14 min read

Wild Thing's Laura Krantz about exploring the unknown

I speak with Wild Thing's Laura Krantz about UFO and Bigfoot culture, and what those stories have to tell us about the world
Wild Thing's Laura Krantz about exploring the unknown

Hello, and happy Friday!

I got vaccinated! Shot one of the Pfizer vaccine on Monday. I go back in May for my second. It's a huge relief — we'd previously been signed up for a Johnson & Johnson single dose, but a day before our appointments, the FDA and state opted to pause their use for a short while. Our backup appointments were set for May, but after checking CVS frequently, I was able to snag a pair of shots for my wife and I. Thus far, no side effects, other than a sore arm. The end is somewhat in sight.

Onto this week's topic, which is less about news this week, and more of an interview I conducted with Laura Krantz, the host of an excellent podcast, Wild Thing.


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Podcasting the unknown

Over the last couple of years, I've listened to a lot of podcasts, and there's one that recently caught my ears in the last year — Wild Thing, hosted by Laura Krantz, a journalist who's written for Popular Science, Smithsonian, Outside, Newsweek, and other outlets.  

The first season of Wild Thing was a deep-dive into the world of Bigfoot culture, and the latest, which debuted last year, is about aliens and UFO culture. It's a fascinating listen into the science behind the stories and unexplained parts of the world. It's a fascinating podcast, and I'd recommend giving it a listen.

I reached out to Krantz last year while writing "Where the monsters come out" — the sort of intersection of nature and human civilization, and how stories about the unknown seem to come out of of that. I also wanted to pick her brain about how groups form around these beliefs, and how they relate to the larger world of fandom, and we had a longer chat about the podcast, nature, science, belief, and more.

(This interview has been edited for clarity and length)

Image: Foxtopus

Before we get into this current season, I'd be interested in learning how you got into podcasting about strange phenomena.

That was not a direction I had ever planned on taking. When I was working and living in DC, there was a big spread in The Washington Post about a guy named Grover Krantz who had donated his bones and the bones of the dogs to the Smithsonian.

He was a well-known anthropologist, tenured at Washington State University, and he had been involved in big discussions over Kennewick Man and these big anthropological touch points. And then in this article in the Post had a throwaway line that said that he was known for driving around the Pacific Northwest with a spotlight and a rifle searching for Sasquatch.

Screenshot: The Washington Post

And I was like, "who the hell is this guy? What a weirdo," And you know, same last name, and he was from the Salt Lake City area, which is where my dad's family is from. So I got in touch with my dad who was "eh, maybe?," and he got in touch with my grandfather, who was like, "yeah, that was my cousin. He used to come to the family picnics and measure people's heads with calibers."

So, it was a very personal entry point to this particular story. Otherwise, I don't think Bigfoot would have ever captured my attention. My thoughts about Bigfoot were largely Harry and the Hendersons, what you see in the front page of the tabloids, and spooky campfire tales. But not even really that — I grew up in Idaho and went camping all the time, and we didn't really talk about Bigfoot. We were more worried about bears.

And similarly, with the alien stuff, about halfway through that first season, there were two back-to-back events. The first one was this interstellar object, Oumuamua that came cruising through the solar system. People were like, "what the hell is it? Is it an asteroid? A comet? Is it an alien lightsail?" The second thing was all these headlines about how the Pentagon had been running a secret UFO program from 2007 to 2012.

Both of the mysteries caught my attention because of the reaction people had to them. They were everywhere. People were talking about them, people who I don't even think are particularly interested in those topics were like, "hey, did you see the front page of The New York Times? It's talking about UFOs." I felt like there's something here that's worth exploring more plus, I found the Oumuamua stuff really interesting. The idea that we had never knowingly seen a an interstellar object come through our solar system before was like "whoa, really? This is the first one?", which likely is not, but it's the first one that we've had the technology and the ability to recognize it for what it is. That's also exciting to think about: how the science is changing, and how we're just able to understand more about what's going on in the galaxy and also understand how very little we actually know.

