That most Hallowed-Eve time of year is upon us again, when everything is doused in pumpkin flavors and the general popular spends a month acting like cosplayers do year round (that is to say, approaching every strange and discarded garment as a potentially useful tool and trying to out-obscure friends and loved ones). It is also the time of year when horror lovers like myself – and I suspect you too, dear reader, if you’ve stuck around long – get to spend a few week walking through a wonderland of horror-focused cable picks, Netflix suggestions, promoted creepypastas, and DVD shelves. But there’s a medium most overlook in seeking out their scares – podcasts.
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One of the most important qualities of a good spooky story (the subtle ones, not that I don’t love the occasional gorefest) is creating an intimacy between audience and fiction, lulling them into an almost hypnotic state of wonder where anything is possible while you pick away, unnoticed, at their psychological defenses. To that end, a medium that can literally whisper in your ear, unheard by anyone else, has a distinct hand up on the competition. And folks, there is some gold out there. Take these recommendations, a proffered candle to light your dark nights – the better to make the shadows grow teeth.
Calm, measured and inviting, Aaron Manhke has the kind of voice that makes you feel like a kid curling up for a bedtime story. Each week, Lore delves into a bit of history of regarding urban legends or ghosts, from a scope as large as the history of vampires to as small as a single family tormented by a single supposedly-possessed doll.
It isn’t just Manhke’s voice that’s so hypnotic – the man has a brilliant ear for how to craft a story for the aural tradition, and the cadence of the written language is as much a player as the speaker. Mahnke is clearly sincerely passionate about his love of monsters, attending classes to become a better storyteller and releasing transcripts of each episode that include the sources he drew from. It’s tantalizing stuff for those left wanting by the little 20 minute chunks, there if you want more than a sweet shiver to tuck yourself in with.
Younger readers, I imagine, might not be familiar with the terrifying tale of the Manson Murders. They were already a cultural scar by the time I was growing up, and while Manson himself is very much alive in prison the story itself has become a less than widely traded one. Why retell the sensationalism, when there’s already so much blood to contend with in the here and now?
Those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it, of course, and while it may be removed from the modern consciousness it’s a real-life horror story well worth remembering. To tell a highly reductive version, Charles Manson was a highly enigmatic cult leader who took advantage of the many lost teenagers (young idealists desperate for decisive direction and something to believe in) drawn to California by the “Summer of Love” in order to amass his own slavishly adoring “family.” In 1969, Manson’s followers would murder over a dozen people by Manson’s order, partly to try and spark the supposedly inevitable race war Manson was ever preaching about, and partly because he was bitter that Hollywood hadn’t swept him up and made him a rock star.
All of this and more is researched and told by You Must Remember This host Karina Longsworth with a mix of measured foreboding and a hint of nudging, knowing gossip here and there. She doesn’t stop with just Manson himself or a chronological series of events but unfolds an entire tapestry of lives, pausing on each network of relationships that was touched by Manson during his time in California before and after the murders. As an exploration of a singular event, it’s damn near up there with Ken Burns himself.
You may remember I recommended this podcast not long ago, but I’m listing it here for good measure. The electric dynamic of reporter Alex Reagan’s open curiosity and professional skeptic Richard Strand is one of magnificent tension, and the cases Reagen reports on are as haunting as they are engrossing. If you’re curious at all I recommend it – be it the full essay or the show itself. I almost daren’t say more here, lest I ruin the purity of the experience
I’m almost positive anyone reading an article about podcasts is already familiar with the medium’s biggest success story, but it bears repeating just in case. While Night Vale is best known these days for its lovable unreliable narrator of a protagonist and the show’s incredibly deft handling of diversity in both character and casting (including said narrator’s adorable scientist boyfriend, the two of them making up one of the most normalized queer couples in modern fiction), not to mention the ever-widening stable of enticing ensemble cast members, it can be easy to forget how much Night Vale excels as a work of existential horror.
The scripts are thick, foreboding poetry, a flowery cadence set against blunt, pointed imagery that’s delivered with great portent by actor Cecil Baldwin. The town of Night Vale itself excels at normalizing the horrifying without really taking away the horror of it. its citizens seem to have just shrugged and accepted the likelihood that something unspeakably horrible might be lurking around every corner, be it painful dismemberment, the unjust hand of a shadowy systemic body, or the crippling emotional fear of other people – not so unlike us, it suggests.
And Cecil himself (that’s Palmer, the character, not Baldwin-the-actor) is a wreck of fear and faulty memories, passionate in his opinions even and especially when they’re over something petty, terrified by life and all of things he doesn’t and seemingly cannot know about his own life. And his powerlessness despite how fond we grow of him, his ability to hurt others while being so obviously well-meaning and loving at heart, might be one of the most subtle and enthralling terrors on offer.
As enjoyable as it can be to contemplate the what-ifs of supernatural sightings and the unexplained, it’s equally useful to have those musings punctured by a skeptic now and again. To that end, The Parapod: a show hosted by two British comedians wherein a true believer in ghosts (Barry Dodds) attempts to convince his skeptical friend (Ray Peacock) of the veracity of the paranormal. He…has not been successful thusfar, readers.
The show is structured to give Barry the reins, letting him steer the show while giving Ray the freedom to stand back and play Mystery Science Theater with the ghost stories and ritual summoning games Barry brings each week. And despite the occasional ruthlessness of the jabs, the fact that the two know each other takes the sting of cruelty out of the majority of the content. Given that neither side seems intent on budging it seems destined to be a limited run of a podcast, but it’s a quality ride while it’s here.
As an aside, I’d recommend starting with the second episode of the run. The pilot has the common trouble of belaboring the premise beyond what’s needed without a lot of actual content (the first half of the episode drags something fierce), and finds focus almost as soon as the actual hauntings are mentioned (that, and skipping the premiere means skipping the charming bit where Ray, in all apparent earnestness, labels not just paranormal believers but people of any kind of faith as mentally ill).