Scholarly Introduction

Introduction:

Over the past five years, the digital medium of podcasting has exploded in popularity and cultural status, flooding the internet with aural entertainment from a vast range of producers (Sawyer, “It’s boom time for podcasts”). From news corporations (New York Times) and elementary school students to banks (TD Ameritrade) and investment firms (Robinhood Financial LLC ) to grocery stores (Trader Joe’s) and dating apps (Tinder) to universities (NYU) and politicians (Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden), podcasting has penetrated nearly every facet of quotidian American life in 2020. According to a report from Edison Research, half of all Americans 12 and older have listened to a podcast and nearly 90 million people listen to podcasts monthly (“Infinite Dial of 2019”). It is a new media zeitgeist that has supplanted its analog precursor, radio, as the primary delivery mechanism for spoken-word entertainment, news and fiction. However, the recent increase in popularity for podcasting did not arise out of a vacuum, as podcasting as a medium has been around since 2002 (Geoghan and Klass 3). Just last year, the music streaming company Spotify purchased Gimlet Media, a narrative podcast production company, for $230 million (Johnson). Podcasts represent not just a digital turn for radio, but a paradigmatic shift in how media is produced, distributed and consumed under postmodern capitalism, changing how meaning is constructed in strikingly similar ways to how radio changed the aesthetics of mass communication with its mainstream adoption a century earlier.

Daphne Rubin-Vega voices Dolores Roach in the Gimlet Media fiction podcast The Horror of Dolores Roach
(credit: Gimlet Media)

One of the ways that podcasting has come to have a significant cultural impact is in the way that it has ushered in a new era of oral storytelling. While many of the most popular podcasts are journalistic projects or extensions of talk radio, there has been a renaissance of oral fiction that spans a multitude of genres, styles, techniques, production value, and cultural critiques. Just as radio dramas changed the cultural experiences of Americans during the “Golden Age” of radio from the 1930s to 1950s– when dramatists like Orson Welles and Arch Oboler were revolutionizing the art form– the rise of podcasts represents a unique era in the development of fiction that appropriates sonic aesthetics from literature, theatre, film and television through digital technology. Therefore, in order to best holistically understand and analyze fiction podcasts with rich storytelling and political themes like The Horror of Dolores Roach, Limetown, Welcome to Nightvale, The Shadows, Moonface, Gay Future, Blood Ties, Archive 81 and Blackout, we must first look to the Golden Age of radio drama and shows like Lights Out, Suspense, Escape, Quiet Please, X Minus One, The Shadow and Inner Sanctum Mysteries. By comparing the rich past of radio drama with the growing presence of podcasting, this Master’s project attempts to make both eras in the history of aural culture more legible. In particular, the analysis of present-day fiction podcasts will focus on the oral aesthetics of those podcasts and how they use the potential of the genre of horror to combine terror and titillation with rich social criticism.

Cecil Baldwin plays the narrator on Welcome to Nightvale
(credit: Whitney Brown)

The history of horror represents a tapestry of cultural fear and social anxiety: from the Gothic monstrosities from novels like Frankenstein (Halberstam 21) to the naturalist plays of the Grand-Guignol (Hand and Wilson 8) to the “immediate visibility” of postmodern slasher films (Baudrillard 150). Horror fiction podcasts are the latest addition to this body of work and through an analysis of its aesthetic innovations we can identify a cycle of remediation that makes them both familiar and distinct, immediate and hypermediate (Bolton and Gruisin 21). To further illustrate how podcasts wield this remediation, this Master’s project will be in the form of a podcast, an episodic series of analyses that organically cites the material for close reading and historical context. The two episodes I have created thus far features myself discussing the history of horror and an analysis about the podcast The Horror of Dolores Roach, orally explaining my argument as well as aurally representing it through sound design techniques. Through writing and sound, I use the podcast medium itself to demonstrate how the aesthetics of fiction podcasts exploit the conventions of its technological production to form new and radical politics of fear. The main argument of this project is to prove that horror fiction podcasts represent a watershed moment for horror across different media.