What I've been interested in here is the connection between the conspiracy theory type story and urban legends, and the way that our imaginations sort of run wild about them. I'm curious if with the UFO stuff (and I'm guessing the Bigfoot stuff fits in here too), how you see these sorts of ideas spiraling out into what they've become.

I think what happens is that you have these events, and we're lacking information. When you don't have all the information — if you don't understand it, or you just don't have it begin with —  with a big topic like astrophysics and space science, those are meaty topics that people spend decades of their lives doing work in it and still don't fully understand it. So for the lay person, sharing these kinds of stories, seeing this kind of stuff, you kind of fill in the gaps with your imagination or with some of the maybe less grounded ideas that are floating around out there.

In some ways, that's not necessarily a bad thing. I think that it is perfectly reasonable to apply your imagination to events that you're witnessing or learning about, but you still have to back it up with facts and science. You can't just be like, "Well, clearly, it's alien lightsail, and they took pictures of us." You can say that maybe it did that, but you can't really say it did that because you don't have the full extent of it.

If you start to think about it and apply some logic to it, these sorts of things fall apart pretty quickly. I mean, I love the idea that we have our own resident lake monster here in Vermont, Champ. But practically speaking, it's gonna starve to death — there's not enough food to support it. Why do you think these types of conspiracy theories are so prevalent — is it just that people turn their brains off because they just want to believe?

Yeah. I think there is definitely an element of this wanting to believe, because these stories are more fun than "No, you did not see a sea monster in your lake." I think there is an element of just wanting it. I touched on this in the first season, of wanting the world to be wild enough and unexplored enough that something like Bigfoot could exist.

Yes, if you actually stopped to think about it, look at what evidence actually exists, look at the fact that if there was a Bigfoot out there, it would have to be multiple Bigfoots — Bigfeets? Whatever the plural is — they would have to be breeding, there would have to be a large population, and you would have found something more concrete by now — there's just kind of no way around that.

And you know, people throw out a species that we find all the time, but they're often smaller species, or they're very similar in how they look to a species that we know about, and so we didn't really realize that was a difference until we actually started looking at DNA. So I think that is definitely part of it — just the wanting to believe

One of the interesting things that I found out about with the UFO stuff is — UFOs actually exist. They're unidentified flying objects, but you have to take the definition quite literally. Whereas aliens coming to visit Earth? That's less likely. But I think the feeling from people I talked to who say that aliens have come to Earth is that the scientists who could prove something like this definitively, who could do the kind of research that would prove to us that that aliens have come, aren't willing to participate. Either it's because they think it's dumb, or they are covering something up. And that's where some of the conspiracy theories come off.

Like, they're, they're afraid of overturning the paradigm — paradigm shift is a phrase I heard all the time from people — that scientists are afraid of the paradigm shift, because it will leave them without a job. I don't necessarily buy that either, because scientists would love to be at the cutting edge of something like that — who wouldn't want to be the guy who's known for figuring out that aliens have in fact been coming to the planet?

But, I think there is a feeling that the kind of research that is methodical and would actually prove this out isn't happening. I can't say for certain if that's true —I mean, there could be stuff going on in the government that we don't know about. But my inclination is, if we knew that there were UFOs and aliens coming to the planet, it would have risen to a level of being more taken more seriously.

There's also a mathematical equation for how fast a secret goes out with a large group of people.

Some of the guys I talked to who were collaborating on projects that required them to have high security clearances were like "look, these guys want more money for their program. If you think that there are aliens and UFOs coming to the planet, there's going to be a big chunk of money that's going to get allotted to that kind of work. It's not going to be the $22 million that came out of the program — that's a drop in the bucket.

I think that's a reasonable argument as well — I think it's okay to be open minded to the ideas, but you can't let them run away on you; you have to be skeptical about it, you have to be discerning about the evidence. Just because you want it to be real doesn't mean that it is. The flip side of that is that even if you don't have the evidence, it doesn't mean that it isn't real. There's a fine line there.  

