A sea of competition exists for the attention of those interested in the strange, paranormal and unexplained. There's podcasts, radio shows, blogs and websites galore. I myself am reaching max capacity to follow much more than I try to at this point. One new show I am incredibly satisfied with taken a chance on is called Strange Familiars. It popped up a few months back and I got hooked from the very first episode.
This podcast, created by author and artist Timothy Renner, does everything right. Not only are the story lines intriguing and not overplayed, but the attention to production detail is phenomenal. A longtime musician, Renner brings his recording and mixing skills to bare in a big way. With original folk music, on-site recordings and retro-style news reports from paranormal news past, every show has a killer presentation.
Drawing largely from the deep well of Pennsylvania folklore (vintage and modern), Renner digs deep into his research to present stories as good as any mega-mystery program. And he's pulling it off nearly on his own solitary efforts.
After being introduced to not only his podcast but his band Stone Breath, his personal artwork and paranormal books, I come away massively impressed. He has really found a way to turn his interest in high strangeness into an immersive, self-contained multimedia world. I can't say enough positive things about his work as a whole so just follow through with the links in this interview and discover it for yourself. I can only hope that his intense efforts will soon get the recognition they deserves.
NOW GET FAMILIAR WITH THE STRANGE WORLDS OF TIMOTHY RENNER...
Why is folklore and urban legend vital and important for our culture? What first instilled your feelings about them?
In the past, folklore went hand and hand with mythology - and I think we’ve lost a kind of earth-based mythology. Our new myths might be science fiction - our new heroes may be the super powered characters in the latest Hollywood blockbuster - but we are losing touch with nature and with places of power and history. Many people don’t feel the impact of the seasons or of the landscape that surrounds them unless it’s some kind of major weather event or disaster. I think these folktales and legends connect us to the landscape - which is something we are forgetting in so many other ways.
By the way, I don’t have a problem with science fiction or superheroes - there is plenty of room for that stuff too.
I didn’t know it as folklore, but I loved it all my life. They were just ghost stories, local legends, and the like when I was a kid, but I was fairly obsessed with them. I wanted to visit every haunted house and go to every creepy abandoned place.
As I got older I realized traditional folk songs are very much the same - they tell these wonderful stories passed down from generation to generation and often change to fit the places they are sung. I see folk tales and folk song as very closely related.
From listening to the show, it sounds like Bigfoot is your true love. When did your passion for the legend begin?
“True love” made me laugh. That’s great. My kids often joke that bigfoot is my religion.
From the moment I saw the Patterson-Gimlin film on “In Search Of…” in the 1970s, I was hooked. Something about bigfoot has deeply interested me from that point.
I read every book I could find (which wasn’t many back then) and then… I guess I thought I grew out of it? I didn’t really follow it much from the time I was in high school until, really, somewhat recently. I would look at information on the web here and there, but it wasn’t a regular part of my life. When I was writing Beyond the Seventh Gate and I turned up so many local bigfoot sightings that I started to get a lot more interested in the phenomenon. That’s when I really jumped in with both feet.
Can you describe any personal sightings or experiences with the paranormal that you’ve had?
I have realized when I start to describe this stuff, I sound crazy. That being said, I think CRAZY is somehow part of the equation. I am not romanticizing mental illness. My thoughts on this are probably too long for an interview and more suited to a long article or a book - but I think there are multiple reasons for this and I’ll try to be brief.
For one, we often talk about liminal states opening folks to strange experiences. Some of my experiences have been during or on the heels of the use of psychedelics - these substances alter the mind - I think old school psychologists would say those who use them are inducing a state of psychosis. So “crazy” is a kind of liminal place.
Witches, shamans, holy men - they were often “touched” as they said. “Crazy.” But perhaps even more than this is THE OTHER - whatever the agencies are that seem to be behind paranormal activity - really benefits from witnesses being seen as “crazy”. It really keeps the water muddied. It keeps witnesses on the fringe.
So, all of that being said back to the question and knowing this sounds crazy: I have seen UFOs. I have had “alien abduction” type experiences. I use that term as a shorthand - I neither believe the entities are space aliens nor do I believe I ever left my bed. I have seen ghosts. I have seen SOMETHING very large, very fast, and very quiet in the woods which I could not identify. I have run into some odd things in the woods - if they were left by humans, they are very strange people.
