How Faux-Documentary Audio Dramas Trick You Into Scaring Yourself

From "War of the Worlds" to "Limetown," audio fiction has leveraged the reporting format to amp up the eeriness

Photo by Carolyn Williams

Podcasts are now a fixture of popular media and while certain podcast genres consistently rank high on the charts — true crime and political commentary being the mainstays—there has been an increase in more creative styles of podcasting: the fiction podcast, sometimes called the audio drama. These stories use the medium to guide listeners through fictional sonic worlds, oftentimes laced with elements of horror, building stories that can readily blend fiction and reality. While a similar attempt at blending fiction and reality through a faux-documentary approach in horror movies, like the Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, were once considered genre-bending hits, they have now inevitably become a cliche. Viewers seem to lose interest once a handful of directors deployed the documentary approach well. On the other hand, radio dramas have existed for significantly longer than horror movies, yet their current podcast iterations are just as effective now as they have been in the past.

Audio drama podcasts come out of the long history of radio and the serialized narratives performed live for listeners at home. The most infamous example being Orson Welles’s October 30th, 1938 radio play based on H.G. Wells’s classic alien invasion story, The War of the Worlds. The play, which was only about an hour long, is most well-known for the hysteria it supposedly sparked among listeners, some of whom believed the invasion was actually happening in real time as the story unfolded over the airwaves. Though the rumors of widespread panic may be more of an urban legend, the broadcast reveals the medium’s potential for real-world impact on listeners. As Dorothy Thompason, a New York Tribune columnist, wrote of the play: “They have proved that a few effective voices, accompanied by sound effects, can so convince masses of people of a totally unreasonable, completely fantastic proposition as to create nation-wide panic.”

We are aware that we are staring at a screen or a page of a book—but there are more ways to subtly trick the ear.

The listener response to Welles’ dramatized Martian invasion exemplifies the audio drama’s unique ability to blend fantasy and reality in ways other genres cannot. Although we might lose our sense of time or be wholly engrossed in a movie or book, there is less potential for slippage between reality and fiction. We are aware that we are staring at a screen or a page of a book—but there are more ways to subtly trick the ear.

Key to the effectiveness of Welles’s play was the structure of the broadcast itself. If listeners did believe Martians were attacking, they did so because the play was presented as regular radio programming, periodically interrupted by the fake newscasts detailing the invasion. If the listener happened to miss the show’s opening, which clearly introduced the play as fiction, then they would have little reason to believe that this wasn’t a real broadcast. By playing into listener expectation around radio conventions, Welles was able to manipulate listener experience.

Using established audio tropes as a springboard for more fantastic stories is an approach that still works today. Like Welles’s fictional use of newscasting, a common convention used in modern audio drama podcasts draws direct inspiration from the format of other popular podcasting genres, namely the highly produced reportage of shows like This American Life and Serial. When Serial premiered in 2014 it was an instant success, reaching 5 million downloads and streams in less than nine weeks. Its popularity impacted the entire podcasting community, creating what was dubbed “The Serial Effect,” where listeners of Serial also began listening to other podcasts in similar genres. Though podcasts were already gaining popularity across the board, Serial brought a noticeable bump in listener numbers for many shows.

Serial ushered in a slew of other shows tackling the topics, but it also provided a blueprint for fictional narratives. While programs like Welcome to Night Vale already took from community radio hours and added their own fantastical twist, 2015 and 2016 saw a rise in horror- or thriller-based fiction podcasts mirroring Serial-like reporting—but with a decidedly spooky bent. One early staple of the genre, The Black Tapes, follows the reporting of Alex Reagan, an investigative journalist for Pacific Northwest Stories profiling the paranormal investigator Dr. Richard Strand and his collection of unsolved mysteries housed on VHS tapes, dubbed “The Black Tapes.” The radio program, like Reagan and Strand, are completely fictional, but the charm of the show lies in its juxtaposition between the straightforward, slickly produced tone and the weird paranormal content. The format was so believable that quite a few fans bashfully reached out on forums, asking whether the story was “real.”

It’s precisely because listeners approach the story with preconceptions that it feels believable.

The serialized investigative journalism framing works well for these paranormal and thriller narratives because the form gives writers enough structure to explore fantastic elements while remaining grounded. No matter how bizarre the plot points get, listeners can still track the story. But more importantly, the format troubles the line between reality and fantasy in the same spirit as The War of the Worlds. It’s precisely because listeners already approach the story with their own preconceptions that it feels believable. A podcast that hits certain beats will unconsciously trigger certain responses because it plays off how we consume the media it is mirroring.

There are other ways for audio dramatists to blur the line between fantasy and fiction to trick the mind and ear of the listener without relying heavily on a specific structural trope. In Theater of the Mind: Imagination, Aesthetics, and American Radio Drama, Neil Verma discusses the discourse among early radio dramatists as they tried to expand the narrative capabilities of radio. He writes, 

Dramatists thought they were writing for a “blind man” and used speech to convey anything that would be silently visual in the theater. By the late 1930s, that preference had changed. Radio listeners became accustomed to recognizing purely aural rules that signified movement around the world of drama. For instance, around this time it became common for narrators to cut in and out at the end. Listeners learned that the longer the pause between scenes, the greater the distance traversed in the world of fiction.

Venma shows how listeners became familiar with narrative conventions over time, even when these conventions are not explicitly explained. Rather than relying on spoken exposition to position the listener in space and time, sound engineers conjure the scene using sound cues. Over time, specific sounds come to be linked to certain locales or affects based on usage, thereby situating the listener without relying on a narrator constantly explaining what is going on. Because an enjoyable audio drama isn’t just about tracking a linear story through sound; it’s about experiencing an atmosphere. 

