When you want something strange to listen to while jogging around your neighborhood, who ya gonna call?
Truth is, you don't have to call anyone. Nate Isaac, Darian West, and Kyle Kadel have already taken care of that for you.
Just in time for Halloween, some of Somerset's foremost experts on the eerie and unusual have released "Penny Royal," an eight-part documentary podcast which takes a look at some of the oddities of this area.
"It's a true story that ponders the question of whether a place affects and defines the people that live there or if the people re-define the place, and details our journey into an incredible and unexpected mystery here in Pulaski County that's still unfolding," said Isaac, the podcast's writer and host. "If I had to describe the show, I would probably say that it's similar to NPR's 'S-town' podcast but with high strangeness and heavy tones of David Lynch — what monsters lurk beneath the veneer of small town America?"
The show's title refers to the Penny Royal Plateau, a geological and geographical area that stretches from Hopkinsville in the West to the Appalachian Mountains in the east, and north to the rolling Bluegrass of Lexington.
"The entire Penny Royal region is unique in that it's a karst region, characterized by sinkholes and caves," said Isaac, a local product known for producing and promoting music with his company SomerSessions. "The name Penny Royal itself comes from the plant, Penny Royal, sometimes called Pennyrile, which is plentiful in this area. After looking at how unique this area was, in terms of history and also the Kentucky Anomaly, I thought that Penny Royal was the perfect name for the podcast and the mystery that we discovered."
But anyone who knows Isaacs knows that he's most eager to talk about what's under this area rather than what we can see — especially since Isaac believes that what we don't see can have a strong and spooky impact on the world we inhabit.
"Most people probably don't realize that beneath Pulaski County is located the largest spike of the Earth's geomagnetic field in the Western Hemisphere. NASA refers to this the 'Kentucky Anomaly,'" said Isaac. "It's so strong that the surface gravity in Pulaski County is different than anywhere else in North America.
"One of the things we explore in Penny Royal is whether or not these intense geomagnetic fields can affect the brains of the people living here, causing increases in violence or even perceptual distortions manifesting as UFOs," he added. "Studies carried out by scientists at various universities have determined that exposure to such intense fields can indeed cause physiological and psychological effects."
Isaac said he's always been a fan of what he calls "Fortean phenomena," or "weird happenings" that question the nature of reality itself. He describes "Penny Royal" as "chasing those kinds of questions down their respective rabbit holes to see how deep they go," a project he began with research partner and fellow associated producer Kadel, known as the owner of the local International Paranormal Museum and Research Center located at the Carnegie Community Arts Center.
"We began working on the project in earnest in 2018," said Isaac. "My neighbors were telling me rumors about some of the unsolved murders and disappearances here in the area, and it fascinated me because there was an eerie similarity to a series of murders that occurred in San Bernardino in 1914, which are detailed in the book 'The Empire of the Wheel' by Walter Bosley and Richard Spence. ... Those murders involved a cult, and I kept hearing more and more stories about cults and strange religious groups in this area. From there, it was just a rabbit hole into local folklore about UFOs, dogmen, lake monsters and unexplainable phenomena, like rains of meat and frogs."
Perhaps the biggest surprise of all came when "Penny Royal"'s path intersected with the television series "Hellier," which can be seen via Amazon Prime. The "Hellier" team was investigating strange reports that led them to the tiny Pike County community of Hellier, Ky. in 2018, and were eventually contacted by a Somerset woman alleging the presence of a cult in town worshipping "little green men," like those that allegedly invaded Hopkinsville, Ky. in an infamous 1950s incident.
"Greg (Newkirk of 'Hellier') ended up interviewing Kyle and I and we appear in that season talking about some of the stories. What Greg didn't know was that I've been working on a film with well-known artist Dan Dutton about his 2007 opera, 'The Faun,' which centers on the myth of Pan," said Isaac. "A lot of strange things occurred in connection with that opera, and Dan and I have been retelling that story through the film. The film culminates with us re-staging 'The Faun' in Elkhorn City to artistically invoke the archetype of Pan. Later we discovered that 'Hellier' is a suburb of Elkhorn City. And if you watch the second season of 'Hellier,' you'll discover that the later half of the season focuses on Pan and in the season finale Greg and his team venture down into a cave here in Pulaski County and attempt to invoke Pan. It was a crazy set of coincidences and synchronicities. And there have been many, many more.
