When I was a odd little kid, I’d pull up the covers and listen to episodes of creepy old time radio shows before bed. (Listening alone to decades-old radio dramas was a very cool thing for children to do back then; I had tons of friends and was in no way considered a weirdo.) Popular storytelling wisdom is that you should show rather than tell, but there’s something very primal about horror delivered via headphones — your imagination being often much more vivid than anything you’d see in a film.
Many of those vintage programs were stunningly effective for that reason, but I definitely wasn’t spoiled for choice — the art form was also pretty much dead until the emergence and subsequent explosion of podcasts as a medium for storytelling over the past decade-plus, providing artists a new venue to create horrors and pump them directly into our earholes.
What follows are some of my personal favourite horror podcasts, suited to different moods: there are narrated stories, full-cast audio dramas, call-in shows, and conversations that deal with ghosts, demons, truckers, an ambitious Glow Cloud and, most terrifying of all, a real-life doctor who was scarily bad at his job. (Drop your own freaky recommendations in the comments.)
Welcome to Night Vale
Welcome to Night Vale has been sending out creepy news reports from the title town since 2012 — a solid run for any show in any media, but an eternity in pod years. Presented in something like the style of A Prairie Home Companion, the show has its tongue planted firmly in its cheek, yet still manages to be effectively creepy in its progression of stories (some of them developing over years) broadcast from a small desert town in which any conspiracy theory you can imagine just happens to be true — including the one about the noxious glowing cloud that ultimately runs for a seat on the school board.
I love a good horror anthology, especially when it encompasses a wide range of voices. Nightlight does that basic concept one better by presenting the works of Black horror writers narrated by Black actors — and the show even commits to pay all involved for their work. The narratives (short stories and flash fiction) are as varied as you’d expect for a show that’s run to several hundred episodes — fortunately their Twitter feed will direct you to a few of their most popular to start with.
Another veteran podcast (it’s been going since 2006), Anything Ghost is, essentially, a call-in show for real-life stories of spirits and hauntings. Each episode consists of several stories either provided by a listener or culled from legends from around the world. Think of it like a podcast version of the old Art Bell radio show Coast to Coast AM (a favourite of up-too-late dads everywhere).
The NoSleep Podcast
NoSleep was inspired by, and draws from, the r/nosleep subreddit, a place for folx to share unbelievably scary stories. The vibe here is plausible, if not necessarily realistic tales of terror told for mature audiences, with sound design and production mixed in to create an experience that’s sort of a hybrid between narration and full-drama. This popular anthology is in its 16th season, and while you can always start at the beginning, the website has recommendations for noobs.
There are a couple of venerable names in horror fiction podcasting on this list, and Pseudopod is right up there with them in terms its perseverance, quality, and popularity. It’s an audio anthology of horror fiction, featuring new and classic stories read by an array of talented voices. They too pay their original contributors at professional rates, so giving a listen is a good way to support horror talent, especially in a medium where so much of the work is done for free. There are several hundred episodes to work through, but they too offer a handy page of recommendations for newcomers.
Let the dulcet tones of host Richard MacLean Smith lure you into a world of strange unexplored, potentially paranormal mysteries. Whether it’s the Dyatlov Pass incident, the Boston Strangler, or the 1922 Hinterkaifeck killings, this well-researched show takes an objective approach, laying out the facts of creepy, sometimes disturbing true-life cases and inviting listeners to make up their own minds about what truly happened. (It’s hard to keep up with my ever-growing podcast queue, but this is one I never miss.)
Alice Isn’t Dead
This is another one from the Night Vale team, but I expect you’ll be a little disappointed if you go in looking for something in the same vein as its funnier cousin. Alice Isn’t Dead is presented as an audio diary from Keisha, a long-haul trucker riding dark and lonesome highways in search of her missing wife Alice, a lonesome journey that takes her through a series of small towns and deep into a vast conspiracy filled with monsters and murder. The show has a limited number of episodes (36, give or take), as well as a companion novel, so if you’re looking for a complete story with a finite ending, this is a great choice.
There are plenty of ways to get your OTR (that’s Old Time Radio to you youngsters) fix, but The Horror! is a truly efficient one. It’s a well curated weekly presentation of some of the best in weird and supernatural episodes of vintage programming. If you’re new to the style, it can be surprisingly effective — they knew how to tell stories in audio back then, and the best of them are deeper, darker, and gorier than you might expect. Try “The Thing on the Fourble Board” from Quiet, Please for something impressively disturbing with a truly great twist, or “Ghost Hunt” from Suspense for an early run at found footage horror, radio style.
The Magnus Archives
What lurks in the archives of The Magnus Archives? Presented as a series of recordings from the title institution being investigated with a sense of impartiality, these creepy tales build over time to form a larger narrative that concluded earlier this year after 200 episodes. It’s a neat blend of anthology storytelling and “found footage” horror, and it will chills you both episode-by-episode and as an overarching narrative.
