Welcome Friends: Horror Podcasting’s overthrow of the Mobile, Private iPod.

Posted by Danielle Hancock on April 16, 2015 in Danielle Hancock tagged with , , , , , , , ,
A Victorian upgrade of the camp-fire tale.

A Victorian upgrade of the camp-fire tale.

Camp-fire tales and oral spook-tales aren’t just about sharing voices, they are also about sharing space. Faintly-lit faces in the darkness, making strange the presence of other humans, crowded around a beacon of light: a rough-shod, impermanent domestic in the wilderness, with goodness knows what watching from the shadows. There’s a thrill to be had in probing the limitations of the firelight’s safety, and in the uncertainty of one’s company; transformed by the stories and their in/visibility. The same is true of fireside ghost-tales, and Golden Era radio-horror listening: the family crowded around the storyteller, inviting terror into the home. But iPods aren’t about other people, or

iPod merchandising celebrates individualised and private listening

iPod merchandising celebrates individualised and private listening

immersing oneself in a certain place. iPods are things of sleek, private mobility, relevant only to solitary, on-the-go personalised music-listening. The iPod is an acoustic shield, enabling separation from environment and others – severing the communal ties of oral narrative and domestic group listening traditions. Or so we are told. Here we’ll look at some ways in which horror podcasts seek to re-engage lone iPod listeners with one another, drawing them back to a sense of shared audience, to a fictitious yet effective sense of shared space, from the campfire to the drawing room, in which one is encouraged to take a seat, settle down, and join the unseeable group. Back to the camp-fire we go.


From silence builds a soft crackle, dry wood spitting with heat. A low, quietly sinister voice sounds, ‘Welcome friends, take a seat by the fire. Make yourself comfortable’, and the crackle grows louder, as though we have moved towards the fire and the speaker. So opens audio-drama anthology Campfire Radio Theatre, and in this opening we witness an effective use of audio’s ‘blind’ qualities to destabilise the campfire’s cosy glow. Other people can be scary, especially when you can’t see them; especially when they can see you. The speaker seems privileged with sight – he saw us coming before we knew that he sat harboured in the infinite darkness of audio, and whilst he identifies us as friends, there is a distinct sense that his tongue rolls within his cheek. It’s a stable trope within horror podcasting: the sole listener is drawn into a crowd of unknowable companions, lead by one omniscient ‘host’ voice which directs the storytelling and addresses the group at large. This works on two levels – an elegant reminder of the silent, invisible presence of other podcast listeners, bringing mass audience into the listener’s most intimate space of imagination, and as a gateway facet, setting the firmly located scene for such grouped audience.


In several podcasts the campfire is succeeded by the fireplace, a return to more Victorian practices of scary-story swapping, yet focus remains in the generation of group and location. Tales to Terrify host Larry Santoro’s greets listeners at the door of his ‘nook’, a dank and darkly-lit antechamber that all listening ‘friends’ and ‘children of the night’ are ushered into, and offered drinks and a seat by the fire. 19 Nocturne Boulevard impresses located, shared listening through an acoustically descriptive “cab ride” to the show’s ‘address for horror’. Echoing footsteps and creaking doors align with the show’s French-colonial title to forge a crumbling Victorian

Welcome to Nightvale crafts associations of community and domesticated listening, a sharp opposition of mobile, solitary iPod culture.

Welcome to Night Vale crafts associations of community and domesticated listening, a sharp opposition of mobile, solitary iPod culture.

mansion that listeners “crowd” into for the upcoming story. Welcome to Night Vale takes the form of a community radio show for a warped desert community, and addresses listeners as the inhabitants of that community. Audience is constructed both a social collective, and as an at-home, non-private audience – listening not through headphones but shared airwaves. Even in less developed scenes, horror podcast listeners are never alone. Drabblecast listeners may not be offered a seat by the fire, but they are addressed as a collective, ‘introduced’ to other members of the group and hosted as though at a populated social meet rather than as disparate singular listeners.


Indeed, some podcasts openly ‘correct’ lone iPod listening, as in Tales from Beyond the Pale:

Greetings audiophiles, I’m glad you decided to join me on this little journey. I hope you’ll take a deep breath now, a deep breath, and just relax and listen with me. Because wherever you think you are, maybe settled in your favourite chair, maybe driving a car, or at the gym, or on a train … wherever you thought you were, well, look again listener, for you have crossed over, you are no longer where you thought you were, you are now, Beyond the Pale.(Tales from Beyond the Pale “Man on the Ledge” (2010).

This opening establishes a group of ‘audiophiles’, present and waiting for the story. Yet to access the horror-realm listeners must be addressed individually, in their modern locations.  Entry relies on a sense of journey, facilitated by the iPod listener’s acoustic estrangement from their surroundings: as the listener blocks out their audible environment, a Gothic switcheroo takes place. The audiophile group is established piecemeal, each listener being collected and re-situated individually, yet each going to the same place, to join the others.


Tales to Terrify host Larry Santoro likewise harnesses the isolation of iPod listening to implement an alternative, shared sense of time and place:

Welcome, welcome children of the night, welcome to Friday the 13th. Well it may not be night, it may not be Friday the 13th where you are. It’s probably daytime, you’re probably sitting in your office, boss unawares. But let’s pretend … let’s just turn of the lights for a bit, let’s close the drapes, let’s lock the doors, and there we have it, all of us children of the night (Tales to Terrify “No 1: Martin Mundt” 2012).

Santoro toys with the liminality between life ‘inside’ the iPod and outside, this time offering not a new space but a unified listening time. It’s a neat recall of radio schedule – everyone tuning in together, listening as a true mass collective – but as Santoro continues, an imaginative redefinition of location evolves too. Social etiquette dictates that the publically-located office-worker would likely not be able to turn out the lights, close the drapes (an unlikely office furnishing) and lock the door. But then, Santoro is not really describing the actions of an office-bound listener, he is describing the actions of a domestic listener, who is able to act accordingly, to dwell in the darkness, and lock the door against the threats conjured without. And in doing so the collective is formed – ‘all of us, children of the night’.

From camp-fires to fire-sides and traditional radio cultures, these podcasts operate the same, creating mobile-pockets of clustered humanity, listening “alone, together” in imaginatively shared domestic spaces and situations. These Un/homely spaces are often disturbed, subverted with true Gothic style, but they are not lonely or fleeting, they are deeply populated, communal subversions of the iPod’s purported quest for isolation and transience.

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