"That's really what 'Penny Royal' became — a story about all of the ways that we were a part of the unfolding mystery," Isaac continued. "I set out to explore the folklore of this place, but ultimately we became a part of that folklore. And our connection to it was eerily personal and specific in ways that none of us expected."
Isaac and his fellow producers did numerous interviews with individuals both local and not, and amassed an "enormous" amount of research during the project — they still continue to add more newspaper clippings, photos, and interviews every day.
"The amount of information that we came across was initially daunting. But (West) and I have worked on a number of software development projects and have performed data mining for clients in the automotive industry," said Isaac. "He used those same techniques to develop a data mining software he calls Knotilus, which we used to digest hundreds of articles and newspaper clippings to quickly find connections that we might have missed or otherwise not have seen so clearly. It's fascinating to see how interconnected everything is. And in ways that you would never expect. Pursuing the study of folklore using modern technology has opened up the floodgates of research for us."
One of the real standout moments in the production came when investigation claims that the Mt. Victory Mine was the site of bizarre cult activity. Without giving away too much, research into the mine's history traced its ownership at one time to a man named Alexander Guterma, a.k.a. "Mr. X," a figure with connections to numerous sketchy moments from the nation's past — everything from one of the largest stock frauds in U.S. history to the assassination of President Kennedy, said Isaac.
"Some researchers also believe that Guterma may have been an ex-Nazi intelligence agent," added Isaac. "It's a crazy set of coincidences that this mysterious figure owned the mine that so many people say is the site of so much occult activity."
Researching this angle led to a visit to the Mt. Victory Mine, so Isaac and crew could see it for themselves, as well as film a video promo for the podcast.
"For the promo, I had some of the members of the group wear purple robes," said Isaac. "While we were shooting the video, 20 miles out in the middle of nowhere, we see headlights approaching and a man in a pick-up pulls up. He's a snake catcher who sell snakes to snake handlers and wanted us to be careful because there were nests in the area where we were shooting the video. Of course, I was afraid he would think we were part of some cult. And then I realized, we ended up being the cult we were researching, in a funny kind of way."
Isaac credited Kadel's resources with the Paranormal Museum with being a major aid in the production of the podcast, and thanked Boone Williams for editing it and Williams' Tiny Tiny bandmate Phillip Claunch for composing the music. All of the production for "Penny Royal" took place at Pure Grain Studios, above Jarfly Brewing Company, so Isaac also thanked the owners of Jarfly, and of course his own wife Amy for her feedback and support.
"It's a project that's taken a lot of time and resources to produce," said Isaac. "... It's a living, breathing story that keeps pulling us in, deeper and deeper."
"Penny Royal" was released on October 21 and is available online at www.pennyroyalpodcast.com, and is also available on all major audio and podcast platforms, including Apple Podcasts and Spotify. Also, advised Isaac, those interested in digging even deeper into the mystery can become a member of the Liminal Lodge on Patreon (https://www.patreon.com/PennyRoyal).
Isaac warns that the podcast is "not for everyone" and there are subjects discussed which may make some members of the audience uncomfortable, "so listener discretion is advised."
The reaction has already been "overwhelmingly positive," said Isaac, so much so that Isaac is already planning on a second season, with interviews underway and Claunch composing a whole new soundtrack.
"It's not your typical podcast," said Isaac. "I wanted to do eight episodes to keep the story moving, and make the series bingeable. If you're on a long drive or just need something to listen to while you're at your desk at work, you can digest 'Penny Royal' pretty quickly. And from the feedback we've been fortunate to receive, it's an experience that I think most people will enjoy. ... Most of all, I hope people will feel that we've captured the magic and mystery of the Penny Royal and Pulaski County."