Published by Broward Net on October 23, 2009:
Just in time for Halloween, I caught up with Florida’s most famous purveyor of supernatural tales—author, talk radio host, television personality, actor and host of the PBS program Weird Florida: Roads Less Traveled, Charlie Carlson. We discussed his unusual upbringing as the son and grandson of mediums, his eclectic career, and his thoughts on The Sunshine State as a tenth-generation Floridian. By far one of the most interesting and enjoyable interviews I’ve ever done, Carlson’s quirky sense of humor and fascinating life experience contribute to an impressive body of work in print, television and radio. But what else could be expected from a man who believes he is the reincarnation of P.T. Barnum?
1. Having always had a fascination with the metaphysical as well as some powerful personal experiences with psychics, I read your biography with great interest. Your grandmother was a medium. How did she influence you growing up, and do you possess the same ability to communicate with the dead?
Yes, my grandmother professed to be a medium and practiced her gift in the spiritual settlement of Cassadaga, Florida back in the 1940s. My mother was also a medium, although she preferred being called a “sensitive.” My exposure to spiritualism was at the age of five when I attended séances and spiritualist meetings with my grandmother and mother. I recall seeing tables float off the floor and chalk writing messages on a slate. For me at age five, this was normal stuff. Both my grandmother and mother were good at telling old Florida folk tales…of course this involved many ghost yarns, too. You haven’t experienced the old Florida until you spend an evening sitting on a porch in the smoke of a smudge pot, used to keep the skeeters away, and listen to ghost stories. My grandmother lived in a cracker house with a shotgun hallway running through it, near the St. Johns River in Seminole county. I grew up listening to her tales and this probably set me on course for being both a historian as well as a writer of the unexplained. Whether I inherited any psychic traits is difficult to say, but I do believe that I have a high intuitive level and an excellent sense of direction that beats a GPS device, if that counts.
2. Being raised in the south in Sanford, Florida did you experience any kind of resistance from those who rejected the idea of psychic phenomena?
I find the South more accepting of spirits than most regions of the country. Southern folklore is filled with ghost stories and tales about things lurking in the woods, and we have more Hoodoo doctors than any other part of the country…look at New Orleans with all the Voodoo practitioners. Generally, Southerners will lean more to the believer side than to the skeptical side when it comes to strange phenomena. There are a lot of eerie stories in the backwoods of the South but folks are less likely to trust relating their encounters to an outsider. I am fortunate to be able to cross the line because I speak “Southern, y’all,” and can be as comfortable on the porch of a shack in the swamp as I would be in an upscale restaurant in South Beach…although the back country is more exciting and a great deal more genuine.
3. Were you ever afraid of the supernatural or was it something you always embraced as a child and adolescent?
No, I’ve never been afraid of the supernatural, just fascinated by it. The supernatural is only the “natural” that is waiting to be explained. Television and Ipods would have been supernatural things back in the 1800s…today these things are natural devices. What we call “supernatural” today, is tomorrow’s “natural.”
4. I laughed when I read that your “claim to fame is being the world’s only peace activist army-sergeant major who has published a history book about celery while traveling with a circus”. What made you decide to join the US Army after your stint in military school and how did the experience contribute to your personal and professional development?
The selective service, I got a draft notice. It sounds silly, but I decided that I would not let the government draft me into the army for two years…..so I joined up for three years. That stretched into 25 years and four wars…and two retirements from the army due to being recalled to active duty during the Gulf War. I retired a sergeant-major, which is the highest non-commissioned grade. Was I patriotic? Heck no, it was just a job that put bread on the table. Actually I was no different that most professional soldiers, if the truth be told they all do it for a living…patriotism is just a nice cover. I joke that it took me 25 years to get out of the army. I did not like military life and do not recommend it to anyone. My son and daughter-in-law spent 14 years each in the army and gave it up after several tours in Iraq. I know it sounds strange, but we have a combine active service of 53 years, yet we’re peace activists and have little good to say about our military experience. Looking back, I should have dodged the draft and ran away with the circus.