By the way, I don’t think I am special. I think people have strange experiences all the time and don’t see it or realize it for whatever reason. I think if people put themselves in places known for strange activity on a regular basis - or draw the strangeness to themselves through various means - and start to note little things: synchronicity is the first thing I would recommended taking notice of, then any other little things no matter how small they may seem - I think almost anyone will start to experience strange things.
Of course, if you take a hard skeptic like my wife - she literally had an encounter with a known paranormal entity that many other people have talked about - and she just dismissed it as nothing but a hypnopompic illusion. I’ll never convince her it was anything more. To me, there are no coincidences, only synchronicities. To my wife, there are no synchronicities, only coincidences. This is why most skeptics will never experience anything paranormal. The new age types will say they are not “open to it” - but it is really that they refuse to see it. I don’t think THE OTHER cares if you are “open” to it or not.
When and why did you decide to launch the Strange Familiars podcast?
I simply wanted to do an audio documentary version of my book, Beyond the Seventh Gate. I even approached a few other podcasts about doing it on one their shows, but they either never responded or blew me off. Seriah finally encouraged me to just do it myself. He said he would host it and help me along the way.
So, I thought: well, I might as well do an ongoing podcast then. Which was a little naive in retrospect. It’s a LOT more work than I thought it would be!
Your show really goes above and beyond a couple people pushing record and blabbing into a microphone around a table. Can you talk about how your vision for a program has been influenced perhaps by classic radio plays and other high-quality audio dramas?
I said from the beginning: I don’t want to do the “two guys talking” format. Not because I think there’s anything wrong with that - I just think other people do it better than I could. I don’t think I could bring much new to that format. That said, some of our episodes come down to two guys talking - there’s no avoiding that - but I try to pepper it with on-site recordings, music, old articles, and the like.
The starting point for me was the first season of the Serial podcast. I thought it was really compelling storytelling and I thought I would like to try to do a paranormal Serial. After that it came down to how do I do this and what do I have at hand? I had a long history of music in the can (umpteen albums solo and with my band), I had recording equipment, and I know how to mix and master things so then it was a matter of just figuring out how to put it all together.
Things like the radio tuning and static for the old articles - I just wanted to set them apart sonically and make them “feel” old to the listener. I try not to do a ton of the radio play type stuff because what we are talking about, generally, is real stuff - so you need a balance.
For instance, I might have eerie music fade into a witness interview, but I don’t play scary music in the background while they are talking - not counting the very beginning of the show where I often use samples of the interviews in some kind of opening clip.
In general, I try to make something I would want to listen to - something with a variety of voices and sonic textures - and something which covers topics I find interesting.
You are a reoccurring guest on another podcast, Where Did the Road Go? How did you get involved with them?
I discovered podcasts when I was going through a particularly bad time in my personal life and I could not sleep. Where Did the Road Go? quickly became my favorite as Seriah is an excellent interviewer and seemed to just get great guests show after show.
When Beyond the Seventh Gate was published I did a lot of podcasts and radio shows. Seriah was one of the few hosts who actually read the book before interviewing me - which was really refreshing. After our interview we stayed in touch because he wanted me to do some art for WDTRG? and his other radio show, Last Exit for the Lost.
As we would talk about this sometimes I would tell Seriah about some weird experience I had or another and he eventually brought me back on just to talk about some of my experiences. From there I weaseled my way into becoming a regular guest. His panel of regulars runs deep with knowledge and I’m a bit out of my league sometimes, but I’m in great company.
That show delves a lot into firsthand accounts of occult and magic practice. Is that something that is a part of your life as well?
Do you have a personal metaphysics that explains the world to you, specifically one that accounts for all the paranormal shit that fills our universe?
I have a personal mythology. I think all my life I’ve been working on this - and it grows and changes with time. It’s not science, it’s belief, so I’m not sure how well it explains the paranormal.
There is an album Stone Breath did called Children of Hum. In the liner notes, describing how we came to name the album that, I tell this story: There is but one person who has shared most - if not all - of my personal spiritual beliefs and that is my long-time band mate and best friend, Prydwyn. When asked by his wife how we could marry such disparate elements as animism and Marian Catholicism, Prydwyn answered, off the cuff, “Some things hum. Some things do not hum. I follow those things which hum.” This perfectly sums up my path.
