From a Wisconsin "Dogman," to a 400-pound giant turtle, to Martians that serve pancakes, B.J. Hollars' latest book, Midwestern Strange: Hunting Monsters, Martians, and the Weird in Flyover Country is truly an addictive read. I recently had the pleasure of talking with Hollars about all things "Midwestern Strange"— extraordinary case files, backstories, and of course, B-movie titles.
Hi B.J.! I’m so excited to talk with you about your latest release, Midwestern Strange: Hunting Monsters, Martians, and the Weird in Flyover Country. I love this book, and I first have to say there’s something truly poetic about its triptych structure: Part 1. Monsters, Part 2. Martians, and Part 3. The Weird. The best things truly come in threes! A recurring theme of this book is the role mystery plays in our lives, along with what you call our “own need for closure” or “anything to help us find the proper file.” On top of that, there’s imagination and childlike curiosity—I mean, the book is dedicated to your kids—it seems that we never really let go out of our childlike wonder…at least fun people never let go of their childlike wonder. Of course, the three parts are distinct, but at the same time, I feel like each part does inform the next. I think a lot about how early on, you talk about our “commitment” to believing that certain phenomena exist, and then Part 3. brings us to “Case File #7: The Hodag”: “Approximately 185 pounds and seven feet long; a cross between a lizard and an ox complete with razor-sharp fangs and horns.” You also state in the conclusion that “The legend lives. The creature…not so much.”
So, to begin, I thought we’d have a little fun:
If you could create your own Midwestern monster, Martian, and/or weird, what would it be? What would you name this creature or phenomenon? And how would you give this monster, Martian, and/or weird a Midwestern “stamp”?
I’ve been waiting my whole life for this question! Okay, maybe not my “whole life,” but it sure is fun to dream! Let’s see…I suppose I’d have to go with the Tater Totterer—a spud-looking, bipedal creature who strikes fear into the hearts of Midwesterners who are crazy enough to make hotdish with a layer of tater tots. (And as all Midwesterners know, it’s pretty much crazy to make hotdish without a layer of tater tots, so, I imagine this creature being pretty ubiquitous). The Tater Totterer would stalk outside homes throughout the Midwest, lift his starchy nose to the wind, and whenever he caught so much as a whiff of tater tots topping off a hotdish, he’d get revenge on the potato-eating families by taking a seat at their dinner tables, saying nothing, and staring disapprovingly at them throughout the meal. That’s about as Midwestern as Midwestern revenge can get!
It’s a silly example, of course, but for centuries we’ve been concocting equally curious creatures. Take, for instance, the Hidebehind (a creature who’s super power is simply hiding behind things), the Axehandle Hound (a dog in the shake of an axe whose diet consists solely of axe handles), and the Sidehill Gouger (who lives on hillsides, and, as a result, has adapted by having legs on one side of its body longer than those on the other side). It’s all madness, of course. But it’s entertaining madness.
I love how you mention sci-fi films. I mean, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) is a literal masterpiece. Now let’s play a game: take any one of your monsters, Martians, or weird, and make a sci-fi film or B-movie title (I guess the Mothman is already taken with The Mothman Prophecies). And if you want to go a little further, what’s the tagline of that movie you’ve just created? What’s the plot?
Don’t make me choose! The funny thing is, some of the creatures have already gotten the B-movie treatment, though you probably haven’t heard of the films because they were hardly critically-acclaimed, and that’s putting it mildly. Thinking back on these “case files,” it’s immediately clear to me that some of these creatures and phenomena are more cinematic than others. For instance, the story of the Kensington Runestone, while great on the page, probably wouldn’t translate to film. Stones are cool and all, but they just don’t do a lot.
I’ve always been a fan of scary movies with underwater elements, like Jaws. For that reason, I’d probably lean toward Oscar the Turtle getting the Hollywood treatment. That story is just so much fun. Imagine a 400-pound turtle trapped in a not-so-huge body of water. And yet, despite the townspeople’s great efforts to capture the thing, they couldn’t. How an alleged 400-pound turtle could prove so elusive is baffling, and yet, the adventure of tracking him down would likely make for great cinema! As for the tagline, here it is: Just when you thought it was safe to swim in a swampy lake that no one ever swims in…
As writers, I feel like it’s our job to use our writing to uncover the mysteries of the world, from the micro/inner (for instance, why we might feel a certain way) to the macro/outer (for instance, what we do with the world around us). In your epilogue, you state: “It turns out I’m better at reporting the stories than solving them.” How do you grapple with this? At the same time, writing isn’t just about finding the answer, per se, but also fully understanding and treasuring the process. Perhaps understanding and treasuring the process is even more powerful.
