B.J. Hollars Explores the Midwest’s Strangest Corners

August 27, 2019 | 5 books mentioned 10 min read

During his yearlong trek spent researching paranormal claims throughout the Midwest, B.J. Hollars admits “whether discussing the mundane or a monster sighting, it’s hard to know who to trust.” Everyone, it seems, has a story.

“The irony,” Hollars writes in Midwestern Strange, “is that much of the research conducted by cryptozoologists, ufologists, anomalists, paranormal investigators, and the like undergo the same processes employed within academia’s hallowed halls—namely, hypothesizing and theorizing toward a greater understanding of truth.” He often returns to this sentiment: Strange tales demand our attention, but such research is met with skepticism.

Midwestern Strange is a fun and fascinating romp through those tales—delivered with Hollars’s talent for connecting dots while remaining comfortable with unanswered questions. The author of Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence and the Last Lynching in America, The Road South: Personal Stories of the Freedom Riders, and other books, he is an associate professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

We spoke about Goosebumps, folklore, and the hidden strangeness of “flyover country.”

The Millions: I like to hear of other writers who were born wandering library stacks. You said the books of your childhood were “part pulp, part peculiarity.” Why—and how—did books about creatures and the paranormal especially capture your imagination?

B.J. Hollars: I think what fascinated me most about books on creatures and the paranormal were that these books were shelved in the nonfiction section of our library. I was probably nine or 10 when I fell headlong into strange and spooky tales, but prior to wandering toward the nonfiction shelves, I’d only known these subjects in their fictional forms.

I admit it: I was a Goosebumps kid. By which I mean I mowed as many lawns as I could to earn the four bucks I needed to pick up R.L. Stine’s monthly addition to his wildly popular series. I devoured the earlier books faster than Stine could write them, and once I ran dry, I travelled a little deeper into the library. Imagine my surprise when I learned that there were shelves overflowing with nonfiction books on subjects as strange as Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, werewolves, and the Bermuda Triangle. I gathered them up by the armful, then spent more than a few weekend nights sidling up to the kitchen table, notepad in hand, anxious to get to the bottom of these mysteries.

Prior to venturing to the nonfiction side of those library shelves, I felt I had a pretty clear understanding of the demarcation lines between fact and fiction. But books on Bigfoot and the like dramatically complicated my understanding. Suddenly I wasn’t sure what to think. I was 10 years old and the world had doubled in size for me. There was so much to see, so much to learn, and the widening of my world was revelatory.  

TM: What is particularly Midwestern about these cases and stories—other than that they are located in the region?

BH: One of the things I love most about the Midwest is its chameleonlike ability to blend in with its surroundings. The downside, of course, is that as a result, we Midwesterners are often overlooked. We are, for many, merely “flyover country”—just a swath of land you pass through en route to another place. But the upside is that in being overlooked, we’ve got a lot left to explore, especially in terms of the strange. I’m a firm believer that every place has something unique, but in the Midwest, it’s not always so apparent. We don’t have a coast, we don’t have mountains, and so, our “uniqueness” sometimes requires a little digging. Many of the “case files” within the book discuss how small Midwestern towns often take it upon themselves to employ creatures or stories or legends to serve as proof of their uniqueness. As I’ve learned, those towns that embrace the strange—rather than shy away from it—often benefit both economically and culturally. In the Midwest, it’s cool to be weird. We’re humble about our oddities, of course, but we’re a little proud of them, too.  

TM: Other than Project ELF—the Navy’s creation of “a one-way communication system to relay messages to America’s nuclear submarines by way of extremely low frequency waves”—which of these cases do you think is the most likely to be true, and why?

BH: Throughout the book, I try to steer clear of making too many definitive statements about my own feelings toward these subjects. For reasons of trying to preserve at least a little credibility, I let the narrative and the research do the work. As the various case files thickened, I tried to take an Occam’s Razor approach to the truth, assuring myself that the obvious solution was likely the correct one. But some of these events and creatures and phenomena seemed to defy any and all rational explanations. One interviewee said, and I’m paraphrasing here, that she likes to “keep an open mind without my mind falling out of the back of my head.” I really appreciated that candor. And I suppose I feel similarly. If you fess up to believing in phenomena such as UFOs or cryptozoological creatures, the general public dismisses you pretty quickly. But I’m always surprised by how many thoughtful and logical and rationale people come up to me in private to share their own encounters with the strange. Oftentimes folks begin by saying something like, “I know this sounds crazy but…” I just listen. And I try to do everything I can to intimate that I’m not judging them. That’s important, I think—just listening without offering an explanation. And I think that applies to most of our interactions with our fellow humans, too. Sometimes people don’t need an answer, just an ear.

