When I was young, I often immersed myself in books and media focused on the supernatural, science fiction, and horror. I would soak up every book I could find about aliens, vampires, ghosts, and spaceships. I would search the night sky, thinking that if I just stared long enough, I would find something. As I grew older, I would borrow Stephen King books from the library and hide them from my parents. I would wait until they went to bed, get under my covers with a flashlight, and soak up every word. I was convinced that Stephen King’s The Stand was the best written work of fiction of all time. To this day, I refuse to reread the book, because I want to maintain that level of love for it, and I am unsure if it would stand up.
At some point during my PhD work, I started not having time for this hobby. Yes, on occasion, I would watch a science fiction movie, but it became the exception rather than the rule for about a decade. Then, five years ago I had a lot change in my life. I had previously been working near my home in Indiana, PA. Then, I had to take a new job two and a half hours away from my family. With two little children, this was exceptionally hard. So, I began escaping into the worlds of my childhood again.
It started with some short stories that I began teaching: Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, H. G. Wells’ “The Country of the Blind”, and Charlie Jane Anders “As Good As New”. From there, I moved to Cixin Liu’s Three Body Problem and short fiction, which I then made into a research interest for presentation and publication. Next, I read through almost all of Neal Stephenson’s oeuvre, which if you know anything about Stephenson, is quite an accomplishment (he is prolific and long winded!).
I persuaded Jess to watch television shows and movies based on these genres even though they are not her primary areas of interest. Throughout my time away from my family, these texts, movies, and television kept me company. However, neither the high brow literature nor the low brow television shows could compete with podcasts during this time. This is not to say that the podcasts below can compete with Le Guin, Liu, or Anders – they cannot. Even so, the podcasts were more important to me.
Podcasts were more important to me because of their intimacy. While all media is intimate in different ways, podcasts are embedded in your ears in a way that makes it feel like the narrator is whispering their secrets into your ear alone. Even when podcasts are not very good, there still is an intimacy that is unique to the genre.
The podcasts listed below are not refined. They are not flawless pieces of fiction. Often, they have bad acting, cheesy story lines, and other imperfections. They all draw in the listener, even if it is with a wink and a nod to the imperfections. Most of all, during a difficult time in my life, they helped me feel connection and helped me stay sane.
#10. The White Vault – Description: “Explore the far reaches of the world’s horrors in the audio drama podcast The White Vault. Follow the collected records of a repair team sent to Outpost Fristed in the vast white wastes of Svalbard and unravel what lies waiting in the ice below.” By Fool and Scholar Productions (Vast Horizons, Liberty Critical Research).
My take: I began listening to “The White Vault” in the winter of 2018. I remember leaving my small apartment in Titusville, PA and seeing snow on the ground, while listening to the teams on the White Vault exploring during endless snowstorms. The immersive quality of being trapped in snowstorms and caves with these explorers creates intimacy, even when the story jumps the shark a bit towards the end of the first season. In this case, the action and horror would have been more enhanced by leaving more to the imagination. The actors vary widely in skill, but this is easily obscured by the characters being second language speakers, academics, and researchers. As a person who loves learning about other cultures, I especially appreciate their third season, where the foreign language speakers speak in their first languages, then it is translated into English (others may not like this aspect). Why you should listen: The perfect scary story on a cold winter night.
#9 The Phenomenon – Description: “When a supernatural threat drives mankind to the point of extinction, survivors around the globe struggle to endure in a world with just three rules: Do not look outside. Do not look at the sky. Do not make noise…The Phenomenon is a fictional podcast with an international cast and rich sound design that follows people from around the world during a catastrophic extraterrestrial invasion.”
My take: This is a recent addition to my list. As Covid bore down on America, like many Americans, we did house repairs. I ventured into the scariest place I could ever imagine to listen to The Phenomenon – my basement! Our house is over 130 years old, so the basement looks like a cave. As the characters in the story were hiding from the phenomenon, I was hiding from the camel crickets that we have occasionally found down there (and for some privacy from my family). The sound quality is excellent, the characters are well acted, and the story is well written (mostly). Why you should listen: While I have not finished the current (third) season, it is clear this is great post-apocalyptic escapist fiction.