One of the things that I've always been interested in — the science fiction community and UFO culture doesn't really seem to mix. On paper, it seems like you'd have an overlap of the two, but it seems like they don't cross over that much. I'm sure they do to some extent — I'm sure that just about any science fiction writer, deep down, believes that aliens do exist somewhere, but that fanatical belief doesn't seem to be part of regular science fiction culture.

When you say UFOs, you're talking little green men?

Yeah.

That's a really good question. I don't really know. I did find that when I went to the UFO festival in Roswell,doing interviews with the UFOlogists there, I'd ask them what some of their favorite UFO or alien movies were, and some of them were like " well, I don't really watch that stuff." I think there's a level where they take that they take this very seriously, and they may not see science fiction as being curious enough. I don't know.

But there were also some who said that they love Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, so you know, some of those. But I see what you're saying: it's kind of a different culture. It's not like going to Comic-Con. It's a very different kind of pseudoscience, but not science fiction.

That might be part of it — I've always seen these as different tribes of science fiction fans. Like, you have hard SF fans where the authors are PhD physicists or are folks who are really knowledgable there. So maybe they're taking that science really seriously, and understand those contexts that you were talking about.

It's funny, because people kind of lump them all together, right? I found this with the Bigfoot people too — you sort of assume that all Bigfoot people are Bigfoot People, but no, they're broken down into groups like, there's the "Bigfoot is telepathic and travels through time and lives in another dimension group." And there's the Bigfoot is a flesh and blood creature that we have just not managed to get a specimen of. And even within those, there are more subsets. They're not monolithic by any stretch.

This sort of subculture — for lack of a better word, fandom — feels like the product of a modern mythology brought on by technology. You have the atomic bomb and this wellspring of science. You have people going to space, developing all sorts of technological innovations — how does UFO and Bigfoot culture fit in with all of that?

As I started doing research on this, one of the people I interviewed was a woman named Sarah Scholes, who wrote a book called They Are Already Here: UFO Culture and Why We See Saucers, which is about UFO culture in America. She had cited some papers that were talking about how extraterrestrials — and I actually had seen a couple of articles written about this too — have sort of become a modern religion of a sort.

So it's not even necessarily mythology, so much of this is faith-based, and that as America and people have become more secular, you see a growth in people turning to aliens as the Savior as opposed to like, God. I even saw this to some degree in conversations I had with SETI people, this idea that intelligent extraterrestrials will come to earth — or even if they don't come to earth — and will provide us a way forward, because they'll give us an example of how to get through our problems with climate change, how would we deal with an asteroid strike, or things like that. Those were very real conversations I had with Frank Drake, Jill Tarter. So I don't know that they would say that those faith ideas, but they kind of are like something that is going to save us or inspire us to be better than we are.

I think with Bigfoot, it may get back more to the mythology thing. And this might actually go back to what we had talked about before, where we were talking about how we've always lived with monsters to some degree. Like as a species, we have evolved with predators, with things that we were afraid of, with the sort of scary thing lurking in the dark. It's in literature and poetry, it's in oral traditions that have been handed down. So in some ways, I think Bigfoot is just an extension of that, and it's almost like we evolved with it and so we kind of need it. Like, if Bigfoot were to cease existing, maybe in popular imagination it would be replaced by something else.

You can now listen to Wild Things seasons 1 and 2 wherever you listen to podcasts. While she's working on a third season, Krantz has been releasing a handful of bonus episodes and interviews, all of which are worth giving a listen.


Currently reading

This week is pretty much the same as last week. I've been listening through The Unbroken by C.L. Clark, as well as Martha Wells' Fugitive Telemetry. I've also been making steady progress through Jeff VanderMeer's Hummingbird Salamander and Beloved Beasts, all of which I'm really enjoying.


