Review: Anything Ghost

Genre: Anthology, true stories
Possible Triggers: Mentions of death
Safe For Work: Yes
Content: PG

Anything Ghost is a place where people share their ghost stories.

A simple introduction for a simple show with a simple premise. Anything Ghost, hosted by Lex Wahl, was a one-of-kind podcast upon its release in 2006, and has kept up a steady, loyal audience for over twelve years. For the time, it was something quite different - a podcast that took stories from people based on true events, and read them for the audience. That’s it. No special effects, save for a little music for effect, no long monologues or lead-ins; you just jump straight into the story.

The stories range from can believable to this is absolutely fake, even for a hardcore believer in the supernatural. One thing that is certainly believable is that the stories were not written by professional, or even amateur writers. The stories are a bit stilted, which can shake a listener out of the zone. A good horror story is supposed to draw you in and keep you on the edge of your seat.

The stories submitted to Anything Ghost can give you that edge-of-the-seat horror, but there are some stories that just make you wonder if the show just takes every submission it gets. One particularly memorable story is the story of a man whose mother commented on a Facebook post of his months after she had passed away. I think I read a creepypasta with a similar premise. No disrespect to the person who sent the story in, but even as a die-hard believer, I find that one to be a bit of a stretch.

The show has a long history, with most of it hidden behind a paywall, meaning I can’t compare the latest episodes to the earlier ones, or compare quality of content to see if it’s gotten better, but with time comes experience and learning. Compared to many other shows in the same vein, however, Wahl has kept things very simple. He introduces each story with a quick brief, and then goes right into the story, telling several in one episode.

The number of stories in an episode can be a little a disorienting - I found myself tuning in during a standard haunted house story, tuning out by accident, and then coming back to a story about a woman being devoured by flies. It’s not a show you can casually follow along with; if you lose track for a moment, you’re lost until you hear the next story being introduced. Anything Ghost absolutely requires your full attention to get the full experience of the show. So while it is safe for work in the sense that there’s nothing horribly inappropriate, it’s probably not the best idea to listen to it, lest you miss a transition and fall into a completely different story.

Wahl’s voice is oddly hypnotizing, which makes it easy to zone out if you’re working on something else. His dedication to the show and being the only full-time narrator is admirable, although the apparent unwillingness to grow with the community can be a hindrance. While other shows continue to make leaps and bounds and set new standards for horror podcasting, Wahl remains happily in his corner, and can be commended for putting out regular episodes for twelve years - a long time to do all that work on your own.

LGBTQIA Friendly?: N/A
Pay to Listen?: You can get the latest ten episodes for free, but have to pay to access the archive.
Length: 1 hr.

Overall: Anything Ghost was a big step in the fledgling horror podcast community, and while their format still stands strong today, the standards are higher now. Loyal listeners will always be there to boost the podcast up, though. Someday it may succumb to the bigger, fancier podcasts with the effects and writing and multiple narrators, but for now, it’s still going, and that’s admirable in a time when people are always looking for better and more.

Rating: 3.5/5

Review: The Box Podcast

Genre: Horror, audio drama, found “footage”
Possible Triggers: Death, some disturbing imagery
Safe For Work: Yes
Content: PG-13

Hello, and welcome to The Box.

Most of us dream of finding something that will change our lives forever, in a good way. A magic lamp, a wardrobe that leads to another world, a golden ticket - there’s an entire genre based on discovering something amazing that takes the protagonist on a wonderful journey.

What about the not-so-amazing things, though? The things that change your life, but not always for the better? The things that turn your entire worldview on its head, the things that threaten your life instead of ultimately improving it?

That’s where The Box comes in.

Hosted by Addison Gilmore, The Box follows Addison as her humdrum life is thrown off track by the discovery of a mysterious box shoved back in the shelves of the bookstore she works at. It contains multiple, odd journal entries from varying points of view, and Addison concludes that it must be some sort of fiction project. Curious minds can never be satisfied, however, and the box ends up going home with Addison so she can investigate its contents and share it with her podcast audience. The entries seem to be written by various members of a shadowy agency which deals with paranormal/supernatural happenings, detailing cases they’ve worked and the bizarre, sometimes horrifying consequences that come with their job. The stories are well-written, thrilling, terrifying, and always leave you wanting more.

The show itself, however, always seems to fall short at one point - Addison’s persistent, never-ending skepticism. While a healthy dose of skepticism is always a good thing, especially in regards to a box of weird journal entries you stole from your place of employment, Addison almost goes over the top with her insistence that it’s “just a fiction project.” It really tears the listener out of the moment when they’ve just finished listening to this incredibly well written, well narrated, haunting story only for Addison to say “Wow, what a totally weird and fictional story that was!”

Despite her insistence that the stories can’t be real, Addison continues to pursue and research the stories, trying to find real-life proof of them and practical explanations for what had happened. Even when faced with undeniable proof, however, Addison finds a way to write it off and continues trying to find proof to support her preconceived notions.

And that’s where the show really falls down. Addison takes an investigative journalism approach to her research, but she forgets one of the most important rules of journalism - always remain objective*. Rather than asking questions and looking for answers, she decides what the answers already are despite whatever questions she may ask. While yes, Addison is not actually a journalist, she continuously acts like one, and at times even presents herself as a journalist to the people she interviews.

If you’re going to act like a journalist, then take it all the way. Go in with clear objectivity and no expectations. Let the facts inform you, rather than finding ways to make facts support your beliefs.

Am I taking this a little too seriously? Perhaps. But there’s a point where the skepticism starts to interfere with the story, and if Addison is going to pretend to be a journalist, it would be a good way for her to change her point of view - instead of insisting “it’s all just stories”, she could approach with less presumptions and see where the stories take her.

The show sets itself apart from others in the same vein in a distinctive way - Addison is the only narrator. Unlike other shows, which have gone the way of full audio productions with multiple voices, Addison does most of the work herself, with guest voices every now and again for interviews. It’s a return to the times of simplicity, and it’s done in a good way. Addison is a good narrator, even listening to all of her explanations of why none of this can be real gets a little tiring after a while.

LGBTQIA Friendly?: N/A
Pay to Listen?: No, but they accept donations
Length: 30min-1hr

Overall: The Box has an excellent premise, a compelling mystery, and an extremely stubborn narrator who refuses to be swayed. Every now and again Addison’s beliefs are challenged, and at times it feels like she’s starting to come around. But her persistent skepticism continues to haunt the show. The stories and the mysteries contained within the box are certainly enough to keep you listening on your own - even if you cringe at the intervals between stories.

Rating: 3.5/5

*This lesson brought to you by a journalism major currently working in the industry

Review: The Grey Rooms

(Originally posted December 1, 2018)

Genre: Horror, audio drama
Possible Triggers: Death, descriptions of gore
Safe For Work: Yes
Content: PG-13

Note: We’re doing something new this week – literally. The Grey Rooms is a brand new podcast, with its first episode airing 11/30/18.

You wake on a hard, cold floor. It’s so cold your skin burns beneath your clothes. The air smells of sulfur and ash. Your head throbs and your mouth is dry. You have no idea how you got here. Even worse, how you’ll get out…

Panic sets in. Fear begins to swell in you. Soon that fear assumes the form of terror…

What have you done? What brought you to this place?

The Grey Rooms opens its first episode with a man who doesn’t know who he is or where he is. He finds is way out of the room, exploring his drab prison, until a demonic voice calls out to him. Raymond. His name is Raymond. But it doesn’t feel right. Raymond is faced with two doors – one will lead to salvation. One will lead to torment. But there’s no way to tell which is which. What does he choose?

Well… it’s hard to tell. Seeing what’s behind the door, one would say torment. But would be torment when compared to what’s behind the other door?

The chosen door gives us a peek into the life of a soldier during the Great War. You’d think the worst enemy in No Man’s Land would be the soldiers in the other trench. But no, it’s something much worse.

What are the grey rooms? That, it seems, would be the mystery. Does either door offer salvation, or is it all torment and pain? With only one episode under its belt, it’s hard to judge how exactly the show will go, but the first episode is quite the doosy, with nearly an hour of excellent writing and narration, and a chillingly good use of music sound effects to set the scene and draw you into the bleak environment. Whether it’s the echo of Raymond’s voice as he walks through the halls, the demonic voice talking to Raymond, or the sounds of rat skittering in the trenches, it’s not hard to imagine yourself in the shoes of the poor, tortured characters.