Writing, for me, is always a humbling experience. I may start a project in search of answers, but I’m never disappointed if those answers ultimately elude me. It’s such a cliché, but for me, the journey is the pleasurable part. And even reporting what one fails to find—as well as the places one looked—might at least offer a little insight into the process.
I don’t think I embarked on this project with any real belief that I might “get to the bottom” of any of these “case files.” Odds are someone other than me will prove or disprove the existence of Bigfoot and the like. But what I hoped to do is examine the various phenomena through a different lens. I didn’t want to limit the conversation to the same old question of “Does x or y exist?” Instead, I wanted to know why we believe—or not—in these various creatures and phenomena to begin with. Additionally, what does it say about humans that we can’t seem to come to consensus on any of these things? For me, that’s the greatest mystery of all: why we are the way we are.
As to your other point, I couldn’t agree more that we writers ought to consider both the micro and macro mysteries of our world. And my writing is at its best, I think, when I seek answers in both of those locales. I need to turn inward to see how I feel about something to begin with, but I also need to push outward to see how those feelings evolve with new information. I often think of the Ralph Waldo Emerson quote, “Speak what you think now in hard words and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradicts everything you say to-day.” Taking that advice too literally will likely cost a person a lot of credibility, but there’s value, too, in recognizing that it’s perfectly reasonable for one’s views to change over time.
I love how you mention the human psyche throughout. For example, in “Case File #4: Joe Simonton’s Space Pancakes,” you raise the following question: “Are our psyches somehow manifesting proof in the form of radar echoes, photographs, and pancakes? Or are we actually seeing saucers in the sky?” Can you talk a bit more about the psyche and your thoughts on why the psyche may make us believe certain creatures and phenomena exist?
There’s a great article by Diane Ackerman in which she writes about how the brain is wired for finding patterns—even if the patterns themselves bring us no closer to truth. “The brain is a pattern-mad supposing machine,” Ackerman writes. “Given just a little stimuli, it divines the probable. When information abounds, it recognizes familiar patterns and acts with conviction. If there's not much for the senses to report, the brain imagines the rest.” It’s that last bit that really stands out to me—“the brains imagines the rest.” I’m not implying that people who report strange phenomena are merely imagining what they’re seeing. But at the very least, we now know that neuroscience plays a role in helping us create order out of disorder. That we are, indeed, hard-wired to find answers in the unfamiliar and to assign everything a name.
In addition to the neuroscientific explanations, I’ve also been interested in the psychological role memory plays. Psychological studies have proven that every time we remember an event, we become further removed from the event itself. I’ve heard this phenomenon compared to what happens when we make a copy of a copy—eventually, the original begins to fade. For me, this is as equally compelling as the neuroscience discussion. In addition to our mind preferring patterns to reality, our memories—when we choose to remember them—fail us, too. All of which is to say, even when well-intentioned people think they’ve seen something strange, our brains might be working against our best interest. It begs the question: Are we in control of our brain or is our brain in control of us? Who’s taking the orders and who’s giving them?
Also, related to “Case File #4: Joe Simonton’s Space Pancakes,” I found it hilarious that you make it 100% clear you’re a waffle, not a pancake guy. Humor’s the best. Humor in writing, I believe, is so underrated. What was the funniest moment during this whole process of research and writing this book?
You know, in all honesty, I’m happy with a great pancake, too, but waffles are funnier, right? But I’m with you—humor matters. When we take ourselves so profoundly seriously, we end up being the butt of the joke, rather than in control of the joke. And in a subject as strange as the strange, I felt it vital that I provided at least a few opportunities for readers to chuckle. I tried to be intentional with my humor, and to that end, I never poked fun at my interviewees. Frankly, if someone trusted me enough to share their experience with me—at the risk of public ridicule, no less—then the least I could do was not be party to that ridicule. As the writer of the book, in some ways I serve as the moderator, too. If I defended my interviewees too strongly, I risked getting blasted for doing so. But if I didn’t defend them sufficiently, then it felt like I was hanging them out to dry. As I negotiated this balancing act, I tried to err toward defending my interviewees more than myself when the situation called for it. I reminded myself that they were the ones taking the risks; I was just the one writing about it.
