OCTOBER 31, 2015
LAST SUMMER, I found myself sneaking bits of a horror podcast like a sly cigarette smoker. I kept spare earbuds in my pocket all day long, always hunting for a moment to listen on my smartphone. It was the season finale of the weekly horror show, The NoSleep Podcast. Usually the podcast features a collection of short stories, but this two-hour episode adapted Amity Argot’s “The Whistlers” — the story of a doomed research expedition.
Near the end, the narrator realizes that the very act of sharing her story is dangerous. “My biggest fear is that we’ll all be killed, and our disappearance will inspire some other young researchers to come up here to solve the mystery for themselves,” she writes. “We’ll become just another line in the sick folklore that draws people to this cursed place.” Her “cursed circle” now included me, listening to the podcast as I emptied the trash late one night. I sprinted home, spooked by the emptiness behind my apartment complex.
I was not alone. “I’m often told the show has to be turned off or paused if being listened to while in isolated settings like lonely streets or parks late at night,” David Cummings, the founding producer of The NoSleep Podcast, told me in an email. “Most people listen via their phones through headphones and that sense of audio immersion of sound and music creates a potent environment which can make listening even on a crowded bus or in a sunny park a frightening experience.”
The NoSleep Podcast began in 2011 and is now on its sixth season. “Our monthly download totals (the total number of overall episodes downloaded each month) has gone from around 150,000 to over 600,000 in the past 12 months,” Cummings noted. All the stories come from the NoSleep forum on Reddit, a message board with four million Redditors. The writing is raw and loose, but the top stories are always compelling.
If you want to sample the show, I recommend starting with this killer episode. The podcast has both free and subscription options for listeners, but the free version includes three top-notch stories: “Happy Childhood,” by Maggie Webster, the story of a girl who discovers why her parents never let her watch TV; “Gamer,” by R.D. Ovenfriend, the story of a video game arcade owner who lures kids into his back room for an unexpected dose of horror and human nature; and “Obscurity Man,” by Braedon Balko, the story of a spooky monster that must always remain unknown.
2015 will be remembered as a major year in the history of horror podcasts. Three new horror hits blasted through iTunes this year: the Lore podcast, The Black Tapes Podcast, and Limetown. In March, supernatural thriller novelist Aaron Mahnke released the first episode of Lore. The show mines folklore and legend for true spooky stories. “Lore’s growth has been astronomical,” Mahnke told me in an email. “I could never have predicted the size of audience that now hits the PLAY button twice a month. March was the first month of the show, and Lore was downloaded about 1500 times. In September, the show was downloaded over 1 million times.”
To understand that eye-popping audience growth, sample these episodes of Lore: “They Made a Tonic,” the first episode in the series, about a chilling incident from American history; “Echoes,” the true story of an asylum with a grim history; and “The Castle,” a close study of one of the world’s most infamous killers. Lore joined other horror podcasts like Knifepoint Horror, Pseudopod, and lots of other programs. These ghost stories only exist in digital space: distributed through iTunes, SoundCloud, or websites and consumed on smartphones and computers around the world. But they have roots twisted deep in American radio history.
Wyllis Cooper is the great-grandfather of horror podcasting, a visionary radio producer and writer who created two beloved horror radio dramas over the course of his career. After fighting in World War I and a stint in advertising, Cooper started producing radio shows for NBC in 1930. His horror career began with The Witching Hour, a 1932 horror fiction anthology about a supernatural researcher. All the episodes have been lost, and only a newspaper ad plot summary remains: “Breath-Taking Thrillers by Dr. Stuart, student of the supernatural. Another of his hair-raising experiences with the unknown.” That bears an uncanny resemblance to The Black Tapes Podcast, a horror show that debuted in May 2015 — perhaps unknowingly haunted by Wyllis’s ghost.
The Black Tapes Podcast follows the fictional adventures of Alex Reagan, a radio reporter investigating the life and work of paranormal researcher Dr. Richard Strand. The crusading reporter digs through Strand’s archive of “black tapes,” or unresolved paranormal mysteries. Their relationship deepens over the course of the first season, an homage to Sarah Koenig’s investigation into Adnan Syed’s murder conviction in Serial (the show that launched a thousand podcast trend pieces). The Black Tapes Podcast maintains the same earnest reporting style and catchy synthesizer theme music as Serial. Podcast fans around the world hoped that Serial could ultimately find the vast, conspiratorial truth behind the murder mystery. But the show could never satisfy that urge because real life doesn’t work that way. The Black Tapes Podcast hints that we will someday uncover the vast, conspiratorial truth behind the black tapes.
The show’s creators refuse to admit publicly that the show is fictional. Dr. Strand even has his own website where readers can share unexplained stories. Fans of the show created a whole Reddit forum dedicated to the podcast, where nearly 1,000 subscribers share theories about the ongoing mystery. Some fans stay “in-universe” like the producers, pretending they are discussing real events. Volunteers have even begun to transcribe the episodes, and a Kickstarter campaign raised more than $10,000 for the show. As I wrote this essay, the show produced its first spin-off. The Tanis podcast is hosted by Nic Silver, a fictional Black Tapes Podcast producer searching for a lost city.
