Werewolves. Witches. Vampires. Ghosts. Monsters.
They’ve rampaged, romanced, and revenged across our screens for a century and have populated our stories—both oral and written—since humans became, well, humans.
We’ve always been drawn to the supernatural and the horrific, the Other lurking in the darkness. We’ve told such tales to explain the inexplicable, to come to terms with death and violence and the natural world. And since 2015, Aaron Mahnke has made a point of untangling many of these knotted narratives in his bi-weekly podcast, Lore.
Eschewing gimmicks and accompanied by simple, haunting melodies provided by pianist Chad Lawson, Mahnke walks us through the historical origins and factual inspirations of some of the most enduring folktales and urban legends. These are campfire stories as a historian would tell them, calmly delivered in a soft, soothing voice. It’s that gentle delivery that makes these stories so damn memorable.
Over the past decade, podcasts have morphed from a novelty to a booming business. Many have taken cues from NPR and Prairie Home Companion, while others embraced the Orson Welles War of the Worlds spirit. There are podcasts on cooking, medicine, role-playing games, books—everything, really. If you’ve got an interest or hobby, chances are there’s a podcast about it. Whether you want a scripted radio drama (Welcome to Night Vale) or off-the-cuff discussions about issues in comics (Out of the Fridge), there’s something for everyone.
What makes Lore such a crossover success is the way it straddles the line between fantasy and nonfiction. Mahnke and his research assistant, Marcet Crockett, do a fabulous job of uncovering the truth behind the myths, citing actual testimony and records when possible. They show how often superstition and fear have driven people to become monsters themselves and how those in power often abuse women and minorities as easy scapegoats (see: every single witch trial; the Irish belief in changelings). It’s heavy, necessary commentary that is always relevant.
But they never fully erase the air of mystery or wonder. As Mahnke himself often admits: there are questions that we’ll never have answers to. There are some mysteries that will always be unsolved.
And, sometimes, that’s a good thing. What would life be without the spice of the unknown and supernatural? Stories, after all, get us through the day and imbue our actions with meaning. Too much reality can suck all the fun out of things.
As of now, Lore has over 70 episodes. Each runs between 20 and 30 minutes in length, making them perfect for casual listeners looking for something to fill a lunch break. Not every story is a humdinger, but there’s a healthy balance between the unsatisfying and the exciting. If this week’s topic on gremlins didn’t thrill you, tune in again next time for an episode on spontaneous human combustion or robotic messiahs.
Given the podcast’s award-winning popularity (as of this month, Lore has five million monthly listeners) and subject matter ranging from ghost stories to true crime, it’s no surprise that television producers came knocking.
A six-episode first season premiered on Amazon Prime on Friday the 13th, covering some of the most popular early episodes, such as Robert, the malicious doll of Key West; the Beast of Bedburg, a murderer who believed he was a werewolf; and a tragic true tale of an independent Irish woman accused of being a changeling.
Still narrated by Mahnke, the show uses a combination of re-enactments starring familiar genre faces—such as Robert Patrick (The X-Files, Terminator 2) and Kristin Bauer van Straten (True Blood, Once Upon a Time)—with animation and stock photos. As with the podcast, there’s a central story as well as a handful of related smaller tales. In the Robert episode, we’re also treated to the genuinely charming Nutshell Studies, the uncanny valley terror of “Reborns,” and the nightmare fodder that is Isla de las Muñecas (which I highly recommend looking up online for some what-has-been-seen-cannot-be-unseen horror).
The re-enactments are a tad heavy-handed, but the Amazon Prime production does a decent job of capturing the tone and feel of the podcast. Personally, I think a greater slant toward animation—such as the eerie segment on the Fox sisters in “Passing Notes”—would be a wiser choice should there be a second season.
If you’ve never tried Lore, here are a few great episodes to get you started:
This peculiar grave site in Roche Harbor, Washington, would be a tourist attraction even if it wasn’t also haunted by strange lights and voices.
Thanks to Devil in the White City, most people know about H. H. Holmes and his infamous “Murder Castle.” But Mahnke delivers the familiar tale of the Chicago mass-murderer with real panache.
Superstitious townfolk are always ready to blame cantankerous old women for their problems. But when the people of Hadley, Massachusetts, decided to hang Mary Webster, the accused witch wouldn’t go down without a fight.
Mahnke makes a convincing case as to the true identity of the Villisca Axe Murderer and shares some incredibly unsettling details involving mirrors and bloody bowls of water.
Hinterkaifeck remains one of the most brutal unsolved murders in history. But the eeriness didn’t begin—or end—with the death of the German family.
Corpses have a habit of turning up in more places than we expect. They can also be incredibly difficult to get rid of, as Kate Webster, discovered in 19th-century London.
Sometimes fact is stranger than fiction, such as this case where a murdered woman’s ghost provided posthumous testimony against her husband in a court of law.
Something was terrorizing the people of Point Pleasant, West Virginia, for over a year, and it may be the same thing the residents of Chernobyl saw just before the reactor went critical…
There seems to be something very strange happening in the Bennington Triangle—particularly to folks wearing red coats.
Still want more Lore? Mahnke has just released the book Monstrous Creatures, a collection of Lore scripts and illustrations about the things that go bump in the night; the follow-up on murderers and true crime will be arriving next year.
Mahnke is also a horror novelist in his own right and has several books available that should appeal to fans of Stephen King, The X-Files, and Lovecraftian monstrosities. Find them on his official website or Amazon—and when you start one, plan on keeping a light on all night long.
Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. Come find the angie bee at Tumblr.