Toby Sells Talks Bigfoot Festival, Paranormal Expo, and the Spooky Haint Blues Podcast
Posted by Holly Whitfield |
October 25th 2019
In honor of spooky season, I thought I’d interview a Memphian who can speak to all things otherworldly. You may know Toby Sells as a journalist for the Memphis Flyer, but he’s also host to the hair-raising podcast Haint Blues and organizer for the Memphis Bigfoot Festival, which is tomorrow (Saturday, Oct. 26th) at Memphis Made from 2 p.m. – 6 p.m.
We talked about the Fest, why the in heck there’s a Bigfoot event in Memphis, the story behind the stories of Haint Blues, and about the upcoming Crosstown Paranormal Expo, which is on Tuesday, Oct. 29th from 6 p.m. – 9 p.m.
Here’s our Q&A.
Holly: I want – no, need – to get some background info on this, but first I want people to get excited about tomorrow’s event: what can we expect at the 2019 Memphis Bigfoot Festival?
Toby: Saturday will kick off at 2 p.m. with The Year in Bigfoot, an annual roundup of Bigfoot news stories and high-profile sightings from the previous 12 months. Local filmmaker Clint Till will show his short film, Big and Tall. It’s a fun story about a couple of kids who bond during their search for Bigfoot. A Q&A with the director will follow.
We’ll have trivia and a Bigfoot costume and cosplay contest. The Bigfoot Fashion Show is simply a chance for everyone who comes to show off their Bigfoot shirts, hats, or (almost) anything else. I’ll announce each model and they’ll take a turn on our makeshift runway.
Something new this year is an extra area to watch. I wanted to give the serious Bigfoot people (like me) a quieter place to hang out. So, we’ll have full programming on the back patio of Memphis Made. The main part of the taproom will still have plenty of Bigfoot fun but will be a bit rowdier, like, y’know a craft-beer taproom.
Holly: Is it family-friendly?
Toby: It is totally family friendly. I know there are a ton of little Bigfooters out there. So, I made sure that my programming was G or PG. It will (hopefully) be crowded. So, parents should think about that before they come.
Holly: Sounds fun! But let’s back up at little. This is the third annual Bigfoot Fest in Memphis…Why Bigfoot?
Toby: The first Memphis Bigfoot Festival was October 2017. That year was the 50th anniversary of the Patterson-Gimlin film (below) which remains the very best piece of Bigfoot evidence. There were a ton of Bigfoot festivals and 50th anniversary celebrations happening in the Pacific Northwest and I wanted to go. Instead, I thought, why not just have one here. I had no idea what that meant.
My friends at Memphis Made looked at me a little sideways when I asked if I could do a Bigfoot festival there. But they agreed.
I honestly thought (worried) that the festival would be me and, like, a four guys sitting around drinking beer. But when the first festival opened, Memphis Made was packed, at least 200-300 people.
Holly: Does that mean there’s a Memphis “Bigfoot” community? Are there any other Bigfoot Fests in other cities?
Toby: There are a ton of Bigfoot festivals and conferences around the country and a ton have been added in the last few years. This year was the first-ever (and huge) Smoky Mountain Bigfoot Conference in Pigeon Forge. There’s another new one called the Tennessee Bigfoot Conference on Friday in Kingsport. But I am proud to report that the Memphis Bigfoot Festival was the state’s very first Bigfoot festival.
To my knowledge, the Bigfoot community here is a bit scattered, less organized than in big-time Bigfoot areas, like Washington state. There is a Mid-South Sasquatch group on Facebook and it’s pretty interesting.
I knew there were other Bigfoot folks like me around here. So, I kinda hoped the festival would smoke them out and we could all sort of find each other. It worked and I have made several great friends at the festival.
Toby Sells. Photo used with permission.
Holly: What’s your connection to Bigfoot?