Nearly 85 years after Wyllis Cooper failed to make a successful radio show about a paranormal researcher, The Black Tapes Podcast found a hungry online audience. But that show was just the beginning of Cooper’s career. After The Witching Hour tanked on Depression-era radio waves, Cooper created Lights Out! in 1934 — arguably the most famous horror radio drama of all time. The show aired at 11:30 at night or later, frightening millions with gruesome stories and intense sound effects. John Dunning described the show’s handiwork in On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio:
The sound of a butcher knife rending a piece of uncooked pork was, when accompanied by shrieks and screams, the essence of murder to a listener alone at midnight … Cabbages sounded like human heads when chopped open with a cleaver, and carrots had the pleasant resonance of fingers being lopped off.
Unfortunately, none of Cooper’s original Lights Out! episodes have survived. Wyllis left the show in 1936, replaced by another iconic radio horror producer, Arch Oboler. Many of Oboler’s later episodes still circulate today (I’ve written about his legacy elsewhere). You can sample MP3s of these later shows at the Internet Archive: a sewer-dwelling killer skins corpses in “It Happened,” a girl gets trapped in “Murder Castle,” and a radio writer accidentally unleashes one of his monsters in “The Author and the Thing.”
After a detour into film scripts and World War II radio production, Cooper returned to horror radio in 1947 to create more than 100 episodes of the classic horror show, Quiet, Please. Many of these stories still exist in beautiful recordings. In this series, Cooper stripped the horror story down to its bare bones: the voice of the narrator, a few choice sound effects, and a chilling organ soundtrack. The radio announcer and actor Ernest Chappell played the lead actor throughout the series, wearing a different role every week: everything from a scientist to an oilfield worker to a killer.
Without the bombastic special effects, Cooper’s writing shoved the listener into a highly charged auditory experience. In “Twelve to Five” for instance, the disc jockey protagonist addresses the listener, and it feels like a real radio show. The show’s twist is even spookier played over a car radio at night. “If a particular story matches the listener’s real-life setting, the overlap between fiction and reality can be particularly unnerving,” NoSleep Podcast producer Cummings noted. The NoSleep Podcast story “On the Radio” stretched this conceit to its bloodiest limits. The narrator tells the story of a haunted car radio picking up a stream of sadistic radio stations. I listened to this podcast while driving home from work one dark night and my car was literally possessed by this brutal story.
In “Symphony in D Minor,” Cooper told the story of a scheming hypnotist who uses the second movement of César Franck’s 19th-century “Symphony in D Minor” as the trigger for a murderous posthypnotic suggestion. When the music finally drives the man to kill, the listener realizes that the hypnotist has used the theme song from Quiet, Please to induce murder. If you are a fan of the show, the song will be embedded in your head forever. After this episode, you will always wonder why …
My favorite episode of The Black Tapes Podcast has a similar device with “The Unsound.” The episode concerned a legendary piece of music that will eventually kill anyone who listens to it. The intrepid reporter finds the music and plays it on the podcast — warning us that it could kill us someday. My hand twitched on the car radio dial when she introduced this fictional “unsound,” instinctively avoiding the deadly music.
“The Thing on the Fourble Board” is the most famous radio play that Cooper ever wrote, and the ending is legendary. Author and actor Patton Oswalt once discussed the show with speculative fiction author Harlan Ellison. Oswalt recalled:
It’s only 25 minutes long. And it’s one of the creepiest things I’ve ever heard. Harlan [told] me how every horror writer (or writer who’s dabbled in horror) he’s ever known — King, Matheson, Bradbury — all of them share the experience of being royally fucked up by “The Thing on the Fourble Board.”
NoSleep Podcast producer Cummings described a similar feeling listening to classic radio dramas as a teenager. “If the story involved a creepy basement or monster, I was picturing the kinds of settings or monsters which scared me the most,” he explained.
This was a profound difference from watching horror movies, which imposed their own visuals on me. By tapping into the audience’s willingness to use their imagination the audio stories are often more frightening. That’s what I attempt to do with my show; allow imagination to take over and provide a more personal and impactful sense of dread and horror.
That is Cooper’s legacy — showing generations of creators how to “allow imagination to take over.” Even though many of his recordings are lost, Cooper’s spirit will always haunt horror radio. In our smartphone century, life can feel like one long stream of videos and social media updates. Like many other radio drama fans, I took refuge in an antique storytelling medium enjoyed without the distractions of photographs, videos, or social media posts. Listening to a horror radio drama is the exact opposite of browsing your Facebook feed. Instead of an endless stream of content, you are forced to follow a single voice and a single story. The second you lose focus, the story collapses.
Lore podcast creator Mahnke put it another way:
Before the Internet, and movies, and television, and even radio, there were gatherings in communities where storytelling was central to the culture. It taught lessons. It passed on tradition to the next generation. It entertained. There’s something magical about podcasting that strips away all the technology between those days and our own, and puts us right back around the campfire. Just as long as there’s wifi!
“From Hell, You Must Entertain Heaven” is an elegant NoSleep Podcast story by Alice Lily. It follows an alcoholic musician who gets a visit from the ghost of a long-forgotten pianist. In the 19th century, the pianist sold his soul for the chance that “my music would be heard for centuries.” But instead of musical immortality, this miserable ghost gets cheated. His demonic captor allows him to return to Earth once a century to play his music for a very limited audience: “It is heard every hundred years. By a single person …”
Like that unfortunate artist, Wyllis Cooper is the damned patron saint of horror podcasting. He laid the foundation for all these young horror writers, but we can only sample a fraction of his influential work. Too many of his classic radio stories have faded into static, but I hope Cooper’s ghost can enjoy this high-tech resurrection.