Ghosts in the Machine: Supernatural Podcasts and the Resurgence of Radio Horror

The problem of nostalgia has become a common refrain among pop culture critics. Many claimed that The Force Awakens’ success could be almost entirely contributed to nostalgia, the desire to relive a bit of culture that has become such a touchstone in the American imagination. The entertainment industry has been cashing in on this nostalgic fervor—one that is primarily rooted in 90’s sentimentality—by bringing back defunct television shows like The X-Files, that paragon of suspicion, conspiracy theories and ominous dread in an investigation of the unknown. Part of The X-Files growing success after it was cancelled in 2002 lay in the rise of Internet culture. Scully’s skepticism was infinitely memeable and Mulder’s extraterrestrial fanaticism seemed charming compared to Ancient Aliens’ Giorgio Tsoukalos. Yet many have indicated that the revival of The X-Files fell flat, out of touch with the social and technological milieu of the 21st century. The fears of government surveillance and wiretapping have been proven to be true, perhaps more so than we ever feared or imagined, while we’ve witnessed the very real terror that can be generated by media gone awry.

The 90’s and the early 2000’s also bore the beginnings of technological horror—the found footage of The Blair Witch Project (1999), the home videos used in Signs (2002), the VHS tape as a vehicle of supernatural revenge in The Ring (2002), and the hidden cameras used to capture preternatural tampering in Paranormal Activity (2007). Ever since 2012, with the release of the podcast Welcome to Night Vale, horror has taken to the airwaves, hearkening back to the radio dramas of the early 1900’s, when families would gather around the fireplace to listen to stories meant to spook and shock. I would contend that this same spirit of nostalgia has given birth to a new breed of horror podcast; The Black Tapes, Tanis, The Message and Limetown combine the conventions of radio with the cultural specificity of contemporary fear to blend stories verging close enough to verisimilitude that the listener feels genuinely frightened, cast back to our childhood when every little ghost story made us shudder with fright.

The radio has been historically associated with things otherwordly. Jeffrey Sconce discusses the ways that the radio’s precursor, the telegraph, catalyzed spiritual speculation. If humans were able to transmit themselves through power lines and across time zones, it didn’t seem like much of a stretch to apply the same physics to ghosts or spirits from beyond the grave. In fact, Scone indicates that the rise of Spiritualism and the focalization of spiritual intermediaries—like preternatural radios with the dead—was contemporaneous with the invention of the telegraph, suggesting that there were cultural convergences between the technological and spiritual circuitry of the 19th century imagination. Many have also likely heard of the fear engendered by the first moving picture, the Lumiere Brothers’ “Arrival of the Train Car.” Released in 1895, the spectacle of watching a locomotive pull into the train station was so realistic that audience members panicked and began to flee from the auditorium, convinced that the train was going to crash into them. The first moving picture may have also unwittingly become the first horror movie. Radio dramas of the early 1900’s used sound effects and carefully rehearsed storylines to give a sense of startling realism, blending fiction with real historical events so that shows like “Marémoto”, which broadcast the crew of a sinking ship, were so convincing that they triggered the alarm of the French government. Radio drama’s apotheosis for horror occurred in 1938, when Orson Wells broadcast The War of the Worlds, eliciting widespread panic of an actual alien incursion. Although our skepticism and increasing reliance on the scientific method may have rendered consumers less gullible, it is precisely this spirit of telegraphic suspense and resistance to 21st century rationalism that propels the contemporary version of the radio drama: the horror podcast.

Fictional podcasts have truly only risen in popularity over the last several years. While many podcasts like This American Life, Snap Judgment and Serial pivot around clear narrative arcs and are constructed through the conventions of a fictive genre, they rely on journalists seeking out hidden stories from actual people. Welcome to Night Vale could be credited with breaking from the fidelity of real life by constructing a radio drama in a town where all the conspiracy theories and urban legends are true. While Night Vale is host to a giant glow cloud, ominous hooded figures, a dog park that isn’t actually a dog park but rather a portal to a desert otherworld, and floating cats with poisonous back spines, the show is also oriented around a spirit of whimsy. Episodes are full of humorous, romantic moments and its success can be partially attributed to the sympathetic population of characters creators Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor have written. The show also taps into “the weird”, a subgenre of speculative fiction that combines horror, the uncanny, and fantasy often typified by H.P. Lovecraft and China Mieville. Ever since Night Vale’s success (and now book deal), a new crop of fictionalized horror podcasts have emerged, appropriating the journalistic perspectives of Invisibilia and the cultural cache of Lore to construct narratives that simultaneously tap into our love of storytelling while dramatizing the fears and misgivings that still haunt modern society.

