which do you think would have been the most intriguing?
Scott Francis has a book called The Monster Spotter’s Guide to North America. Basically, it’s a travel guide, only featuring monsters rather than roadside diners and the like. I spent a good chunk of time evaluating the many creatures within that book, searching for the best “case files” worth further explorations. For a while, I thought pretty seriously about investigating the Loveland Frogs—your run-of-the-mill four-foot-tall humanoid frogs allegedly running rampant around Loveland, Ohio—but after a few dead ends, I let it go.
I also thought pretty seriously about a chapter on Elmwood, Wisconsin, the self-proclaimed UFO Capital of Wisconsin. In the 1970s, following a rash of UFO sightings, a few of the village’s citizens led a grassroots effort to raise $50 million to build a UFO landing strip. I just loved that so much. Some towns and villages were struggling to keep the lights on, and Elmwood was angling to build an interplanetary landing strip. Anyway, they never quite raised the money, but you’ve got to respect the effort. Much like the Loveland Frogs, the Elmwood story eventually led me to one dead end after another. I didn’t know how else to contribute to the story, and so, I had to take my strangeness elsewhere.
One of the most interesting aspects of the book is that you physically visit the sites of these phenomena. What did you find most surprising in terms of your expectations before visiting and what you found?
There’s no substitute for standing on the land where an event took place. All the better, too, if you can be there with an eyewitness, or with someone with a close connection to the story. No disrespect to armchair researchers (often, I am one!), but time and again I’ve learned that the work dramatically improves when you experience a landscape in all its richness.
In Midwestern Strange, I regularly had to recreate scenes based off of eyewitness testimony, newspaper reports, and photographs. But these scenes were always better when I could add my own firsthand observations, as well. I try not to calculate the number of miles I logged in trying to get to the bottom of these stories, though I know for certain that I managed 500 or so in a single day when researching the Kensington Runestone. There are people who might say, “B.J., you’re crazy to drive 500 miles just to see some old stone,” to which I’d reply, “Well…maybe?” But that’s the only way I knew to do justice to the story. There are no shortcuts, literal or figurative, that lead to a better book.
I suppose I was most surprised by my visit to Rhinelander, Wisconsin, in which I learned about an old lumberjack-era creature known as the Hodag. (Which, for those not “in the know,” is a fanged, spine-backed Northwoods monster). While there, I had a wonderful interview with a man named Jerry Shidell, who believed the property next door was the site of where the Hodag originated (by which I mean, where a nineteenth-century huckster/lumber cruiser named Gene Shepard carved the beast out of wood). Jerry was quite proud that such locally relevant folkloric history had occurred next door. But in doing some research, I learned that the Hodag was actually carved at a separate location a mile or so away. I hated to break the news to Jerry. But he took it so well, assuring me that he was talking about the “real thing” and not some “wood carving.” Of course, Jerry was well aware that when it comes to the Hodag, there is no “real thing.” Yet Jerry’s willingness to suspend his disbelief for the sake of a story spoke volumes about local citizens’ take on the famous creature.
In any of the situations you discuss, did you have theories going in about what really happened, and how did those change as you talked with locals?
Anomalist Jerome Clark, who I interviewed at length, is perhaps the best source on this subject. He’s painstakingly considered the psychological possibilities involved in these anomalous sightings, among other factors. Clark reaffirmed what I observed to be true, which is simply this: when sightings are reported, the vast majority of the time people believe what they’re seeing. It doesn’t mean what they’re actually seeing is what they claim it to be, but they believe it to be, nonetheless. For me, that’s rather encouraging. It’s better to make an innocent error than purposefully perpetuate a hoax.
There were two instances in which speaking with locals provided me a much deeper understanding of the cases. The first was the aforementioned visit to Rhinelander to investigate the Hodag. The second was my journey to Churubusco, Indiana, to speak with folks about Oscar the Turtle (a.k.a. The Beast of Busco). In brief, in the spring and summer of 1949, several people reported seeing a turtle the size of a dining-room table swimming about in Churubusco’s Fulk Lake. Thousands descended upon the shoreline, including reporters from major newspapers. While there are plenty of surviving photographs of the crowds searching for that turtle, wouldn’t you know it, there’s not a single photograph of Oscar himself. Upon entering Churubusco, I assumed there never was a turtle. At least nothing half the size of the turtle that was being described. But in speaking to a few locals, I learned that though they didn’t have proof of Oscar’s existence, they had the next best thing: a net which Oscar was said to have broken free from. When I asked the locals where that net was, one of the old timers mentioned that last he heard, it was in a horse trough in the town’s funeral home. I went to the funeral home, and sure enough, there it was in the horse trough! I still believe that Oscar the Turtle was more than likely a rather large turtle whose size was exaggerated over time. But with the net as proof, I’m more inclined to believe that perhaps his size wasn’t so overstated. I’m not certain he was 400-pound turtle as the story goes, but I’d be willing to believe 200.
After spending a year traveling to all these places and studying all these stories, what were your biggest takeaways from the experience?
You know, on some level, I’m just glad I got out alive. I’m kidding, of course. But the reality is, I went in pretty deep here. In a subject as strange as the strange, it’s hard not to get sucked in. At one point I reached out to an off-the-grid ufologist who was astonished that I’d even found his phone number. When I explained my project to him, he turned quiet. Finally, he revealed to me that his explorations of the strange dramatically impacted both his personal and professional life—and not in a good way. “You ought to think long and hard before you go down this road,” he said. The phone went dead a moment later, but his words stuck with me.
The epilogue offers three takeaways. One has to do with the types of people who report strange phenomena, another has to do with the tangible benefits for towns that embrace their oddities, and the third speaks to the disconnect between “more information” and “better information” in the twenty-first century. And while all of those takeaways are true—and important to larger conversations, I think—my own personal takeaway is that anyone, myself included, is susceptible to believing in something that defies logic and common sense. We humans act irrationally all the time. Every time we trust our gut over our better judgment, we’re opting for the less rational choice. And yet sometimes our gut knows best.
I’d like to say that I set out to solve the mysteries of the strangest phenomena the Midwest had to offer, and I did it. But the fact is, I didn’t. In many instances, I only further entangled myself in stories of creatures and phenomena whose elusiveness has made them famous. Maybe that’s the true takeaway: we don’t need to solve all the mysteries of the universe. We need only have the good sense to marvel.
What do you most hope readers learn from Midwestern Strange?
To put it in X-Files terms, the world needs its Mulders and its Scullys. Which is to say, we need our skeptics and our dreamers, too. To celebrate one and denigrate the other is a disservice to us all. The more folks I spoke with who’d experienced firsthand encounters with the strange, the more I learned about the pariah status they so often received as a result. I want to be clear here: everyone I interviewed was sincere and skeptical and honest. At least to the best of my knowledge. And sure, maybe someone pulled the wool over my eyes along the way, but it sure didn’t seem like it. Most people I interviewed were hesitant even to speak on the record. It takes a little courage to do so. There are inherent risks in sharing firsthand accounts of strangeness. After all, when was the last time you attended a professional function and said to your boss, “You know, I saw this incredible UFO last night…” (Although, to be honest, I wish more of my professional functions had those kinds of conversations.)
I hope readers leave the book with a deeper capacity for wonder. I hope they put the book down and look up at the sky, not only to see what they see, but to see what they don’t see. I want them to leave room in their logical and rationale lives for the mere possibility of one day experiencing something that may not seem so logical and rationale. “The supernatural,” remarked nineteenth-century writer Elbert Hubbard, “is the natural not yet understood.” I’d like folks to understand that, too.