Just in time for Halloween, Weather Channel introduces a supernatural TV series with a meteorological twist, traveling the country to present local legends in which weather plays a part.

"We're always intrigued by the supernatural, the unexplained and things that go bump in the night," says Valerie Haselton, executive producer of the series for Sirens Media. "We love a good legend and secretly hope that they are all true. Digging into legends and mysteries that are influenced by weather was just a natural fit for Sirens and Weather Channel. When we found a story that made us gasp and go, 'No way!' then we knew we had a winner."

She points out that before modern meteorology, "Legends arose to explain the unexplainable. Many legends are linked to weather. This is a series where you can actually learn something while being thoroughly entertained. We cover history, American folklore, science, psychology and more."

The eight episodes in the series, which begins on Oct. 5,  include:

  • “The Legend of Moll Dyer,” about a Leonardtown, Maryland, recluse accused of witchcraft who froze to death and is said to still haunt the town.
  • “The Gray Man,” about a ghost who appears to residents of Pawleys Island, South Carolina, to warn them of coming hurricanes and protecting them from harm.
  • "Julia Brown," about a Louisiana voodoo priestess who supposedly cursed the town of Frenier, which was destroyed by a hurricane after her death and has been repeatedly plagued by storms.
  • "I-4 Dead Zone," about a section of Florida interstate where some attribute the high accident rate to the fact the road disturbed the graves of four settlers, and those settlers are getting payback via bad weather and deadly crashes.
  • "The Curse of Bodie" arose when a California miner died in a blizzard, damning those who had stolen gold from him.
  • "Devil's Gate Dam" is not only built at the base of a rock that looks like a devil's head, the Pasadena, California, site has been tied to black magic, mysterious disappearances and extreme weather, including droughts, floods and wildfires.
  • "Augusta's Pillar" is the only remaining portion of a Georgia marketplace left standing when a cyclone blew through the town in 1878. It bears the curse of a scorned preacher who promised harm to those who touch or try to move it.
  • "Catherine's Hill" in coastal Maine marks the spot where a woman was decapitated in a car crash on a foggy night, and is said to haunt it still, hitching rides.
We asked Tom Mould (right), professor of anthropology & folklore and director of the honors program at Elon University, who appears in the series, to weigh in on these stories.

Tom MouldMNN: Why are so many legends connected to weather phenomena?

Tom Mould: Legends are born out of events that are unusual, dramatic, traumatic, or difficult to explain or comprehend. Casual weather events do not inspire legends. Major weather events — and other major disasters or catastrophes where death is involved — do. So we should not be surprised that major weather events often spawn legends as people search for answers: Why here? Why now? Why me?

How do these legends start?

Legends tend to start in few different ways. One way is that there is a historical event that is noteworthy. As the story is told and retold, it is shaped and adapted by each teller so that it is relevant to them and their audiences. Soon, there are multiple versions of the story that may not always line up perfectly. As the story continues to be told, elements of other stories may get added in, whether intentionally to make the story more compelling, or unintentionally because of faulty memory. These multiple versions can create doubt for some audiences, even when the story is historically accurate.

The other way legends can start is when something unexplainable, unexpected or seemingly random and upsetting happens. And so we try to make sense of it, to order it, because disorder is disorienting and disturbing. We develop various scenarios and theories for why we saw what looked like a ghost on the side of the road or why our phone always stops working in the same spot along a stretch of highway. What might have happened can become what did happen as the story gets told and retold.

Legends about the Gray Man on Pawley’s Island seem to operate in this way. Of course there’s no way to know for sure — that’s the maddening beauty of legends: they are virtually impossible to prove or disprove. But without any historical evidence to support the ghost story, and a good deal of personal accounts of seeing a gray ghost, the ghost sightings seem to drive this legend more than its origin story of a tragic death of a young suitor. In this way, an accumulation of ghost sightings connected to the onset of a hurricane may have prompted people to look for some explanation of who that ghost could be and why he might be appear. The most common explanation — that a young man is rushing to see his fiancé and meets his tragic death on the way — is a story we see throughout the American South, and farther afield as well. There is a common belief in the U.S. that tragic deaths often result in ghosts since the spirits of the deceased cannot make peace with their untimely demise and so they linger.

