“a bit like Serial”: journo-podding and the new sounds of horror

Posted by Danielle Hancock on April 20, 2016 in Blog, Danielle Hancock, Uncategorized tagged with , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Up until the advent of Serial, I had a hard time explaining my research area to people. “Podcasts”, I’d say. “Pod-what?”, they’d reply. “Podcasts, scary ones. Like Welcome to Nightvale”. “Oh. Yeah, I’ve never heard of that.” There would be an exchange of mutually apologetic smiles, I’d mutter something about it being a bit like radio, and wish I’d stuck with literature studies. Then Serial happened. An off-shoot of NPR’s vastly popular radio programme cum podcast, This American Life,  Serial followed journalist Sarah Koenig’s ongoing, true-life, investigation into the murder trial of  Adnan Syed, an American man convicted of murdering his highschool girlfriend in 1999. The series was released in weekly podcasts, as the investigation progressed. It was as close to live as podcasting has ever been – while each sound file was pre-recorded, as the investigation kept only paces ahead of the show, the programme creators genuinely did not know what may appear in the next week’s episodes; a point their online “mission statement” makes clear:


Serial tells one story—a true story—over the course of a season. Each season, we follow a plot and characters wherever they take us. We won’t know what happens at the end until we get there, not long before you get there with us.


With podcasts being so cheap, and relatively quick, to produce and disseminate, the potential for an ongoing, weekly show, developing each moment around new discoveries, marked an exciting progression for the medium. Journo-podding, we might call it. As Koenig became increasingly embroiled in the characters and mysteries surrounding Adnan’s case, listeners were placed on a constant knife edge alongside her, neither being certain what revelation next week’s installment might bring. Of course, I probably don’t need to be telling you this. You probably already heard the show: within 2 months of its release, 40 million people did. Cited as the year’s best new crime drama, Serial dragged podcasting to the forefront of mainstream consciousness. Suddenly, I was having very different conversations. “Podcasting”, I’d say. “Ahhh”, they’d smile and nod, knowingly, “like Serial”.


Serial sent shockwaves, rolling through the podcast world. Those shockwaves brought the fiction writers out to play, and in the two years since its first release, we might say that Serial spawned a whole new type of horror and Gothic audio-fiction, one that finally seems to be reaching the mainstream market. In previous posts here, I’ve argued horror podcasting to shy away from its own media properties,  more-often adopting a radio “guise” typified by feigned transmission crackles and pops, archaic organ notes, and hammy horror hosts. Through Serial horror podcasting seems, finally, to have found an identity within its own medium, one which people can relate to. The Black Tapes, Lime Town, and The Message are all examples of “journo-pod” horror, appropriating the conventions of Serial, to bring listeners “on-the-go”, week by week installments of “truelife”, unravelling psychological and supernatural mysteries. Indeed, though documentary horror is nothing new, the dualistically immediate and fragmented form of journo-pods, and the intimate honesty with which they seem to speak to listeners, bring elements of uncertainty, proximity and pace that have not quite been felt in the horror genre before.


The Black Tapes features reporter Alex Regan, who initially sets out to ‘examine interesting lives, remarkable occupations, and amazing stories’ each week. Regan, like Sarah Koenig, is already an established radio journalist, blacktapeshaving previously worked with “Pacific Northwest Stories” radio. Like Koenig, her podcast is framed as an off-shoot of this larger radio company, and throughout Black Tapes, repeated reference to Regan’s “non-fiction”, journalistic identity, and the journalistic company backing the show, lay credence to the show’s believability.  In the show’s first episode Regan becomes so involved with her first story, that of “The Strand Institute”, and its enigmatic founder and pathologically cynical paranormal investigator, Dr Strand, that she decides to stick with the story, until she can reach a resolution:


The reality is, this podcast started as one thing, and quickly became something else. At a certain point, my producers and I had to make a decision: Do we stick with our original vision, or do we follow the interesting, confusing, and occasionally macabre story that had started spilling out around the edges?


Already in Regan’s off-road, journalistic trajectory we can see a clear genealogy between The Black Tapes and Serial, an element furthered by Regan’s side-investigation of charismatic Strand’s missing wife. Perpetual uncertainty is key to the tension of this series, and like Serial, it relies on the premise that listeners and creators alike can never be quite certain what will be coming next, whether that be a twist in the background of a trusted “character”, or the altogether abandonment of the show’s original premise.


In LimeTown “journalist” Lia Haddock investigates the mystery of a research community whose inhabitants all limetowninexplicably disappeared one night – a mystery that somebody, or something, wants to remain a secret. As in Serial and Black Tapes, Haddock explains herself as having been a reporter for (fictional) radio broadcast, American Public Radio. Yet Limetown further exemplifies journo-pod horror in its uses of voice.  Throughout Serial, listeners met with an acoustic patchwork of disembodied voices, sourced from Skype, phone-calls, interviews and old video/tape-recordings. Journo-pod horror can similarly be identified through its almost ceaseless revolution of absent voices, basely controlled and paced by the journalist figure, an aspect that Limetown takes to the next level. The Daily Dot note that:

silence is not … found in [Limetown]. A massive cast keeps the story building through near-constant chatter. If a voice isn’t engaged in an interview with Haddock, it’s sampled from a fictional news broadcast that covered the incident, a phone call, or Congressional hearings.


The sheer variety of voices, and the listener’s uncertainty over their trustworthiness, recollect Gothic epistolary form, creating a kind-of “vocal epistolary”, with Haddock, as the erstwhile journalist, offering a new figure to the mix. Partly an extension of the listener’s own, enquiring mind, Haddock acts as a facilitatory, yet vulnerable, figure, through whom these uncertain voices are filtered.


Perhaps the greatest innovation to the horror genre that these podcasts offer is in relationship. In another move reminiscent of Koenig, there develops an intense sense of listener co-presence as the horror journo-podders share daily thoughts, interviews and occurrences captured on their dictaphones. It is as though the listener were a private confidant, carried about in the journalist’s pocket, or spoken to, impulsively, on the phone. When those same journalists speak from spaces of danger, the effect can be deeply disorienting, as the listener’s seeming co-presence is undercut by the journalist’s unbreachable distance. Likewise, as “listeners” write, email, tweet and call into the shows, offering queries, tips, threats and hoaxes, the programmes develop a real sense of a shared cultural moment, again pulled straight from the legacy of Serial, where listeners waiting as one to discover Syed’s fate made their thoughts, theories and feelings known to both the Show’s producers and one another. This is perhaps no more evident than in The Message, jorno-pod horror’s latest offering, which details graduate student Nicky Tomalin’s efforts to uncover the truth behind a series of seemingly extraterrestrial communications. Described as ‘a horror-film parody of Serial, The Message quickly harnessed an online following, inspiring ‘thousands of fans to engage in guesswork and larger theories on Reddit’. Suddenly, it seems, I’m not the only one who cares what a horror podcast is.

Serial brought horror podcasting much more than visibility; it brought an identity. Thanks to Serial, podcasting doesn’t have to pretend to be something else. Now that people know what podcasting is, podcast horror is free to be a podcast, and to play with the forms and conventions inherent to its own medium. And given the Gothic and horror genres’ propensities to upend the forms which it inhabits, I think that we can look forward to great things in the future of horror podcasting. Perhaps soon, after I say “podcasting”, they’ll nod, and smile, and say, “like the scary ones?”

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