And if one episode isn’t quite enough to satisfy you, then check out the three preview episodes that were released prior to the pilot. They’re shorter, averaging around half an hour, and give you a short but pretty good idea about what direction the show is going. Of the episodes and previews released, there seems to be a trend of taking perfectly reasonable phobias (heights, spiders, rats, etc.), and magnifying it into something monstrous. It makes you cringe even if it’s not something you fear, and feels like a glimpse of the world through the eyes of someone who has that phobia. Excellent writing through and through.

LGBTQIA Friendly?: N/A (so far)
Pay to Listen?: No, but if you contribute to their Patreon you get bonuses.
Length: Presumably, around an hour

Overall: The Grey Rooms is absolutely fascinating. In one episode it completely hooked me on the story and wanting to know more. It’s been a long time since I started a podcast I couldn’t immediately binge, and the two-week wait between episodes is definitely going to give me a lot of time to think. Is it going to be a five-star smash hit? It’s a little too early to judge. But a lot of work and care has clearly gone into this podcast, and it has all the makings of becoming another staple in the horror podcast community.

It even has several familiar voice from the community. I’m starting to suspect that it’s like the BBC – there are thirteen narrators and they just get passed around from show to show.

Rating: 5/5

Review: Uncanny Valley

(Originally posted November 11, 2018)

Genre: Anthology, story telling, paranormal, horror
Possible Triggers: N/A
Safe For Work: Yes
Content: PG

You’re riding alone on a moonlit, but starless night. You just missed your exit, and now there’s only one way back home. So sit back, open your ears and hold on tight, because you’re about to take a quick detour—through Uncanny County…

General:
Un·can·ny – strange or mysterious, especially in an unsettling way.

We all know the saying “this one didn’t quite make it out of the uncanny valley.” Uncanny County takes that one step further.

Imagine you’re a simple man, living a simple life, in a simple small town. You have yourself a nice sweetheart who you want to marry, but she’s so busy with her helper robots who are running the town. You start to suspect she might be cheating. One thing leads to another, and you discover that the entire town population is robots, your girlfriend is a robot, and they’re all being controlled by the human version of your girlfriend, who turned you into a robot after you were in a fatal accident twenty-five years earlier. And this isn’t the first time you’ve discovered this.

Welcome to Uncanny County.

This podcast is an anthology of seemingly unrelated stories that all have one definitive thing in common – they’re all a little strange and a lot wtf. There are small threads woven through the stories that bring them together (namely a sheriff and her deputy who keeps dying on his first day), hinting at a larger story line in an almost infuriating manner. It’s certainly enough to make you keep hitting the “next” button.

If you suffer from a second-hand embarrassment squick, the first few episodes can be a little uncomfortable. The voice actors almost overact their parts, laying things on thick – the small town atmosphere is too heavy, the nervous flirting between a man and a woman makes you cringe, the southern charm is laid on thick, and there are times where you have to hit pause and collect yourself before going back to see what shudder-worthy thing is being said.

And then you realize that’s deliberate. They’re trying to unsettle you, they’re trying to put you off, they want you to feel uncomfortable. They want you to feel exactly what the main character is feeling.

The first episode, for example, with the man who didn’t know he was a robot (no, I didn’t make that up, that’s a real episode), would have been a completely different if handled by another podcast. It could have been something truly terrifying, or truly hilarious, but instead of going one way or the other, Uncanny County made it both. It’s cringe-y, it’s funny, it’s scary, and in a weird way it’s heartwarming all at the same time. There aren’t many shows that pull off all of that in one episode.

It all adds to the charm of the show. One would almost call it uncanny. The point of it all is to unsettle you and put you on edge, not just through the story that’s being told, but by changing the way it’s told to you. It makes you feel uncomfortable and worried, and it puts you in the role of the central character, who, like you, has no idea what’s going on or how to deal with it. The worst part of it all? There’s nothing you can do to control the narrative. You’re just a passenger watching all of it unfold. And you’re almost certainly heading for a train wreck which has a twisted but happy(?) ending. The citizens of Uncanny County aren’t always the luckiest people, but they get what they’re due in the end – if not in a slightly different way than they might have imagined.

Maybe don’t book a vacation there, though. And never go to a clown hotel. Or the car wash/lawyer’s office. Or- yeah, don’t book a vacation there.

The writing of Uncanny County is undeniably stellar, and while the way the stories are told can certainly make you feel awkward, enough binge listening will get you passed that and eagerly on to the next episode. Whatever you feel, you have to give the writers and voice actors credit – they’re doing their jobs well here.

LGBTQIA Friendly?: Yes
Pay to Listen?: No, but they accept donations.
Length: 20-30 minutes

Overall: While Uncanny County isn’t necessarily unique in its premise (a strange place where strange things happen and no one questions them), the way the stories are told certainly is. There are plenty of horror podcasts out there, and plenty of humorous ones, but podcasts that try and succeed to be both are a rare treat. And there’s an added bonus if awkward, overdone characters are hilarious to you. For the rest of us? It’s gets easier, I promise.

Rating: 4/5

The Great Halloween Rec List

(Originally posted October 29, 2018)

In honor of the upcoming day of horror, I decided to do something a little different: instead of one long review on one podcast, I’m going to do a bunch of short reviews on what are, in my opinion, the best horror producers on the internet. This includes both podcasts (some I’ve already reviewed, some I haven’t yet) and members of the YouTube horror community who are always worth a listen. So buckle up – it’s going to be a ride!

  1. The NoSleep Podcast (Podcast): I can never sing my praises for this one enough. The NoSleep Podcast is a beautiful anthology of creepy stories from the NoSleep reddit and from author submissions, with great voice acting and amazing stories. A must for your Halloween listening pleasures. (Full Review Here)

  2. Top 5 Unknowns (YouTube)Hosted by Ty Knotts, Top 5 Unknowns is a list-based channel, giving short, eerie looks into different topics, such as haunted places, mysterious disappearances, ghost sightings… the episodes are short, but have a punch.

  3. Mr. Nightmare (YouTube): One of my first forays into the YouTube horror community. Mr. Nightmare narrates true stories from the LetsNotMeet Reddit, and while some of them are questionable, others have been confirmed as true by the Reddit mods. Which makes them that much creepier.

  4. Creepy (Podcast): Creepypastas were the gateway drug that dragged me down into the spiral of my horror obsession. Nothing is better than listening to those classic stories.

  5. Cults (Podcast): Nothing is scarier than the power of one human being to manipulate dozens of others to do whatever they want. Cultsis a deep-dive study into the depravity of human beings.

  6. Darkest Night (Podcast): When does science go too far? The Darkest Nights answers that question pretty well. Warning for: Gore, death, cannibalism. (Full Review Here)

  7. Lazy Masquerade (YouTube): Lazy Masquerade tends to veer away from questionable paranormal stories, choosing instead to focus on true stories of the horrible things humans can do. Look forward to easy hours of listening (if listening to stories of human depravity is easy to you).

  8. Marble Hornets (YouTube): Who doesn’t love Slenderman? Marble Hornets is the story of three young men who find themselves being stalked by the mysterious entity – and something even more horrifying.

  9. Corpse Husband (YouTube): Corpse Husband tells a mixture of terrifying human and terrifying paranormal entity stories. Sure to leave you with chills for hours after. Do not recommend listening to home break in stories when you’re home alone.

  10. Alice Isn’t Dead (Podcast): From the creators of Welcome to Night Vale, follow a young woman on her journey to find her wife (presumed dead), and the many odd things she encounters along the way.

  11. We’re Alive (Podcast): It’s not Halloween if you don’t have zombies. We’re Alive is the story of a group of survivors trying to live in the middle of a zombie apocalypse – and discovering that zombies aren’t necessarily the worst thing there is to fear in this world. (Full Review Here)

  12. Top5s (YouTube): Another countdown list, Top5s niche is almost exclusively in the supernatural/paranormal – top 5 haunted amusement parks, top 5 UFO sightings, etc. They’re a quick, fun listen that will keep you listening for hours.

  13. Archive 81 (Podcast): New jobs are always scary. New jobs in the middle of nowhere with no human contact and an increasingly frightening mystery that happened over twenty years ago? That’s just terrifying. (Full Review Here)

  14. The White Vault (Podcast): A repair team goes out to quite literally the middle of nowhere, and no one is safe from the mysteries lying below the ice.