As to the paranormal. It’s an odd thing to dwell on. There is a very real state of depression many people who are deeply interested in the paranormal go through when they realize they will never “solve” this problem. Answers are not forthcoming. I think people either accept this and deal with it - or they just say everything paranormal is a “demon”, pretend they have solved the problem, and put their blinders back on.
We don’t get to “solve” it. We can participate in the puzzle - and a lucky few people may get to lay in a new piece of the puzzle - but we will never solve it. It’s like doing a jigsaw puzzle of an ever-changing fractal image in five dimensions while blindfolded. Good luck.
What is your general position on the nature of cryptid creatures – are they flesh and blood, inter-dimensional or something else?
Flesh and blood AND something else - possibly inter-dimensional, but that kind of speculation is really just science fiction until we know for sure.
Taking bigfoot creatures as an example: Something very real is leaving hair, scat, and footprints behind. It is eating food, hitting the sides of peoples’ houses, killing their pets, screaming in the night, and making weird tree structures in the woods. These creatures can bleed - though there are several reports of them being shot and nothing happening, there are also reports of them bleeding from gunshots or other injuries. So, yes, they are flesh and blood. They leave a very real impact on the earth.
But are they the same as bears or mountain gorillas or any other wholly natural animal? I don’t think so. I just don’t believe an 8-foot tall ape-man with a breeding population is able to perfectly hide in the North American wilderness despite all of our searching. Natural animals don’t avoid trail cams. They don’t usually give people PTSD after encountering them. They don’t leave a trail of footprints that just stop in the middle of a field. The list of weirdness goes on and on.
“Inter-dimensional” is a handy explanation, and it MAY be correct, but who can say? Until we know for sure, “inter-dimensional” really isn’t a better answer than “demon”. I can only say these things are not like us and they are not like other natural animals.
|Artwork by Timothy Renner|
Are Bigfoots ever seen in a pack or as a family? All the stories I hear are usually loner sightings. Is there any discussion about female or child Bigfoots?
The subject of the Patterson-Gimlin film seems to be female.
Many people claim to have seen packs or tribes of the creatures. Others have claimed to see little ones, potentially adolescents or children. I don’t know. I think we are projecting a lot of “human” onto them sometimes, but I can not say for sure.
I do believe they rarely travel alone. If you see one, there are more you are not seeing. I base this, as I base all of my bigfoot knowledge, on witness accounts. They are the best source of information we have.
Besides the research being about supposedly different entities, how else does cryptozoology differ from ufology? How are they interrelated?
I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer that fully - but from where I stand it seems like there are hardcore camps in both fields who want nothing to do with the other. “I study UFOs but those bigfoot people are CRAZY” - and vice versa.
There are, however, so many commonalities between the fields and the experiences, I think anyone who is not at least open to a holistic approach to the paranormal is potentially missing a piece of the puzzle.
I love how the show uses archival newspaper paranormal reports of sightings and encounters. How hard is it to dig out all those old media artifacts?
It’s not easy and it’s very time consuming, but I REALLY like doing research. If I didn’t love doing it, it would be a nightmare. I like digging through old stuff like that though.
Your book Beyond the Seventh Gate preceded the podcast and actually served as the theme for our initial run of episodes. Can you give the readers a short synopsis on the legends surrounding Toad Road, Hex Hollow and the rest?
There is a local legend (in York County, PA - where I live) about the supposed Seven Gates of Hell. When I first moved here this legend was associated with Rehmeyer’s Hollow (aka Hex Hollow) and a cemetery in York City. In both cases these were not supposed to be physical gates but sort of symbolic gates that you passed through by walking or driving a specific route in the hollow or the cemetery.
Sometime during the internet age, a crazy story popped up about the Seven Gates being located on Toad Road - another place of local legend - and this outrageous story about a burning insane asylum and/or a mad doctor who kept mental patients in his home started being told. This story is a myth of the internet age, but the books, Weird USA and Weird Pennsylvania published it and so it became THE story of Toad Road and the Seven Gates of Hell in many peoples’ minds.
Is the black gouge down this tree in Hex Hollow a lightning strike?