Having said all that, the case that gives me the most pause is the Minot Air Force Base Sighting of 1968. It’s one thing when a single witness comes forward claiming to have seen a UFO, but what do we do when dozens of highly-trained military personnel claim to have seen something? Further, what are we to think when radarscope prints confirm that something strange was bolting through the sky? One answer, of course, is that the “UFO” seen over the Minot skies was an “unidentified flying object” of terrestrial origin. We tend to link UFO sightings with extraterrestrials, but we can’t forget the likelier explanation: that the technology is human made. That the strangeness in the skies is of our own making. Which is scarier: acknowledging intelligent life in the universe with technology far more advanced than our own, or that we ourselves possess such technology and refuse to speak of it?

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TM: You reference journalist and ufologist John Keel several times in the book. Keel is best known for The Mothman Prophecies, but my favorites of his are The Eighth Tower, and “The Flying Saucer Subculture,” a 1975 essay that appeared in the Journal of Popular Culture. “Ufology has been a propaganda movement rather than a scientific movement,” he argued. “The ufologists began stumping for a myth in the late 1940s before the sighting evidence was empirical.” You include a few UFO cases and encounters in this book, and speak with several researchers. Do you think Keel’s assessment is correct?

BH: One lesson I learned throughout this book is that everyone has a motive. As I sought out interviews with folks who had stories to share, I was always leery of those who were a little too willing to talk. Most of the interviewees that made it into the book were people who were a bit hesitant. They needed to know more about me and the project before they signed on. And I appreciated that vetting process immensely; mostly because it provided me the opportunity to get to know them better, too. So much trust goes into writing a book based primarily from firsthand accounts. At every turn, I was acutely aware that I might be played for a fool. In most interviews, I tried to tease out what the interviewer might get out of the process. On occasion, people said things like, “Look, nothing good came from this incident in my life, and I don’t expect anything good to come from it now.” Their hesitancy is what solidified my trust toward them. And I hope my willingness to listen without judgment allowed me to reciprocate that trust.

I haven’t read John Keel’s work widely enough to make a proper assessment in any definitive way. But speaking directly to the quote, my gut tells me that a good chunk of the population would likely agree. And that many Ufologists would, too. Carl Sagan famously told Ufologist J. Allen Hynek, “I predict that if and when you ever get a really good case that involves hard evidence, there will be no lack of federal funds.” It’s not that Sagan was dismissive about other intelligent life in the universe; rather, he just needed science to support such a claim. All serious-minded Ufologists likely share that sentiment. Because without the scientific backing, it’s even easier to dismiss the claims. An eyewitness account always proves insufficient. But unaltered photos and videos and radarscope prints, those are the building blocks of proof.

TM: The story of Oscar the Turtle—an alleged giant turtle spotted in Indiana during the 1940s—leads you to discover a folklorist who wrote his dissertation on the subject. “For a folklorist like [John] Gutkowski, it was never a question of whether or not Oscar ‘existed’: what mattered most were the stories surrounding the creature.” You’re a professor and writer; what did you learn about storytelling from spending a year steeped in folklore?

BH: We twist ourselves into knots over the so-called “truth,” when in fact “truth”—for better or worse—seems to grow more relative with every passing day. In the introduction, I write that one of my primary motives for this book was to test “whether our grappling with such unanswerable subjects might fortify us against the onslaught of misinformation now embedded in our lives.” Following the 2016 election, I became terrified by the weaponization of misinformation. Which is to say: there are serious socio-political ramifications for how we spin a story. Whether or not Bigfoot exists is hardly the most pressing question of our time, but I’d argue that better understanding how and why some people believe fiercely in Bigfoot, while others refuse even to entertain the possibility, is a question worth considering. What information tips our belief scale? How can two people look at the same information and arrive at two diametrically opposed conclusions? Of course, it’s hardly as simple as that. But, indeed, exploring the strange might be a vehicle for testing our own critical thinking skills on an array of subjects.

