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bump in the night

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thoughts on an enlightening and frightening podcast

Imagine sitting by a campfire in the woods on a dark, cloudy night. You feel the warmth of the fire, but you still wrap yourself in a blanket to protect yourself from the chilly breeze. Sitting next to you is a friendly and gifted storyteller. This storyteller reminds you of your favorite lecturers at university, the ones who know just how to construct compelling narratives entirely from facts. What this storyteller tells you is all nonfiction, and it’s very informative. But as you listen, you feel your heartbeat getting faster, and you suddenly wish that you weren’t in the woods. Because the storyteller tells you about reported sightings of werewolves and ghosts, eyewitness accounts of haunted places, and details of horrific crimes. The storyteller then connects these events to legends, myths, and folktales from around the world. Now you worry that the creatures that scared people in the past weren’t just the offspring of our ancestors’ active imaginations, but were real, and are still out there, and still go bump in the night.

You can experience this terror in your own bedroom thanks to Aaron Mahnke’s brilliant audio podcast, Lore. Mahnke researches, writes, produces, and performs every episode, and new episodes come out once every two weeks.

When I discovered this podcast, I felt as if I had been given a treat. I love literature and have always enjoyed scary stories. I’m also passionate about history. Lore combines these fields of study that I’m deeply interested in by telling scary tales built entirely from real myths, legends, and historical accounts.

In his performance, Mahnke sounds like a teacher more than an entertainer, and I mean this in the best possible way. He clearly prioritizes sharing information with his listeners. He never changes his voice to make it cartoonish or over-the-top, like an annoying villain in a bad horror movie. He also doesn’t rely on exaggerated changes in pace or pauses. Instead, his straightforward, earnest, and understated delivery allows the scary details he shares to speak for themselves.

Below his voice is atmospheric music. For most episodes, Mahnke curates a soundtrack with instrumental music from several different musicians, and lists of these songs are available on the podcast’s website. The musical tracks are distinct and still work really well together. They often feature pleasant melodies over ambient sounds that are a little unsettling, arousing the mix of pleasure and worry that someone might have upon hearing a beautiful piano solo without being able to find out where the music is coming from. Mahnke’s absorbing voice works perfectly with the music to create a truly immersive experience.

In my favorite episodes, Mahnke begins with observations on human nature, which he conveys in a thoughtful and poetic style, rich with metaphors and analogies. Then he focuses in on a particular figure or phenomenon and explains how folktales and legends from around the world understand this figure or phenomenon. For example, one episode is about curses. In this episode, Mahnke begins by discussing how curses have served as explanations for the decades-long championship failures of certain sports teams, such as the Red Sox. He then uses an analogy, based on the etymology of “curse,” to frame curses as forces that knock people off the paths they expect to follow through life. Next, Mahnke describes stories and beliefs about curses and similar phenomena from numerous different places and cultural traditions around the world. Woven into his descriptions are a few detailed stories. Depending on the subject of the episode, these stories could be legends that he fleshes out through additional information or eyewitness reports of recent events. He then returns to ruminations on humanity and reflects on the similar ways in which people respond to scary situations.

But right before he’s done, he almost always returns to a story from earlier in the episode and reveals a chilling detail. There have been times when, at an episode’s end, I’ve felt my heart skip a beat. Even now, when I think about a few of the episodes, including the one about curses, I shudder. In the middle of that episode, Mahnke tells a legend about a group of people who were cursed by Saint Patrick due to their hostility and stubbornness. At the episode’s very end, Mahnke shares a historical figure’s detailed account, which suggests that the curse was more than a myth, that it was real.

The structure that Mahnke uses in such episodes can powerfully resonate with people who consider themselves skeptics, people who consider themselves as believers, and everyone in between. People who are more skeptical can appreciate the breadth of Mahnke’s research and the information he shares about folklore, subjective history, and incidents that have occurred recently, all of which would be familiar to a student of anthropology or history. Meanwhile, someone like me, who believes in certain supernatural occurrences, can see the parallels in the legends and reports that Mahnke presents as reasons to preserve my openness toward the possibility of the unexplainable.

Mahnke does, however, illustrate the dangers of acting on unjustified beliefs in episodes that focus on horrific crimes committed by people who believed that innocent people were actually wicked paranormal beings. One disturbing episode expounds on the scores of innocent women hanged by neighbors who thought they were witches. Other episodes describe the atrocities of true crimes that have nothing to do with the supernatural. I agree with Mahnke. Acting based on ideas that lack support is dangerous, and there are plenty of real-life horrors in the world that deserve our attention more than paranormal terrors.

All the same, I do think the podcast allows listeners to believe in what cannot be explained easily. I also think believing in certain forces that are beyond comprehension is humbling. And even though it’s scary to think that there might be harmful supernatural entities in the world, the possibility of  threatening forces, for me, allows for the possibility of benevolent and protective forces, too. If the podcast convinces me that demons might be real, it also lets me believe that angels might be out there. For this reason, even though the podcast is terrifying and gives me trouble sleeping after I listen to it, I still find it helpful and comforting.

I encourage everyone who is interested in reports of the paranormal, in history, or in superb storytelling to check out Lore. It’s very well researched, illuminating, and chilling. It deftly mixes history and folklore, storytelling and information, fascination and fear, and I think it’s perfect for this time of year, when the days get shorter and night descends too soon.