Horror fans in search of a good scare should check out the world of podcasts. The space is bursting with choices, from fiction shows like Pseudopod and Nightmare to talk shows like Horror Etc and Last Podcast on the Left . David Cummings hosts The NoSleep Podcast , which adapts stories that users submit to the NoSleep subreddit. Those stories, mostly told in the first person, are meant to have the eerie plausibility of an urban legend. They remind Cummings of local spook stories he heard as a kid.
“That’s really where I fell in love with the idea of the short-form ghost story,” says Cummings in Episode 137 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “Or as we like to call it, ‘the campfire story,’ where you just sit around a campfire and say, ‘Let me tell you what happened to me two weeks ago, or what happened to a friend of mine three weeks ago.'”
One of the most popular horror podcasts is We’re Alive , a full-cast audio drama written and produced by Kc Wayland. Wayland got his start with animated films, but ultimately decided to scrap the animation and focus instead on audio.
“The performances felt better than the animation ever was afterward,” he says. “And then when podcasts were a way to go directly to the consumer with these stories, I was like, ‘Perfect. We have a delivery medium, we have the content, now let’s do a full sound design like we’ve previously done with film projects,’ and just all the pieces fit together.”
But creating full-cast audio on a shoestring budget isn’t easy. Wayland did it by relying on a lot of favors and volunteer labor, but a reliance on volunteers can make things tricky if cast members get busy or move away. And despite racking up 32 million downloads, the show still doesn’t earn enough to pay Wayland a salary. That tends to be true of even the most popular horror podcasts.
“I think of what we do as ‘audio community theater,'” says Cummings. “We’re not professionals. We’re accountants and bakers by day, and then they do these things as a hobby. It’s low budget. Really basic USB mics for a lot of the hosts, and they do their editing in Audacity and other open source software.”
But despite the low budgets, horror podcasts can have a profound effect on listeners. We’re Alive has inspired its own fancast, and listeners have caravaned across the country to attend the show’s finale. The show also has a devoted following among listeners with visual disabilities. Wayland points out that even in big budget horror movies, what really scares you is the audio, not the visuals.
“If you watch a horror film and you turn the sound down, it loses 90 percent of its power,” he says. “Because it’s not what you see, it’s what you don’t see that’s scary.”
Listen to our complete interview with Kc Wayland and David Cummings in Episode 137 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above), and check out some highlights from the discussion below.
David Cummings on starting The NoSleep Podcast:
“The NoSleep subreddit is basically a place where people post stories that are meant to be plausible—if you suspend your disbelief—they’re meant to be authentic and real-sounding stories, mostly written in the first-person, getting that campfire effect as well, so it’s the ‘this is what happened to me, and let me share it with you.’ And so the idea was, we’ll take some of these top-rated stories, and we’ll record them—we’ll just narrate them—and make it into a podcast. … And so I basically said, … ‘Let’s get that first episode out there, get some momentum, and then let the other people who said in the past that they would produce it and narrate it, let them step up and take over.’ So the first episode turned into the second episode, and the third episode, and I just kept producing it and putting it out there, and that was basically it. I was locked in, and kind of took it from there.”
Kc Wayland on the We’re Alive Fancast:
“That particular fancast actually arranged a convoy to go across the US to see our finale. … We had our series finale last July in LA, and the convoy started in Ohio and went all the way across the United States, and they had their stops planned, they were camping out under the stars. It was just this group of people with this love for the show, and they became life friends then. They visited the Grand Canyon, they have all these stories—they’re a little bit adventurous—and they went to rest stops that were abandoned and took pictures. They had so much fun, and they podcasted a little bit as they went, and you got to hear a little bit of their adventures and updates as they went. It was pretty cool, it was a lot of fun. And for me, as the creator of We’re Alive, it was so awesome to see the dedication of listeners in that way.”
Kc Wayland on making audio scary:
“If you’re listening to a moment where your favorite character is in a scene where you don’t know if he’s going to make it out of this, that will add suspense in a way that can’t be experienced otherwise. Because you’re rooting for the character, you want them to make it through there, and so you’re living the scene with the character. And also you can bring the experience more to the listener through that person, whether it is the fear, the voice, even the breathing of the character, and footsteps, will tell you exactly how they are experiencing the environment around them. If you can feel their breath short and tight, you’re going to start mimicking what they’re doing. There’s this weird breath-mimicking psychology thing that actually can happen. So you can tap into that when somebody’s able to close their eyes and just put themselves in these high-tension situations.”
David Cummings on upsetting listeners:
“We did a story called ‘Autopilot’—from a very popular story on the NoSleep forum. And essentially it tells a story that you see on the news every summer, and it involves a child who ends up dying because of being left in a car in the hot sun. When I read the story, it was so brilliantly crafted. I loved doing it, very emotional. But it never occurred to me that this was going to really resonate with people, because as I said you see that on the news every summer. … When that story came out I was really caught off guard, all these people were saying, ‘Hey, I really liked that episode, except for that one story.’ And a lot of them were parents, of course, and they could really relate to it. So that was a good bit of experience for me—sort of eye-opening—to realize that there are those buttons that you have to watch. And one of them that’s been reinforced time and time again is the idea of, you’ve got to watch it when children are involved.”