For this scholarly introduction to this multi-media, interdisciplinary, podcast-style Master’s project, I first start with an overview of orality throughout the horror aesthetic over the past 200 years. Beginning with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1816 and ending with Jordan Peele’s Get Out in 2017, the first section of this introduction is a brief primer in pre-podcast horror, spanning various styles and technologies with an emphasis on radio drama. The second section of this introduction illustrates the digital environment that birthed podcasting in the early 2000s and the early adopters of the platform as a canvas for fiction. The final part of this introduction will describe the methodology of this Master’s project and the potential for podcasts as a tool of academic analysis.

The Fear and Now

Horror is a difficult genre to pin down because fear, horror’s foremost commodity, is completely subjective. And yet there seems to be a set of rules that govern our conceptions of horror and its performance. These shared notions about what makes something scary or unsettling can be traced to the primary unit of horror, heteronormativity, the hegemonic construction of standardized identity and social behavior that establishes a spectrum of normalcy along racial, gendered and economic boundaries (Sedgwick “Queer and Now” 7). Maybe this is signified by a newlywed couple moving into a new domestic space or a group of plucky white teenagers in the woods. These tried and true symbols for heteronormativity have become tired with overuse, but they are important because they inscribe a baseline for what can be understood as reality or normalcy. Which makes representations of that reality being disrupted by a haunted house or masked serial killer an unsettling spectacle.

Horror is a genre that demands frequent and drastic oscillations between reality and nightmarish fantasy to induce dread and thus it is tantamount for horror to be able to reproduce heteronormativity and distort it. Successful horror employs a controlled sleight of hand to tease out these oscillations and deconstruct the societal anxieties of its historical production, whether its Edgar Allen Poe in the “Tell Tale Heart” or Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” radio play or the 1973 film The Exorcist. The tension in horror is found in the moments when the world becomes unrecognizable, cast under a spell of violence, gore, hallucination, dreams or supernatural manipulation. But for these scenes to be effective the audience needs to be taught what should be recognizable and “normal.”

Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

In horror, the unsettling distortions are what reteach us what and who decides what is “normal” and this can dually inspire a radical new understanding of reality and perpetuate dominant ideology. In Rosemary’s Baby (1968) the heterosexual dyad, the white cloistered housewife and pregnancy are deliberately marked as ideal symbols for the heteronormative constructs of its time, but by the time the film concludes, these symbols have been queered and transformed into metaphors for control, power and agency. Films like It Follows (2014) and Get Out (2017) wield the heteronormative as a weapon of anxiety itself, demonstrating that for gendered and racialized subjects the heteronormative is not a space of comfort but of a space of terror. But in films like Friday the 13th (1980) and other slasher films, the hyper-sexuality of white teenagers is punished by a silent murderer who hunts them down one by one following their sexual transgressions. Horror has the ability to say what normative society silences, to show the violence that is often hidden and to interrogate shared fears by altering our shared ideas of normalcy. But it can also often reinforce the policing of the heteronormative space and construct cautionary tales that aggressively punish deviant behavior and identities.

The reason why the genre of horror looms especially large in podcasting is because it was a genre that has previously relied on the representation of bodies and the visually grotesque. Through literature, theatre and film, the aesthetic of horror has been largely dictated by a visual economy of violence.

The Gothic novel is a literary format that was instrumental for locating horror within representations of bodies. The Gothic style was defined by its formulaic narrative structure, often featuring echoes of the same motifs and setting; according to Eve Sedgwick “once you know that a novel is of the Gothic kind, you can predict its contents with unnerving certainty.” (Sedgwick “Coherence of Gothic Conventions” 16) Although many scholars attribute the origin of the Gothic style to Horace Walpole in 1764, it isn’t until Mary Shelley’s 1816 novel Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus that the conventions of the Gothic novel begin to situate itself within the framework of horror (Halberstam 12). Not only did Shelley exploit the themes and settings of the Gothic but she crafted a narrative that played around the boundaries of fear and desire. It was a novel that preyed on the reader’s cultural fears of transgressing binaries, featuring a monster that was a totalizing metaphor for the divide between body/mind, scientific progress/regression, God/humans. And this kicked off a series of similar Gothic monstrosities located within transgressive bodies: The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (1860), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), Picture of Dorian Grey (1891), Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897), etc. According to Judith Halberstam, the Gothic monsters’ bodies are “meaning machines” that “produces meaning and can represent any horrible trait that the reader feeds into the narrative.” (21)