#8 Limetown – Description: “Ten years ago, over three hundred men, women and children disappeared from a small town in Tennessee, never to be heard from again. American Public Radio reporter Lia Haddock asks the question once more, “What happened to the people of Limetown?”
My Take: The podcast about a person creating a podcast has now become an all too common trope (The Black Tapes, Tanis, Rabbits, The Left / Right Game, etc.), but rarely is it done well. Limetown accomplishes this feat with an outstanding narrator Lia Haddock (played by Annie-Sage Whitehurst). She is captivating even in the middle of absurd situations. The first season was the best by far, as the mystery about what happened to the citizens of Limetown was the strongest part of the story. The second season was still well done, but a bit less captivating because of the mystery being exposed. Jessica Beal did an outstanding job playing Lia Haddock in a made for Facebook Live video series. There were a few moments that were dramatic in the podcast, but were enhanced even more in the video – for example, the man banging his head on her hotel door and meeting the pastor figure. Why you should listen: Annie-Sage Whitehurst, mystery, strange science experiments, and cults.
#7 The Black Tapes (Tanis and Faerie as well)- Description (The Black Tapes): “The Black Tapes is a serialized docudrama about one journalist’s search for truth, her enigmatic subject’s mysterious past, and the literal and figurative ghosts that haunt them both. How do you feel about paranormal activity or the Supernatural? Ghosts? Spirits? Demons? Do you believe?”
My Take on The Black Tapes: Okay, so I am cheating a bit here by choosing multiple podcasts by the same production company for one entry. The problem is, I tried to write this top ten list with each podcast individually, and it ended up only being four production teams. That didn’t seem right. So, here I list three podcasts from PRI with a focus on the Black Tapes. Tanis, Faerie, and the Black Tapes are all similar stylistically and loosely tied content wise as well. The Black Tapes is somewhere between the X-Files and Limetown. As with Limetown, the protagonists Nic Silver (Terry Miles) and Alex Regan steal the show. Like Moulder and Scully, they investigate secretive tapes (or files) of a secretive figure Dr. Strand. Like Limetown, the mystery is better than their ultimate findings. Though, here I do have a criticism; their breathless style is engaging at first, but grating by the end of the second season. The podcast is very well done and deserves its place here, but The Black Tapes, Tanis, and Faerie all have the same breathless style that becomes increasingly less exciting over time. While I still definitely recommend these series, the creators need to put in more time evolving the style and characters over time. Their other two podcasts, Rabbits and The Last Movie accomplish this evolution. Why you should listen: It is a new X-Files with an NPR / Serial type style. The breathlessness that I write about creates intimacy early on, as they feel like they are whispering in your ears alone.
#6 The No Sleep Podcast – Description: “In the spring of 2010, a new forum appeared on Reddit.com. It was called “Nosleep” and the concept of this forum (or “subreddit”) was to be a place for people to post original scary stories about frightening experiences. It was an online version of telling spooky stories around the campfire. A year later, as Nosleep was growing at a rapid pace, one member named Matt Hansen proposed the idea of doing a podcast where some of the top stories from Nosleep would be narrated in audiobook style.”
My take: The NoSleep podcast is the grandfather of modern horror podcasts. Yes, there were horror podcasts that started earlier than NoSleep. But, NoSleep was one of the first with outstanding production value, and just as importantly, they were prolific. It started bi-weekly, then became weekly giving away over an hour of free content each week 52 weeks a year (paid subscribers get 2 hours more each week). Because of the prolific nature of this podcast, the quality varies widely. For me, I really appreciate the middle years over the early or recent years. There are some weeks where their content is outstanding, captivating, and produces images and situations that will stick with you for years. There are other weeks that are forgettable. However, the consistency is its strength. It has consistent strong production value, much of the acting is well done, and most importantly, a host that is worth listening to – David Cummings. Even in the so-so weeks, Cummings brings a gravitas to the show that has made me listen to every single episode in their ten year run. My take: This is the great grand daddy of horror podcasts as far as influence and in being prolific. Every single week you can count on quality production, strong acting, and good stories (though, slightly uneven). Overall, David Cummings is worth the price of admission alone.
To be continued…