The Gray Man strolls along a shore

The Gray Man strolls along the shore of a beach. (All photos: Weather Channel)

What are the ingredients of a compelling legend and what makes them endure?

Legends endure only as long as they remain relevant and compelling to the people who tell them. So if a legend continues to provide a viable explanation for a current or past event, it is likely to endure. Legends that provide a plausible and credible explanation are more likely to endure than legends that appear too far outside the realm of possibility to be true. People do not need to believe a legend to share it — in fact, some research suggests that people are more likely to share a legend if they don't fully believe it — they just need to believe it could be true.

Beyond that, legends are more likely to endure if they contain concrete images, present unexpected but plausible scenarios, are emotionally resonant, present simple but profound statements, and play on existing fears. Recent research into meme theory would further suggest that if the story evokes disgust, a person is more likely to remember and retell it. There are commercial reasons for maintaining a legend as well. Even if no one ever saw the Gray Man again, there's a good chance that real estate agents, local innkeepers and restaurateurs on Pawley's Island will try to keep the legend alive for tourism.

What do you find fascinating about the legends in "American Super/Natural"? Do you have a favorite?

I grew up in South Carolina hearing the stories about the Gray Man, so out of loyalty alone, I have to say the Gray Man is one of my favorites. And I do think it's really interesting. On the surface it seems quite basic: even with Doppler radar and meteorological science, the exact landfall and power of a hurricane can be difficult to predict, so a story that provides hope that we can be forewarned about such devastation is immensely comforting. In this way, the Gray Man is a local hero. But the idea that if you see the Gray Man, your house and material belongings will also be spared actually exacerbates rather than mitigates one of the big questions asked after a tragedy: "Why me?" This question might be even more pressing for those who did not see the Gray Man and who were not spared, adding another question: "Why them? Why did the Gray Man appear to them and not me?"

I particularly appreciate the legend of Moll Dyer because of what it says about tolerance. I think this is a message we are in dire need of as much today as in the past. The result of prejudice and stereotyping may not always lead to such obvious physical violence, but the psychological damage can be equally devastating.

The legend of Julia Brown certainly gains relevance and power because it conjures images of Katrina and the devastation of hurricanes in the swamplands of Louisiana. It also taps popular interest, and fear, in voodoo (or more accurately, voudon), a religion often wildly misunderstood and misrepresented in the popular media. As a folklorist, I am particularly interested to know whether Julia Brown was seen as an integral member of the community, or cast as "the other." Historical records suggest she could have been viewed either way. I think this legend raises a lot of questions that further research would prove useful in addressing.

I think the I-4 legend hits a particularly sensitive nerve for a lot of people in this country who see a gap between people in power who make the decisions — whether corporations or the government — and local communities or individuals who bear the brunt of those decisions. Morality, ethics, and social norms are ignored as money, speed and shortcuts drive decision-making. In the I-4 legend, a graveyard is paved over to make a highway. Social norms against disturbing or disrespecting the dead run deep. Not only might a terrible storm and continued supernatural occurrences emerge because of it, but we should expect it: supernatural violation met with supernatural retribution. I have a lot of family in St. Petersburg, Florida, and we find ourselves on I-4 heading to Orlando for Disney World quite frequently. We will certainly be on the lookout for this patch of highway in the future.

A woman on Catherine's HillThe legend of Catherine's Hill (reenacted at right) mirrors what is arguably the most famous, most widespread supernatural legend in the U.S., that of the vanishing hitchhiker. In the most typical version of the legend, a woman is seen wandering alone along a desolate stretch of highway. A driver picks her up and attempts to deliver her safely home, only to find that en route she has disappeared from the backseat. What I find most interesting about this legend are the stories of how people have responded to the legend, in particular stories of how in the 1960s, the nearby university is said to have had an unspoken rule that buses driving in that area had to have one empty seat available, so that they could offer Catherine a ride if they came upon her.