Les 3 Masques Poster Print by Adrien Barrere

By comparison, the plays of the Grand-Guignol theatre redefined how horror could produce meaning from fear. A French theatre company that began in 1897, the Grand-Guignol was influenced by the Gothic aesthetic but narrowed in on sexual violence as a means of representing horror (Hand and Wilson 7). Blending naturalism and melodrama, the playwrights at the Grand-Guignol were dead set on crafting plays with gruesome scenes of murder, suicide, self-amputation, rabies, sexual assault as well as other outlandish displays of death and torture. But instead of constructing monstrosities out of overwhelming societal structures like the Gothic “meaning machines,” the Grand-Guignol’s hyper-visual style emphasized deviant sexualities and violent pathologies, a Freudian gothicization of sexuality (Halberstam 19). In the transition from page to the stage, the body became even more existentially related to representations of horror, but now it began to privilege gender and sexuality as its primary site of transgression. This visual economy of the Grand-Guignol was a huge influence on filmmakers throughout the 20th Century and this aesthetic of sexualized violence matches the stylized gore and sex in contemporary slasher films.

As early as 1895, pioneering filmmakers were using the camera to construct illusions that tested the capabilities of film, exploiting audiences’ imagination with short experiments that wielded visual representations of the supernatural in unprecedented ways. Although films were originally produced for their cheap and profitable shock factor, silent film began to evolve beyond the editing tricks of George Méliès into more narrative based projects like Thomas Edison’s Frankenstein (1910)and D.W. Griffith’s The Sealed Room (1910). It is during the silent film era that horror takes on a more technological violence, a disruption of heteronormativity that is constructed upon the deception of the camera (Prince 18). The primary example is the quintessential German Expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), a film who utilized fantastical visuals as well as a spellbinding narrative to trick the audience into believing that what they see is a representation of reality. Through the device of the camera, horror began to use its uncanny manipulation of reality as a hyper-visual production of fear.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

This became even more so apparent as silent film began to transition to synchronized sound. Between 1927 and 1931, the technology to reproduce spoken dialogue was introduced to film production and its effects on its contemporaneous audience represented both new opportunities to represent realism and to disrupt that realism (Spadoni 9). This budding economy of sound in film was cautiously adopted and often maligned because according to Robert Spadoni, “the voice on sound film could strike a viewer as patently unreal” due to the quality of the sync and the concept of a disembodied voice (14). This transition to sound was defined by the renewed sense of awareness around the mechanical production of cinema, a hypermediate shift in the previously understood behaviors of movie-watching. But this aural estrangement from what was understood to be cinematic played in favor of horror films during this transition and opened up a new aesthetic of horror. The 1931 film Dracula specifically downplayed the visual stimuli that had governed silent film and instead located fear within Bela Lugosi’s voice as a way to represent the eerie monster (63). Dracula and the horror films that came after it participated in a new economy of aural horror that made their monstrosities more real and yet less life-like in their representation (22). 

Dracula (1931)

But the radio drama was innovative as a medium for horror because of its total estrangement from visual culture, exploiting its technological and social relationship to sound to incite different representations of fear that changed the aesthetics of horror. Unlike the spectacle of the Grand-Guignol and the uncanniness of film, the horror of the radio drama was rooted in its ability to make the audience complicit in its creation through its sonic production; meaning that the manipulations of heteronormativity on the radio were only as powerful as each individual listener allowed them to exist. The descriptions of violence or societal transgressions were not shown at a distance for the audience but molded into shape by the person listening, displacing the special effects of the Grand Guignol and George Méliès for a new aural syntax of horror. The radio had collapsed the “gaze” of visual analysis and instead implicated the audience as aural receivers for a new kind of mediated reality whose decoding required active listening, a gesture which made listening to horror radio drama a deviant practice in and of itself. In radio it is the audience who conjures the man-eating cat-woman in Lights Out’s “Cat Wife”, it is the audience that is a complacent witness to the destruction of humanity in Suspenses’ “Zero Hour”,  it is the audience who knows long before Mrs. Stevenson that she is about to be murdered in Lucile Fletcher’s “Sorry, Wrong Number” and it is the audience that is ultimately responsible for their own terror in this kind of horror.