  15. Be.Busta (YouTube): Another LetsNotMeet narrator, Be.Busta is one of the known the names in the YouTube horror community, and with good reason. With several years of continuous uploads under his belt, you won’t run out of things to listen to any time soon. He also has a horror story podcast, Be.Scared, that is well worth the listen.

  16. The Black Tapes (Podcast)Paranormal meets stubborn science in this story that will keep you guessing until the very last second. Don’t get too comfortable – nothing is as it seems. (Full Review Here)

  17. Top15s (YouTube): I have a thing for countdown lists, can’t you tell? This channel also provides an excellent mix of true scary stories, paranormal encounters, and all things unexplained. The narrator, Chills, also has his own channel for even more content if you can’t get your fix.

  18. Lore (Podcast): No list is complete without Lore, the true historical stories of humans at their lowest point, and just what they’re capable of when pushed to the limit. It’s not pretty. (Full Review Here)

  19. The Simply Scary Podcast (Podcast): There aren’t enough scary story podcasts around, but there are plenty of people trying to fill the void. TSSP features original scary content from authors new and old, and great voice actors who bring the stories to life.

  20. Small Town Horrors (Podcast): A young man goes home to deal with the death of his father and all the legal work that comes with it – and comes to remember why he left his creepy hometown in the first place.

This is, of course, only a very slim selection of pickings from both the podcast and YouTube horror communities. What are some of your favorite podcasts or YouTube horror channels? Comment below and let us know!

Review: Lore

(Originally posted October 21, 2018)

Genre: Non-fiction, historical, folk lore, anthology
Possible Triggers: Descriptions of death, illness, human horror
Safe For Work: Yes
Content: PG

I’m Aaron Mahnke, and this is Lore.

General: Iconic words. Even if you’ve never listened to Lore, you know that introduction. It’s become one of those sayings, oddly, where everyone just knows what it means even if they have no idea what the context is.

Lore started in 2015 as a bi-weekly podcast, doing a deep dive into horrific historical events and examining them through the lens folklore, showcasing the dark side of humanity and what fear will drive a community to do.

What makes Lore scary is that the stories are all true. Mankhe examines the history of events, places, and people, detailing the effects they had at the time, and how the legends and stories persist even to this day.

One of the things, I think, that makes Lore so interesting is not only that it’s real, but that oftentimes you’ll recognize the places he’s talking about. There are no far-flung forests or forgotten islands in Lore, but rather real places that you can still see, or even your hometown. I, for example, hail from New England in the United States, which is often the center of many stories, as New England has some of the most diverse history. Specifically, I’m from Massachusetts, and I recognize a lot of the stories that are being told – Danvers State Hospital, The Bridgewater Triangle, the Dover Demon, and of course the various witch hunts. It’s always a nice little thrill to hear a town name I recognize.

It’s that touch that makes Lore more fun than some other podcasts, even the ones I’ve reviewed here. Not that the supernatural, impossible science, and small strange towns in the great American desert aren’t fun, but who doesn’t get that small jolt of “oh!” when they hear something they actually recognize on a podcast or on TV or in a book? There are stories from all over the world featured, all in recognizable places.

And it’s not just history – it’s supernatural/paranormal history, the kind they’ll never teach you about in school. Demon possessions, urban legends, mythical creatures. It’s about murderers and witch hunts and abandoned towns. It’s the side of history that’s fun for people who were bored during history class because there’s only so many times you can hear about George Washington crossing the Delaware before you fall asleep.

It’s the kind of history I wish I had been taught, because it’s interesting and, whether you believe in spirits or not, it’s real. Was a thirteen-year-old girl in Illinois really possessed? Who knows, but everyone around her believed she was, and it colored how they interacted with her and how she was treated overall. Were the people killed in witch hunts really witches? There’s no way to find out now, but everyone believed they were, and we learn about them as witch hunts and witch trials (everyone has heard of the Salem Witch Trials, haven’t they?). Are curses real? There’s no way to tell, but when a town is flooded twice within fifty years, the residents almost surely began to feel cursed.

Episodes are long enough to be detailed, but short enough to easily listen, if you happen to be cursed with a short attention span. And attention is truly required to get all the details, especially if it’s a story you’re interested in.

It’s almost a little too easy to fall into the trance of the show. Mahnke’s voice has been described as “coolly mesmeric”, and that’s a well-earned description. While the show is easily bingeable and safe for work, it’s not necessarily recommended that you listen to it while you work. I’ve fallen into the trance of getting too involved with the show and forgetting I’m supposed to be working one too many times. It’s incredible, easy listening, as long as you don’t have anything else to do in the mean time.

Lore is the part of history you’ll almost certainly never hear about in other places – what might be real, what might have been exaggerated over the years, what might be lurking in the shadows. The reaction of humanity to all those mights. How we process this information and what we do with it. People always look at stories like the witch hunts and think, “Oh, I would never react like that.” But you never know for sure unless you’re in that situation, do you?

How much do you know about the place you live? Check out Lore, and you might discover a completely different side of it.

And if you ever come face to face with those legends… what will you do?

LGBTQIA Friendly?: N/A

Pay to Listen?: No, but they accept donations.

Length: 15-45 minutes

Overall: In a world with an increasing amount of audio drama podcasts and special effects and complicated storylines, Lore has not only managed to maintain its simple format and style, but has also continued to flourish. It’s at the top of everyone’s recommended listening list if you like history, horror, or both. If you haven’t listened yet, then you must have been in a three-year hibernation. Welcome back to the world. I’m so glad my blog was the first thing you found upon looking at the internet to see what you’ve missed since 2015. Please feel free to continue perusing while you start listening to Lore.

Rating: 4.5/5

Review: Darkest Night

(Originally posted October 14, 2018)

Genre: Future science, horror, audio drama
Possible Triggers: Death, gore, torture, cannibalism, child death
Safe For Work: No
Content: R

Warning: It’s not often I specifically put a disclaimer on a show, but for this one, I have to say: it is extremely graphic and at points can feel like it’s going a little too far. Heed the trigger warnings – I list them for a reason. Listener discretion is advised.

General: Welcome to the Roth-Lodbow Center for Advanced Research. You may hate your day job, but just be happy you don’t work here.

Darkest Night follows the story of Katie, a young intern who’s just gotten a new job at the Center and has been assigned to work with Dr. John Kinsler, a long-time scientist at the Center who’s set to retire in just a few weeks (and we all know where that trope leads). John is the lead scientist on Project Cyclops – experiments with a piece of technology which allows them to draw blood from the optic nerve of a dead person’s eyeball, insert it into a little black box, and project the memories of the moments before their death.

And that’s just the beginning of the strangeness.

The first episode focuses on Vivian Lodbow, the adopted daughter of Clinton Lodbow (co-founder of the Center) who inherited his legacy when he died. Clinton, a twisted, ruthless man who believed in facts over emotions, also had two blood children, Oscar and Claire; they tormented Vivian endlessly right up until the day of Clinton’s will reading. Things get a little… messy from there.

One thing to remember – there are no happy endings when you’re watching memories of the dead. All of the deaths are brutal and sometimes stomach-turning. The podcast makes great use of sound effects – almost too good. Sometimes you might wish they’d tone it back a little, especially when people start losing body parts.

The show features a full cast of unique voices, as well as voice-over narration, making it easy to listen to and keep up with while multi-tasking. Season one takes you through a whirlwind of deaths, and we follow Katie’s growing suspicion that something is very wrong at the Roth-Lodbow Center for Advanced Research. Between the fact that Project Cyclops doesn’t quite seem to work right (showing things that happen after the supposed subject has died, not showing things from the point of view of the subject at all, and other random things that are attributed to “glitches”), and that a suspicious number of the deaths seem to be related to the center, it’s very hard not to get on board with Katie’s curiosity and desire to learn more.

It’s easy to get caught up in the story, and even if you know the death is coming, it’s still gut-wrenching when you finally get to that point. Whether you love a character or hate them, seeing the way they die can be horrible. Worse, sometimes the innocent die, and the horrible characters live. The horrible characters always seem to live.

If you’re someone who enjoys a good mystery, there’s no lacking of those in Darkest Night. Everyone has secrets – even our intrepid wanna-be-investigator narrator. It becomes a puzzle of sorts – who to trust, whose secrets are benign, and who you should never turn your back on. Almost no one is completely, one-hundred percent innocent, not even the victims. Sometimes, especially not the victims.

