Although I’ve never directly interacted with them, I’ve been aware of the work of Dana and Greg Newkirk for quite some time. Ever since Greg and his buddies released a very tongue-in-cheek documentary –that almost qualifies as a mockumentary— called The Bigfoot Hunter: Still Searching and they launched a website called Who Forted, it was clear they were not taking the typical ‘oh-so-serious’ approach most ‘respectable’ researchers adopt; which was fine by me, because having a healthy sense of humor is actually a good strategy to retain your sanity in this field –besides, the world could always use more Fortean puns!
But, like everything and everyone, things started to change: Who Forted eventually changed its name to Week in Weird, which was followed by a second site called Planet Weird, and with the Newkirks engaging in a new venture in the form of their Traveling Museum of the Paranormal and the Occult, it looked as if Greg and Dana were trying to move away from their former persona of the ‘goofy new kids on the block (who don’t really take all this too seriously)’ to becoming a younger version of Ed and Lorraine Warren.
It was with this in mind that I started to watch the web docu-series Hellier, co-produced with Karl Pfeiffer and his partner, Connor James Randall. Again, the series dealt with a story I’ve been familiar with ever since the Who Forted days: a strange and serendipitous email Greg received unsolicitedly from someone called “David” who claimed he and his family were being regularly harassed by a band of diminutive, non-human creatures at his property located on a remote little town in Kentucky, which he believed inhabited a nearby cave. The style in which the emails were written suggested someone with a high level of education and not just your typical delusional ‘cracker’, but even though in his blog Greg explained that at first he was suspicious someone was pulling his leg –maybe an old friend from his teenage ghost-hunting years– he decided to play along with “David” anyway; it was until Greg started receiving photos purportedly showing the three-toed footprints the creatures allegedly left all over David’s property, that the Newkirks realized this wasn’t your typical ‘loony letter’.
“David” never used the term ‘goblins’ to describe the nightly assailants, but anyone with even the most rudimentary knowledge in UFO lore would instantly recognize the similarities between this account, and the ‘classical’ encounter of the Hopkinsville goblins of 1955, which also happened in Kentucky. Could there be more common threads connecting the two cases, if you were to give “David” the benefit of the doubt? This is the story Hellier starts from, and the multi-year journey Greg and Dana took in order to find out the truth.
[Mild Spoilers Ahead]
The first thing that strikes you when watching the series is that all the accolades and platitudes currently circulating through social media are well-deserved. I’m not the first one to commend Hellier for its outstanding production value –without being ‘over-produced’ like other modern paranormal documentaries *ahem*– moreso when taking into account the series is completely FREE and available to anyone who cares to enjoy it, so double kudos for not putting one of those annoying geo-blocking locks.
The second obvious thing is that the tone of Hellier is not tongue-in-cheek or light-hearted at all! It is most definitely dark and serious all through the five episodes of this first series. Whether that is the right approach or not is up to the viewer, but personally I’m reminded of one of my friend and mentor Greg Bishop’s favorite mantras: “mimic the obliqueness of the subject” –and that also means the humor, since these are trickster-like energies (or entities) we’re dealing with.
And the third obvious thing for me as a viewer AND a seasoned student of the paranormal, is that Greg and Dana (and also Karl are Connor) seem to approach these topics from a direction that heavily resonates with my own: not afraid of showing all the ways in which seemingly different phenomena like apparitions, hauntings, cryptid sightings and UFO encounters have much more in common than we care to admit. This is a good thing, because the story Hellier tries to tell is ultimately much more convoluted than what the Newkirks initially expected –and if the viewer is expecting to watch any actual ‘real’ goblins, they would be left sorely disappointed…
You see, this is not so much a tale of aliens or non-human creatures coming out of some cave in Kentucky. It is a tale involving ‘name games’ played by shadowy figures like someone claiming to be “Terry Wrist”: an identity related to an old and obscure book (Secret Cypher of the UFOnauts) written by Allen H. Greenfield –who SHOULD HAVE appeared in the series IMO. Hellier is also a tale of weird dreams, mental visions, odd-coincidences and happenstance meetings that take Greg and Dana deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole.
In other words, this is a tale about Synchro-Mysticism. Although ‘Synchro-mysticism’ is a somewhat modern term used by authors like Loren Coleman and Alan Abbadessa Green*, it actually pertains to things noticed by even older researchers, like James Shelby Donward and John Keel, who is famously known for his book The Mothman Prophecies; and just like Hellier is not really about goblins terrorizing Kentuckians, Mothman Prophecies is not really about a giant winged creature terrorizing the people on Point Pleasant, Virginia. At the time Keel found himself in the middle of a ‘vortex’ of weirdness and cosmic connections that seemed aimed directly to him.