Toby: As a kid, I stayed over with a friend and we watched The Legend of Boggy Creek. It’s a docu-drama about a Bigfoot in Fouke, Arkansas called (fittingly enough) the Fouke Monster. I didn’t know Bigfoots lived in the South. It terrified me.
After the movie, my friend asked me to look outside at something with him. I was a kid. So, I went.
He quickly shut the door behind me and locked me out there with nothing but the dark woods where — I was sure — Bigfoot lurked, watching me, waiting to tear me limb by limb. I don’t know why, but after that I fell into a Bigfoot rabbit hole. And I never came out.
Holly: Some friend that guy was! It sounds like that milding traumatic experience was the beginning of your interest in the Southern supernatural, which your podcast explores even more. You’ve told tales about everything from Bigfoot (of course) to Mississippi aliens to NASCAR curses. How did you decide to create the Haint Blues podcast?
Today: My show marries a bunch of stuff I love — podcasts, strange tales, research, writing, and the American South. I love shows like Lore and Unexplained and wanted a show like Haint Blues but couldn’t really find what I was looking for. So, I made one (and, again, had no idea what I was getting into).
Haint blue is an array of blue paint colors. Many Southern porch ceilings (like mine) are painted in haint blue. Benjamin Moore even has a haint blue line of paints. But the tradition started with the enslaved Gullah Geechee people of the Sea Isles. They painted their porches haint blue to ward off evil spirits. (Ed. Note: He’s got an episode on this.)
I launched the show in November 2018. Since then, I have posted 12 episodes, around six hours of programming.
With each episode, I want to draw listeners into a quiet, Southern corner of the internet and tell them a tale. As I say on the show, the stories on Haint Blues are real. That is, the stories exist out there in newspapers, oral traditions, diaries and more even if you don’t believe in ghosts, Bigfoot, or UFOs.
I research each episode with a journalist’s eye on detail and credibility. I write them and tell those stories to entertain but I also hope folks learn about Southern culture along the way.
Holly: Told any Memphis tales on the podcast?
Toby: Memphis gets many a mention on the show. One of the country’s first organized Bigfoot hunts left out of Memphis to search for a wild man in the woods around Crowley’s Ridge. Mary, the ghost girl at The Orpheum, gets a section in an upcoming episode. Memphis featured also in the story of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil.
Holly: What’s your favorite tale you’ve told on Haint Blues?
Toby: My favorite is the Pascagoula UFO abduction story. Two blue-collar fellows go fishing after work and are abducted by aliens. Their bodies are studied by the strange beings aboard a spaceship. Then, they’re plunked right back down on the bank of the Pascagoula River.
The men go to the police, fearing a full-scale alien invasion is at hand. They’re largely laughed at but they never changed their story in decades of telling it. I like it because the men were regular, honest people with nothing to gain from such a story.
There was some news on the story, too. Earlier this year more witnesses to events that night came forward. Also, the state of Mississippi erected a historical marker at the abduction site. (Ed. Note: This Mississippi tale is also one of my favorites. It’s in the 2nd episode.)
Holly: Did you specifically choose to focus on Southern stories because of your amazing accent?
Toby: Ha! And thank you. I’d never done any voice-over or narration work before the show. I knew the show needed to sound Southern, but not corn pone. So, I worked (and worried) for a long time early on to balance it. In the end, tough, I just went on there and talked like I talk, which is country as cornbread.
So, if you got it, flaunt it. I’ll never be asked to voice a documentary on space exploration, but turns out I have the exact right tools for a show on Southern ghosts and monsters. The show is about the South because I love the South. I was afraid Southern paranormal may be too niche a topic for a regularly running show. Turns out, the more you look for weird stuff in the South, the more you find.
Holly: Let’s talk about that Paranormal Expo. (Again, readers, it’s this Tuesday night at Crosstown taproom.)
I write about what’s going on with Memphis music, food, arts, events, sports, people, and culture. Memphians love Elvis and barbeque with a passion that must be seen to be believed, but there is so much more to this place.