The twists and turns of each episode and the overall seasons may make your head spin, but they’re done in a way that isn’t often achieved in audio dramas – they’re complex while remaining easy to follow, without the show going too far over the edge of reality. The show has found the level of non-reality it wants to live on, and it stays there easily, a feat not always achieved with shows like these. Darkest Night manages to maintain its air of mystery while also telling a story you can keep up with. I credit a lot of that to the voice-over narrator, who can help you re-find your place in a story if you got lost for a minute.

One thing can get a little confusing, and it’s something to be on the look out for as you listen – everyone is connected to someone, somehow. Is that vague and mysterious enough for you? I guess you’ll have to listen to the show to find out what I mean.

The Roth-Lodbow Center for Advanced Research is making amazing technological advances every day. And with each episode you find yourself questioning more and more – where should humanity draw the line?

LGBTQIA Friendly?: It’s a gore-y podcast where everyone dies. Gay or straight, no one is safe.

Pay to Listen?: No, but they accept donations.

Length: 10-20 minutes

Overall: Darkest Night is a fascinating exploration of how far science can go, and also how far humans are willing to go in order to get what they want. The story is intense, and the aha moments hit you so hard that you’ll have to pause to absorb all the information. The writing is great, the characters are excellent (even if you hate them, you can’t deny they’re brilliance), and the new season looks to be a promising one. If you haven’t listened yet, now is the time to check them out.

Do keep in mind the warning I put at the beginning of the review. Darkest Night is an amazing podcast with incredible story telling, but it is not for the faint of heart, and binge-listening, while achievable, can sometimes leave you with a slightly nauseated feeling. I’m a horror podcast aficionado and listen to them almost like it’s a second job, and even I had to stop and breathe for a few minutes after certain scenes or episodes (I still managed to listen up to the current season and new episode in three days, though). The episodes themselves don’t have trigger warnings on them, because the entire show is explicit content, so keep in mind going in that you’re almost definitely going to hear something that’ll make you feel like you were punched in the gut.

(And if that isn’t good story telling, I don’t know what is.)

Rating: 5/5

Review: The Black Tapes

(Originally posted October 7, 2018)

Genre: Investigative journalism, paranormal, supernatural, docudrama
Possible Triggers: No
Safe For Work: Yes
Content: PG-13

Do you believe?

General: The Black Tapes is hosted by Alex Reagan, a journalist is sets out with the original goal of meeting people with paranormal stories and interviewing them about their experiences. This goal is immediately (within the first episode) derailed when Alex meets Dr. Richard Strand, a stubborn, cynic non-believer and head of The Strand Institute. His disbelief goes so deep, he’s even offered a one million dollar reward to anyone who can prove the existence of the paranormal.

Unsurprisingly, the reward has never been claimed.

And that’s not for a lack of trying. Thousands of people have sent in what they consider proof, only to have it all debunked by The Strand Institute.

Well, almost all of it.

During her meeting with Dr. Strand, Alex almost immediately zeroes in on a collection of tapes, which Dr. Strand reluctantly admits are tapes that they haven’t managed to debunk “yet.”

Alex’s intention is immediately enraptured by the tapes (known as the black tapes), and convinces Strand to let her watch one.

And it’s all down the rabbit hole from there. Alex becomes obsessed with the black tapes, forgetting her original goal, and begins investigating the tapes herself. The investigation sends her down a path of conspiracies, lies, and the possible coming of the apocalypse.

And from here it goes down the predictable path. The neutral journalist (who really isn’t that neutral) and the skeptic set out to investigate the tapes and seeming connections between them, and how they somehow connect to Dr. Strand and the end of the world.

You know, the normal stuff.

The Black Tapes has a truly interesting, if not somewhat convoluted story line. With disappearing people and mysterious music with a note that might signal the end of humanity and how it all connects to Dr. Strand and his past. It’s definitely a podcast you need to give your full attention – multitasking while listening is not recommended.

The voice acting can be a little hokey at times, but overall the characters are very well done. Alex and Dr. Strand develop a sort of love-hate relationship (in that Dr. Strand constantly says he’s done helping Alex yet always ends up coming back to her), and their back and forth with one another is highly entertaining. Whether you ship them romantically or just think they have a fantastic friendship, it’s hard not to love every minute these two are on the proverbial screen together.

We also learn, as the series goes on, that Alex may not be the reliable narrator she first appears to be. The investigation into the black tapes is taking its toll on her mental state, to the point where her producer has to force her to take time off and away from everything. She’s not sleeping, having odd dreams when she does sleep, and is crossing lines of journalistic integrity to get what she wants – all major red flags that she’s not a narrator we can necessarily trust.

She’s the only point of view we have, however, whether we can trust her or not. It’s her journey and her story we’re following as we dive deeper into the unknown.

Dr. Strand’s stubborn insistence that “everything can be explained” can get a little frustrating, especially in the face of all the things he can not, in fact, explain. His stance can become a little infuriating after a while, to the point where you want to reach into the podcast, grab him by the shoulders, and tell him to stop being so damn thick.

On the other hand, his beliefs are what seem to keep Alex grounded – her ideas start getting too fantastical or out of the control, and he’s there to keep her in reality. Conversely, Alex adds a little levity to situations when Dr. Strand starts getting too uptight. He doesn’t necessarily listen to or even believe her, but she has a knack for diffusing situations that are starting to get too tense.

The show has ended, which is both a little disappointing (if you want new episodes) but also good new listeners who want something quick, spooky, and detailed without having to wait for new episodes. It’s easily bingeable, with twelve episodes in seasons one and two and six episodes in season three, and if you enjoy the writing style, never fear – the creators of the show, Pacific Northwest Stories and minnow beats whale – have more paranormal mystery and wonders to offer. When you’re done listening to The Black Tapes, you can check out more of their work at:

Pacific Northwest Stories
minnow beats whale

LGBTQIA Friendly?: N/A

Pay to Listen?: No, but they accept donations.

Length: 10-20 minutes

Overall: Whether you believe or not, The Black Tapes is a fascinating listen. It’s an interesting blend of how the real world meets the supernatural, and how humans react when faced with the possibility that what they view as reality is only the surface. The twists and turns are a little bewildering at times, but it’s worth a listen if you like listening to people debate the paranormal. Dr. Strand and Alex Reagan represents two sides of the paranormal believer spectrum – the staunch non-believer and the open-minded, almost naive neutral party who accidentally falls out of objectivity and deeper into the side of believing, and further from the reality she’s always known.

On the other hand, I wouldn’t mind seeing an alternate reality of this podcast where Alex sticks to her original goal of setting out to find stories from other people. I’d listen to that in a heartbeat.

Review: Casefile True Crimes

(Originally posted September 29, 2018)

Genre: Anthology, True Crime
Possible Triggers: Descriptions of murders, death, rape
Safe For Work: No
Content: Mature

General: Fiction is scary, but at least you can turn off a podcast about zombies, or crazed humans, or a mysterious desert otherworld, and go to bed knowing it was all just story.

So what happens when the stories are real?

Casefile is a deep dive, sometimes gruesome look into some of the most famous murderers in history, and some lesser known ones. Each week, the Anonymous host takes listeners back in time, to a period when a killer roamed the streets, and entire communities lived in fear. Sometimes the cases have already been solved, sometimes they’re still open.

And sometimes, they’re solved after the podcast talks about them. Possibly the most famous example of this is the Golden State Killer, who up until April 2018, had been on the loose following nearly a decade of terrorizing a a suburban area in California. Casefile went through the entire history of the Golden State Killer, who started out as a burglar, and eventually graduated to rape, then murder. On April 25, it was announced that, after forty years, the police had finally arrested a suspect, Joseph James DeAngelo Jr. The show ran a quick update on the arrest, with the host barely containing his excitement that such a vile man had finally been brought to justice.

While murder is the bread and butter of any true crime podcast, Casefile takes it a step further, looking into the depths of depravity that humanity is truly capable of. One three-part series focuses on Jonestown, a cult run by Reverend Jim Jones, who encouraged his followers to drink poison and kill themselves in November 1978. A total of nine-hundred and sixteen people died, making it one of the greatest deliberate losses of American civilian lives until the 9/11 attacks.

How could one man convince so many people to follow him into death? Casefile looks to answer exactly that in their episodes, starting at the beginning of it all and examining the details right up to the gruesome end.

This show is not for the faint of heart, as the host warns at the beginning of each episode. Stories about cults and rapists and murderers are never going to have a happy ending – the best you can hope for is that the person responsible for those brutal crimes was caught so you can at least sleep easy.