The question then becomes, how exactly was this radical departure from visual horror constructed. The radio was first and foremost a technology invented and socially inscribed around white working class identity beginning in the early 20th Century (Douglas, Inventing American Broadcasting xxvii). Before radios became mass produced and publicly ubiquitous, communities of middle class white men from across the country had gravitated toward wireless tinkering as an escape from routinized labor (190). These amateur operators reached through the empty ether of the airwaves to try to receive signals from great distances not so much because of the content they could consume but more from a desire to connect with other likeminded operators. However, shortly after WWI when Howard Edwin Armstrong developed the superheterodyne method for the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), the radio began to be sold as a commercial product and marketed as a mechanism to hear music and performance on the air. The first radio stations began programming news and entertainment content beginning in 1920 and as more people began to adopt the technology the programming options began to branch out into theatrical performances, mainly vaudeville and minstrel comedy acts that mirrored the popular theatre at the time (Ely 53).

However, it soon became apparent that the radio required a new kind of communication and syntax of description to properly implicate the audience like this. The aural quality of the radio exceeded the reticence of the printed page and its broadcast technology redefined the spatial limits of its theatrical contemporaries. These other media could not simply be adapted wholesale for radio but required a new kind of artistic approach that exploited the radical estrangement from visual culture (Crissell xvii). This meant that radio had to be written in such a way that spoke reality into being unlike literature, theatre and film; whether it was an anchor reading a weather report or an actor reading a script, the disembodied voices of the radio represented a performed reality staged in the listener’s imagination (Verma 2). Like a sculptor honing a slab of marble to reveal figures, early radio dramas relied heavily on familiar narrators to depict the visual ques typically signified through settings, costumes and props. Narrators would essentially be stand ins for stage directions, giving listeners visual representations that stood against the darkness of the threatening silence. The aural rules for dialogue also had to be re-written  for radio to demonstrate movement and action, denaturalizing usual communication syntax to guide listeners in making sense of spatial blocking divorced from sight (19). The slapstick jokes of vaudeville didn’t translate on the air and instead were substituted for word play and linguistic gags. Through the 20s and early 30s, radio dramatists began to develop a rubric for writing for radio, aural rules that often denied the mysterious darkness of silence for the clarity of speech and prioritized linguistic codes as sense making signals.

Radio dramatists achieved this nuanced strategy by practicing two aesthetics of perspective: intimate and kaleidosonic (35). These perspectives, or audiopositions as Verma terms it, are the aurally constructed spaces for the listener to exist within the fictitious world, using a layering of foreground and background noises to position the audience as subjects with varying degrees of complicity. For example, the primary audioposition for most psychological thrillers is within the mind of the main character, an intimate audioposition that forces the listener to not just hear the world the main character hears but to also to eavesdrop on their thoughts and internal conflicts (64). Arch Oboler perfected the stream of consciousness-style internal monologue for radio with plays like “It Happened,” “The Dream” and “The Flame,” utilizing the intimate audioposition to perform a descent into madness or outburst of violence with the audience inside the mind of a deviant character. In this model for aurally representing reality, the listener is an invisible entity whose existence is mutually reliant on the main character and mutually invested in seeing them succeed in their unsavory behaviors, forming an intimate bond and unspoken complicity between the guiding voice of the narrative and the listener who is actively imagining their transgressions. The intimacy of radio in general has been well cited by scholars as one of the cornerstones of its appeal (Naremore 30), but this intimacy can be wielded by horror to implicate the listener, reach inside their minds in ways that visual horror cannot and stimulate an imagination that dares to push past the heteronormative constructs that have be learned.

