Have you heard the spooky podcasts? They used to be my friends and now they are my enemies. I am in charge of the spooky podcasts. They are not in charge of me. I will fend off the bad spooky podcasts and wait for them to become good again. They will not punish me. I will rise again. —The Listener
I don’t speak Italian, but that’s not really a problem for listening to the latest episode of Imaginary Advice, “The True Crime of Your Frozen Death,” an audio-fiction piece that’s performed entirely in Italian. Words don’t provide the complete picture when somebody’s speaking, and in fact, not understanding the language is kind of the point here.
“The True Crime of Your Frozen Death” is about a bunch of other things, too, such as shitty true-crime podcasts and our seemingly specieswide interest in the grim and the macabre. The episode’s plot follows a true-crime podcaster as she tries to solve a series of murders, which, of course, turns out to be serial killings of true-crime podcasters. It’s a conceit that would’ve made for a great mid-2000s thriller, if they still made those movies anymore in the age of the morally dubious podcaster. (Blumhouse, call me.)
For those uninitiated, Imaginary Advice is made by Ross Sutherland, a British writer, filmmaker, and artist who should be widely considered a genius within podcasting circles. The show is his repository for creative experiments in the medium, which has ranged in the past from a one-off story about an AI refining its stand-up routine (“S.E.I.N.F.E.L.D.”) to a six-part “interactive podcast drama” (“The Golden House”). The standard Imaginary Advice experience tends to be think-y, a little destabilizing, and more than a little strange. This sounds weird, but the podcast’s sparse aesthetic always makes me think of the cold, which is perhaps another way of saying that it’s the perfect show for the dead of winter, just a few weeks away.
Anyway, all these things definitely apply to “The True Crime of Your Frozen Death.” Sutherland made the piece in collaboration with Christina Marras, an Italian audio producer. He wrote the script in English, which was translated into Italian by Marras, who also performed the lead role. In the liner notes, Sutherland described the episode as an homage to the “Giallo” movie genre: older Italian slasher flicks that were heavy on gore, sex, and costumes, but also heavy on mood, emotion, and grand theatricality. Those elements are crucial to the mechanics, as Sutherland noted that the piece was specifically designed for someone who didn’t speak Italian at all. To that end, “The True Crime of Your Frozen Death” is a broadly drawn creation: heavy on the foley, a bombastic score, and a soap-operative performance from Marras. You can probably also approximately follow what’s going on in the story; after all, the rough beats of your standard true-crime narrative should be excessively familiar by now for anyone who’s even briefly interacted with the wider culture.
Your mileage may vary, of course. But speaking personally, I find there to be a real, tangible, distinct pleasure to listening to something you don’t fully or immediately understand. Let the thing wash over you. Perhaps you’ve had the experience of slipping into a social situation mid-stream, and nobody’s offered to ease you into the context, and you now find yourself in a pleasant puzzle-solving position of figuring out what’s going on.
Or let’s bring the analogy closer to home. Perhaps you’ve walked into a room and there’s a corpse on the floor. You don’t know why you’re there, who this dead guy is, or the shape of everything that happened that led to this moment. If you’re the sort of person who’d love to find out, then the intended presentation of “The True Crime of Your Frozen Death” might be just for you.
Oh, and if you really do end up wanting to know exactly what happened, you could always check out the subtitled version of the episode, available on Eleanor McDowall’s wonderful Radio Atlas site.
Spooky Season Reader Pick: The Desert Oracle
“The show is centered on the Mojave Desert, near Joshua Tree National Park, and the southwestern U.S. more generally, and it dives into topics you might expect — UFOs, mysterious lights in the skies, descriptions of harsh landscapes and strange animals, conspiracy theories about military test sites, monster folk tales. But it also gets into things like the history of mysticism, biographies of artists who moved to the desert to pursue counterculture in earlier decades, and people who dedicated their lives to protecting public lands from overdevelopment. It’s sentimental about the beauty and fragility of desert wilderness without sounding like a PSA.
Ken Layne, the host, is also funny in a way that’s dry and unexpected. The music is original to the show too, mostly electronic soundscapes; it makes for a transformative listening experience. Very nostalgic, has a bit of late-night AM radio vibes. The show always leaves me with both a sense of unease and a stubborn hopefulness about the world.” —Ashley
Other spooky-season picks …
➽ Another reader, Katharine M., wrote in to recommend a new fiction podcast, The Other Path, which comes courtesy of the Odyssey Theater in Ottawa. It’s an anthology project that delivers modern reimagining of classic folk tales. This first season will feature stories from five Canadian writers: Jo Walton, Marty Chan, Emily Pohl-Weary, C.S. MacCath, and Daniel Peretti. The first story, “The Witches Circle,” is out now; others will be released every two weeks.
➽ If you’re looking for something kid-friendly, try Unspookable, one of those “weird mystery/urban legend/myth”-a-week podcasts but, you know, good for families. It’s hosted by Elise Parisian.
➽ So I’ve been poking around the archives of New American Radio, this old body that commissioned a bunch of experimental sound art back in the late ’80s and ‘90s, and there’s this one surrealist radio play from 1989, “Hunger,” by the Cuban-American playwright Maria Irene Fornes, that I just love and that’s been stuck in my head for weeks. It’s so … eerie.
➽ You might’ve noticed the release of a new Serial Productions project last week: We Were Three, hosted by Nancy Updike, on loan from This American Life. A brisk three-parter, the series opens on a family torn by COVID conspiracies, eventually turning into an interior study of the family’s history. What forms is a picture of how the personal and the structural intertwine within this world-historical moment, and how each specific COVID tragedy sits on top of a mountain of other things.
We Were Three is a slight, quiet piece. It’s also the least conspicuous of the Serial Productions releases so far, so much so that one could reasonably wonder why it wasn’t released through This American Life and what it might suggest about the broader Serial Productions project, two years into ownership by the New York Times. Still, even the most quiet Serial Productions piece makes for a formidable listen, operating well above the bar of so many other narrative podcasts. It easily lit up my various podcast-related group chats, inspiring conversation about the show’s choices: How do we feel about longer-form COVID stories today, almost three years into the pandemic? Music from Soccer Mommy’s Sophie Allison? An unexpected aside about the glorious act of smoking a cigarette? That’s always worth recognizing.
➽ Well that Drink Champs/Ye situation is certainly escalating.