With an entire team of researchers looking into each story, you can guarantee that every single little detail is going to be found, examined, verified, and eventually written into the transcript for the episode. You’ll walk away from each episode perhaps knowing a little more than you ever wanted to know about some crimes.

That said, sometimes it gets a little too specific, and if you’re working on something else while listening, you can find yourself zoning out to protect yourself from the details, only to come back in at something just as horrifying. With the amount of facts and details, it’s not a show one can easily listen to while doing something else – it requires your full attention to get everything.

The in-depth details are both the strength and the weakness of the show. For a true crime buff with a strong stomach, it’s easily bingeable in a couple days, maybe a week. For an amateur crime buff, you might find yourself needing to turn it off after only an episode or two and look at cute cat photos to feel better about the world. True crime is a dicey subject, and when a podcast gets as detailed as this one does, it’s good for a listener to step back and take a break if needed.

Even the podcast itself acknowledges this, starting off each episode with saying it’s not for the faint of heart, and listing numbers to different helplines in the US, Canada, Australia, the UK, and New Zealand – what type of helpline usually depends on the subject of the episode.

Casefile is definitely not for the casual listener who just wants a fun story. If you truly enjoy true crime and like learning about it, then this is the show for you. For those of you who want to sleep at night… I recommend sticking to fiction.

LGBTQIA Friendly?: N/A

Pay to Listen?: No, but they accept donations.

Length: 20-30 minutes

Overall: Casefile is a true examination of humanity at its very worst. The stories are real and often horrifying, and can leave you feeling like there’s no hope for us as a species. It’s also extremely informative, and if you have an interest in true crimes, this is definitely the show for you.

I recommend something light and fluffy if you listen to this show for more than a couple hours. I’ll have to get back to you with recommendations since horror is apparently my genre.

Rating: 4.5/5

Review: Darknet Diaries

(Originally posted September 22, 2018)

Genre: Anthology, Technology
Possible Triggers: N/A
Safe For Work: Yes
Content: PG

These are true stories from the dark side of the Internet. I’m Jack Rhisyder, and this is Darknet Diaries.

If you’re a member of the “Internet Stranger Danger” generations, then I’m sure you remember you remember as well as I do the lectures we got from concerned parents who didn’t understand how technology worked. “Don’t use your real name.” “Don’t tell people what state you live in.” “Don’t tell anyone how old you are.” Ah, the good old days.

As it turns out, the dangers of the Internet aren’t just the one-in-a-million weirdos we meet online. They’re the dark, shadowy figures that we never see.

Darknet Diaries, hosted by Jack Rhysider, details the stories of these shadowy figures, showing the good and the bad of the Internet in each episode. Rhysider knows a lot about cyber security, and combines his own knowledge with stories from different hacking events throughout the Internet era to explain how these events happened, who carried them out, and what could have been done to stop them.

With a series like this, it would be easy to just focus on the bad parts and the bad people who haunt the dark corners of the cyber world. Rhysider takes the show in a different direction, however, focusing both on the bad and “chaotic good” people in the world.

Episodes 7 and 8, for example, focus on a gamer/hacker named Manfred, who started hacking into MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games) and exploiting holes and bugs he found in the programming to collect and sell digital merchandise for real profit (think in-game purchases, but they’re sold by a third party instead of by the company). Manfred began this lucrative career by accident, after discovering a bug in a game called Shadowbane which allowed him to earn experience and level up at a completely unbelievable and unprecedented rate. When he reported the bug, his account was banned. He received the same response several times, and then began exploiting the bugs and making it his full-time job (from which he only recently retired). Manfred had a moral code, however – he wouldn’t do this with games that already offered real in-game purchases, so as to not take profit away from the company.

Listening to these stories is both fascinating and horrifying. Manfred and his friends, after being banned from one game, attacked the game’s programming and sent it completely haywire, turning safe zones into PvP zones, spawning monsters in newbie areas so new players would be immediately attacked, and overall turning the game into chaos. Imagine playing a game and resting in a safe zone when someone suddenly comes up and stabs you. Sure, it’s only the online world, but that’s a game and a character you’ve put hundreds of hours of work into, and you just wanted a break. Luckily for gamers, Manfred turned away from the chaos and used his knowledge for profit, rather than chaos.

Then there’s the story of the VTech hacker. Vtech is a company that sells various toy tablets, watches, and laptops for kids, and even has its own app store where kids can download games and books. When the child receives their new VTech product, the parents have to register and make an account with their name, address, credit card number, and email. They then create an account for their child, using the child’s real name and sometimes a real photo as a profile picture, assuming this is perfectly safe – no one would endanger children’s identities after all, right?

This was proven very, very wrong in 2015, when an unidentified hacker, after finding some tips online, decided to randomly try hacking into a VTech website – and succeeded. He discovered hundreds of gigabytes worth of unencrypted data, including account passwords, credit card information, home addresses, and – perhaps worst of all – photos and videos children had taken with their VTech products, including pictures of themselves.

The hacker wasn’t a criminal, but rather a concerned citizen – he emailed VTech about the breach and the holes in their security, and after several months of no replies or changes to the websites, sent everything he knew to a journalist. What followed was akin to a PR nightmare, which led to VTech taking all their servers and websites offline for months while they tried to patch up all the holes. The hacker was caught, those his name was never released, and to this day no one knows what happened to him.

Now imagine all that data in the hands of someone who intended to do harm. Children’s photos sold to child pornography websites. Credit card numbers sold on the deep web. Home addresses posted for anyone and everyone to see. This story could have been so much worse than it truly was.

“Well, those are just isolated incidents,” you’re saying now, in an attempt to assure yourself that everything is okay. “And the people weren’t really bad.”

To which I say- tell that to the victims of the TalkTalk hack. TalkTalk was a UK mobile provider, which suffered from a series data breach in 2015, which led to thousands of customers being scammed out of money. Or to the people who were victims of the major retailer hack detailed in episode 15, when a company discovered their cash registers were riddled with malware that was skimming all the information off of every credit card used. Then imagine if Manfred and the VTech hacker weren’t morally decent people.

It’s enough to make you swear off the Internet forever, isn’t it?

Beginner Friendly?: Yes; most episodes are standalone, though listening in order is fun

LGBTQIA Friendly?: N/A

Pay to Listen?: No, but they accept donations.

Length: 20-30 minutes

Overall: Darknet Diaries, while terrifying, is also enrapturing. Listening to the details of these attacks, how the aftermath was handled, the lengths some people will go to cover a data breach, and hearing ways to prevent more attacks like these, is informative and fun. The technical jargon gets to be a bit much at times, although Rhysider does his best to put everything in laymen terms. You don’t have to be a technology genius to understand the moral of the stories though – there are good people, there are bad people, there are people who do these things for a living, and there are people who are just bored.

You better hope it’s one of the good people who get their hands on your private information.

Review: We're Alive

(Originally posted September 15, 2018)

Genre: Post-Apocalypse, Zombies, Survival
Possible Triggers: Some Graphic Descriptions, Death
Safe For Work: Wear Headphones
Content: PG-13

General: In a world where zombies are the new, far less attractive vampires, a podcast about the zombie apocalypse is almost a given. We’re Alive features a group of humans, following them from the beginning of the zombie invasion and through their journey to survive.

The story starts with Michael Cross, an Army Reserve Soldier and college student, whose world is shattered when reports start coming in about riots in the streets. Michael is called in for duty, but the base is deserted when he arrives (after witnessing the horrors in the streets). He finds two fellow soldiers, Angel and Saul, and together the three of them get equipment together, borrow a tank, and head out into the streets to find other survivors. They have no idea what’s going on. They don’t know what they’re fighting. But they’re soldiers, and as far as Michael is concerned, their uniforms will give hope to any civilians they find.

After searching the streets and coming across a few more stranded humans, they commandeer an apartment complex, scout it out to make sure it’s safe, and begin fortifying it as their safe base.

And the fight for survival begins.

Overtime, the apartment complex (dubbed The Tower by the survivors) becomes home to an almost unruly cast of characters. A lot of the characters are your typical stereotypes – the old, gruff war veteran, the paranoid guy who thinks everyone is out to get him, the flirty guy, the “do everything by the rules” guy, the rude woman who thinks she knows everything and constantly talks down to everyone, the ditzy woman who can’t quite seem to get things right, the foreign shop owner, and of course, walking stereotype Michael Cross, who thinks he knows everything, takes charge without any input, and begins ordering people around like he somehow knows more about what’s happening than anyone else.