Pacific Northwest Stories has been at the forefront of this new genre with The Black Tapes Podcast and Tanis. Both ostensibly take place in Seattle, Washington and are handled by pseudo-journalists Alex Reagan and Nic Silver, respectively. The Black Tapes is marketed as a podcast exploring the career of Dr. Richard Strand, a paranormal investigator convinced that the scientific method is sufficient to explain away the presence of the supernatural. Yet like The X-Files, the tagline of The Black Tapes is “Do you believe?” The tension between Alex Reagan and her tentative desire to believe, or at least an openness to exploring alternative explanatory models, and Dr. Strand’s insistence on apophenia lies at the core of The Black Tapes. Reagan represents a large majority of the American population. A Huffington Post poll from 2013 found that 45% of Americans believe in ghosts, while a Pew Research Study from 2009 indicates that one in five US adults say that they have seen or been in the presence of ghosts. At moments, Reagan denies giving any credence to the presence of demons, unidentified shadows or supernatural interference—in part to maintain her professional relationship with Dr. Strand—while at others she is clearly nervous about engaging in summoning spells. Her persistent insomnia in season two makes evident the psychological consequences of her research.

The Black Tapes folds in contemporary cyberlore and urban legends to supplement the chilling investigation. Sebastian Torres’ strange shadowy friend, referred to as “Tall Paul,” is a clear if oblique reference to Slenderman. The show also features listener mail with accounts from audience members craving explanations for strange phenomena they’ve experienced. One episode of listener mail is an evident case of sleep paralysis and hypnopompic or hypnagogic hallucinations, a phenomenon that affects 40% of the world’s population and has been called upon to explain everything from the Salem Witch Trials to alien abduction stories. Folklorist and medical anthropologist David Hufford has taken the social science community to task for “explaining away” rather than investigating the epistemological truth supernatural phenomena in his own research on sleep paralysis. Medical anthropologists working on traditional or indigenous medicine have also outlined the logical fallacy inherent in applying biomedical models and ideologies onto alternative healing modalities. Biomedicine expects the traditional medicine to be apprehended under their explanatory model, thereby expecting one framework to accept the graft of the other without regarding the internal contradictions or limitations of the two. In the same way, is an application of the scientific method to the paranormal bound to fail? Anthropologists generally employ a range of theories that both attend to the internal logic and explanatory models of a local population, while sometimes reducing the paranormal to symbolic or political-economic mechanics. Some anthropologists, like Marilyn Ivy, demonstrate how technology and media articulate with ghostly, haunted referents, while others like Tanya Luhrmann illustrate the ways that magic and religious experience are constructed and construed as real cross-culturally. How to handle and conceive of the supernatural in anthropology is as fraught as the American public’s perception and apprehension of phenomena that seem to defy empirical explanation.

Tanis takes a similar route, using technology as the source of the Tanis myth and as the primary medium of Nic and Meerkatnip’s investigation. Nic introduces the podcast as a project borne out of his desire for more mystery and suspense in his life, returning again to this idea of nostalgia. While technology may seem antithetical to the uncanny, Nic soon discovers that the Internet and the Deep Web are actually a repository for both old and new mysteries. The death of a woman in a secure water tower is connected with the YouTube video of a woman behaving strangely in an elevator; the book Pacifica is linked with Firefly fan fiction and the promulgation of fan culture and lore; and a disappearing cabin in the woods seems to be partially informed by the reconfiguration of the Baba Yaga myth in Dungeons and Dragons. Other elements of the podcast are clear references to the corpus of horror stories already in circulation. MK notes the resonances between the drowned woman in the water tower and the Japanese movie Dark Water, while the discordant dimensions of the cabin—in which the inside is bigger than the outside—seem ripped straight from Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves and David Mitchell’s Slade House. MK is also wary of cyber ghosts, individuals without an Internet presence, a phenomenon that frightens her far more than bureaucratic conspiracies or supernatural subterfuge. Tanis is emblematic of the transition from analog to technological horror, the conspiracy theories and cyberlore generated in the darkest reaches of the Internet, and our increasing ability to connect the dots between seemingly disparate phenomena, even if the pattern we conceive is only a figment of our imagination.