5. What was the motivation behind writing the small history booklet about celery farming in Seminole County?
I wanted to preserve some local history. My paternal grandfather, Carl Carlson was a prominent celery grower in Seminole County. He was a Swedish immigrant that arrived in Florida in 1912. Celery was still being grown in Seminole county when I grew up; as a matter of fact, Sanford was known as America’s celery capital. In 1930, they were shipping 7000 train car loads of celery from Sanford each year. Today you will not find one farm, not one celery plant in Seminole county. Development has transformed some of the country’s most fertile farmland into subdivisions and shopping centers. Newcomers to the area knew nothing of the area’s agricultural past, so I gathered all the information I could find about my grandfather and the celery growing days and wrote a small book, titled, When Celery Was King. It was sold through museum bookstores, some 5000 books have been sold since I wrote it, and it is still being sold. As far as I know it is Seminole county’s only history of celery farming. That book is what made me think I could write, which I can with the help of a couple of editors.
6. You’ve published a dozen Florida history books and a book on the Civil War. I loved the story about your ancestor Colonel William Williams and how his fiddle playing enabled him to escape the Spaniards’ dungeon fort. In the course of your research, what other things did you discover about The Sunshine State that most people might not be aware of? Even as a tenth-generation Floridian, did anything take you by surprise?
I was surprised by some of the geologic and weather related history of Florida. For instance, Florida has caverns up near Marianna, with stalactites and all, but we do not have any mountains…although we’re growing our own mountains with all those heaping big landfills of garbage. Oh, and snow, yes, we’ve had some pretty good snowfalls, too. In 1774, a blizzard blew across North Florida dumping several inches of snow. In January 1800 and again in 1899, four to five inches of snow fell over parts of North Florida.
In recent history snow has fallen as far south as Fort Myers and even Miami. The record snowfall, although undocumented, was six inches in Jay, Florida. Granted Florida’s snowfalls might not excite someone from the north, but for a state known for its warm climate, a few inches of snow is like a blizzard. While Florida has experienced some devastating tornados and hurricanes in its past, we seldom think about earthquakes, but in 1879 an earthquake shook 25,000 square miles of the peninsula. The Chicago Daily Tribune reported, that “mothers clutched their little ones and prepared to save their lives or die trying”. The quake was felt all the way to Punta Rassa on the Gulf coast and down to Daytona on the east coast. The epicenter was determined to have been between St. Augustine and Starke. This was before the Richter scale, at the time they were using the Mercalli rating scale which assigned a rating of six to the quake, comparable with about 4.4 on today’s Richter scale. Actually we’ve had several notable earthquakes; the most recent on September 10, 2006, which registered 6.0 on the Richter scale. Although the epicenter was 200 miles southwest of Tampa, it damaged water pipes in Orlando. When she wants to, Mother Nature can be far more frightening than skunk apes and ghosts…not to mention we’re sinking due to global warming combined with the weight of our over-population.
7. What is the most frightening encounter you’ve had with the paranormal?
I’ve told this only a few times on radio shows. Back when I was a teenager, probably about fourteen years old, I was camping with four or five other boys on the Wekiva River, beside highway 46 on the Lake-Seminole county line. Now this was back when you could have slept in the middle of highway 46 without being hit by a car; today the traffic is constant night and day through that area. Anyway, we were up at night running around the woods and about midnight decided to head for our camp. The easiest route was to walk down the highway. Just before we reached our camp we noticed something large standing in the middle of the road. The moon was full so we got a good look at this thing which looked like a human but with no neck and with long arms like a primate. It was silhouetted in the moonlight so details were hard to make out, but this thing looked to be about seven feet tall and at least 300 hundred pounds. We were within fifty feet of it when it dashed off into the thick swamp. It actually cleared a barbed wire fence in one leaping bound. We figured no human in their right mind would run through that thick swamp at night. Back at camp, we built a huge bonfire and stayed up until sunrise talking about the “wild man” we’d seen. At daylight we got out of there, but when we checked the spot where this thing had been standing, there was a mass of orange peelings all over the road. On the other side of the road was an orange grove, so we surmised this creature had been eating oranges.