The cast is pretty by the numbers, but the story is what keeps you listening. Everyone always thinks they know what they would do in the event of any world-ending catastrophe – there’s an entire genre dedicated to “preppers” who think the end of the world could come any day now.

You can’t be prepared for every situation, however. And the characters of We’re Alive do their best on the fly. They find the Tower and immediately fortify it, begin organizing supplies they salvage from empty apartments, work out a guard rotation schedule so one person isn’t responsible for watching over everything. Tommy, a teenage resident of the Tower who arrives with his aunt in chapter three, even sets up a security system so they can completely block off the entrance hall and watch it without having to put themselves in danger. The group sets up a generator to keep electricity going in the tower, begin a rooftop garden, organize a “store” of sorts for supplies – honestly, for a group that can’t go five minutes without someone getting into a fight with someone else, they work together pretty well to maintain their base. The need to survive overcomes the need to be stubborn.

By now you’re probably wondering, “Wait, but what created the zombies?” The survivors wonder that as well. It’s a persisting mystery throughout the series, with the survivors trying to figure out ways to fight the zombies, what attracts them, how they find victims, and the best ways to avoid them. Where did they come from? How do you stop them?  You’ll have to listen to find out.

And in the mean time, there’s something much worse than zombies roaming the streets of Los Angeles. What could be worse than zombies, you ask? Other human beings. While the residents of the Tower are stubborn and often clash with one another, they’re all good at heart and watch out for each other the best they can. The same can not be said for other factions of survivors – they have no interest in cooperating with people outside their own little group, and only look out for themselves. In the world of the zombie apocalypse, humanity somehow still remains the most dangerous thing.

We’re Alive is told in an audio drama format, with each character getting their own voice actor and a chance to tell the story from their own point of view as the show grows beyond Michael Cross. You could hear the same scene two-three times from two-three different points of view, and no narrative will be the same. Episodes are in chapters and parts (Chapter One, Part One, Part Two, Part Three; Chapter Two, Part One, etc.), with each chapter being narrated by a different person. You might love some of the characters, you might hate one or two. You might hate or love them all. And while hating them all can sometimes make listening annoying, it also works to make the story more compelling – and no, not just because you’re rooting for someone to die. It’s oddly fascinating to hear how these characters survive, even when you don’t like them. It’s like watching a car crash – you know it’s horrible and yet you can’t look away.

And hey, maybe you’ll get some good tips for when the zombie apocalypse comes.

Beginner Friendly?: Yes, but start at the beginning

LGBTQIA Friendly?: Yes (several characters)

Pay to Listen?: No

Length: 20-30 minutes

Overall: We’re Alive is a fascinating combination of the best and worst in humanity (which, as we’re shown here, aren’t mutually exclusive) and how mankind’s will to survive overcomes almost every other obstacle. You don’t have to like someone to live with them when living with them is your only choice. You discover talents you didn’t know you had until you put them to the test. You discover how far you’re willing to go in order to live.

While the original series has ended, the story is far from over. Check out www.werealive.com for more details on upcoming shows, to find downloads for the original series, and so much more.

Review: The Bridge

(September 8, 2018)

Genre: Radio Broadcast, Supernatural, Paranormal, alternate timelines
Possible Triggers: None
Safe For Work: Yes
Content: PG-13

You’re listening to: The Bridge.

General: In an alternate 2016, a lonely lighthouse called Watchtower 10 looms over the largely abandoned Transcontinental Bridge. It’s the world’s largest bridge, spanning the entire Atlantic and connecting the Americas and Europe. The watchtowers broadcast regular traffic reports to the non-existent drivers on the bridge, but of course, it would be boring if that’s all they did, wouldn’t it?

The traffic reports from Watchtower 10 are given by Henrietta “Etta” Perault, who hates traffic reports and likes adding a little spice to her broadcasts by telling stories about the Bridge and its past (much to the annoyance of her supervisor). Etta is a quick-witted, sarcastic, hates it when anyone messes with her broadcasting equipment, and (appropriately, as the narrator of a supernatural podcast) has a dark past she’s kept hidden from her fellow crew members.

This colorful cast includes Robert Kaplan the supervisor, a man with seemingly no sense of humor who lost a bet and ended up at Watchtower 10; Kate Burnham, the resident travel agent with a secret of her own; and Bertie Renard, the groundskeeper who just wants to keep an eye on his flowers and make sure everything and everyone is safe. Like Etta, they all have their secrets, though some are more willing to talk than others.

Not on the payroll of Watchtower 10 (do they even get paid? Who’s running all this?) is a Lovecraftian monster housed within the lighthouse, fondly named Bob. Creatures like Bob are kept within all the watchtowers, as well as prowling the Atlantic Ocean (and sometimes taking abandoned cars off the bridge; Etta enjoys narrating those moments).

There’s a lot going on to keep you interested. The history of the Bridge is given away in bits and pieces, usually by Etta when she thinks she can get away with it. But the rest of the crew members have their own points of view to contribute as well.

Aside from the monsters dwelling within each watchtower and in the Atlantic Ocean, the Bridge itself has seen its fair share of non-monster related paranormal horror – including a ride at the famous Aqua Land which collapsed and killed dozens of people for no reason anyone can tell, and a hotel where a private party was being hosted one night, and every single adult within the walls of the hotel disappeared. Every year since, an item from one of the lost people appears for their loved ones to come and collect.

The crew members of Watchtower 10 are an absolute joy. They love each other, they hate each other, but no matter what happens, they’re all in this crazy adventure together (for better or worse). Even Robert, stuck-up and unlikable as he is, is portrayed in a way where you can’t really hate him. He’s boring and no fun, for sure, but his attitude and dry wit are delightful, and sometimes he even tells a joke – sort of. Bertie is a beacon of innocent light, and you have to wonder how such a pure being ended up in the middle of such a messed up situation. Kate is flirtatious, confident, and not afraid to take charge when the others are just being stupid.

The banter between the crew members is always fun, and never fails to add something more to the story. The first episode is a perfect example of that – Bertie and Etta are talking, and keep interrupting each other with more sarcastic banter before anyone can actually saywhat’s down on Submare 3 and why Bertie had to go check on it. Roger, in one exasperated line, can reveal more about Etta than we learn in most episodes – she’s flighty, she needs her job description read to her at least once a week, she hates giving the traffic reports and doing her actual job, she loves telling stories to whatever audience might be listening (she’s pretty sure it’s mostly just Frank, a cranky man who calls in daily to inform Etta that she got yet another fact about the Bridge wrong). Kate’s playful exchanges with the rest of the crew show she’s not allergic to a little fun, but she knows when it’s time to stop fooling around and get serious.

In the first episode, we learn so much about these characters, and we’re still left with a million questions – what’s on Submare 3? Are these stories Etta is telling really true, or are we dealing with a serious case of unreliable narrator? How did these four polar opposite people end up working together? What brought any of them to Watchtower 10? What’s the story behind this Aqua Land? What happened at the Transcontinental Hotel at Checkpoint 8? Why is the Bridge – which was supposed to be the crowning achievement of humanity – abandoned and left in disrepair while these characters watch it crumble? Are the other watchtowers still in use? Does the crew of Watchtower 10 even know the answer to that?

There are points where the show gets a little too wrapped up in its own mystery, and if you check out for a minute you’ll come back lost and confused (although you may have already been feeling that way), but the writing is mostly on-point, the characters are well voiced and a delight, and there’s still plenty of mysteries to unravel and keep you listening for a long time.

Beginner Friendly?: Some experience with podcasts of similar genres might be helpful for keeping up with the fast pace. Definitely start at the beginning, or you’ll be lost from the get-go.

LGBTQIA Friendly?: Yes

Pay to Listen?: No, but like most they accept donations

Length: 10-20 minutes.

Overall: The Bridge is certainly an enjoyable listen. The short episodes leave you wanting more, and continuing to hit the next episode until you realize you’ve hit the end of the season (new episodes are starting in October, however, never fear). The show gives away just enough to give you context, but keeps enough hidden so that you’ll keep listening, wanting to unravel the secrets of Etta, the crew, the Bridge, and all the lore and mysteries which surround it.

Rating: 4.5/5

Review: Welcome to Night Vale

(Originally posted September 1, 2018)

Genre: Radio Broadcast, Weird, Supernatural, Paranormal
Possible Triggers: None
Safe For Work: Yes
Content: Suitable for all audiences

Welcome… to Night Vale.

