One of the regrets I have about growing up is that I no longer experience “Story Time.” It sounds silly, and maybe it is, but I really loved sitting quietly and listening to a teacher or parent tell me a story. Who didn’t love Story Time as a kid? Especially around Halloween, when the teacher might bust out a worn, cherished copy of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark? Even as a teenager, when I attended summer camp, we regularly stayed up to tell creepy stories. We took turns telling ghost stories around a literal campfire.
Such stories, told with the human voice, possess their own kind of magic. There’s something genuine and compelling about a lone voice weaving a story in the night, while others listen in complete silence. There is the gravitas of ritual, the authenticity of an intimate story, and the hard-to-deny possibility that maybe it’s real after all. Without the spectacle of movies or the artful words of a book, you’re left with the truth, right? Possibly?
These days, I can satisfy my love for stories with movies, television shows, novels, short stories, and comics whenever I want. But they don’t approximate that shivery joy of listening to a person tell you a spooky story.
That’s why I love podcasts. With the right podcast, I can find that same thrill combined with wonderfully complex, creepy stories that fold and unfold, drawing in threads and characters and events that transport me to an entirely different world. Using only the power of the human voice.
In honor of Halloween, I want to share some of my favorite scary podcasts with you. These podcasts vary from graphic true crime, to macabre accounts of historical events, to fictional audio plays. They’re all compelling in their own ways, keeping readers, including myself, coming back for more week after week.
Lore is perfect for both history buffs and ghost story enthusiasts, unraveling historical accounts of unusual, unexplainable, and sometimes tragic events that have become the stuff of legend. Part-history lesson, part-folklore, and part ghost-story, Lore explores the way superstitions and ignorance have influenced people to commit dark deeds. Human beings are scared but brutal creatures who will not hesitate to invent myths and use folklore to make sense of an uncontrollable situation. It’s my favorite out of this list, consistently giving me chills and sending me straight to Wikipedia to look up the stories. Also, Lore is also going to be adapted into a TV show on Amazon in early 2017.
- The NoSleep Podcast
Inspired from the infamous subreddit r/nosleep, The NoSleep Podcast picks the best of the original stories from the subreddit and acts them out with professional actors and chilling soundtracks. It’s kind of like Drunk History, but scary and a podcast. The NoSleep Podcast has been broadcasting since 2011 and has won multiple awards for its adaptation of those spooky internet tales. If you thought r/nosleep was terrifying before, you haven’t heard anything yet.
Perfect for fans of Stranger Things and The X-Files, Limetown is a fictional riff on ultra-famous podcast Serial. It follows the story of Lia Haddock, a reporter for NPR rip-off APR (“American Public Radio”), who is searching answers about the 327 souls that went into the Limetown research facility, bankrolled by eccentric billionaire backer who wanted to achieve “full understanding of the human brain.” Limetown consists of only 11 episodes, a podcast miniseries if you will, but those 11 episodes recreates the world of an entire small town. This was no small feat, and Zack Akers and Skip Bronkie used their background in television to structure a rich and complex production to rival any TV show. Limetown will keep you on the edge of your seat until the very end, so maybe don’t listen to this one while commuting.
Criminal is not your average crime podcast, though it will surely satisfy the true-crime buffs out there. It doesn’t use stories “ripped from the headlines” or focus on all the graphic, disgusting parts of a crime. Rather, Criminal is special because it presents the crime within the greater context of the people, places, and history involved. Crimes are not isolated events, and criminals are not random boogeymen. There is always more nuance involved, a fact many people would rather not admit. Criminal bravely delves right into a new story for each podcast, examining how every criminal was molded by certain circumstances and choices.
- Sword and Scale
Sword and Scale is more of a true-crime podcast akin to Serial, but that doesn’t stop it from being horrific. These stories of crimes are rendered in disturbing, graphic detail and accompanied by insightful psychological commentary. A self-described “immersive audio experience,” Sword and Scale explores both solved and unsolved crimes that were so heinous they shocked investigators. An especially chilling touch is the frequent use of real-life 911 calls from various cases, which really drives home that this is not entertainment, but reports of real-life horror.
- Welcome to Night Vale
Welcome to Night Vale is what I imagine what it’s like living in Buffy Summers’ Sunnydale. There is constantly weird, disturbing stuff happening in this little nowhere town, which must be both on a Hellmouth and located within the Twilight Zone. Conspiracy theories come true every day. People are constantly disappearing, or even dying. This podcast isn’t all doom and gloom–it’s funny and clever, straddling the line between gently ribbing small-town life and creating unsettling story lines. And the world building of Welcome to Night Vale is impressive for a podcast. It helps a great deal that the creators allowed themselves to write whatever strange, horrific things popped into their brains, but only if they worked very hard to fully develop and integrate their stories. It is a strategy that has worked quite well–just ask this podcast’s devoted fan base.
- Jim Harold’s Campfire – True Ghost Stories
I have to say, I love the concept behind Jim Harold’s Campfire, where normal people call in and share their strange, scary stories. Campfire has featured everything from ghost stories, aliens, encounters with unidentifiable creatures, near-death experiences, and many other unexplainable stories. Jim Harold knows just when to ask questions to probe a little further, but the focus is on each episode’s storyteller. It makes for a great listening experience, because it really does replicate the experience of sitting around a campfire, listening to someone tell a scary story, only the person telling it usually believes in the truth of their experience, even if they know it sounds crazy. There’s an added intimacy in hearing someone earnest recount a story that shouldn’t happen. Even if you don’t believe, you won’t be able to stop listening.
- We’re Alive – A “Zombie” Story of Survival
If you can’t get enough zombies in movie, television, or comic format, We’re Alive will deliver a gripping story. We’re Alive sounds like typical zombie-fare, because of course it’s about a group of survivors trying to stave off total societal collapse in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse. But this podcast is part of the unique group of podcasts that focus on creating a structured, intricate production in order to fully capitalize on the story’s power. We’re Alive is performed like an old-time radio show, with tons of actors and detailed scripts. The podcast also takes full advantage of its audio format and limitations, reveling in the horror of what cannot be seen, which makes for an enthralling listening experience.
- My Favorite Murder
Have you ever felt a little bit torn about your fascination with violent crime? On the one hand, you feel bad for the victims, but on the other, you just have to keep listening to all the details? My Favorite Murder is the podcast for you! Hosted by whip-smart and hilarious comediennes Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark, My Favorite Murder combines real crimes with a finely tuned sense of black humor. Don’t worry–they don’t make fun of victims. Rather, their humor is self-deprecating and honest, belying a strong sympathy for the victims.
- The Black Tapes
The Black Tapes is a truly unnerving podcast, mostly because of its expert attention to detail. Borrowing heavily from real-life mysteries and existing creepypastas, The Black Tapes weaves a world so frightening in its development that many people have mistaken the podcast for a real-life investigation of a cache of mysterious tapes. Despite one main character’s best attempts to debunk the purportedly supernatural activity on the tapes, they only encounter more unexplainable phenomena the farther they go into their investigation. You as the listener will vicariously experience séances, possessions, and ghosts. This podcast is well-written, demonstrating a mastery of timing and pacing, so that you’ll be addicted in no time at all. And this isn’t a podcast that you can just throw on while you do something else–it will capture your full attention.