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Gambier's 'MayorLovecraft' flips the script about Ohio in cryptic TikTok videos

The Columbus Dispatch logo The Columbus Dispatch 1/29/2022 Monroe Trombly, The Columbus Dispatch

Leeman Kessler was walking up his driveway a little more than a month ago when he pulled out his cellphone.

Kessler turned the camera on himself and uttered 26 words that would go on to capture the imagination of millions of TikTok users:

"One of the best things about living in Ohio is knowing that the Raven Queen won't ever set foot here. Not again, not after last time."

His video went gangbusters and has since racked up more than 3 million views.

But just who is the Raven Queen?

"I've been getting a lot of questions about the Raven Queen, so let me clear a few things up," Kessler said in a more recent TikTok video. "It's not a (Dungeons & Dragons) thing, not a football thing, not a TV show thing. It's an Ohio thing. As for whether or not she's real, what can I say? She's as real as Ohio." 


Kessler, 39, in short time has become popular on TikTok — the video-based social media platform — for posting cryptic videos that play up Ohio's weirdness and lore. He has more than 118,000 followers.

But the former college drama major who's portrayed horror writer H.P. Lovecraft on stage and film for the past decade is just as well-known for something else:

He is the mayor of Gambier, a village that's home to Kenyon College, a private liberal arts school, and about 55 miles northeast of downtown Columbus.

Kessler, who graduated from Kenyon in 2004, moved back to town in 2015 after his wife, Rachel, was offered the post of priest-in-charge of Harcourt Parish and chaplain at Kenyon.

He soon became involved in local politics and was elected to the village council in 2017. Now he's in the midst of his second term as mayor after being reelected without opposition.

And while Kessler is eccentric enough to call himself "MayorLovecraft" on TikTok, he takes his government work quite seriously, according to R.C. Wise, village administrator.

Wise, who has worked with at least six mayors during his more than 20-year career in local government throughout Ohio, said Kessler is the best mayor he's ever worked with. 

"He has a certain way about him in which he takes various different viewpoints — we have strong personalities on council — and builds consensus and collaborates and helps people come up with the right answer to move the village forward," Wise said.

Leeman Kessler attended school at Kenyon College in Gambier, where he now is mayor. © Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch Leeman Kessler attended school at Kenyon College in Gambier, where he now is mayor.

Alyssa Gómez Lawrence works in Kenyon's office of community partnerships and is friends with Kessler.

"Leeman is the kind of mayor where you would look at a picture of him in a program or on a website and go, 'Oh, he's the guy who would offer to help me shovel my driveway,"' she said.

"And that's great," she continued, laughing. "Honestly, that's kind of what you want in a mayor. Someone who's very hands on and very within the community, and not just a figure that sits above everything else."

Lawrence, 34, who met Kessler through local D&D and board games groups, said the mayor is the definition of an extrovert and can be seen daily walking around Gambier with his two kids or by himself.

"He also genuinely wants to help," she added. "He genuinely wants to make things better for everyone. He's inclusive, welcoming and very approachable."

And his persona is appreciated by students, she said.

"He's a dork, that's who he is," Lawrence said. "He embraces it. So does everyone else."

Dealing with the legacy of Lovecraft

Long before he got involved with politics — or TikTok for that matter — Kessler has been connected to Lovecraft, the early 20th century American writer who popularized what later became known as cosmic horror.

In recent years, there's been a resurgence of interest in the author, in part due to the 2016 novel "Lovecraft Country" and its HBO adaptation. 

Kessler first became familiar with Lovecraft about a decade ago while living in Toronto.  Asked by a friend to portray the author on stage, he dove headfirst into his work. Since 2012, he has performed as Lovecraft for his web series, "Ask Lovecraft."

What he read by the author, though, both fascinated and horrified him. Despite being a gifted writer who was married to a Ukrainian Jewish woman, Lovecraft was a virulent racist and antisemite.

Gambier Mayor Leeman Kessler performs as author H.P. Lovecraft and has a web series called "Ask Lovecraft." © Fred Squillante/Columbus Dispatch Gambier Mayor Leeman Kessler performs as author H.P. Lovecraft and has a web series called "Ask Lovecraft."

Kessler, who has performed as Lovecraft at conventions, said he walks a fine line between not ignoring the author's prejudice and not going what he calls "full Lovecraft."

"I don't want to create a show that's unwatchable, unless you're a Stormfront aficionado," Kessler said, referring to the Internet's first major hate site.

That being said, he's sensitive to the fact that he profits off a racist. In the wake of the 2015 mass shooting at a Black church in Charleston, South Carolina, Kessler said he felt obligated to write an essay about Lovecraft because at the time he wrestled with whether he was glorifying the author and excusing the man's bigotry.

"I make peace with it by always being open to the conversation, always being willing to sit with that discomfort and allow someone to address that and not be defensive," Kessler said.

The making of a TikTok star

Kessler first joined TikTok a little less than a year ago because his wife had recently made a profile and he wanted to leave, as he put it, snarky comments on her videos. 

"That's a big part of our relationship," Kessler said.

He quickly cultivated an audience after posting videos of himself talking about Lovecraft, politics, gaming and being a mayor.  

Kessler's TikTok videos on Ohio are informed by a love of fantasy and science fiction, and many incorporate elements of Ohio's landscape and the Gothic revival architecture and iconography of Kenyon, founded in 1824. 

Gambier Mayor Leeman Kessler creates his web series "Ask Lovecraft" at home. © Fred Squillante/Columbus Dispatch Gambier Mayor Leeman Kessler creates his web series "Ask Lovecraft" at home.

Kessler speculates that the videos have become so popular, in part, because Ohio has sometimes been treated as the butt of a joke or had a reputation of being boring.

"For a long time I thought of Ohio as almost like a people factory," Kessler said. "Like people were just produced and processed here. But the idea of people returning to Ohio or as a destination state for the longest time was not in the public imagination. And yet, here I am, someone who not only came here once, but came here twice."

In one video, Kessler stands on the banks of a stream and alludes to a choice many Ohioans have faced at some point in their lives: Should I stay or should I go?

"One of the nice things about living in Ohio is that if you stand on the correct side of many of our beautiful rivers and waterways, you'll begin to hear the true secrets and lore of this land. However, I must caution you. If you stand on the wrong side, all you'll get are half-remembered dreams from all who have left Ohio. Figuring out which side you're on, can be the work of a lifetime."

Some have joked that Kessler's focus on the Buckeye State makes him seem as if he's the physical embodiment of Ohio, someone who's grown up and lived here his entire life. That couldn't be further from the truth, though.

Kessler was born in Africa, grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, and first came to Ohio to attend Kenyon.

But not being a native Ohioan doesn't prevent Kessler from exploring what he calls the "weirdness" of Ohio, pointing to the guardian statues in Cleveland and the legend of the Loveland Frogman.

"If I can give Ohio a little bit more weirdness and wonderment, I'm happy to do it," he said. "If the state tourism board wants to write me a check, I will not say no."

Kessler — at least among his audience of loyal TikTok followers — has succeeded in generating renewed interest in the state. He said many people have messaged him about moving or traveling here.

"Do I think Ohio is going to become the Austin of the Midwest? Probably not," Kessler said. "But it's been really rewarding to see people talk about Ohio and think about Ohio in different ways. Whether or not the various locales I point out are real or not, it gets people talking about the ones that are real."

Monroe Trombly covers breaking and trending news.


This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Gambier's 'MayorLovecraft' flips the script about Ohio in cryptic TikTok videos


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