Further reading

  • Battle rattle. Meg Shields over at Film School Rejects has an excellent post about the exoskeleton costumes that were used in Edge of Tomorrow. CGI is incredibly prevalent in Hollywood these days, but director Doug Liman opted to go for practical effects, including those suits. It's a neat look into the thinking behind them and how the actors used them.
  • Bookselling in a pandemic. The New York Times notes how bookselling didn't experience an extinction event during the last year of lockdowns, and some of that came from an unexpected place: publishers' backlists from existing, well-known authors, and a shift in behavior towards bigger outlets like Amazon or Walmart. Audiobooks also experienced a jump. What's troubling is that all of those virtual events that booksellers and authors turned to? They didn't translate into sales in the same way that physical events did.
  • Changing of the guard. Tor announced that Devi Pillai has been named the President and Publisher of Tom Doherty Associates, replacing Fritz Foy. Pillai came up through the ranks of SF/F publishing, so this is a really good thing to see, I think. (Disclaimer here: I write for Tor.com)
  • A decade of Westeros. Game of Thrones turned 10 last week, and I used the moment to take a look at James Hibberd's oral history of the series Fire Cannot Kill a Dragon, and what it revealed about the creator's process to adapt the book, and how it's lackluster ending will likely shift with time.
  • Everything change. ASU's Center for Science and the Imagination has released a new climate change anthology, and you can download it for free.
  • Goodreads autopilot. Prateek Agarwal writes for UX Collective about Goodreads' crappy design and why it hasn't improved. Part of that reason is lack of urgency on Goodreads / Amazon's part, because it's such a dominant force in book social media, thanks to good SEO, a big user base, and features that do what users want, and once they're in, they're in: "This external search discovery-driven growth loop also creates a very strong lock-in for Goodreads. When users start maintaining their catalog/bookshelves, the switching cost becomes extremely high."
  • Hateful sci-fi. Earlier this week on the anniversary of the Oklahoma City Bombing, I took a look at a science fiction novel that helped inspire the attack, and how storytelling can be an effective propaganda/radicalization tool. This was a post locked to subscribers — I ended up doing quite a bit of research and conducted some interviews for it.
  • Intergalactic: not something to read, but a new series coming to Sky in the UK that looks like it'll be a lot of fun: Intergalactic. I hadn't heard about it until earlier this week, when I came across a review in Den of Geek and then the trailer. It looks a lot like Guardians of the Galaxy meets Killjoys or Dark Matter. There's no word on whether or not it'll pop up in the US, but given that Sky is owned by Comcast, I imagine that they'll want to bring it to international markets. Comcast owns NBC and Peacock, which seems like it would be a good way to do that.
  • Love, Death + Robots №2. Netflix has finally announced when we'll get to see the next season of its anthology series Love, Death + Robots: May 14th! The first season debuted back in 2019, and featured a number of animated short films adapting some short stories. This year's season looks like it'll keep the same format, and will feature a some well-known authors like John Scalzi, Paolo Bacigalupi, Harlan Ellison, Rich Larson, and more. Unfortunately, it looks like they didn't include any female authors this time around, something I advocated for a couple of years ago.
  • Moral imperatives. Back in 2019, I wrote a piece about how I felt that any science fiction writer who wants to create a realistic world will need to make sure that they're incorporating climate change into it. I've reprinted it here on the newsletter (I didn't send it out, so you didn't miss it).
  • Preservation migration. Over on Bloomberg, Kim Stanley Robinson argues that cities will become an important part of future preservation efforts — something he utilizes in his book Ministry for the Future — because they can be used to empty out the rural parts of the world, allowing for those spaces to rewild themselves.
  • Solving the climate crisis. In case you missed it yesterday, I reviewed three climate change novels: Veil by Eliot Peper, The 2084 Report by James Lawrence Powell, and The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson and how they tackle the future of climate change.

That's all for this week. Thanks as always for reading. Let me know what you've been reading!

Andrew

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