Now at that point in my life I had never heard of Bigfoot or the Skunkape, but about six months later reports began appearing in the Sentinel Star [today’s Orlando Sentinel] about a big hairy ape-man creature being seen in and around Apopka, which sits on the south end of the Wekiva basin. These were some of the earliest skunk ape reports to appear in newspapers. So, I think that what we saw was what people call the Skunk Ape. It was a long time ago and memory can exaggerate things, but this was definitely not a bear or a human being. Whatever it was remains a mystery yet unsolved.
8. In the prologue to your book Weird Florida, Mark Sceurman and Mark Moran mention that Florida was chosen as the first state to cover in their series, due to its “sheer wealth of weird material”. Any thoughts as to why Florida is so rife with supernatural phenomena? What are some of the most bizarre and/or haunted places in the state?
We have a diverse history—
first the Native Americans going all the way back to the Paleolithic people, then the Spanish, British, French, and all those others influenced Florida in some fashion. The same is true today; our population is more diverse than any other state, and everybody contributes something to the pot…even weird stuff. Florida sticks out like a sore thumb, surrounded by water on three sides, so it makes sense that we’d have so many tales of water monsters…plus we rank number three in UFO sightings. Is it because Kennedy Space Center keeps firing missiles into the galactic neighborhoods of space? Maybe ET is getting a little concerned so he pays us a visit once in awhile.
Look at St. Augustine, America’s ancient city…since 1565 when it was founded, there’s been more death in that place than any other town in the nation. As one ghost tour guide said, “someone has either died or is buried on every foot of ground in St. Augustine.” No wonder they have so many ghost tours in that town. But my favorite haunted places are Ashley’s Restaurant in Rockledge and the Interstate-4 Dead Zone. Ashley’s has a long history of poltergeist type phenomena…things moving about, saucers flying off the shelf, that sort of thing. The management is not shy about telling their stories; they have even printed their hauntings on the back of the menu.
And the I-4 Dead Zone is a quarter mile section of Interstate Four, about halfway between Daytona and Tampa, where strange things happen. This section of highway has a history of more traffic accidents than any other comparable section of the interstate. Orbs and apparitions are seen darting across the road—so claim motorists—and cell phones allegedly won’t work in this section. So, what’s causing this stuff? The mystery may be beneath the asphalt of the east bound lane…four graves that date back to 1886 when a Roman Catholic colony was started in the area by the Florida Land and Colonization Company. The project failed when yellow fever took the lives of four colonists. They were buried in the woods and when the interstate was built in 1960, the graves were covered over with fill dirt. If you drive through this section of interstate, just be aware you’ll be driving across the dead.
9. As you write in your Introduction, ninety percent of Floridians (including me) are from some other place. To what do you attribute (besides nice weather) Florida’s magnetism?
I think most folks have a post card image of Florida. Perhaps they visit on vacation and have a good time, so they decide to relocate. But living here full time is not like being on vacation where you can lay on the beach soaking up rays. Those who become residents are soon fussing about the tourists or the bugs or the heat and quickly forget the paradise visions that attracted them here in the first place. One of the great attractions is not having a state income tax, but Florida’s situation is fast changing as we can see from the present economic situation. Having no state income tax is offset by rising insurance rates, thanks to hurricanes, and increasing property taxes. Now people are leaving the state, not a mass migration, but in higher than usual numbers. This has happened before in history and will most likely reverse in the future and we’ll have another influx of folks with those same postcard visions in their heads. I guess the bottom line is that if you’re expecting paradise, you’re a little late. I think we lost paradise years ago when Flagler built his railroad to Miami.
10. In addition to writing books and appearing on talk radio and television stations across the US and Canada, you’ve worked as an actor, playing Professor Moorehouse in The Curse of the Blair Witch on the Sci-Fi Channel, as well as roles in DVD films and documentaries. On the other side of the camera, you’ve produced and written short DVD movies for Blue Heron International Pictures. What were your most challenging roles as an actor, and your most challenging projects as a producer?
I hate getting tongue-tied on camera, and having to do retakes a dozen times. I always cause a bunch of bloopers, too. People may think the film business is easy but it’s not. It’s fun, but it can be as much work as plowing a five acre field. At the end of the day you are ready to rest. Producing is tougher than acting. I never knew this until I tried it, but a producer has a tremendous job to do in arranging every logistical aspect of a film…from managing the crew to feeding the crew to securing releases for a shoot. I found this out when I produced a short spoof about ghost hunting for Blue Heron International Pictures, titled, Henry Blackhart Is Dead, that was released on DVD. It was truly a shoestring budget, I wrote, casted, produced and acted in it. Fortunately, I did not have to direct it. I much prefer being on camera than behind the scenes. All the work is behind the camera in my opinion, and those folks do not always get the credit they deserve, yet they’re really the ones that make or break a show.