The Hellier protagonists seem to realize the mystic link between Keel’s investigation of Mothman and their own investigation from the get-go, and they make that clear to the viewer. What it’s not so clear, unfortunately, is that also like Keel’s Mothman Prophecies Hellier is not without a bit of, shall we say, embellishment…
For example, I think it’s in chapter 2 that the sighting of a ‘cigar-shaped’ UFO over Pike County is mentioned as evidence of all sorts of weirdness abounding in the region where “David” allegedly lived at the time, before he mysteriously disappeared. Unfortunately, that particular sighting was satisfactorily explained as a Google balloon, which is never mentioned by neither the Newkirks nor Pfeiffer.
Then there’s the issue of their trip to Brown Mountain in 2012, in which they show Micah Hanks allegedly showing them the entrance to an ‘underground alien base’. Micah Hanks is an author and host of the radio show The Gralien Report which approaches science and paranormal topics in a far more skeptical light than the tone employed by Hellier, and since he also happens to be one of my oldest and best friends in the paranormal community, I was eager to know his opinion of the series. He brought up the subject in his latest edition of the Gralien Report this week during the second segment of the show, and although he fully supports the series and the Newkirks, whom he considers good friends of his, it is clear that the tone and the way in which he was portrayed in the series is not something he can 100% endorse.
For starters that video, he explained, goes back to 2012, and he was never told by the Newkirks nor Pfeiffer that it would be utilized for a new project, something that caught him completely by surprise –this is, IMO, a grave faux-pass on the part of the producers.
Secondly, at the time they made that trip to the alleged ‘entrance to an underground alien base’ as it is portrayed in the series, the tone and spirit of the expedition was totally different as to how it appears in the final cut of Hellier. For Micah, the initial semi-satirical attitude everyone involved took was changed to a much more somber attitude, something he clearly is not comfortable with. That difference in tone can be easily attested in this February 2013 update the Newkirks released on Youtube:
“It was not my intention to convey in a serious sense that there was an ‘alien base’ out there,” Micah said on his radio show. “I do feel –honest and well-intended though the production of Hellier was– some viewers may watch it and perceive it as being that.”
In other words, Micah thought (and still thinks) the whole thing was a big joke. Furthermore, this explanation that they went to explore that cave because “a psychic told him” it was the (supposed) entrance to an alien base is also inaccurate. In truth, it was a local MUFON researcher who referred to him the story, and even though to Micah the whole thing was silly from the get-go, he was nevertheless happy to indulge his friends and take them on a quick road-trip to show them a bit of local ‘weird lore’.
Understand that I’m not pointing this out to ‘shoot down’ or ‘expose’ Greg and Dana. I think Hellier is a valuable and highly enjoyable documentary series, and ultimately any reasonable viewer must be comfortable with the idea that a documentary cannot be final proof of ANYTHING; truth be told, all the weird things shown in Hellier that allegedly happened to Dana, Greg, Karl and Connor could be fabricated so whether you believe the story or not is up to you, the viewer.
Micah is actually more skeptic in his approach to the paranormal than I am, and even though we both agree we should always get to the root of things to see if our ‘spirals of speculation’ as he put it are actually grounded on accurate facts, I on the other hand am of the opinion that within the world of the paranormal even hoaxes play a part in the way a true mystery unfolds.
No, I am not calling Greg and Dana hoaxers (even though there was hoaxing involved in Hellier, but to find that out you need to watch it). I am calling them mythmakers, just like Keel was. And I am at a point in my life as a student of the paranormal when I’m comfortable with the idea that myths *can* have all-too real effects in the world.
This long-term effect of a myth is actually something that is briefly acknowledged at the end of Hellier. The recognition that they’re not really the protagonists of the story —none of us are! We are all just playing a small role in a game played to someone (or something) else’s benefit, for reasons we may never be able to fully comprehend. And, just like some of us eventually find ourselves led to pick a copy of The Mothman Prophecies or Passport to Magonia, perhaps years –maybe even decades– down the road some curious kid will find a link to the first chapter of Hellier, just like they were supposed to, and realize it’s his or her cue to jump in and keep playing the game, which will inevitably lead them to another dark corner of the rabbit hole –perhaps a spot in which small humanoid creatures have been eagerly expecting them.
(*): Jake Kotze is the one credited with coining the term Synchro-mysticism in 2006. Thanks to Robert Oliver for reminding me 🙂