With "Bodie's Curse," there is the source of the curse with its obvious indictment of disloyalty and greed, not to mention the warning about severe and sudden weather in the unforgiving Sierra Nevada Mountains. There is the historical telling of the legends with the practical message to tourists and travelers to quit stealing things out of the homes of Bodie residents for souvenirs (sadly, a very real problem). And there is the modern telling of the legends that not only reinforce these values, but as told by park rangers, echo a common message of conservation and preservation that all parks attempt to instill in their visitors. All the stories of people taking things from Bodie and encountering unusually bad luck highlights the power of hindsight and reflection, with these legends serving as prompts to consider explanations where we might have assumed coincidence.

The legends of Devil's Gate are particularly compelling because of the clear historical evidence for so many dark and tragic events in the area. You've got an avowed occultist engaged in dark rituals in an attempt to contact very dangerous supernatural beings. You've got a confessed serial killer who abducted a number of children in the area, with additional missing children whose fates remain a mystery. You've got some severe droughts, storms and fires that have targeted the area. And in the middle of it all, you've got a rock face that looks a heck of a lot like a demon's face.

"Augusta's Pillar" has a recurring theme here of supernatural justice levied against intolerance and scapegoating. Also compelling are the different origins for the pillar. While the itinerant preacher is the most common, other versions have explained the pillar as part of an old slave market, and the devastating storm as divine retribution against slavery. While historical evidence does not support the claim that the market had ever been used to sell slaves, the fraught racial history of the Deep South makes such an interpretation plausible, and tells us a lot about current social and cultural norms, anxieties and tensions.

A staged reenactment around Augusta's Pillar

A staged reenactment around Augusta's Pillar.

What do these legends say about us? Do they have any positive benefit? What can we learn from them?

Legends provide answers to questions that may upset, disturb, confuse, excite or haunt us. They can do the reverse as well, and simply disturb, upset, confuse, or scare us in and of themselves, but even when they do, they can be eminently useful. Because at the heart of most legends is a moral imperative. The legend of Catherine's Hill, for example, ultimately tells us that if we ignore our neighbor in distress, we could face disastrous even deadly consequences. The legend of Moll Dyer makes it clear that harboring prejudices against people who appear different from us can quickly lead to terrible stereotyping, discrimination, and ultimately unspeakable crimes. Again, the moral is clear: such discriminatory behavior will be punished with death or suffering. The legend of Bodie's curse reminds people of a lesson they should have learned in kindergarten: do not take things that don’t belong to you.

Virtually all these legends also warn about the dangers of the woods, of the dark, uninhabited spaces where the order and structure of society dissolves. But it is also a more metaphorical warning about those places where social norms may hold little sway. Many of these legends tell a story of some sort of violation of social norms, whether an angry mob setting upon an innocent woman, a graveyard being callously paved over, or a preacher being summarily dismissed and run out of town. In others, like with the legends about Julia Brown, she literally lives on the margins and is believed to wield supernatural power that the social order cannot control or compete with.

In the end, most of these legends support the morals and values of society. They reflect back our ideals, the values we aspire to, even if we cannot always attain them. And they reflect our fears about those parts of life we cannot control, that even our carefully constructed social norms cannot fully protect us from. In telling these legends, we not only admit to these fears, we allay them by providing reasons for what might otherwise appear random and uncontrollable. Yes, hurricanes can come out of nowhere in South Carolina, but if you're lucky, you’ll see the Gray Man who can protect you. Yes, terrible storms can flood your home in Louisiana, but there are prophetic warnings if only you pay attention to them. In the end, we tell these stories because they are entertaining. They excite, scare and titillate. They provoke conversation about what is and isn't real. Whether we believe them or not, they make for a good story.

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