FR: Strange Familiars

For Real is an occasional series about scary, horrific, and unsettling stuff that presents itself as non-fiction. This might include the paranormal as well as true crime and odd occurrences. The rest of the series can be found here.

Back when I started this blog, I made a decision to avoid silos. I wanted to write about RPGs without becoming an RPG blog. I wanted to write about horror films without becoming a horror blog. I wanted to write about the paranormal without becoming a paranormal blog. My job as a blogger is to seek inspiration and report on my findings. Turns out that some journey take me further afield than others.

Back around the turn of the Millennium, when the X-Files were still fresh and UFOs were in fashion, discourse surrounding the paranormal tended to fall into two camps: Believers and Sceptics. While I may have ended the 20th Century as a Believer and begun the 21st as someone who is sceptical about claims regarding the paranormal, I was always somewhat perplexed by Scepticism as a sub-culture in its own right.

I can understand being really into UFOs or the Loch Ness Monster.  I can understand reading book after book after book and disappearing into the subtleties of the lore. I can understand spending money on holidays that function as weird pilgrimages to sites of supernatural activity. I can understand the appeal of all of these activities but I cannot understand putting a similar amount of energy into not actively believing in the paranormal.

Why bother going to the trouble of writing books about how Bigfoot isn’t real? Why give a lecture debunking the existence of the Loch Ness Monster? Why become actively invested in things not existing when it would be a lot easier to shrug your shoulders and ignore the stuff that blatantly isn’t real? Why become an active killjoy when the stakes are so astonishingly low?

Upon deciding to dip my toe back into the waters of the paranormal, I was delighted to discover that the discourse had moved away from Belief vs. Scepticism. Nowadays, there seems to be little interest in actively disbelieving in the paranormal and the sub-cultures devoted to active scepticism appear to have been cannibalised by other scenes. However, because all cultures require some sort of narrative and the push-and-pull of id and superego are as valid an ordering principle as any other, a variation on the belief/scepticism discourse appears to have re-convened around the question of one’s commitment to scientific materialism.

On the one hand, we have the people who believe in the paranormal but pare the substance of that belief back to the point where it fits (broadly) within the limits laid down by contemporary scientific thought. For example, Bigfoot exists and is an undiscovered species of large hominid. Similarly, UFOs exist and they are some sort of space vehicle that has travelled to Earth from another planet. It is this approach to the paranormal that functions as the superego, allowing for belief but also serving to rein back the mythos and debunk some of the more outlandish claims made by believers.

On the other hand, we have the people who function as a sort of paranormal id. These people tend to be radically inclusive in so far as they take most reports at face value and, when these reports conflict with scientific thought, they tend to discard the science or at least approach it from a completely different angle. For example, under this approach UFOs are unlikely to be visitors from another planet because the physics and economics of travel between solar systems makes the presence of little green men in space ships seem rather unlikely. As a result, UFO sightings are often explained in terms of more outlandish phenomena such as psychic projection or visitors from a different and previously unknown physical realm. Similarly, Bigfoot exists but the evidence for a large species of hominid is so thin that it is more likely to be some sort of ghost, spirit, or psychical phenomenon.

A little while ago, I wrote about the TV series Hellier and how the investigators seemed to progress from the abstemious materialism of alien cave bases to a more radically inclusive metaphysics including the possibility of ghosts, alternate dimensions, and ritual magic. The podcast Strange Familiars has undergone a similar journey albeit much faster and with a far greater desire for inclusivity.

Strange Familiars appears to have started life as a means of generating publicity for the work of musician and Pennsylvania folklorist Timothy Renner. The first few episodes deal with a local legend involving an insane asylum, feral albinos, and a gateway to hell. The stories are absolutely gorgeous and well-worth a listen but they cast Renner in the role of the debunker, forever pouring cold water on the more outlandish elements of local myth.