And That’s Why We Drink
Christine Schiefer and Em Schulz are true crime and paranormal enthusiasts, two folks with a love of everything creepy. And also boxed wine. So what I’m saying is: highly relatable. It’s a slightly more casual, conversational show with a couple of really entertaining hosts who consistently choose interesting stories to discuss.
After video collector Mark Cambria watches his latest VHS acquisition, he starts talking in his sleep in a language not his own. Which is, you know… not usually a great omen. The hunt for answers sends Mark and his girlfriend down a wild rabbit hole of cult and conspiracy. This fully scripted podcast is from Shudder, the horror streaming service, though it’s also available through the usual podcast channels, and that pedigree speaks to its quality in terms of production values and voice acting. It tells a complete story across eight 20-minute episodes, so it you’re looking for a pre-Halloween binge rather than a years-long commitment, this one’s a solid choice.
Spooky and atmospheric, but with plenty of heart, Mabel is another scripted drama series that’s finished telling its tale (this one in 24 episodes); you could potentially get through the whole thing before spooky season concludes. It’s the story of Anna, a live-in caregiver to Sally, who, naturally, lives in a creepy old house. Anna disturbs an old box in the attic that triggers Sally to have some sort of episode. Anna’s attempts to contact her charge’s granddaughter for help are unsuccessful, and things get weirder from there. The show makes great use of music to create a subtle, creeping ambiance.
A queer horror podcast out of Glasgow written “by queers, for queers,” this anthology series offers up a variety of horror stories centered around queer (especially trans) experiences, sometimes told as something like poetry. The episodes are frequently unsettling, often dealing with issues related to queerphobia, but Folxlore scrupulously avoids exploitative tropes. Still, the episodes can be deeply unsettling (as well as scary), especially for people whose lived experiences mirror those of the characters. Check the content warnings on each episode if that sounds like you.
Aaron Mahnke’s Lore was a success nearly from day one (which was way back in 2015), approaching a relatively simple format with polish and extensive research. Each episode involves several stories pulled from history and folklore and retold/narrated by Mahnke, all based around a common theme. The stories are all “true,” in the sense that they’re presented as reported and described by the people who apparently experienced them, which is a bit part of the appeal: some are tales of the dark side of human nature, while others are just this side of plausible. This fact-or-fiction ambiguity is a sweet spot for me when it comes to spooky stories. Certainly things have happened that can make even the most sceptical of us ask… what if?
Dr. Christopher Duntsch was this guy who just kinda radiated charm, you know? He displayed a level of confidence that could put anyone at ease. The problem was, the neurosurgeon grossly botched almost every single one of his surgeries, maiming and, in a couple of cases, killing patients in entirely avoidable ways (in addition to his general incompetence, he also had a drug dependency problem). Because of his connections and his general aura of self-assurance, it took years to for his licence to be revoked, even after people started ringing the alarm. If real-life horror is your thing, you can’t get much scarier than this alarmingly true docuseries. (Though if you’ve got a medical procedure coming up… maybe hold off on this one.)
The Black Tapes
This one’s a fictional docudrama “hosted” by Alex Reagan (voiced by Lori Henry) that tells a long-form story over individual incidents related in each episode. Reagan is an investigator looking into the life of Dr. Richard Strand, who left behind an assortment of spooky unsolved cases featuring ghosts both literal and figurative. The very popular show came to a conclusion after three seasons a couple of years ago, but it now looks like they’re coming back for more.
How It Ends
How It Ends begins as a psychological mystery: Micah Jones explores the unnerving dreams that she’s been having for as long as she can remember, via an audio diary that she turns into a podcast with the help of a couple of friends (a solid setup for an audio drama if ever there was). Naturally, the dreams are more than dreams, and things get weird fast when she realises there’s a connection to something she experienced as a teenager. The dreams, in fact, turn out to be closer to memories. Spooky af.
The Last Podcast on the Left
This (very) popular unscripted discussion podcast covers pretty much all aspects of horror, real and fictional: serial killers, conspiracy theories, UFOs, ghosts… all that good stuff, along with some user submitted creepypastas. This one’s now exclusive to Spotify (or via their Patreon), so you won’t find it on all the usual channels.
I’m digging back into the “Night Vale Presents” line for the last time (they make good stuff, is all). This one follows Dane, who escapes New York for the slower pace of Cleveland, hoping to make a career as a musician. As the title suggests, his journey is at least slightly surreal (Dane’s “real life” being only a bit less weird than his dreams), and music is an integral part of how the series establishes the tone of each individual scene. The main character is also queer, with an active and occasionally graphic sex life, so all good on that front.
There are unmatched horrors lurking in the heart of small town America: That’s both generally true, and also (sort of) the premise of Unwell, a gothic-style mystery set in the Midwest. The lead character, Lillian Harper, moves back home to take care of her estranged mother, a woman who also happens to be the proprietor of a creaky old boarding house. Lillian finds herself lost amid the residents of both the building and the town, caught up in an array of spooky goings-on that include hauntings and at least a couple of creepy conspiracies.
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