January 5, 2021
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My good friend Matt Hopper, a talented producer with Forum Communications, first approached me about collaborating on a podcast in 2018 or '19. I frequently resisted these invitations, as I'd already spread my time fairly thin between various projects at HCSCC and some volunteering responsibilities elsewhere in the community. Of course, outside of a select few podcasts on road trips or morning walks (like Backstory or Revisionist History), I've also never been much of a podcast listener. I'm more apt to listen to public radio, YouTube documentaries, or some type of innocuous background music while I work. When I drive or workout, it's music or silence.
However, when COVID-19 entered our lives in March 2020 and temporarily closed our museum at the Hjemkomst Center, my colleagues and I were forced to confront a new reality. Our positions at the museum were generally safe — which was not the case for many of our museum colleagues around the U.S. — but we needed to find new ways to connect with our audiences. So once we navigated the challenges of reopening the museum in June (before we closed again in November) and moving staff meetings and programs into digital spaces, Matt and I decided to give it a shot.
Paranormal North is the result of this collaboration. We researched and scripted the episodes through August and September, both at work and in our own free time. Then we recorded and edited at WDAY studios before publishing them through inForum in October and November — just before COVID-19 visited me and my girlfriend (we're both okay). Our content drew from new research and research that my colleagues and I have conducted intermittently over the last several years, particularly for a small local folklore exhibition called Weird FM that we shared alongside an exhibition of SuperMonster市City!'s America's Monsters, Superheroes, and Villains: Our Culture At Play in the fall and winter of 2019. We wanted the podcast, like both of these exhibitions, to provide historical context and interpretation for some of the local legends in the Red River Valley. We wanted to know, what are our local legends, why do we tell these strange stories, and where do they come from?
After producing four episodes we've certainly identified some ways we can improve our storytelling in this new medium, but the feedback we've received has been overwhelmingly positive. We've had thousands of listeners, and dozens of folks have reached out to share kind words or suggest upcoming episodes (we haven't decided the podcast's future, yet). Will we do a deep dive into the Kindred Lights or the Wendigo, for example? What about Nisse or Trolls?
Of course, we've also encountered a little pushback, including a charge that Paranormal North deflates local legends and ruins a small slice of fun in our community. When I first read this accusation, it reminded me of valid ethical concerns I had about leading elementary and high school students on tours through Weird FM and America's Monsters, Superheroes, and Villains. I wondered, could I tactfully introduce the folklore of German and Scandinavian immigrants, including Krampus and Saint Nick, without peeling back the curtains on, say.....Santa Claus? Could I frame one of the central arguments of America's Monsters, Superheroes, and Villains — that the pop culture stories we tell and the ways we play are intrinsically tied to the material realities of history, psychology, and biology — without explicitly casting zombies, Superman, and the Marvel Universe into the shadows of the Holocaust, Hiroshima, and Jim Crow? Where do we draw these lines as journalists, educators, and historians — especially since we're not just talking about stories, but storytellers and audiences?
I'm skeptical of supernatural and paranormal phenomena. I trust hard evidence and the scientific method and professional consensus. I am sympathetic to the fallibility of humans and science, and I push back against the ridicule that True Believers face, but I'm perhaps more sympathetic to the feedback I've received suggesting that magical thinking primes us for propaganda, hoaxes, and conspiracy theories.
To put this another way, I personally don't think of ghosts or flying reindeer when I hear a noise in the attic, but Christmas and Halloween are still a magical time in my house.
Have a listen and tell us what you think.
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Click to play/download.
Episode 1 - The Vergas Hairy Man
Episode 2 - The Val Johnson Incident
Episode 3 - The Wild Plum Schoolhouse Poltergeist
Episode 4 - The Horace Mann Elephant
Paranormal North is produced in collaboration by the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County and Forum Communications.