I am terrified by a great many things. Ghosts, monsters, clowns, serial killers, and a wide variety of creatures with more than four limbs, yes, but also destitution, bodily decay, global warming, the ebb and flow of human extremism, and never being truly known by the ones you love. Being alive in the world is as horrific as it is pleasurable, and so it is only appropriate that, as Halloween season arrives, we provide a list of suitably creepy listens for your intimate aural pleasure.
Radiolab, “Rodney vs. Death”
Losing your mind is scary. Doing so as a consequence of a torturous disease with a 100 percent fatality rate is a whole other level. In this Radiolab episode from 2013, the team lays out the story of a Milwaukee doctor who grapples with a case of rabies — then a malady with no known survivors — that has befallen a local teenager. The overarching story of science, medicine, and mystery is discomfiting to begin with, but the real horror comes from how the episode drops in archival recording of a rabies patient in the throes of madness. Few things are more chilling than the screams around the 9:40 mark. I remember when I first heard it, during a pre-slumber listening session a few years back. Sleep didn’t come easily for weeks.
While we’re on the subject of rabies: You might be interested in pairing “Rodney vs. Death” with the first segment from This American Life’s Halloween special from 2006, called “The Hills Have Eyes.” In that piece, Alex Blumberg, now of Gimlet Media fame, tells the story of a woman’s violent run-in with a rabid raccoon. But the true horror story is about what comes after: Navigating the glacial, iron-caged hell of hospital bureaucracy when faced with an unstoppable, fast-acting, unforgiving disease. Humans, we are our own worst demons.
Love+Radio, “Bloody Fingers”
We believe ourselves to be biologically special. But at the end of the day, we are also mere bags of flesh, bone, and blood. That uncomfortable truth is vividly illustrated in this early episode of the spectacular Love+Radio, which has built a legacy on artfully stringing together stories told with unconventional, surprising frames. Here, that structure is deployed to prop up the feel of a person casually telling you an insane story in a bar, a story that happened to someone else, but one that involves a lot of blood and a severed … well, read the episode title.
Here Be Monsters, “Spirits of the Past” and “Call 601-2-SATAN-2”
This KCRW show, by the duo Bethany Denton and Jeff Emtman, has a classically attractive eerie hook, billing itself as a podcast for listeners interested in “pursuing their fears and facing the unknown.” I suppose that’s accurate as far as its creative mission statement is concerned, but the show ultimately functions as a collection of audio essays about things on the fringes and in the quiet corners of the world, which more often than not possess distinctly unsettling or dissonant qualities. Both of these episodes embody the creepier end of its identity, with the former a somewhat anthropological dispatch from a séance that took place in Chicago, and the latter a dive into the archives of calls made to a Satanist hotline in Olympia, Washington. They remind us of a broad human fascination with the Other Side, in more ways than one. “If a door to another world opens,” said an attendee of the séance, “you just charge in.”
Reply All, “The Case of the Phantom Caller”
Imagine receiving a phone call out of the blue from a number that means nothing to you, and when answered, you’re treated to glimpses of a whole other world. The glimpses are fragments too short to make much sense of, and you get the sense that you’re eavesdropping on the contents of another life. Where is this place? When is this place? Whose life does this belong to? Who is behind these phone calls? What’s happening? “The Case of the Phantom Caller” is a classic Reply All episode, where the team is tasked with getting to the bottom of a mystery. It’s a slight spoiler to say that the case ultimately gets solved, but every minute of the investigation leading up to its resolution situates the listener in a glorious sweet spot — the uncanny experience of being in an epistemological place where you simultaneously feel that a mysterious other world can’t possibly be real, and yet you still can play with the possibility of it.
You Must Remember This, “Charles Manson’s Hollywood”
I’ve returned to Karina Longworth’s rigorous, sobering, and absolutely excellent scholarship on Charles Manson for several repeat listens now, and it holds up every time. Longworth’s latest season, which focuses on the history and legacy of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff’s early Hollywood monster movies, might be a better thematic fit with the whole Halloween theme, but I can’t recommend her Manson series enough if you’re looking for something genuinely chilling and evocative of how monsters can move through even the most glamorous rungs of society. Plus, it’s a good chaser if you’ve found the time to pick up David Fincher’s Mindhunter.
Spooked, practically every episode, but specifically “Borderlands”
Glynn Washington, the host and creator of Snap Judgment, obviously loves the creepy, the macabre, the unsettling. His joy and fascination with such material are baked into the very bones of Snap’s Halloween specials, subtitled “Spooked,” which always feel like they’re doled out with extra pep, pizzazz, and skips in his step. And so it makes sense that Washington and WNYC would spin the special out into its own stand-alone show for the season. Fans of the special get more of the same — and that’s a good thing. I’m especially taken with the “Borderlands” episode, whose first story evokes imagery from, strangely enough, Predator.
By the way, you can also find Washington hosting a narrative podcast about Heaven’s Gate, the cult infamously known for committing the largest mass suicide ever to take place on American soil. That show is still pretty early on in its run, but hey, if cults are your thing, have at it.
Miscellaneous other recommendations:
• It’s a good season to binge Lore, that hit podcast I’ve long taken to regard as “99 percent invisible, but for the creepy.” On top of that, the podcast’s TV adaptation just hit Amazon’s streaming service, which I imagine I’ll pick up at some point after I’ve caught up every television show ever.
• There will always be a soft spot in my heart for the DIY charms of the fictitious Pacific Northwest Stories’ trio of The Black Tapes, Tanis, and RABBITS, along with the NoSleep Podcast and Astonishing Legends. Sometimes you just want that sweet cable-access vibe.
• I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Night Vale Presents, which have effectively carved out their corner of the spooky podcast genre. There’s the flagship Welcome to Night Vale, of course, but also the supernatural Americana road trip of Alice Isn’t Dead as well as the surreal Within the Wires.
• If you really want to shower in dread, you should just listen to Giant Pool of Money. Nothing’s more terrifying than the Great Recession of 2008, specifically what it suggests about the mass human tendency toward self-destruction within the logic of late-stage capitalism. We’re all going to die.