It is complete invention. There was never an insane asylum on Toad Road or anywhere else in York County for that matter - and there is but one gate on Toad Road - and it doesn’t lead to Hell. Plenty of weird stuff happens on Toad Road but it has nothing to do with insane asylums or gates to Hell.
Hex Hollow is a place where a real murder happened which was tied to a local practice known as powwow - which some people believe is witchcraft. I have tracked down stories of strange things happening there long before the murder, however, so I don’t believe that murder is the cause of all the weirdness reported in Hex Hollow. It’s just another symptom.
Instead of bolstering all of the urban legends about that story, you actually dispel what you consider to be false myths. Youre obviously not trying to sensationalize or milk the story for shock. Can you share what you helped to clear up?
I wrote the Hex Hollow story in the Weird USA/PA books. They also asked me to take photos for that story AND the Toad Road story. Knowing there was a lot of nonsense about insane asylums and the like, I begged them to let me read the Toad Road story before it was published. They did not. Instead they published the nonsense insane asylum story with my photographs. I made up my mind at that point that I would someday find the real story and write SOMETHING to clear it all up. I didn’t know it would turn into a book.
In the midst of all of this “insane asylum” nonsense a real person, a local doctor who happened to live near Toad Road - started to be named as the “mad doctor” in some other local ghost story books - which I thought was just horrible. The man was a veteran of both world wars and did charity work for the poor and aged around York. His second wife was still alive at the time I wrote Beyond the Seventh Gate. I hope she never heard a word about all of this - but if I did one good thing in writing that book, I hope I cleared his name.
The oldest bit of legend I could find about the place was just a tidbit my wife remembered from when she went to day camp near Toad Road - and that was a simple but eerie saying: Don’t look behind you on Toad Road. That ended up being incredibly important though because it tied Toad Road in with a much older Pennsylvania legend and confirmed with what a lot of other witnesses report in the area.
You recently released a book, Bigfoot in Pennsylvania. Can you comment on your research process and how you decided to structure all the content you amassed?
As I was writing my first book I found several bigfoot accounts in old newspapers. Of course, they didn’t call them bigfoot but when people are describing giant ape-men that behave exactly like modern witnesses report bigfoot creatures behaving, it doesn’t matter what name you give them. I loved reading these old accounts so I thought I would collect a bunch in a book. I figured I would have one book for the entire country. Shortly after I started I realized I would have enough to fill a book just on PA. Since I live here, I started with PA - but I plan on doing other areas. I don’t think I’ll have enough to fill a book for every state, but there are A LOT of these old reports. I’ll be doing these books for a long time.
The research process is really all about figuring out what people called these things before bigfoot. “Wild men” is most popular, but you get tons of other regional names and variants. After that, it’s just about putting in the time - finding various newspaper archives and digging in.
What is it about Pennsylvania that accounts for so much paranormal activity?
I used to say it would be the same in any other state, you just have to look for the weird… and I still think that is at least partially true - but we do seem to have a LOT of strange activity in PA. We have a lot of creeks and rivers - for whatever reason these seem to be important to paranormal activity. Some people speculate iron and/or quartz might play a role in the paranormal - we also have plenty of those minerals. People tend to think of PA as Pittsburgh and Philadelphia - but there is a WHOLE LOT of wilderness in between and even around those cities, so if cryptid creatures want/need isolation or large tracts of land in which to hide/live/etc, we have plenty here.
If you go back to the First Nations people that were here before the Europeans - they talked about all of the same things we talk about now. They just used different names.
All of this is a long-winded way of saying I don’t really know.
The amazing music of your band Stone Breath plays a key role in shaping the vibe of the show. Can you comment a bit about your musical background and how it ties into the themes of the podcast?
When I realized that traditional folk music was talking about many similar themes and stories as folk tales, I think that was it for me. I was all in. I taught myself how to play guitar and then found a local man who showed me how to play clawhammer banjo. I learned how to write songs by listening to traditional songs.
There was a 1970s band called Stone Angel from the UK - and, besides traditional songs, they wrote original songs about local legends. I thought this was a wonderful way to create original music but still link it to folk tradition. I’ve done this with Stone Breath from the beginning - it’s not all we’ve done, but it’s always been a part of it.