General: Welcome to Night Vale, created by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, is a staple in the podcast story-telling community. It’s a radio broadcast from a small, strange town somewhere in the deserts of America, hosted by Cecil Gerswhin Palmer (voiced by Cecil Baldwin) and featuring reports of the daily goings on around town. Normal enough… except these events include an airplane mysteriously appearing in Night Vale High School’s gymnasium during basketball practice, a small town under Lane Five at the Desert Flower Bowling Alley and Arcade Fun Complex, otherworldly lights that appear in the sky above the Arby’s sign…

Perhaps Night Vale isn’t so normal after all.

Don’t you dare tell the residents that, however. As far as they’re all concerned, this is life. No one bats an eye when they see a surveillance van from the Vague, Yet Menacing Government Agency sitting outside their house, or when a mysterious underground subway appears and disappears within the time it takes an episode to start and end. Shape shifting teenager? Oh, that’s just Diane’s boy, Josh. He’s trying to figure things out. It’s street cleaning day? Good god run for your lives, hide, get out of sight, never mind, it’s too late for you.

We see the mysterious town through the eyes of Cecil, who prides himself on being a professional journalist, although his bias is implicit in almost every report – especially if that report includes Carlos the Scientist (voiced by Cranor until the show started going live, at which time they brought in Dylan Marron, explaining the voice difference as a “vocal chord change”), a newcomer to the town and the only one who ever seems to question the oddities surrounding Night Vale. To say Cecil is attracted to him would be an understatement. Carlos’ introduction comes with a speech about his voice (like caramel with oaky tones), his skin (dark and delicate) and his hair (black with a “dignified, if premature, touch of gray at his temples”).

(It’s possible Cecil has a slight crush on Carlos.)

Welcome to Night Vale draws on the traditional aspects of the supernatural/paranormal drama, while adding its own, surreal twist to the matter – no one truly questions anything. There’s a Faceless Old Woman (voice by Mara Wilson) who secretly lives in all your homes, a five-headed dragon named Hiram McDaniels (voiced by Jackson Publick) who somehow passes for Totally Ordinary Human Man Frank Chen, The City Council who speaks in one voice and bails at the first sign of danger – oh, and Station Management. But don’t talk too much about them. They don’t like to be talked about.

While there are overarching arcs throughout seasons, episodes are mostly self-contained, with the standard “there’s a problem, the problem is worse, fix the problem” – although the fix is never explained, as it always happen during the weather (a musical segment from various independent musicians). The time between the climax of the problem and the fix of the problem is varying – while the weather last for three-five minutes, there are some cases where we’ll return to Cecil and he’ll claim two weeks have passed. How is that possible? It’s Night Vale, question nothing.

The show paints a fantastical picture of a small town that is other-worldly yet familiar at the same time. It’s just a normal town with normal town things – a library (but don’t go in there or the librarians will get you), a newspaper (which is going under thanks to bloggers, if editor Leann Hart is to be believed), and of course its beloved radio show (which has an alarming intern mortality rate). Think Twin Peaks or Gravity Falls, but in radio broadcast podcast form.

The story – whether it’s the overall story or the twenty-minute self-contained problem of the week story – is always a fun mystery, and even when the problem is supposedly resolved and the episode ends, it leaves you wanting more. The on-going story-line, meanwhile, has a way of sneaking up on you, then hitting hard.

The writing is fun, zany, creepy, and spine-tingling all at the same time. The way Cecil goes from dark to cheery in the space of a breath leaves you reeling, and his absolutely bewildering, nonsensical lines are as amusing as they are head-turning. Some absolute classics include:

  • “I like my coffee like I like my nights: dark, endless, and impossible to sleep through.”

  • “Kill it with kindness, and if that doesn’t work, kill it with sharp sticks and knives.”

  • “Death is only the end if you assume the story is about you.”

  • “Confused? At a loss for what to do? Wow, sounds like you’re human. Good Luck.”

Sometimes they’re wise, sometimes they’re meaningless, sometimes they end very from where they begin. There’s really no better way to describe Night Vale.

The characters are well-written and well-voiced, the relationships are wonderful, and getting to watch the characters grow and evolve throughout the series is a joy. The show has grown beyond podcast episodes, having published two original books (both narrated by Cecil Baldwin, of course), focusing on other characters of the strange town who don’t get as much attention in the podcast itself. They’re an enjoyable read, but I recommend listening to them if you want the full Night Vale experience.

Their live shows are also a blast. I was lucky enough to attend their show “All Hail” July 2017, complete with live music for the weather. The show focused on the enigmatic Glow Cloud (by the way there’s a glow could that drops dead animals when it’s angry and is head of the school board), and revealed some deep secrets about the mysterious glowing entity. The live shows are available on their website, and don’t contain any particular spoilers for the show itself. They’re worth dishing out the money for.

Beginner Friendly?: Yes.

LGBTQIA Friendly?: Absolutely

Pay to Listen?: No, but they accept donations and you get stuff for donating.

Length: 15-30 minutes

Overall: WTNV is, in so many ways, a breakthrough podcast. While not exactly the first of its kind, it brought something new and different to the podcasting world. The creators of have gone on to create several different podcasts, which have been successful, of course, but going back to Welcome to Night Vale and their roots is always a joy. Who doesn’t want to see where the magic began?

Rating: 5/5

Review: Archive 81

(Originally posted August 25, 2018)

Genre: Horror, Mystery, Found Footage
Possible Triggers: Death, Body Horror, Isolation
Safe For Work: Somewhat – wear headphones
Content: Suitable for audiences over 13

Slight Spoilers Ahead

General: Archive 81 is the story of Dan, a young man doing work in a compound out in the woods, digitizing the recordings in Archive 81. Dan’s employer, the mysterious Mr. Davenport, insists on him wearing a recorder and recording himself at all times – while he works, while he relaxes, while he’s in the bathroom. He takes all timesvery seriously.

The show begins, innocently enough, with Dan and Mr. Davenport discuss Dan’s duties at the mysterious compound, and Dan establishing himself as a complete tech nerd. Mr. Davenport drops Dan off at the compound, and Dan settles in before getting to work.

The mystery presents itself almost immediately, as Dan dives into the archives (which are out of order, making sorting them even more difficult) and chooses a recording to start with.

Here we’re “introduced” to Melody Pendrass, who is surveying the Visser Towers Residential Block in early 1994. She finds her job hindered over and over by uncooperative and sometimes downright strange residents of the building, and is quickly dragged into the unnatural goings on of the Visser Towers, which include a mysterious cult, disappearing residents, a man who can’t be recorded, and a man who can’t see faces.

We end the first episode on Mark, a friend of Dan’s, explaining that Dan went missing after emailing him the recordings from his brief employment. Mark is desperate to find Dan, and has decided to share the recordings with the world, starting at the beginning.

The first season continues on from there, dragging Dan and the audience further into the mystery of Melody Pendrass and the Visser Towers. Dan’s continued time in isolation and his obsession with the mystery begin to unravel his mental state, to the point where he “adopts” a rat in the building as a friend, naming him Ratty, and his erratic behavior becomes a point of concern with Mark and his girlfriend, Tanya. Things get weirder when Dan discovers that the recordings are in fact being monitored, as Mr. Davenport calls him almost immediately after he shares a recording with Tanya to try and make her believe there’s something weird going on.

The mystery of the Visser Towers and the strange happenings is intriguing, and constantly leaves the audience wanting more. What’s going on in that building? What’s with Samuel and his cult-ish group? The end of every episode always leaves you wanting more.

Unfortunately, the mystery isn’t quite solved before we’re thrown into the bizarre world of season two, where Dan wakes up with a few body modifications, to put it lightly, and has to navigate this strange new universe he’s in – literally, as a matter of fact, as he’s been brought in to map the place, and is being held captive in a horrifyingly unique way. To put it shortly, the show takes a drastic turn from a normal person exploring a paranormal mystery to a normal person turned decidedly not normal, trapped in a mysterious, inhuman universe where things are so familiar but so different, and nothing is as it seems – and what it seems to be in the first place is already odd enough.

As a podcast, Archive 81 is limited in painting a picture for its audience, but it handles that limit well by using sound, or lack of sound, to make you extremely aware of the surroundings. Dan’s time spent in isolation is marked by silence in the background – no music, no noises at all except for his footsteps, the occasional squeak from Ratty, and of course, the rattling noise of him turning on the audio player to dive back into Melody’s increasingly horrifying adventures.

