podcast review

Halloween Unmasked Is a Nostalgic Appreciation of a Horror Classic

Photo: The Ringer

I’m not really a Halloween guy. It’s probably less a matter of taste than it is a matter of biographical confluence — some mixture of having grown up in Malaysia, where access to older films wasn’t especially available, and age, as I came up during the gore-splat Saw era. (I still ride for the Saw franchise, whose co-creator, James Wan, is Malaysian-born. National pride, baby.) Which isn’t to say that I don’t viscerally appreciate the OG slasher movie. I very much do! It’s just that I’ve always felt distant from the hallowed nostalgia for the John Carpenter classic. If I had encountered Michael Myers as a child, maybe I would have been more formed by the amorphous shape of evil stalking peaceful neighborhoods.

Nostalgia and biographical confluence feature heavily in the Ringer’s Halloween Unmasked, a new audio documentary hosted by film critic (and Vulture contributor) Amy Nicholson that examines the history and the legacy of the iconic 1978 horror flick. Across its eight episodes, subjects talk extensively about the past influencing the present, whether it’s an early-life encounter with real-world evil that shapes the creation of a movie, a childhood discovery that seeds a contemporary fandom, the original Halloween casting a massive shadow over the life of Jamie Lee Curtis, the slasher genre writ large, or the recent sequel that’s tearing up the box office. Hollywood is neck-deep in what you could call its nostalgia fetish, and Halloween Unmasked doubles as an interesting window into that collective creative psychology, so perpetually haunted by its early highs.

Given Halloween’s immense contributions to modern film horror, the podcast serves as a series of nifty primers on many of the genre’s key concepts: the final girl, the symbology of the killer, the mechanics of cinematic fear, and so on. Though these studies won’t go deep enough to satiate die-hard horror buffs, that’s not really the point of this production. For those of us who didn’t grow up with Halloween in the back of our heads (or on the top of our horror pantheons), the podcast is a refreshingly accessible introduction to the film and everything it’s wrought. It’s something you might suggest to a friend or loved one who doesn’t understand your horror obsession.

Nostalgia and appreciation are the two pillars of the podcast portfolio at the Ringer, the Bill Simmons–founded digital-media company that’s become a prolific publisher of quality culture podcasts since launching in 2015. This is the shop responsible for The Rewatchables and the maniacally industrious Binge Mode, two podcasts that are essentially appreciation circles bottled to their very essence — Binge Mode especially, with its ongoing enterprise of building comprehensive studies on various subjects of beloved fandoms, like the Game of Thrones and Harry Potter universes.

Halloween Unmasked inherits the spirit of those two podcasts, but reengineers it within the more formal confines of what you might call narrative criticism. Structurally, the series is a mix-and-match of different conventional podcast genres. On paper, it has the backbone of a straightforward history podcast — the analytical narrative archaeology of You Must Remember This is a clear comparison — which it fleshes out using contemporary interview tape. But the podcast peppers its proceedings with fun little flourishes to draw the ear. One standout example: Every episode begins with an introduction where Nicholson animatedly narrates the events of a scene as the audio plays out, shrieks of bloody murder and all.

Nicholson is the show’s biggest highlight, and her narration style its most prominent innovation. Active, fun, and infectiously chatty, her governance over each episode is everything you’d want from a great podcast panelist, which makes sense considering her work on Earwolf’s The Canon and Unspooled. But in Halloween Unmasked, she applies that conversational energy to the busywork of moving between different scenes. The resulting vibe is revelatory and energizing, particularly when contrasted against the stoic narration styles of so many other narrative podcasts, but it still inherits that voice of authority. I’m reminded of the way NPR’s Planet Money has long pitched itself to potential listeners: Imagine the podcast is a knowledgeable friend explaining the economy to you when you’re both hanging out at a bar. Halloween Unmasked feels like the apotheosis of that concept, except it’s about Michael Myers and horror movies, and your friend happens to be a really enthusiastic and smart film critic. I wish more podcast narration sounded as naturally human as this.

There are a few clunky elements to watch out for. Given the podcast’s timing with the recent Halloween sequel — and the fact it substantially features interviews with the Blumhouse team behind that production — Halloween Unmasked carries a slight sheen of brand marketing that only intensifies as the series plays out. Basic frictions can also be found with the actual editing, too. You can occasionally hear the cuts between scenes, which undermines the package’s general polish, and the later episodes are paced a little unevenly. There’s also a cringey chunk in the third episode, which discusses the question of fictional horror movie killers and mental health in a way that dispenses labels a tad bit too cavalierly.

But on the whole, Halloween Unmasked is a fresh, vibrant, and modern entry into the well-trafficked culture-podcast genre. It’s a shrewd marriage of a narrative podcast’s structural rigor and the breezy electricity of a good conversational one. Applied to the cultural phenomenon that is Halloween, the end product is a tool of cross-generational empathy: Not only does it help you understand the roots of a nostalgia that might not be yours, it helps you feel it too.

Halloween Unmasked Is a Nostalgic Look at a Horror Classic