What Do We See? Tying Horror into Narrative Podcast Structures
By Katie Gill
Over the past decade, the narrative podcast form has exploded in popularity. Gone are the days when a listener would be pleasantly surprised to see Welcome to Night Vale on an end-of-the-year-best-of list. Now, there are narrative podcasts popular enough to routinely take in five figures a month on Patreon, with enough clout to attract A-List celebrities as guest stars, and enough in the genre to fill an end-of-the-year-best-of list and still have a few heavy hitters missing. And out of all the genres of fiction podcasts that can draw inspiration from, perhaps the most notable is the horror genre.
When you dive into the medium, you’ll see that the horror genre fits wonderfully in the world of narrative podcasts. After all, one of the podcasts that helped start the narrative podcast explosion, Welcome to Night Vale, is horror-adjacent itself. This might initially seem like an odd fit as so much of horror relies on visuals, whether seen on film or television or conjured up in your mind from book descriptions. But one of the reasons that the narrative podcast form is particularly adept at horror is due to the limitations of the form. When you’re listening to a podcast, you can’t see what’s happening. The only sense you have to rely on is sound. And while some podcasts describe the horror in detail, much like an author would when writing a book, the masters of the genre know that there are few things scarier than one’s own imagination.
A few podcasts take advantage of the audio form by having their premise built around the concept of audio recordings themselves. The first two seasons of The White Vault center around a documentarian piecing together a narrative via audio recordings from a doomed Arctic scientific mission. The audio recordings are limited, building up the tension before cutting out at appropriately dramatic moments — something easily explained as the file being damaged. Due to the nature of the tapes, events can happen off-screen with everyone involved such as the scientists, the documentarian, and the listeners, in the dark as to what is happening.
Another horror podcast, The Magnus Archives, builds its narrative around the idea of an archivist narrating and recording previously written statements about supernatural happenings for the titular Magnus Archives. While The Magnus Archives does have an overarching “real-time” seasonal plot, it’s in these individual statements and stories that the true horror shines through. Having this built into the framework means that the types of horror can shift from episode to episode — an episode about the vastness of space could easily be followed by an episode about the claustrophobia of cave diving.
The ‘examining previously created footage’ of these two podcasts also adds a new dimension to the horror: what will happen to our subjects? Admittedly, this is less of a concern in The Magnus Archives, as we know everybody will survive long enough to write down their statement. But each statement usually has a ‘where are they now’ postscript about the subject — and in some cases the ‘where are they now’ becomes ‘what happened to them?’ With The White Vault, no one is safe, as none of the scientific team has reappeared since they went out to the Arctic base. Anyone can die; we learn the fate of the crew alongside the documentarian, learning the narrative at the same time she does.
But what about podcasts that don’t have a ‘previously recorded’ component? How can podcasts manage to create effective horror and tell an ongoing story relying solely on your sense of hearing? After all, it can be all too easy to become confused, especially if the action is accompanied by ambiguous sound effects. While I adore The Magnus Archives, this can be one of its faults, especially in the non-narrated portions. It took me a few listens to realize just what precisely was happening as one character beat another to death.
The podcast Malevolent side-steps any ambiguity by giving the point-of-view character the same limitations the audience does: he cannot see the horror. Private Investigator Arthur Lester wakes up after blacking out to find that he cannot see because a nameless entity that resides inside his consciousness has control over his eyes. Neither Arthur nor the entity later referred to as John, know how they came to share a body in the first place. Their quest to figure this out leads the two into a Lovecraftian mystery, filled with cultists, intrigue, and all sorts of otherworldly horrors.
This really is an ingenious set-up for a horror podcast and takes full advantage of the inherent limitations of the medium. John is forced to describe for Arthur, and thereby the viewers as well, what they are looking at. Like Arthur, the viewer is constantly asking “what do we see?” John’s narration isn’t a continual background narration either; John is a character just as much as Arthur is, not a vehicle for exposition. There are moments when John simply can’t describe the Lovecraftian horrors in front of them or doesn’t have enough time to do so. A loud, monstrous groan out of nowhere, startling both the characters and the listeners, will be followed up by John urging Arthur to run, only describing the horrible being they escaped from once the two are safe and away from the evil (and when the viewer’s blood pressure has lowered a little).
So yes, before diving into the world of podcasts, one might wonder how you can tell an effectively spooky story without visuals. But these various narrative horror podcasts manage that and then some. Building the limitations of the form into the story you want to tell makes it so that the story can be told in new, inventive, and properly scary ways. 🩸
Katie Gill is a librarian by day and a culture critic by night, who has strong opinions about dead explorers, the Eurovision Song Contest, and public domain works of literature. She has previously published at The Singles Jukebox, Anime Feminist, and Women Write About Comics. Her voice can be heard on various podcasts including PseudoPod and Stacks and Stories.
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