Arch Oboler directing in 1938

This was the set of conventions for radio writing when Arch Oboler began Lights Out in 1936 and started to displace speech as the primary sense making component of radio drama. Oboler approached radio in a different way from his contemporaries and embraced the darkness of the medium’s estrangement from visual representation, framing his plays more around sound effects and the sonic aesthetics of reproduction. The most famous example of this is his play “The Dark,” where two men investigate an old house to find an inexplicable dark something that has turned someone inside out. Though speech here is still critical for understanding basic context, the main narrative hook comes from the weaving together of silence, creepy laughter, the men’s screams and the squelching sound meant to represent human flesh. The characters’ voices are submersed in darkness without even music to envelope them in some sort of familiar setting, making the audience peer into the darkness until it eventually silences all the voices and concludes the play. There is no verbal explanation for why the men were called there, why the mysterious violence has happened or who the old woman is; what matters is the sonic journey that exploits the audience’s lack of visual stimuli and guides the listener through their imagination with sound effects that signify everything from the setting ( the creaking door at the beginning) to the monstrosity that possesses the house (ominous “dark smoke” that transforms each character one by one). Oboler is less interested in giving the listener a complete, detailed world for the story to exist in and instead revels in concealing the truth and teasing the listener into forming their own nightmares from the aural signals presented.

Orson Welles directing in 1938

The alternative audioposition that compliments the claustrophobic and character driven aesthetic of intimacy is the kaleidosonic audioposition, a narrative technique that Verma likens to the montage techniques of film and an “objective” hierarchy of space where aural environments are equidistant from each other (66). The most famous example of this is in the first half of Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds,” where the listener is suspended between fact and fiction through the reproduction of quotidian radio programming; the audience is not intimately positioned within the narrative but is forced to piece together a story from the alienating news broadcasts weaving in and around the normative rhythms of radio. In other words, the listener is not given a perspective to inhabit but instead rhetorically plopped down in front of a radio and forced to form sense from the chaos interrupting the broadcast. Welles is holding an aural mirror to the sounds of network broadcasting only to distort them and alienate the audience from their inscribed passive listening behaviors. Much like the themes of H.G. Wells’ original War of the Worlds, this technique is meant to shame the listener for listening, a way to point out society’s complacency on the brink of war and imagine the kind of dread that can only be created through being a spectator to destruction and not an active participant. We are not given empathetic characters that make us fear their deaths, the only characters we receive are observing the chaos in a sterile alienation that speaks to how the mass-mediated human now conceptualizes mass violence. The kaleidosonic audioposition demonstrates a powerful technological ability to transport the audience across different aural environments that displaces the individual to speak to the audience as a codified group of individuals (68). When this audioposition is invoked, we are complicit not as individuals but as a nation.

Agnes Moorehead in a 1943 Suspense play “Sorry Wrong Number”

This aural shorthand quickly became a convention of the medium and shows like Suspense and Escape were able to cut away the wordy explanations that had held up the momentum of action in earlier experiments with horror. As more programs began to utilize sound effects and music to form less textual and more ambiguous realities for performance, the decoding process for the audience became more layered and complex. By the time Ray Bradbury’s “Zero Hour” from Suspense aired in 1955, the listening behaviors had been inscribed with a more sophisticated process of deciphering sounds that allowed scenes and movement to be inferred from the audience instead of described by an authoritative narrator. Much like in “The Dark,” the setting and mood of “Zero Hour” is constructed through the reproduction and distortion of normative sounds, beginning with the sonic recreation of children playing a make believe game called “invasion” and concluding with an eerie juxtaposition as the children scream in delight when Martian invaders really do come to Earth and end up murdering their parents. The tropes of description that had pervaded early radio drama had been transformed within a short period of time to situate narrative as a more than oral transmission, allowing radio dramatists to experiment with different ways to position the audience as a complicit subject within the work itself. 

