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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

6 podcasts for the spooky season

A variety of podcasts deliver disturbing true stories of everyday horror, lively recaps of scary movies and creepy scripted dramas about the supernatural.

By Emma Dibdin

There’s an adage about horror movies, often attributed to Alfred Hitchcock: What you don’t see is more frightening than what you do. This makes audio dramas excellent vehicles for the horror genre, because the absence of visual storytelling forces listeners to fill in the gaps. Whatever the mind conjures up, custom-made for unique neuroses and fears, may well be scarier than any tangible monster or ghoul.

These shows take advantage of this in different ways, delivering disturbing true stories of everyday horror, lively recaps of scary movies for those too scared to watch the real thing, and gloriously creepy scripted dramas about the supernatural.

As much as the open road is a symbol of freedom in American fiction, it also represents danger, especially if you’re a woman traveling alone. That type of peril underlies every moment of Joseph Fink’s enthralling, disturbing series, which follows a female truck driver on a cross-country quest to uncover the truth about her wife’s supposed death. Fink, best-known to podcast fans as a co-creator of “Welcome to Night Vale,” was inspired to write “Alice Isn’t Dead” after spending hours alone on the road on tour, and he and lead voice actress, Jasika Nicole, deftly capture that psychological experience, the half-formed glimpses of towns you pass through, and the strange, stream-of-consciousness thoughts that arise after too much time alone. Consisting of audio journals and dramatic scenes set at roadside diners and rest stops, “Alice Isn’t Dead” is — like a lot of the best horror stories — more about sadness than fear, exploring the feeling of an incomprehensible loss through the supernatural

Starter episode: “Omelet”

‘Too Scary, Didn’t Watch’

Have you ever read the Wikipedia page for a horror movie you’re interested in, but too afraid to watch? You’re not alone — this one-degree-removed method of horror consumption is common, and it’s the linchpin of this fun and addictive recap podcast. Sammy Smart is a horror aficionado who watches the movies so her more fearful co-hosts, Emily Gonzalez and Henley Cox, don’t have to. Over more than 200 episodes, the trio have covered modern classics like Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” and Ari Aster’s “Hereditary,” mainstays like “The Shining” and, so-bad-they’re-good gems, like the baffling 2006 remake of “The Wicker Man” starring Nicolas Cage. Like many podcasts of this ilk, it’s the chemistry among the three hosts that makes “Too Scary, Didn’t Watch” so appealing — Gonzalez, Cox and Smart will soon begin to feel like your parasocial best friends, hiding behind the couch cushions with you.

Starter episode: “Midsommar Revisited”

‘Let’s Not Meet’

In the glut of true crime podcasts, this self-described “true horror” show finds its lane by exploring the more subtle and insidious examples of everyday fear. In each episode, the host, Andy Tate, narrates several stories, in which listeners describe unsettling encounters with people whom they hope never to run into again. While some are overtly violent, featuring attempted murders or assaults, many of the most disturbing ones are more ambiguous, leaving the listener with an unresolved, unnameable sense that something is deeply wrong. The show is deliberately minimalistic, with limited music and sound cues, and that stripped-back style adds to the sense of paranoia and dread.

Starter episode: “Hotel”

‘Dr. Death’

Not for the faint of heart (or stomach), this mind-boggling true story of a dangerously incompetent neurosurgeon is a spiritual companion to “Dirty John,” another early hit from the podcast network Wondery. Hosted by science journalist Laura Beil, the seven-episode season chronicles how Dr. Christopher Duntsch, a seemingly talented surgeon with glowing reviews from his former patients, wound up maiming or severely injuring more than 30 people over the course of a yearslong spree at multiple Texas hospitals. Aside from the visceral body horror, the most terrifying aspect of this story is the systemic one: how red flags were either missed or ignored by the authorities who should have intervened. Duntsch’s story is the focus of Season 1, while subsequent seasons (available only on Wondery’s paid tier) chronicle similarly sprawling cases of medical malpractice and fraud.

Starter episode: “Three Days in Dallas”

‘The NoSleep Podcast’

NoSleep, long one of the biggest forums on Reddit, bills itself as a place to share “scary personal experiences. ” It’s a tongue-in-cheek description, of course, because the stories shared are fictional, but the emphasis on original, first-person horror narratives is what makes the community so much fun, conjuring an atmosphere of scare-hungry children gathered around a campfire, competing to freak each other out. This spinoff podcast recreates that magic in an anthology series format, repackaging the most popular user-submitted stories as narrated audio dramas, complete with eerie music cues and soundscapes. Now in its 19th season, the show has a near-bottomless back catalog of chilling tales, and while they’re no longer all taken from the forum, the high-quality chills are consistent.

Starter episode: “The Stairs and the Doorway”

‘The Magnus Archives’

When this British audio drama debuted in 2016, it was billed as a horror anthology series set at the Magnus Institute in London, a fictional center for paranormal research. But over the years, a broader mythology has emerged to weave together these seemingly unconnected supernatural stories into an immensely satisfying serialized narrative. The premise is as follows: Jonathan Sims, a new head archivist at the institution, sets out to turn into audio form a neglected collection of historical statements, and along the way unearths tapes full of chilling, fragmented dispatches from ill-fated past researchers. These statements, along with supplemental research from Sims and his team, gradually unravel a terrifying truth. The fewer specifics you know going into “The Magnus Archives,” the better — along with its genuinely spine-tingling plot, the series features unusually rich and well-developed characters whose arcs are never sacrificed for the sake of cheap thrills.

Starter episode: “Angler Fish”

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