As for the funniest moment, I know the answer precisely! It was that in the midst of all this strangeness, the oddest thing of all was that most of the folks I spoke with within the UFO community all wanted to meet at Perkins Restaurant! I kid you not, on several occasions folks in that community asked to meet at Perkins. Don’t get me wrong, I can get behind Perkins, (might I recommend the waffles?), but it just seemed so funny to me! Here we are talking about extraterrestrial life and abductions and sightings, and yet time and time again we’re having these conversations in the same chain restaurant. Of all the places in the universe, we just kept returning to Perkins!
You know, “Case File #6: The Val Johnson Incident” really intrigues me. Again, a running theme of Midwestern Strange is how we have this innate curiosity and we want answers. But, from this chapter, I learned that Val was actually quite indifferent: “If most folks are motivated by fame or fortune, I’m impressed by the degree to which Val appears disinterested in both. Except for an unsolicited $1,000 check from the National Enquirer for ‘Best UFO Story of the Year,’ Val tells me he hasn’t earned a penny as a result of his encounter.” Can you talk a more about Val’s indifference? I don’t mean to pry—I’m just astounded and impressed with how he’s made peace with his encounter.
Val Johnson is a really compelling person. One of the things I appreciate most about him is, as you put it, his indifference. For several months following the sighting, Val’s story made national headlines. But then one day, those headlines were replaced with other headlines. The story faded. The UFO faithful are quite familiar with Val’s sighting. After all, it’s not every day that an encounter with a strange light in the sky leaves physical damage to one’s face and one’s automobile. And it’s a compelling story, too, due to the fact that Val was a sheriff’s deputy at the time of the sighting. The reason the Val Johnson Incident is often considered a “top 10” UFO sighting is because of these attributes—the physical damage and Val’s station as a law enforcement officer. Yet when you sit down with Val, the first thing he’ll tell you is that he has no earthly idea what he saw in the sky that night, that the answer to that question is above his paygrade. The main reason I grew to trust Val was because he was so hesitant to talk in the first place. In my estimation, Val truly isn’t interested in seeking fame and fortune from his encounter. Probably, he’d rather I left the story alone, too. But he was kind enough to open up to me. And in doing so, I was more fully able to understand the aftermath of a sighting as widely publicized as his own.
This book has an extensive bibliography. Can you name three critical sources for people who are interested in exploring these phenomena?
In the world of anomalous encounters, there’s no one better than Jerome Clark, who’s featured in the space pancakes chapter. In terms of cryptozoology, Loren Coleman comes to mind. As for a deeper understanding of the natural world more broadly, I’d suggest the aforementioned Diane Ackerman. While the strange isn’t her subject, the natural world is. And when we’re talking about our strange world, it’s good to have a sense of the world we know, too.
Of course, there are experts for each of these individual creatures and phenomena. Linda Godfrey knows all things on The Beast of Bray Road, Kurt Kortenhof is the Hodag expert, and the list goes on. There’s someone for every facet of every story. The tricky part, I think, is bringing all these puzzle pieces together to form a larger picture, if, in fact, there’s a larger picture to be seen. John Keel, author of The Mothman Prophecies, spent time searching for the “grand theory” that links it all. But I’m not so sure anything links any of it other than humankind’s capacity for wonder.
What’s next? Are you currently exploring more “Midwestern Strange?” I want to know!
I think my strange days are momentarily behind me. In this subject, you need to decide just how deep down the rabbit hole you’re willing to go, and if you’re not careful, you’re not the one who gets to make that choice. There was a time in the research process when I went so deep that I wasn’t sure I’d ever come back up again.
One of the lessons I learned throughout this strange journey is that I’m no expert on these matters. I’m interested, I’m curious, I’m wonder-filled, but I’m not going to get to the bottom of any of these mysteries. Of course, that puts me in pretty good company.
As for what’s next, I’m hard at work on a travelogue on a trip my then-six-year-old son and I took in the summer of 2018 to retrace The Oregon Trail. We struck out to learn about America’s past, but also, America’s present. Those 13 days were some of the best days of my life. We met all kinds of people and saw all kinds of things. But sadly, not a Bigfoot sighting anywhere…