It’s obvious that radio drama represented a new paradigm for creating horror but after more than 60 years since the last great horror radio drama (1955’s “Zero Hour” from Suspense), their impact is not immediately recognizable in contemporary horror films. Films released at the height of radio drama’s popularity (Cat People (1942), The Body Snatcher (1945)) and in the 20 years of so following its demise (Psycho (1960), Peeping Tom (1960)) utilized the strategies of horror radio, even borrowing some of its most famous stars like Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Vincent Price. But as horror began to shift further from psychological thrillers to the gory body horror of Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), there was a dramatic turn away from the kind of aural techniques that governed radio drama and a return to a hyper-visual economy of terror. With the popularity of slasher film franchises like Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Friday the 13th,  the horror genre became a formulaic cash grab for film companies that banked their success on how much blood they could splatter, how many bizarre settings they could kill someone and ultimately how much disturbing imagery they could display. This shifts the priorities of horror from constructing and disrupting the heteronormative and instead fosters an environment that rewards films whose premise from the get-go is to force feed the audience scene after scene of senseless torture and gore devoid of any familiar semblance of normalcy (Saw (2004), Hostile (2005), etc.). Though there is obviously standout examples of superb horror films since this trend (Cabin in the Woods (2011), The Babadook (2014), It Follows (2014), It Comes At Night (2017), Get Out (2017), Hereditary (2018), Us (2019)), we’ve arrived at a crisis for the visual economy of horror, where the genre has largely been pigeonholed for its cheap thrills that no longer implicates the audience in its construction the way radio drama inscribed audiences to receive horror. In many ways, horror has lost effectiveness because of its reliance on the visual, however, it is at this moment of crisis that fiction podcasts have taken the mantel for redefining the horror aesthetic.

Halloween (1979)

First Blood: Why Podcasts?

Perhaps it is a happy accident that as horror films in the 2000s began to reach a critical mass for grotesque imagery, creatives started to once again embrace audio for horror narratives. Podcasting was born when the RSS (Really Simple Syndication) Feed 2.0 was developed by Dave Winer to easily share digital audio files (Geoghan and Klass 4). The RSS feed itself was a simple bit of eXtensible Markup Language (XML) that allowed users to easily access web content through distributed syndication (8). Users could subscribe to a blog and get updates through an RSS reader, instead of having to manually return to the blog and check for new content. In the 2.0 specification of RSS, Dave Winer  included a tag that could syndicate digital audio files, building off of the digital compression technology that had birthed the MP3 file format. Early adopters were mainly other programmers sharing ideas about web development, using the framework of the RSS feed to experiment with reaching new audiences and making more content available for free (5). Though these audio projects were not officially christened “podcasts” until 2004, the RSS Feed had ushered in a new form of entertainment defined by its digital distribution.

Though most early podcasts were more like talk radio than the radio drama of the Golden Age, writers began making podcasts with original fiction as early as 2005 with shows like Escape Pod, The Secret World Chronicle and Kc Wayland’s We’re Alive, a 143 episode serial following a group of survivors during a zombie apocalypse that ran from 2009 to 2015 and just recently released a miniseries in 2019. With a special ear for cinematic sound design and a vast cast of characters, We’re Alive enjoyed a quiet popularity that hosted an active online audience who that shared predictions and fan art on forums, sustained their production costs through donations and even forming We’re Alive discussion fan podcasts like We’re Not Dead in 2011. We’re Alive sparked a renewed fervor for horror fiction that denied sight but with the cumulative influences of film and television guiding it aesthetically.

Cover for the Welcome to Nightvale novel from 2017

However, the popularity of We’re Alive soon paled in comparison to Welcome to Nightvale, another independently produced fiction podcast that began in 2012. In contrast to the overly produced and large cast of We’re Alive, Welcome to Nightvale usually only features the voice of radio host Cecil Baldwin reading bizarre news stories about the supernatural happenings of the small desert town, Nightvale. In a call back to the radiogenic properties of podcasting, Welcome to Nightvale exploits the relationship between audience and actor by placing the listener in a familiar kaleidosonic audioposition in front of the radio. Welcome to Nightvale revels in the form and aesthetic of radio but is far from a reproduction of radio, subverting normative expectations with psychedelic stories of glowing sentient clouds, old women without faces living in your home and a three headed dragon’s mayoral campaign. Sometimes plots carry over to the next episode, sometimes characters won’t resurface for several months and often any attempt to obtain any semblance of coherence is lost in the absurdity. But the appeal of Nightvale is more artistic than the narrative, a unique and blend of poetry, horror and comedy that attracted thousands of listeners. Welcome to Nightvale continues to this day with a novel, yearly national tours and several sister podcasts.

