It’s strange out there, author B.J. Hollars has found. And that’s not just a reference to dogmen on the roadside or extraterrestrial aircraft in the sky.
In “Midwestern Strange: Hunting Monsters, Martians, and the Weird in Flyover Country,” Hollars examines nine reports — he calls them Case Files — of unexplained creatures or other phenomena. But he believes the weirdness goes beyond the claimed sightings that have attracted all the attention; just as interesting are any given community’s residents whose words and actions likely are regarded by their friends as ordinary.
As Hollars, a UW-Eau Claire associate professor of English, put it in a recent interview, “I think if there was a 10th Case File in this book, it would be us.”
Hollars traces his personal fascination with the unusual to the time he was 8 years old, when visits to his local library spawned an interest in cryptozoology, that is, the study of Bigfoot and the like.
Years later that hobby intersected with Hollars’ professional life. While teaching in Alabama, his repeated assignments of persuasive papers brought a challenge by students to write one himself. When he asked for a topic, they suggested he prove the existence of Bigfoot.
“That gave me pause, and then I got all the books in the library, I went back to my house, spent a couple of weeks really trying to craft a case,” he said. “Not necessarily to prove the existence of Bigfoot, but the possibility that such a creature may not not exist — just to give myself enough wiggle room to make the case.”
The experience opened his eyes and his mind to, as he put it, “the possibility of a world beyond what we see and touch and feel and believe to be true.”
As Hollars explains in the book, he focused his research on the Midwest because, as a native of Indiana who lives in Wisconsin, he knows the terrain. Plus, the oddities in these parts tend to get less media attention than the coasts. And there are plenty to choose from — he found so many worthwhile cases he could have filled a trilogy.
More than monsters
He divided his book into three sections:
• Monsters deals with the Elkhorn’s “Beast of Bray Road,” a so-called “bipedal canine” first seen in the 1930s and thereafter; Oscar the Turtle, a creature also known as “the Beast of Busco” that weighs up to 400 pounds, reportedly noticed in 1949 in Churubusco, Ind.; and Mothman, a red-eyed, gray-bodied flying humanoid about 7 feet tall with a 10-foot wingspan and witnessed in 1966 in Point Pleasant, W.Va., and after that.
• Martians details the excitement surrounding UFO sightings in Eagle River in 1961; Minot, N.D., Air Force Base in 1968; and Marshall County, Minn., in 1979.
• The Weird examines the cases of the Hodag, a supposed fierce beast with fangs and horns and is a cross between a lizard and an ox, allegedly captured more than a century ago in Rhinelander; Project ELF, a U.S. military plan, discontinued in 2004, involving the use of extremely low frequency waves to relay messages to nuclear submarines; and the Kensington Runestone, a slab of graywacke stone, found in a small Minnesota city, with an ancient runic message dated the year 1362.
What Hollars found especially interesting was how some of the various communities responded to the unusual reports.
That included the Hodag, a beast that — spoiler alert — is fictional but still has managed to be sort of a cash cow to the northern Wisconsin city through “re-enactments” at the Oneida County Fair and merchandise playing off the tale.
Oscar the Turtle hits especially close to home — literally as well as figuratively — because Hollars grew up just 15 miles from Churubusco. Like the Hodag, Oscar hasn’t truly been found but has been an economic boost to the community through celebration of this claim to dubious fame.
“And so every time we drove through town you could see the turtles on every street corner,” Hollars recalled. “I would always peer toward that lake and just think, ‘I wouldn’t dare jump in.’ So it was really neat to kind of contribute to that narrative.”
Not all of the cases are nightmare inducing, but some of the incidents have had disconcerting real-life consequences for those involved in the reports and investigations.
That includes those who have studied UFOs, Hollars said, citing a ufologist who told him, “‘Studying this phenomenon has dramatically impacted my professional and personal life, and you better think long and hard before you go down this road.’”
“And that gave me real pause,” Hollars said. “He had lost his job; his marriage had struggled.”
At some point things got, well, strange as he pursued his research. One example, more on the humorous than the unnerving side, involved choice of meeting place by the people studying UFOs.
“Inexplicably, on several occasions people who didn’t know each other said, ‘Let’s meet at Perkins.’ And I kept thinking: Is there some kind of kickback at Perkins that I’m not aware of?’ But it was just funny how I found myself at Perkins all over the Midwest and talking to folks with UFO stories to share. So inexplicable, and yet that’s our world.”
Strangely enough, there was one instance when, while researching a UFO reported sighting, the meeting place wasn’t Perkins. It was Case File #4, the Eagle River case in which a plumber reported a UFO landed in the backyard of his rural cabin. Three beings came out of the craft, requested water, and after he brought it to them he was presented with what he called four space pancakes.
“Hilariously, that’s the one time I didn’t meet a person at Perkins,” Hollars said. “Though I did get some pancakes in Eagle River that day.”
Despite the fact that many people spoke with Hollars about their strange sightings, he said, not everyone he approached was a willing interviewee.
“A lot of folks want this in their past and a lot of folks have regretted ever sharing the story to begin with, and so there were certain people who did not get back to me and declined the interview,” he said.
Some people quoted in the book were initially reluctant, a stance that built credibility with Hollars.
“I found myself most trusting of the folks who weren’t interested in the air time,” he said. “I feel like those were the stories I most wanted to champion.”
Of all the research that went into “Midwestern Strange,” a couple of instances continue to give him pause.
One was the UFO sighting at North Dakota’s Minot Air Force Base on Oct. 24, 1968.
“Not only do we have radar scope prints that really show something clear in the sky that night,” he said. “But we also have dozens of eyewitness reports from trained military personnel. We also have a larger picture of these sorts of sightings happening on military bases throughout the country, especially those that have some kind of nuclear capability. So there’s some curious calculus to be had there.”
The case of Gale Harris, who reported seeing Oscar the monstrous turtle in a lake on his property in 1949, reveals something more down-to-earth but still scary: how a reputation can be tarnished.
“Here is a local farmer in Indiana who, as a result of making public that he had seen a giant turtle on his property, lost everything,” Hollars said. “It cost him his health ... diminished his financial situation, and it cost him his credibility in the community.”
Hollars’ research has in fact given him a new understanding of what he calls “the most peculiar thing of all”: belief in the face of scant evidence.
“One of the most compelling things I learned along the way are that there are both neuroscientific and psychological reasons for why we believe we see things we do,” he said.
Those reasons, he added, explain why even reports of a UFO that turn out to be false often were not presented out of malice or to perpetrate a hoax.
“If you see a shadowy figure off in the woods from a distance, your brain tells you to be on high alert,” Hollars said. “If you see something that looks somewhat familiar, your brain will create a pattern that will help you create a folder for what it is.”
That’s why, he said, his “year of living strangely” became less about the conclusions and more about the experience.
“I’m not interested in trying to debunk what these folks shared with me,” Hollars said. “I’m far more interested in listening to them and then letting the reader make decisions on their own.”
The truth really is out there, one might say, and that may not have to be so ominous.