Marc Sollinger, the co-creater and writer for the audio drama podcast, Archive 81, writing about the art of effective podcast for Electric Literature, made a similar point about building a sonic world: 

An easy way to think about audio drama is as television without pictures, but just writing a television script and expecting it to make a good fiction podcast is a terrible plan. The audience won’t know what the heck is going on and the whole thing will sound boring and lifeless. This is a super obvious point, but it bears pointing out: TV and film are visual mediums, audio drama is a sonic medium.

As Sollinger notes, developing an effective audio drama is not only about making sure that listeners know what’s happening. It’s technically possible to keep a story tightly structured, making sure that a listener knows precisely what is happening and when. But there is the secondary issue that Sollinger points out—that tight-fisted type storytelling, though precise and clear, will also be boring and lifeless.

Letting go of heavy spoken exposition creates the space for greater listener participation in the story, leading to a more immersive experience. The bustling sounds of a city—honking cars, revving engines, the rapid sound of many feet hitting the pavement—are enough to tell the listener what type of environment they are in, but the city appearing in the listener’s imagination is of their own design. Without visual stimuli providing corroborating information to go along with sonic information, the brain fills in the gaps on its own. This process is particularly effective when it comes to horror, as the area of our brain that takes in sensory information is also the same area that processes some elements of memory. Adding in just the right amount of narrative to lay the groundwork for the story, supported by carefully crafted soundscape, will allow the listener to fill in the rest with what scares them the most. Audio dramas, by their very nature, can take advantage of this auto-fill aspect of human imagination, providing enough material for the listener to get involved in the story, but leaving enough open-endedness to make the experience unique to each listener.

Without visual stimuli providing corroborating information to go along with sonic information, the brain fills in the gaps on its own.

But Sollinger’s point about the differences between building sonic worlds versus building visual worlds highlights the potential problem when a story is transcribed the other way: from podcast to television. While there are examples of this shift occurring for non-fiction podcasts—Lore being one of the most famous, along with other popular hits Dirty John and Crimetown—there is new interest in bringing audio dramas to the small screen. Yet the switch to visual media presents a unique problem for fiction podcasts. The ones that are well-crafted and innovative are successful because they push beyond the constraints of a purely sonic medium. It’s the very limitations of the format that can create truly spectacular experiences when they are executed well.

Sam Esmail, the director of the television iteration of the popular audio drama podcast, Homecoming, gestures towards something similar in an interview. In the first of four behind-the-scenes episodes Gimlet Media ran on the television show’s production, Esmail describes when he was first approached to direct the show: “I asked, is it any good? And they said it was great and I said well, then, why mess with it? I am not necessarily in the business of taking any great art and translating it into something else.”

Esmail ended up signing onto the project, but his statement should give us pause. When bringing these sonic worlds to life, are producers and writers approaching the process in the way Sollinger said not to do—simply thinking of the story in one medium and forcing it into the constraints of another—or are they considering ways to blend the advantages of the visual medium to enhance what was originally accomplished in the sonic medium? Whereas in an audio-only format there was freedom for listener imagination to fill in the gaps and make the fictional world our own, the visual medium threatens to concretize the images, monopolizing the narrative. The space we traversed in our imaginations on the wave of the audio drama’s soundscape now becomes a static, delineated image prepackaged to viewers on the screen. If these shows are made as studio cash grabs to take advantage of the popular buzz around them, then there is a high likelihood that they will lose the innovation that made them successful as audio dramas in the first place. 

In order for these stories to translate from podcast to screen, writers and directors need to maintain the blurred balance between fiction and reality.

That isn’t to say that podcasts should not make the move into visual media—this might actually be a beneficial shift for the investigative journalism shows like The Black Tapes, Tanis, and Limetown. These shows can feel claustrophobic at times, as the reporter must feed listeners information directly and can only occasionally intercut the narration with other aural elements, such as interviews or recordings taken in the field. By opening up the fictional world to encompass elements beyond the cramped studio space and the voice of one character, viewers might have a richer experience of the fictional world. Regardless of which shows end up optioned for visual adaptations, navigating the aural to visual switch is something that writers should keep in mind as the number of podcasts moving to the television format increases as their popularity and critical acclaim grows. Two classics of the genre, Homecoming and Limetown, premiered in the last few months and adaptations of other podcasts, like Tanis, have also been in the works

I don’t want to suggest that these podcasts should not make the move to visual media. But we should appreciate the ways in which audio is a uniquely effective medium for these shows, in order to recognize how easy it is to lose the spark of narrative ingenuity when audio dramas are carelessly translated to the visual realm. For those of us who have long enjoyed the podcast format, it is exciting to see larger media entities recognize the creativity and craftsmanship that goes into developing a strong fiction podcast. In order for these stories to translate effectively from podcast to screen, writers and directors need to maintain the blurred balance between fiction and reality, making sure to pick the right story and develop an effective visual language. Rather than forcing podcasts into a visual medium, with its pre-established conventions and  structures, writers and producers can take a critical look at how to create the same blurring of fiction and reality, by developing a format that is as well-suited to visual storytelling as the horror and thriller podcasts are for audio drama. My hope is for the innovation that made these audio dramas popular will spill over into visual media, forcing those working on the show to think of their own craft in new ways to recreate the same sense of uneasy uncertainty about whether the story was reality or fiction. 

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