Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Horror Stories

I've been attracted to the horror genre for as long as I can remember. The first chapter book I ever read was a children's adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera. My best friend and I wrote a book of scary stories in the second grade titled Ghosts, Spooks, and Other Scary Things. At the age when other girls were playing with Barbies, that same friend and I were playing with Ouija Boards. I don't watch as many horror movies as I used to--the cheesy special effects aren't my cup of tea. But I still enjoy good horror stories, and I even use horror as the theme for my English composition course.

Lately I've been exploring the horror genre in the realm of podcasts. Something about the audio format hearkens back to scary stories being told around a campfire. I find it particularly effective--by which I mean frightening. If you're interested in freaking yourself out while you walk your dog or drive to work, here are the podcasts I recommend:

Welcome to Night Vale

Aside from a few NPR offerings, Welcome to Night Vale was probably the first podcast I ever listened to on a regular basis. The premise of the show is that it's the local radio station for a small, fictional desert town called Night Vale, where the eerie and abnormal is completely normal for everyone who lives there. Through the perspective of charming radio host Cecil Palmer, we learn all about the new dog park (where dogs are not allowed, and people are not allowed, and where one should definitely avoid the mysterious hooded figures), the scrappy station interns (most of whom suffer fatal accidents on the job), and the heated mayoral election between The Faceless Old Woman Who Lives In Your Home and Hiram McDaniels the five-headed dragon (literally). Though the show isn't strictly narrative--episodes can typically stand on their own--there is gradual character development. Many residents of Night Vale make multiple appearances on the show, and we learn a great deal more about Cecil and his life, of course. Many times this show is funnier than it is scary, but certain uncanny episodes have definitely put me on edge. The creators of Night Vale, Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, recently launched a new podcast called Alice Isn't Dead. They've only released one episode, so I can't completely vouch for it, but that first episode is much more frightening than Night Vale, and much more plot-driven as well. It seems promising, and I look forward to following it.

The Message

The Message is more on the sci-fi side of the spectrum, but no one could argue that it isn't scary.  It consists of the reports of Nicky Tomlin, who is helping a group of scientists and cryptologists decode a message received from outer space over 70 years ago. The trouble is that many people who listen to that message end up very dead very fast. I had a few problems with this podcast, which seems to be completely finished now, after only one season. It was produced by GE, so they surely had more money than most podcasts do when they're starting, but the episodes were only about 15 minutes long. With that kind of financial backing, I would have expected more. I also thought the ending of the series was particularly weak. On the other hand, the cast is pretty diverse--lots of women, and even one gender-neutral character. And it's undeniably terrifying that the sound of the message itself is fatal--the sound that you, the listener, end up hearing multiple times. It has a similar effect to the movie The Ring. Will you die seven days after watching that movie? Will you die after hearing the message? You'll have to find out for yourself...


Another sci-fi story, Sayer is solidly in the space-computers-trying-to-murder-you genre. Think HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Only this is a little different, because Sayer's talking to you. Literally you. A few episodes in you learn that you are a specific character, and eventually the show moves on to several different characters and storylines, but it is decidedly unnerving to have Sayer's too-calm robotic voice welcome you to Typhon, telling you not to worry, that the paralysis will wear off shortly. It's an effective hook, and the storytelling is compelling enough that I wasn't disappointed when it became less second-person focused. This one's funny-creepy as well, more like Night Vale. My only complaint is that Sayer ended too quickly! But there are still 44 episodes for you to devour, should you accept the challenge. The residents of Typhon have to accept lots of interesting challenges.


Lore is the only nonfiction podcast I'm reviewing here. In this show, author Aaron Mahnke delves into the histories behind our culture's most enduring horror tropes--vampires, werewolves, witches, and so on. But he also highlights real-life scary stories that are less commonly told--and some of them are really scary. The first time I listened to this podcast, I was home alone, and that was a mistake. Occasionally Mahnke's delivery is a bit cheesy--there are lots of repeated phrases with dramatic pauses, like "and he/she/it/they was/were never...seen...again." But most of the time, I enjoy the way he structures the episodes, even when they give me the chills.


This is the first of three podcasts I'm reviewing that capitalized on the success of NPR's Serial. Just as Sarah Koenig unraveled the mystery of Hae Min Lee's 1999 murder week by week, so too does APR's Lia Haddock explore the decade-old disappearance of the residents of the small Tennessee village known as Limetown. Of course, Limetown is fictional, so it gets away with more suspense and drama than Serial ever could. Most reviews of the show call it "Serial meets The X-Files," and I think that's an apt description. There's a shadowy organization, dangerous technology, and eventually, a connection to the story for Miss Haddock that hits too close to home. When I listened to the season finale, my roommate ran into the room asking what was wrong--she was disturbed by all the screaming. The screaming on the show, that is, not my own screaming. I only screamed at the end of episode 2--I should never have listened before bed. The bad news: there are currently only 6 episodes. The good news: it was so popular that season 2 is on its way! I can't wait. (Pro tip: listen to the very end of each episode.)

The Black Tapes

If Limetown is Serial + The X-Files, then The Black Tapes is Serial + The Exorcist. Host Alex Reagan wanted to create a show that profiled interesting people, but instead she gets stuck on her first subject--Dr. Richard Strand, a paranormal expert famous for his skepticism of the paranormal. His institute offers a $1,000,000 reward to anyone who can provide him with undeniable proof of the paranormal, and so far he has disproved every offering--except for a small shelf of cases that Reagan refers to as "The Black Tapes." She ends up helping Strand try to solve these cases--most of which turn out to have a demonic connection. But Reagan is far less skeptical than Strand, and before long his rationalizations aren't enough. One of the best things about The Black Tapes is that none of the creators will acknowledge that it's fictional. No cast members are listed on their website, and they even built a website for Dr. Strand's institute where you can submit your own paranormal experiences. I was raised Catholic, so demon-based horror is the kind that scares me the most, even though I'm no longer religious. Because of this, The Black Tapes is truly one of the most frightening things I've ever encountered. Also, one time the power went out while I was listening. Trust me--you do not want the power to go out while you're listening to The Black Tapes. I nearly cried.


Tanis is my latest podcast obsession. Created by the same team that made The Black Tapes (there's even some crossover), Tanis is about...whatever Tanis is. The point of the show is to uncover a true mystery in the internet age, when almost nothing is a mystery for long. Tanis is maybe a place, or an idea--even a person. The only thing anyone knows for sure is that when someone locates Tanis, they come back changed--often in horribly violent ways. Host Nic Silver has to search all over the place for what little information he can gather--the deep web via his hacker friend MeerKatNip, newspaper classified ads from the 1950's, the inner workings of the discreet TeslaNova Corporation (which also has its own website). The great thing about Tanis is that it blurs fiction and reality even more than The Black Tapes does. It constantly references real historical events and figures, real news stories, and ties them into the myth of Tanis, so much so that I frequently have to remind myself that Tanis isn't real--I'm inclined to see it everywhere. If you're a literature person, Tanis is Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 + Sebald's Austerlitz set in the modern Pacific Northwest. Surely that comparison makes sense to someone.

So why are you still reading this? Go listen to a podcast! Scare yourself silly!

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