Throughout the research process, I found plenty of pitfalls in my own thinking. How easy it is to get caught up in the lie. And how difficult to return to solid ground once your heart gets ahead of your head. If a story is good enough, it’s easy to suspend our disbelief. And when we do, sometimes we let down our guard. For me, that realization is both empowering and terrifying. In the right hands, stories can create positive change, but in the wrong hands, they can prove destructive to the world beyond the story.  

TM: Midwestern Strange includes stories and legends that range from the bizarre to the silly to the violent. What led you to focus on these particular cases (and were there any interesting cases that you researched that you didn’t include in the book?)?

BH: About 35 miles due west of my home in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, is a village called Elmwood, which claims to be the UFO Capital of Wisconsin. No matter that a few other places in Wisconsin make the same claim, Elmwood totally claims it the hardest. Not only does Elmwood host an annual summer festival called UFO Days, but back 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. While surrounding towns were working on finding funding for the library and the school, a select group of folks in and around Elmwood set their sights a whole lot higher (pun totally intended—I couldn’t resist). The story is fascinating, yet I couldn’t track down enough of the key figures in the fundraising campaign to make the story worthwhile. And so, I had to let this particular case file. As far as I could tell, there was no new discoveries to be had.

As for the cases that are included, I selected them for a variety of reasons. First, I think they provided a nice range of “strange.” On one end, we’ve got wolves running about Wisconsin on two legs, and on the other we’ve got a pre-Columbian stone with a runic inscription dredged up in western Minnesota. One’s the kind of thing you’d see in a horror movie, the other, something you’d see on an archeological dig. In between, we’ve got creatures like Mothman, whose sole existence is based on eyewitness reports, as well as Project ELF—a top secret military operation with no shortage of documentation. Each of the cases provides a new way to view our world. As you mentioned, some of the case files are scary, others are a little goofy, but all of them, at least in my opinion, were totally worthy of further exploration.

TM: In your epilogue to the book, you write “Researcher be warned: when it comes to the strange, the work never reaches its end.” Keel has written about this; the feeling that existentially (or even psychically), paranormal researchers are trapped in constant inquiry. You spent a year “living strangely”—what has happened since?

BH: I spent a year leaping headlong down every rabbit hole I could, then another year trying to dig myself out. Researching strange phenomena was like nothing I’d done before. With this subject, the “written record” was always pretty thin. And even when I did find written accounts, there were always questions of credibility to consider. I began every case by calibrating myself toward neutrality. I had to leave any and all preconceived notions at the door. Of course, that’s virtually impossible to do. But I tried.

But the truth is, with few exceptions, the deeper I got into a case, the further from the truth I became. This was a wholly unexpected development. At the start of the project, the whole point was to let the evidence lead me toward explanations. Not necessarily to “debunk” any phenomena, but to provide additional possibilities. If I turned over enough stones, I figured, eventually I’d find something new. The problem, though, was that there were always stones beneath those stones. I turned over one and I found another.

The “Martian” section of the book was the most difficult in this regard. Information on UFOs and extraterrestrials is simply without end. I suppose this probably confirms Keel’s quote about UFOs being a “propaganda movement rather than a scientific movement.” One of the most startling moments of my research was when I tracked down a well-known Ufologist who’d been off the grid for some time. He made it clear to me that his UFO research had done real harm to his life. It ruined his career and his personal life. And he told me I ought to be careful if I insisted on going down this particular path, as he had. It really shook me.

Equally strange was the moment when various interviewees from various case files began highlighting the same specific detailed locations and mineral deposits, claiming that these locations and mineral deposits seemed to attract strange phenomena. I figured this was part of some larger theory, but not so. I searched every search engine and found nothing. These folks, on their own accord and without prompting, were simply mentioning a few details which they couldn’t make sense of. Having heard these details again and again, suddenly I was in a place to try to make sense of them, or at least look a bit closer. That was the moment I knew I needed to either go deeper down that rabbit hole or begin to claw my way out. Coward that I am, I chose to claw my way out. Things were becoming a little too strange, even for me.

The biggest change in my own life is that now I view the world differently. Mysteries aren’t something to be solved, but something to be embraced. We don’t need to conquer; we just need to be curious. For me, that’s where the revelation lives—in the not-knowing.

is a contributing editor for The Millions. He is the culture editor for Image Journal, and has written for Rolling Stone, GQ, The Paris Review, The Atlantic, Esquire, and The Kenyon Review. His newest book is Longing for an Absent God. Follow him at @nickripatrazone and find more of his writing at nickripatrazone.com.

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