Even up to the last album, CRYPTIDS, which is all songs based on legends and cryptid creatures. Our forthcoming album, Witch Tree Prophets, takes its theme from a legend from my childhood home - The Witch Tree - which haunted my entire childhood in the most wonderful of ways.
And yes, the name Stone Breath is a partial nod/tribute to Stone Angel - but it was mostly about animism. I also liked the light/heavy imagery a lot of bands from the 60s and 70s used: Iron Butterfly, Led Zeppelin, etc.
When I started Strange Familiars, like I said, I just looked around and thought ‘what do I have on hand.’ Using music I had already recorded was a no-brainer - but it also helps with things like YouTube creator rights and the like. If I use my own songs I don’t have to fuss with them and prove that I have rights to the music.
You also draw some killer artwork of cryptid and paranormal content. Have you drawn since you were a kid?
Oh yeah. I grew up on a farm in rural Maryland. There were no kids my age anywhere around me. Whenever I would get bored and complain my mother would say “why don’t you draw something." So, thanks Mom!
|Artwork by Timothy Renner|
Of all the work you do from art to music to books and podcasts – is there a particular one that you hope becomes most successful or do you just want to keep doing it all?
These things are all creatively satisfying in different ways. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s in the cards for me to make a living off of a single creative outlet anymore. I did ok with music for quite a few years - but as the music business changed I took hit after hit to the income I was making from music. It’s just the way things are - so I try to roll with the punches. Music isn’t doing it, so I try to take on more illustration jobs. Illustration jobs aren’t coming in as fast as I would like, so I start writing books. Music business throws another wrench in the gears, so I start a podcast. I don’t think any one of these things are going to pay my bills on their own, unfortunately - but all together I have been able to make it, so far. I barely make it some months, but poor and happy is better than slightly less poor and miserable.
The podcast is the most labor-intensive, except maybe the research for the books - and the audience build has been very very slow with my podcast. I knew going in it would be an uphill struggle, and I knew the model for podcasts is basically to give something away and hope people will reward you for it. I told myself I would give it a year and then re-evaluate. If I can triple my current patrons by 2018 it will be worth continuing the show on a bi-weekly basis. If I don’t, I will have to seriously look at things and make a call. I won’t stop, but I might scale it back to one show a month or something - which will in turn cause me to lose more patrons, I’m sure. So, I hope it doesn’t come to that, but we’ll see.
Basically, if you listen to the credits on a show like Serial or anything where there’s a lot of production going into it, you will hear a whole bunch of names credited with various elements of the show. That doesn’t even include interns and behind the scenes people that manage various non-creative aspects of those shows. With Strange Familiars it’s just me. I have a few friends that will read the news articles for me, but everything else is me.
If any one thing took off to the point where it was paying my bills alone, I would have to concentrate more on that than the other things. At this point, the books, music, and illustration are all paying more bills than the podcast so it doesn’t make a lot of sense to devote so much time to making Strange Familiars unless things improve. Hopefully, things will pick up though and the show will continue its biweekly schedule in 2018. If things go especially well, I would even make it a weekly show.
|Timothy performing in Stone Breath|
I had been listening to the show for something like 25 years so it was just surreal. I really enjoyed it. I think that was the third radio show I had done, including podcasts, so I really didn’t know what to expect. If I ever get to do it again I think I’ll be a better guest.
With just 10 episodes of Strange Familiars in the can, surely you have a ton of future thoughts for the show. Anything to tease the audience with at the moment?
At some point I want to do a “Return to Toad Road” show with new witnesses I’ve turned up since episodes 1-3 - if they will agree to come on the show. My biggest problem seems to be getting witnesses to agree to come on the show. I don’t push too hard because some of these folks have experienced real trauma.
At least one of the upcoming shows on iron and the supernatural will include some Stone Breath songs we are recording specifically for the show, so that’s different.
Suddenly we’ve gone from being the paranormal Serial to the paranormal Prairie Home Companion! Not really - the songs are traditional and very relevant to the topic at hand.Other than that - expect more of the same. I’ll go out on location when I can. I’ll keep digging up old stories and I’ll try to make the show as sonically interesting as I can.________________________________________________________________
Check out all produced episodes of STRANGE FAMILIARS
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