The medium of radiodrama started back in the 1880s with sketches and short skits written specifically for radio, and became a phenomenon with Orson Welles’ iconic War of The Worlds in 1938. Some of our favorite SFF stories have existed as radio plays, including Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which was broadcast in 1978, and Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, adapted for radio in 2013. With the popularity of fictional podcasts like Welcome to Night Vale, The Bright Sessions, and The Message, fans of riveting fiction experiences now have tons of stories available to them. The act of listening becomes an immersive experience—with a great sound designer, a few top-notch voice actors, and a great script, fictional podcasts provide a new way to escape the real world.
Now that it’s spooky season, it’s time to plug your headphones in to haunted houses, creepy townspeople, and terrifying alien invasions. The music fades in, a soft piano, but maybe just slightly out of tune. The wind blows by your ear. The footsteps of a tall, mysterious figure draw closer and closer. A twig snaps somewhere off in the distance. And suddenly, there are chills racing up your spine.
Ready to get lost? Here are a few great places to start.
Going home is always strange, small towns always have their mysteries. So when Lillian Harper comes home after her mother is injured, she already feels out of place. And the old boarding house her mother owns isn’t haunted, not really, the ghost tour is just for tourists. Obviously. But the town is weird. And there is a voice in the windchimes. And no one is really sure how that window in the attic got broken. Along with PhD candidate Abbie, who is researching urban planning and small town decay, Lily is thrown into a weird, inexplicable mystery. Unwell is an expertly produced show with an inclusive cast, a story that is both creepy and charming, and some banjo tracks that really slap. Love me a banjo, love me a small town with a Meat Raffle. Yeah, you heard me. I said Meat Raffle.
I know I probably don’t have to say more than “horror in space” to get y’all to listen to Janus Descending, but I’m going to give you a little more anymore. The story begins with Chel and Peter, two xenoarcheologists aboard The Adamantine, on a mission to a mysterious planet where they plan to excavate a lost civilization. And then there is an illness. And then there are eyes everywhere, watching them. And then everything starts to change. The story of Janus Descending unfolds non-linearly, so we get little snippets of past and future that slowly get put together. But it’s this storytelling tactic that makes the suspense so effective – as a listener, you’re not sure where you are or when you are, or who to trust. The worldbuilding here is spectacular, with plenty of detail to allow you to close your eyes and let your imagination get lost. Really, Janus Descending has it all.
Do you believe in ghosts? Of course you do. Whether you like to admit it or not, you are open to the possibility. The Black Tapes is a fictional docuseries that follows paranormal investigations. Think Ghost Hunters meets something like The Keepers or Serial. Host Alex Reagan (voiced by Lori Henry) interviews various paranormal scientists and researchers about their work, including the elusive Dr. Strand, a paranormal researcher who does not believe in ghosts, and is constantly negative about the work of his colleagues. Stand has promised a million dollars to anyone who can provide evidence of the paranormal, to any case he can’t debunk. So far, the money hasn’t been rewarded to anyone. But Dr. Strand, a creepy, brilliantly written antagonist figure, has a few unsolved cases…and that’s when things start getting weird. It’s engaging from the very start, and the levels of realism (to the point that they don’t even list the voice actors on their website) really draw the listener in. If you love psychological thrills, this one is for you.
Memory is a tricky thing. Trauma plays with the mind in ways we can’t always explain or expect. And sometimes, things come back to haunt us. Anneliese has moved into a new apartment after the loss of her sister, Claire, and a breakup. Pretty soon after making the move, Anneliese starts to hear strange noises: a child playing in the yard, scratching and dragging in the hallway. She starts feeling things that aren’t there, seeing things in the mirror. And the neighbors…well. You never know about the neighbors. The story develops slowly, so slowly that you might not notice anything happening at all. But little details slip through and build until you start to feel like something’s just not right. Palimpsest is perfect for those who like their horror with a little Shirley Jackson vibe. Season two brings an entirely new story, but with the same themes of memory, psychology, and things moving in the corner of your eye.
There are strange things happening in the woods. There are communities of people and not all is as it seems. The continuation of a popular radio show, Point Mystic is an anthology podcast which ranges from the uncanny to the downright horrific. The stories tangle reality and fiction, featuring fictitious news snippets and interviews. The real success of Point Mystic is it’s focus on the rural setting (the town of Point Mystic), and narrative storytelling, which is perfect for fans of Lore – in fact, this podcast feels very much like a fictionalized version of Lore, even down to the proclamation that it speaks about “the stories behind the myth”. The first season contains a few stories, including the four part White Rabbit serial, a gloriously spooky story about strange structures in the woods wherein the creator of the podcast and his family are characters, along with a story from Joe Hill. Season two features a story by popular YA author, Maggie Stiefvater.