Journalists are widely speculating that we live in the “Golden Age” of podcasts, ushered in by the success of podcasts like Serial or Invisibilia. As a former English major, podcasts tap into the deep satisfaction that comes from the feeling of participatory storytelling, harkening back to the radio dramas of the early to mid 1900’s. While we all have certain topics we tend to gravitate towards, I try to regularly scroll through the Podcast app Top Charts to check on what shows I might be missing in my repertoire. That’s how I stumbled upon Lore. Hosted by author Aaron Mahnke, Lore is a “bi-weekly podcast about true life scary stories” that delves into the folklore, urban legends and supernatural yarns that populate our history books and riddle our natural and urban landscapes. As a dilettante folklorist and amateur spook sister, Lore definitely satisfies my craving for the creepy. While Mahnke is an excellent storyteller—wedding haunting musical ambiance with in-depth accounts of the preternatural in every day life—however, the underlying tone of the podcast sometimes seems to suggest that he finds people’s belief in the supernatural accounts he shares risible. The tense balance between historical accuracy, cultural context and broader interpretation can therefore lead to a deeper understanding of the human psyche, in turn revealing the monstrosity humans can simultaneously render and become, cut with a hint of Mahnke’s judgment that people can be so “gullible.”
With episodes on ancient curses, balls of light, haunted mine shafts, murder dungeons and the Jersey Devil, Mahnke weaves intimate, intricate characterizations of the participants and agents of the stories he retells to provide a kind of emotional immediacy otherwise informed by historical accounts and reports. Like a careful folklorist, he provides the eye-witness accounts and primary source documents that otherwise attest to the “verity” of supernatural occurrences, setting the milieu in which the story was enacted. In Episode 11: Black Stockings, for example, he focuses on the Cleary family in Ireland in the late 1800’s to discuss the belief in changelings. When Bridget Cleary fell ill, her husband accused her of being a changeling—that is, he believed that his wife had been kidnapped and replaced by a fairy substitute. The fervor of his belief was such that he invoked drastic actions to make the fairy reveal itself and return his wife, escalating to the point that he burned his wife alive when she refused to admit that she was a changeling. But Mahnke warns, “Stories have layers. There’s the meaning you glean from the initial telling, and then there’s the rest of the story. The deeper you dive, the more things begin to make sense.” Mahnke is careful to indicate that Bridget was a “self-possessed woman” who defied many of the gender conventions of her time, suggesting that her progressive behavior may have induced the ire of her husband, cuckolded by her economic independence and tendencies toward flirtation. Her husband’s accusation, Mahnke suggests, may therefore have been driven not necessarily by the belief that fairies abducted his wife, but by a sense of injustice in their relationship. The stories, in which people act upon common folk beliefs and tales, must therefore be understood within a complex interplay of factors, the social, political and economic conditions, as well as the elements of the unknown that may have initially inspired the creation of the folktales.
Because many of the podcasts deal with kryptozoological or otherworldly elements, the role of belief and its functionality in people’s day-to-day lives is often discussed. Sometimes, things occur that defy rational explanation, calling us to question the natural order of things. I would agree with Mahnke’s assertion that as a species, humans crave narrative cohesion, a sense of order that orients the world and our place within it. Sometimes what we fear most is the inexplicable, the lapse in our ability to answer or give a name to something. Stories help to provide a sense of purpose, that everything fits together within a sensible system based off a culture’s impression of meaning. Spirituality and religion are codified stories, ones that provide existential purpose and meaning to our lives, supplying believers with a set of explanations for the unfortunate, the contingent, the mysterious, thereby potentially eliminating the fear of the unknown. Fantastical beliefs could therefore be understood as explanations for enigmatic phenomena. Yet Mahnke seems to make a false delineation between supernatural beliefs and institutional faith. He talks about beliefs in myths, legends and old wives tales, but never talks about organized religion or its role in superstition, nor does he acknowledge that these beliefs and the reasoning behind these beliefs still persists today.
In Episode 3: The Beast Within, Mahnke posits that modernization and globalization has “expos[ed] much of the world’s fears to be just myth, it’s become more and more difficult to blame our flaws on monsters.” Science and empiricism, it seems, should have banished these monsters from our minds. While Mahnke attends to these folktales as meaning-making in an otherwise uncertain and dangerous world, his narration is peppered with asides like “It seems crazy to believe,” highlighting a sense of incredulity that people even hundreds of years ago could have believed that Tubercular patients were actually suffering from the symptoms of vampirism. Considering Mahnke’s careful historical research, I am compelled to ask him, why the skepticism of the belief in werewolves, but not that of the angels or demons of Christianity? Why the apologist tone in the belief that ghosts may walk among us when we also live in a world full of organized religions, where parishioners still enact rituals and ceremonies for beings that ostensibly exist in a different dimensional plane than our own? Indeed, there are still many people for whom supernatural beings are a normal part of human life. Technology may have progressed, but there are still many questions about our existence that remain to be answered and a narrative potency, an epistemological necessity, if you will, that gives rise to the persistence of faith. So while I appreciate Mahnke’s careful framing of his narratives and his desire to complicate these historical accounts, I do wish he was a little more intentional about the explanatory models people arrive upon when they are confronted with the inexplicable.
Folklore has gotten a bad wrap over the last several decades. Anthropologists, in an attempt to establish themselves as a scientifically grounded and methodologically rigorous discipline, have distanced themselves from folkloristics, and other members of academia have long treated the field as a soft discipline nearing retirement. College and university folklore programs sadly are being shut down or merged into other departments, uncomfortably sitting somewhere within the social sciences and humanities. Yet folklore is another framework through which to understand and study culture, the ways that humans construct meaning based off of shared and contested systems of thought and value. Aaron Mahnke’s Lore has hopefully revitalized new interest in the subject, covering legends, crime cases and accounts from around the world to reflect on the stories we are drawn to, the ones we create when explanation escapes us. Mahnke’s fascination seems to stem from the question of what humans fear most, and what we will do when we act out of fear. How do we project psychological distress onto certain situations and people, articulating elaborate narratives that, even if they don’t completely eliminate the fear and anxiety, at least let us know that we are not alone, that this is a monster that has been beaten. We may be the monsters of our worst imaginations, but that doesn’t mean that there also aren’t outside conditions for monstrosity.