All this to say that podcasts have begun to displace film as the primary medium for horror in the digital age. This allows us to analyze podcasts in the same way that we analyzed radio drama, to scrutinize aural constructions of heteronormativity and better understand the societal anxieties that grip our present. How do the aesthetics of a show like Limetown (2015)reflect a reality grappling with postmodern objectivity? What can The Horror of Dolores Roach (2018-2019)teach us about the violence and consumption of gentrification? How can we reframe the panopticon and surveillance beyond sight through shows like Archive 81 (2016)and Passenger List (2019)? And, perhaps most important, how can this body of work be studied in a way that can closely study these works for their aural qualities and organically cite this kind of history?

Cast of Passenger List recording (credit: Lauren Shippman)

Methodology:

The best way to engage with this hefty set of questions is to use the podcast medium itself as the instrument with which to analyze horror fiction podcasts. Therefore, this Master’s project consists primarily of an analysis podcast called The Fear and Now that in a series of episodes focuses on the aesthetics of horror utilized in these shows, compares them to their historical antecedents and discusses a larger argument about the cultural fears they invoke. There have been few other academic projects that utilize the medium of podcasting and they tend to employ a different format, using the podcast as way of self-documenting research, plainly speaking through complicated jargon and releasing episodes serially to engage audience feedback in quasi-real time. One of the earliest podcast-style theses was Katie Shelley’s At Your Service (2017), a narrative style podcast that details over 7 episodes Shelley’s experiences earning her MA in Digital Experience Design from Hyper Island. The podcast examines elements of design relevant to Shelley’s work and includes discussions with various experts in the field. The most recent podcast-style academic project is Anna Williams’ My Gothic Dissertation (2019), a narrative podcast that begins with Williams’ experiences defending her prospectus for a Ph.D. in English from the University of Iowa and ends with her dissertation defense about gothic novels and education.

However, for my Master’s project, I do not make myself central to the narrative like Shelley and Williams do; rather my voice instead guides my audience through scholarly arguments or along a historical narrative central to relevant material. This podcast-style project is modeled after media history podcasts, such as You Must Remember This (2014) and Dissect (2016), that feature just the host’s voice reading from a script with occasional scoring and cuts to related audio material as evidence. Though the addition of personal anecdotes and interviews with other people could effectively break up the content of the project into a more accessible experience, my main goal in producing this kind of project is to situate an aesthetic history of radio drama and aural fiction as a series of podcasts, placing the listener within an aural environment that itself helps to support my argument. It is possible that this podcast will find a different form and structure beyond the first couple episodes I’ve created for this Master’s project, but the priority is to present the material relevant to the project at the moment in a platform that most fully presents the body of material being analyzed.

So far, there are two episodes that are finished and two episodes that are planned for after I graduate. The completed episodes include: (1) “First Blood”, an introduction that will summarize the main points of this scholarly introduction and tell a brief history of horror beginning with Gothic literature and ending with podcasts; and (2) “The Intimate Horror in Dolores Roach” a summary of the techniques utilized in the psychological  thriller radio dramas from the 1940s and how they have been appropriated in the podcast The Horror of Dolores Roach to deconstruct gentrification. The planned episodes include (1) “Limetown and Postmodern Objectivity” a study of the role aural reproduction played in the most famous radio broadcast of all time “War of the Worlds” and the aesthetics of reproduction that govern how objectivity is performed in the podcast Limetown; and (2) “Archive 81 Fever” an overview of the origins of voyeurism within horror and its implications for politics of surveillance in the podcast Archive 81. Each episode follows a triptych structure: beginning with a brief summary of the podcast’s narrative structure, then expanding with an analysis of its aesthetic production and then finally wrapping up with an argument that demonstrates how these aesthetics perform cultural critique. The Fear and Now wields this unique aesthetic history to identify and interrogate societal anxieties throughout history, using horror as the lens through which to understand the cultural narratives of the 20th and 21st centuries.

This Master’s project is an experiment in both content and form, a strategy of analysis that meets its object of study within its own medium. The Fear and Now is an attempt to bring the rich body of horror fiction podcasts into the realm of academic study while also sculpting scholarly concepts for a commercial ear. It is a project born from a heavily dialectic process that not just includes research, historical analysis and writing but voice over, sound design, engineering and musical scoring.