Weekly Geek Out: Welcome to Night Vale

by NICK MIZER

A week or so ago I decided to indulge a guilty pleasure and stop at Taco Bell for a breakfast burrito. I pulled up to the speaker, which did not crackle out a rough approximation of human speech as it normally would.  I was fine with that, because I had not yet decided which rough approximation of food I wanted. I looked over the various structural combinations of tortillas, beans, meat, cheese, and eggs, and a young worker hosed off a plastic mat, watching me. Still hearing nothing, I ventured a tentative “Hello?” at the speaker. Nothing. The mat-washer hung up the hose and retreated behind a metal door. “Ah,” I thought, “he’s going to get someone to help me.” I sat patiently, imagining my breakfast crunch wrap for a few more minutes before I start to wonder if maybe they weren’t open. I drove around to the front, parked, and approached the door. Finding it unlocked, I stepped into the dim interior. There, behind the counter and under the glow of the menu, stood the mat washer. “Hi, I was outside for a while,” I haltingly explained, “but no one said anything. Maybe your speaker is broken?” The mat washer paused before replying mildly, “Oh, that was you in the red car? I thought I recognized you.” I waited to see if he had more to say, but he just stared expectantly, waiting for me to tell him which rough approximation of food I would like him to heat up and bring to me.

If Prairie Home Companion were written as a magical realism collaboration between H.P. Lovecraft, Jorge Luis Borges, and the goons at Something Awful.

I posted about this odd experience on Facebook, and a friend asked me if I lived in Night Vale. “Night Vale?” I asked a bank of computers by typing the words into a search bar. This was my introduction to Welcome to Night Vale, Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor’s bimonthly podcast presenting community radio from a fictional desert community.  The show is kind of like what you would get if Prairie Home Companion were written as a magical realism collaboration between H.P. Lovecraft, Jorge Luis Borges, and the goons at Something Awful. I was hooked from the opening public service announcement:

“The City Council announces the opening of a new dog park at the corner of Earl and Sommerset, near the Ralph’s. They would like to remind everyone that dogs are not allowed in the dog park. People are not allowed in the dog park. It is possible that you will see hooded figures in the dog park. DO NOT APPROACH THEM. DO NOT APPROACH THE DOG PARK. The fence is electrified and highly dangerous. Try not to look at the dog park, and, especially, do not look for any period of time at the hooded figures. The dog park will not harm you.”

Image by TheAllenMeister

One of the things that I love about Welcome to Night Vale is the way it parallels the town’s bizarre happenings and incomprehensible terrors with the sometimes similar irrationalities that we encounter in daily life. Cecil, the announcer on the show, never breaks his NPR-zen-calm as he reports, whether it’s the appearance of a strange philosophical pyramid implanting answer-less questions and question-less answers in the minds of citizens or simply a reminder about the city council’s ban on writing utensils.  Sometimes this unshakeable calm feels like a dystopian warning about our complacency in the face of terrors in our own world, and sometimes it feels like a hopeful existentialism, as when Cecil closes with “And while the future is fast coming for you, it always flinches first, and settles in as the gentle present. This now, this us, we can cope with that. We can do this together, you and I. Drowsily, but comfortably.”

The world of Night Vale does what all good secondary universes do: provide us an interesting set of lenses for looking at our own universe, poking us and prodding us to both see that universe more clearly and imagine how it might be different.

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About Nick Mizer

Although much of my work focuses on tabletop role-playing games, I think that geek culture in general has a lot to offer for anthropological study, from understandings of modernity and consumerism to the role of the imagination and wonder in the midst of those more “serious” trends. As I explore these things, I find myself straddling the borders between anthropology, folkloristics, and performance studies.

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