From WAR OF THE WORLDS To NIGHT VALE: The Return Of Audio Fiction In Horror
Creators explore the resurgence of this “theater of the mind.”
“Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama as Fact” reads the immortalized front page spread of The New York Times on Halloween morning, 1938. In one chaotic night, an unfettered hysteria washed over the American public as Orson Welles’ broadcast adaptation of The War of the Worlds raided airwaves to unprecedented effect. A seemingly harmless radio drama, bogged down by production turbulence, quickly turned into a history-making fluke of brilliance, preying upon the superstitions of the era, inciting widespread extraterrestrial panic, and forever changing the trajectory of audio storytelling. Nearly a century later, we’re still hooked on the format, whether as a pledge to the phenomena of true crime podcasting, entertainment parley, or cast-recorded fiction, we all crave a good story as part of our daily auditory fix.
I am one such individual, caught in an endless cycle of consuming every bit of aural drama at my fingertips. I find solace in the innovative works put forth by my peers like Welcome to Night Vale or Big Finish’s Dark Shadows, properties which inspired my foray into this fantastical realm as showrunner to the absurdist horror anthology It Listens From The Radio.
With traditional podcasting pulling in an estimated 424 million listeners worldwide and an average of eight shows per week for most listeners in 2022, as referenced by Forbes, it is safe to assert audio as the medium of today, and why not? It is a space with ample claim on original content in an industry where existing IP is a wealth more coveted than gold. And yet, audio fiction remains a facet of the conversation, smack-dab on the cutting edge, waiting for the mainstream to grow fully hip to the cause. As a creator in this niche, that is what excites me the most. Whatever your taste, there is a property waiting to thrill and chill you, and with the podcast proliferation post-lockdown, it’s becoming harder to keep track of up-and-coming titles. The lush aesthetic of Lovecraftian fright found in The Call of the Void offers listeners a rich world of macabre intrigue and muscular writing. Midnight Musicals composes a chilling compendium of campy, serious, and abstract tales but with a fun-loving musical twist.
Not your cup of tea? Perhaps the anthology-based terrors of Bleeders DIEgest will evoke those pop-colored, post-Creepshow, scares that you so crave. BBC4’s The Lovecraft Investigations modernizes the robust portfolio of the famed author through the lens of a true crime podcast, illustrating a masterful blend of contemporary language, source material, and new-age format. Even a return to the productions of old, such as the Agnes Moorhead-led Sorry, Wrong Number stands the test of time as a brilliant use of audio that elevates the theatrical experience in an intimate and bitingly comedic way.
But what about this classic narrative vehicle has suddenly captured the attention of a new generation? “Audio storytelling, whether done on the radio decades ago or in a podcast format today, is truly the ‘theater of the mind,’ and its unique ability to access our imaginations is, I think, what makes it such an effective medium,” says A. Brad Schwartz, author of Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News. “The most successful horror and sci-fi stories tap into our collective fears and anxieties, and because audio storytelling requires you to imagine those horrors for yourself, it can result in a far more personally affecting experience.” Schwartz highlights a core component to any successful production, but especially the provocative reception of Orson Welles’ pivotal audio crucible — intimacy.