11. In 2009, you became host of your own PBS show, Weird Florida: Roads Less Traveled. What is the format of the show? When does it air?
Weird Florida: Roads Less Traveled is truly a weird and wacky travelogue that begins at the southernmost point of the United States and ends on St. George Island against a sunset over the Gulf of Mexico. In the show I travel with my uncanny canine companion, Miss Scarlet, in search of weird places and people. We visit some of the Sunshine State’s weirdest places, like the Coral Castle in Homestead. We cross the Everglades and stop to chat with David Shealy at the Skunk Ape Research Center in Ochopee. Most of the places people can go visit, like America’s smallest post office or Solomon’s Castle that’s built entirely from junk, or the world’s most unusual monument in Kissimmee. But, there are some places viewers can only see through the eyes of our camera, like the secret warehouse of Ripley’s Believe It or Not where there are 10,000 bizarre artifacts in storage. Some subjects are big and some small, like the Possum Monument in Wausau, Florida. I worked with a great producer, Mia Laurenzo, a three time Emmy nominee. We tried to cram as much as we could into 56 minutes but everything wouldn’t fit, so we had to trim out a lot of places. We are looking to do a series and eventually include everything. The show begins airing in late October through November on PBS stations in Florida. Each station will broadcast the show at a different time. You may contact firstname.lastname@example.org in Miami as she might be more up- to-date on specific times and dates.
12. Besides showcasing the unexplained in Florida, what are your other interests?
As a native, I have a passionate interest in Florida’s environmental issues and in saving our wildlife habitat from destruction. Out of control growth and irresponsible development has all but destroyed our state, not to mention having destroyed many of our historical sites. My late wife was a political activist working with such organizations as the Sierra Club, Florida Hometown Democracy, among others, and spent a great deal of her time with her attorney, Lesley Blackner of Palm Beach, in the courts fighting against irresponsible development and the political machinery that caters to the growth problem. The Weird Florida show is dedicated to her memory and work. As a result of her efforts and those of other activist groups, Amendment 4 will be on the 2010 ballot. If passed, this amendment will give voters a say in what happens in their communities when it comes to major development projects. We’ve never had that option before and it is long over due.
13. Tell me a bit about your work with Shadows in the Dark Radio and Mysteries Magazine.
Along with my business partner, Jeremiah Greer, I am co-owner of Shadows Media, a North Carolina based corporation. We produce the Shadows In The Dark radio show which is heard at 9:30 EST, each Thursday and Sunday evening. In November, if all goes well, we will be launching our own internet radio network of shows called SM International Radio. We also publish Mysteries magazine, a quarterly publication, which is among the leading magazines in its genre in North America. Currently, there are over 4000 subscribers, and a distribution covering retail stores in the U.S. and Canada. Although we acquired Mysteries earlier this year, it has done quite well so far, in spite of risky economic times. There’s also a production subsidiary of the business which produces documentaries of the unexplained, allowing us to produce promotional events for various venues. We’ve worked with Ripley’s Believe It or Not museums on such events, as well as paranormal conventions around the country. I feel very lucky in this economy to have actually enjoyed a 23 percent increase in readership for our publication. We like to think of our fans more as friends and try to make available interesting entertainment that is accessible without spending a fortune. In the interest of our readers, we actually lowered our magazine price by a dollar while upgrading its quality and, of course, our radio shows are free, thanks to our loyal advertisers. Such business moves explain why our fan base keeps growing.
For more on Charlie Carlson, visit: http://www.weirdwriters.com/dial/carlson.html. Learn more about Weird Florida at: http://www.weirdfloridatv.org/. Weird Florida: Roads Less Traveled is airing on PBS in South Florida on November 2 @ 9p.m.; November 6 @ 10 p.m. and November 8 @ 9:30 p.m.