Professor Receives Major Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities

Heather Freeman
Friday, April 28, 2023
Heather D. Freeman will produce a podcast series with Public Radio International

Professor of Digital Media Heather D. Freeman has been awarded a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to produce her podcast, Magic in the United States: 400 Years of Magical Beliefs, Practices, and Cultural Conflicts. The $389,000 grant will fund the production of three seasons of the podcast, which will explore how magical beliefs and practices have evolved in the U.S. from the 1600s to the present. The podcast will be marketed and distributed by Public Radio International (PRX) and made available for free through all major podcast outlets.

The new podcast will be the latest work to emerge from research that Freeman began years ago. Since 2016, she has interviewed dozens of academic experts and magic practitioners from around the world and spent a month in residency at the Museum for Witchcraft and Magic in Boscastle, Cornwall, in 2018. Initial plans for a full-length documentary film were disrupted by COVID-19, during which Freeman instead developed the podcast Familiar Shapes, which placed her investigations of contemporary social media disinformation and early modern witch trials within the context of the daily struggle of pandemic life.

A film version of Familiar Shapes finally did get released in late 2021. Though shorter than Freeman’s original vision for the film, the 20-minute documentary enjoyed a successful run at film festivals, including the Bristol International Short Film Festival in England and locally at the Charlotte Film Festival.

Mosaic digital tileThroughout her many investigations into topics of magic, mythology, pop culture, regionalism, and technology, Freeman has continued to develop stunning 2D visual artworks. From 2016-2018, Freeman created the Carolinian Herbal, a print series relating the “urban lore about the native and naturalized plants and animals of the North Carolina Piedmont with my own contemporary mythos, understandings of the spirits of the land which I occupy, and methods of co-existing in a manner of mutual respect and supportive growth.” In 2022, Freeman collaborated with Berlin-based software engineer Tres Henry to develop Mosaic, an natively-digital divination system available for free on Mac, Windows, and Linux machines (see image, right). And currently Freeman is developing a series of mixed media prints about her creative and magical collaboration with an generative AI called Öccane (see image below), and is creating an interactive diary in Unreal Engine 5 of her Decan Walk, a year-long meditation on the 36 astrological decans. Learn more at her website.

The Magic in the United States podcast will debut in October, and each season will include six episodes that run 20 to 30 minutes long.

“The goal of this podcast is twofold,” Freeman wrote in her project proposal. “First, it will expand the audience’s understanding of magical beliefs and practices prevalent throughout recorded American history, allowing the public to have a greater appreciation for the rich diversity of religious traditions within the United States. Second, it will illustrate how these often-misunderstood and marginalized beliefs both inspired and clashed with one another, facilitating the cross-pollination of ideas and practices from one community to another while simultaneously laying the groundwork for cultural conflict.”

print from Heather Freeman's new series Occane

Each episode will feature interviews with scholars from a range of academic disciplines, including history, religious studies, anthropology, sociology, and journalism, as well as contemporary magic practitioners and knowledgeable laypeople. While many people may think of religion and magic as existing on opposite ends of a spectrum, Freeman says that in fact the relationship between their practices is much closer, with each influencing the other across centuries of American history.

“The hybridization and cross-fertilization of magical beliefs and practices over time not only underscores some of the nation’s most important and influential cultural moments, but also provides the foundation for some of America’s most beloved and iconic music, art, dance, poetry, and literature, as our podcast will reveal.”

Freeman has assembled a group of 11 expert advisors in various humanities fields, including UNC Charlotte faculty Danielle Boaz, Assistant Professor of Africana Studies, and Professor of Religious Studies Sean McCloud. In addition, her media team includes several staff from PRX. Reaching 28 million listeners online and on radio each month, PRX produces and distributes roughly 120 shows and podcasts, including some of the most popular in the world, such as This American Life, The Moth, and Reveal.