Melody’s recordings, meanwhile, are full of noise. When she’s out on the streets you hear cars and pedestrians and signs of life. Inside the Visser Towers, you hear her footsteps as she walks down the halls, describing every detail to the recording – and in turn to the audience. You hear her knocking on doors, the unfriendly mumbles from the residents who don’t want to talk to the outsiders, the shifts and twitches that come naturally to a human being (because no one can stand perfectly still for that long).

The voice acting also adds perfectly to the scenery. It’s easy to follow Dan’s descent into obsession throughout each episode – where he starts off as easy-going, a little perplexed, but curious, he quickly becomes entangled in the mystery, and his voice reflects that – it becomes faster, high-pitched, desperate. He needs someone to believe him. He needs to figure out this mystery. His journey is mirrored by Melody’s recordings; she too has fallen into the spiral of obsession, desperate to find out what’s going on at Visser Towers. While her recordings start off as professional, level-headed, and contained, it soon becomes obvious that she’s slipping as well – she’s angry, scared, sometimes bordering on hysterical.

Then there are other characters, such as Mr. Davenport, who maintain their same tone of voice no matter what the situation is. The cheery inflection in each word is disarming at best, and disturbing at worst, depending on the context. A cheery voice threatening you is almost worse than an angry one.

Without being able to see the faces of these characters, the tone of voice is important, and Archive 81 presents those voices well. It’s an enjoyable listen, if not somewhat jarring and unsettling at the sudden changes in atmosphere, but that’s what makes it fun.

Beginner Friendly?: Yes, but make sure you start with the first episode. It’s something to listen to in order.

LGBTQIA Friendly?: Includes a gay character, some questionably homophobic content but in context with the time period (the early 90s). It’s very brief, but can still cause some discomfort if you’re sensitive (full disclosure: I was).

Pay to Listen?: Nope. Donations are accepted via their Patreon, but not required in order to listen.

Length: 20-30 minutes

Overall: Archive 81 is an interesting and enjoyable listen throughout the first season, which keeps you on the edge of your seat wanting more, immersing you in the mystery. The second season veers off into the land of the absolutely bizarre, making it a little harder to follow, but overall enjoyable if you like off-the-wall horror. And what does season three hold? You’ll have to listen and find out for yourself

Rating: 4/5

Review: The NoSleep Podcast

(Originally Posted August 18, 2018)

Genre: Horror
Possible Triggers: Gore, Murder, Death, Monsters, Abuse, Rape
Safe For Work: Somewhat – wear headphones
Content: Mature

Brace yourself… for the NoSleep Podcast.

General: Debuting in 2011, The NoSleep Podcast is a collection of narrated stories from the subreddit NoSleep, where writers can post their original horror stories. The podcast was started and is still produced and hosted by David Cummings, the voice introducing each episode with a warning of scary, horrifying things to come. The show has a variety of voice actors from all corners of North America – and a few from the UK – making for a fun and interesting listening experience.

All stories featured on NoSleep are the original works of the Reddit horror writers’ community – some of whom have gone on to publish their works. Each story in an episode (between two and five – more on that later) is narrated by a different person, with others stepping in to fill roles of side characters, making it seem less like you’re having a story read to you and more like a performance. Included in that performance is sound effects and music, produced in-house by the musical mistro Brandon Boone.

The narrations and the music are top notch. It’s apparent that, despite the distances (and oceans) between them, the voice actors get along well and enjoy working together. The show has done two live tours throughout the US, and was sure to keep the audience updated on their travels and tolerance for one another. The second tour featured a treat for those who couldn’t go to a show but were still listening to the weekly releases in season ten — a story put together by voice actor and temporary host Peter Lewis (who may or may not be a cryptid running around Detroit), where the Home Team (those not on the tour) were sent on a mysterious quest which… well, we wouldn’t want to spoil the fun, would we? Let’s just say it’s a miracle Lewis still has a functioning mind after the amount of times he was zapped.

The most important thing, of course, is the quality of the stories. How do they stack up? Luckily for its listeners, the NoSleep team has an eye for good stories. The few that cross the realm from mysterious and confusing are a rare occurrence, as are those which forget the importance of “show, don’t tell.” While there may be an odd flop here or there, a good 97% of the stories featured are excellent. The overarching genre of every story is horror, but it’s not all tradition monsters, paranormal, Satan worshippers, and mysterious tunnels found under one’s house. Some of the best stories are about the horror not of the unknown, but of humanity itself.

One of the best examples of this is the season seven finale, an excellent production of “Borrasca” by C.K. Walker, which featured the entire cast of voice actors in one way or another. It’s the story of a young boy who moves to a small town and discovers a mystery – as they do – involving the old mines outside of team, disappearing girls, and a strange noise that echoes through the air so often, the townsfolk are used to it. The story is well-written, and the main voice actors – Matthew Bradford, Jessica McEvoy, and Jeff Clement – put so much life into their characters that you’ll be invested from the very first twist, and on your seat for the rest of the nearly three-hour show. And you’ll want more when it’s over.

That’s another excellent trait of the stories chosen for the show – so many of them leave you wanting more. So many of the stories end in cliffhangers, with stomach-punching twists, and when you hear that outro music and Cummings’ smooth voice ushering you off to the next story or episode, you’ll want to scream or flip a table – but all you can do is sit and think for the next three hours about the implications of that one story, while your mind runs wild with all the things that could have happened after the metaphorical screen went black. That’s not to say the endings are at all unsatisfactory – quite the contrary. The authors are talented at knowing just how much to give to leave a reader happy, but also to make a reader think, and to keep the story in a person’s mind long after the show has ended.

The stories are, for the most part, separate entities, meaning you can drop in on just about any episode, at any point in any season, and dive right in without listening to anything before (although we recommend you listen to everything just for the entertainment). There are some stories – such as the acclaimed “Pen Pals” series by  Dathan Auerbach – which are written as a series and are featured in multiple episodes, but for the most part, each story is a standalone, and while you may be left baffled by what you just listened to, it won’t be because you came into the middle of a series and have no idea what’s going on.

In the realm of tiny details that may seem insignificant, even their in-show ads, for companies such as Blue Apron, MeUndies, and Loot Crate, have a horrific twist at the end of them (though they do refrain from adding such a twist to their TalkSpace ads, showing the respect for mental illnesses and the people who struggle with them every day). It’s one of those small details you don’t know you appreciate until you listen to another podcast and have a boring add cut into the middle of the exciting story.

Beginner Friendly?: If you’re new to podcasts, The NoSleep Podcast is absolutely a good way to start. There’s no storyline to follow, just hour after hour of horror content that would give Stephen King nightmares.

LGBTQIA Friendly?: In the introduction for a recent season eleven episode, Cummings addressed complaints he had received from listeners who felt the show was including “too many” LGBTQIA characters. Cummings responded with grace, saying if anything they didn’t have enough characters from that community, and in addition, the following episode featured stories by LGBTQIA authors and/or centered on LGBTQIA characters, and were narrated by the LGBTQIA members of the NoSleep voice actors.

Short answer, yes, NoSleep is indeed a friend of the LGBTQIA community. Though do keep in mind – they’re still horror stories. A happy ending is far from guaranteed.

Pay to Listen?: As is the case with all of us, the NoSleep crew needs to pay to keep the lights on, and as a way to do so they’ve found a compromise that won’t outcast those who can’t afford a subscription. The Season Pass program, started in season three, allows for listeners to pay twenty dollars a month (and contribute extra if they wish) to access the full four-five story episodes. Those who can’t buy a season pass are still able to listen to the first two-three stories, depending on the length. In addition to full episodes, Season Pass holders get early access to episodes and bonus episodes.

There’s also the Rent-to-Own program, in which a listener can pay $1.49 per episode for 14 episodes, and then be upgraded to a season pass.

The season pass is retroactive – if you were to buy one now, roughly halfway through season eleven, you would get access to the full-length first ten episodes, as well as the bonus episode which was released before season eleven as a treat to season pass holders. You can also buy passes for past seasons, and be up to your ears in hours of horror.

Length: Full-length episodes are 2.5-3 hours. Free episodes tend to be closer to 1-1.5 hours.

Overall: The NoSleep Podcast is an enjoyable listen – if you enjoy stories about cannibals, mysterious creatures roaming the forest, evil gnomes, sentient sand… it’s horror. And the authors of these stories can make anything horrifying.

Rating: 5/5