The Message podcast is conducted in the same pseudo-journalistic fashion through the framework of a Cyphercast. Nicky Tomalin, an aspiring linguist who is much more than she appears, provides weekly reports and interviews with a team of cryptographers working to crack an extraterrestrial message received over 70 years ago. Like “the Unsound” in The Black Tapes Podcast, the acoustic registers of The Message call upon the expertise of linguistic anthropologists who investigate the connection between sound, culture and extraterrestrial intelligence. The semiotics and discursivity of The Message are not dissimilar from the quandaries of communication elicited by Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) or the playful debate that linguistic anthropologists should be the first academics employed to engage in alien communication. Initially, the cryptography team in The Message and recordings from The Black Tapes seem to suggest that the sounds are songs rather than simple speech, indicating the significance of ethnomusicology and acoustic anthropology as an important referent for both podcasts. The role of sound and auditory recordings in these podcasts is as much anthropological as it is a narrative device. As a fictional yet self-aware podcast, The Message’s fear-factor lies in the supposed deadly consequences of listening to The Message. Supernatural telepresence and haunted media combine with the questionable ethics of podcast journalism.

Limetown is perhaps the spookiest of them all. An investigation by American Public Radio host Lia Haddock, Limetown is the story of a small town in Tennessee where the entire population suddenly vanished without a trace. With overtones of government conspiracy theories and a hint of Silent Hill lore, the brief six episode arc is marked by hushed whispers, medical experiments, the military industrial complex, and a rather rushed conclusion. Perhaps more so than The Black Tapes, Tanis or The Message, Limetown is the most convincing fiction, with far fewer moments that were clearly scripted for tension or characters who, under questioning about inconsistencies in their story, decide to suddenly end the interview rather than making something up, as would likely happen in genuine conversations.

All four podcasts build upon the government suspicion and mistrust that was initially expressed in relation to the supernatural in The X-Files. They are also intimately connected with the fear engendered by technological innovation. What hath God wrought indeed. Their success is similarly facilitated by intertextuality, transmedia storytelling and digital media engagement—their websites collude in the mystery of the stories and the journalists enough to make you doubt, if only for a second, whether or not the accounts are true. They engage with Internet communities like Reddit and rely on fans’ compulsion to decode mysteries, discover the patterns before the big reveal, with the knowledge that an increasing audience will only serve to build and expand the lore further. With all manner of occult references, telegraphic ghosts, and bureaucratic conspiracies, The Black Tapes, Tanis, The Message and Limetown represent fictionalized horror for the modern age—the conflation of truth and myth coupled with the strange desire to believe, if only we could suspend our skepticism.


Works Cited

Barone, Joshua (2016). “’Alice Isn’t Dead,’ A Dark New Fictional Podcast in a Booming Market.” The New York Times.

Hufford, David. The Terror That Comes in the Night: An Experience-Centered Study of Supernatural Assault Traditions. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.

Joffe, Ben (2016). “Paranormalizing the Popular through the Tibetan Tulpa: Or what the next Dalai Lama, the X Files and Affect Theory (might) have in common.” Savage Minds.

Lipka, Michael (2015). “18% of Americans Say They’ve Seen a Ghost.” Pew Research Center.

Newitz, Annalee (2013). “Anthropologists Explain How to Approach Aliens Parked in Earth Orbit.” io9.

Niiler, Eric (2012). “Acoustic Archaeology Yielding Mind-Tripping Tricks.” Discovery News.

Open Culture. “The First Unintended Horror Film (1895)?”

Sconce, Jeffrey. Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television. Durham: Duke University Press, 2000.

Sims, David (2015). “The Radio-Age Genius of The Message.” The Atlantic.

Vandermeer, Jeff (2014). “The Uncanny Power of Weird Fiction.” The Atlantic.

Wen, Tiffanie (2014). “Why Do So Many People Believe in Ghosts?” The Atlantic.

About Emma Louise Backe

PhD student in Medical Anthropology at the George Washington University and independent consultant, focusing on the intersections of international development, global health, reproductive health justice, gender-based violence, and the politics of care. Social justice sailor scout working on behalf of survivors of sexual violence, gender equity, and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health among vulnerable populations.

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