From there, Renner gradually widens his net. Elaborating on elements of the stories he has told and forging connections between local legends and news stories from the surrounding areas. These early episodes are a lot of fun as I tend to find that local folklore is often far weirder and more unsettling than polished works of fiction. Had Strange Familiars stuck by this format then I suspect it would have remained quite niche and quite local. After all, how many stories about the Pennsylvania hills could there possibly be? Perhaps mindful that his podcast was already threatening to escape the limits of his personal research, Renner made a couple of changes to the format that turned Strange Familiars from something quite sweet to something unbelievably weird. The first change was the decision to go to sites of local folkloric interest and do field recordings.

Anyone aware of either the found footage horror genre or the televisual heritage of Most Haunted will know that ghosts and shaky camcorder footage go together like British people and ugliness. The idea behind this association is simple: Prime the audience by talking to camera about the lore of the place you are about to visit and then take your camera into a low-light environment. The darkness and the camera’s limited low-light capability then combine to produce (over the course of an evening) a few seconds of ambiguous imagery that our brains immediately interpret in terms of the lore that was fed to us at the start of the programme. Rince and repeat, it always works.

Strange Familiars puts an interesting spin on this formula as rather than taking a camera into a darkened building to find ghosts, Renner takes some audio equipment into a darkened wood to find evidence of Bigfoot. The results are amazingly effective as the lack of visual cues means that the noises are even more ambiguous and so even more prone to creative misunderstanding. The first instance of this technique is pretty effective, and it grows even more effective when combined with Renner’s attempts to describe what it is that he is seeing and experiencing. The results are wonderfully weird and deliciously creepy. In some cases, Renner records near a well-known area. Other times he records at one of several evocatively named sites known only to him and a few hand-picked confederates.

Aside from adoring the field recording format, I think it’s in these episodes that Strange Familiars really finds its feet as Renner’s tendency towards radical inclusion means that he swiftly moves beyond the bounds of existing folklore and begins concocting his own weird legends and ghost stories on the fly. Folklore is about the exploration of existing beliefs; Strange Familiars is about exploring the local area and choosing to view it through the lens of the paranormal. This is not just a podcast about mythology or local history… it’s a podcast about re-enchanting the world.

While the visits to Site 7 are always entertaining, the show’s unimpeachable highpoint remains Renner’s visit to the abandoned town of Pandemonium. One of the weirder aspects of Strange Familiars is the way that it seems to gain and lose co-hosts. The podcast started out as collaboration between Renner and the photographer who helped to work on his book but this person soon dropped out only to be replaced by someone else, who then dropped out in turn. One of the reasons why the Pandemonium episodes work so well is that Renner decided to team up with an experienced outdoorsman who, it turns out, is even more excitable than he is! The Pandemonium episodes start out with a rather sedate stroll around an abandoned town only for the pair to get spooked by a passing truck (a passing truck which, admittedly, sounds like a nightmarish metal apocalypse). From there, things only get progressively more weird and fascinating.

As brilliant as the field recording episodes are, it is pretty clear that the format is limited both by the ability to capture good material and by issues with Renner’s long-term health. Patreon included, Strange Familiars tends to put out a couple of episodes a month and filling every episode with field recordings would probably involve too many nights outdoors. Indeed, Renner seems aware that people love his field recordings and there are frequent references to future expeditions but I get the impression that there’s a hard limit to how many of these kinds of episodes the podcast can produce in any given year.

The rest of the podcast is split between conversations regarding local history, conversations with other podcast hosts, and interviews with Strange Familiars listeners. Though somewhat uneven in terms of quality, these interviews are fantastic source of weirdness as many Strange Familiars listeners have experiences of the paranormal that are nothing short of bizarre. My favourites are the Astral Sasquatch Man and the Chicago Demon Woman but there’s also fun to be had with Renner’s experiments in synthetic folklore when he will make a passing reference to some previously unknown type of critter (such as the Bunny Man or the Flannel Man) only for Strange Familiars listeners to turn up swearing that they have been visited by the bloody things on multiple occasions.

Strange Familiars is weird, chaotic, and frustratingly uneven but it is also an absolute delight. At its best, it is one of the most entertaining things on the internet. At its worse, it is a portal into the minds of people who have either seen some shit or need serious help. Either way, there are more ideas in a single episode of Strange Familiars than you’ll find in most horror novels.

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