The Evolution of Horror in The Magnus Archives

My friends know I love a scary story. When The Magnus Archives pulled them into its cosmically horrific orbit, they reached out to me, and we all spiraled into Magnus fandom together. So if you haven’t yet had the pleasure of diving into this podcast, well. Get ready. I’m reaching out to you. Come join us for one hell of a ride.

For those uninitiated with this amazing horror serial, the premise is this: A research institute investigates statements and artifacts of the supernatural. As you listen, you will become familiar with the troubled lives of the institute staff, the nature of the paranormal in the Magnus universe, and a passionate fandom that is ferocious in their love for the show and ferociously inventive in their creativity toward expressing that passion.

There are so many things to love about Magnus, from the delightfully gruesome stories themselves, to the diverse representation and canonized queerness, to the amazing fanart, but what I’m here to talk about is how the horror of the show changes over time. To this end I’ve divided The Magnus Archives into three stages that document how the show continually reinvents itself while staying true to the good stuff at its core that resonates with so many.

So! Here are the broad stages of horror you can expect to experience when you listen to The Magnus Archives:

 

Phase 1: Scary Campfire Stories
Season 1

In the earliest episodes of The Magnus Archives, the horror lies in how much the archive staff and we, the listener, do not know. New Magnus Institute Head Archivist Jonathan Sims commits harrowing written testimonies of the paranormal into audio recording as his assistants—Sasha, Tim, and Martin—perform the thankless legwork of verification. They conduct interviews, visit locations of interest, and track financial statements in the hopes of reducing the unknowns surrounding each case. But how can one non-lethally confirm the alleged existence of a hypnotic floating man who vanishes anyone who accepts his offer of a cigarette? Their work is cut out for them.

In episode 2, Do Not Open, Jon dictates the unearthed statement of a man named Joshua Gillespie, who agrees to an arrangement with a stranger where he will hold onto a package for an undetermined amount of time in exchange for £10,000. The delivery he will host, he soon learns, is a coffin that moans hauntingly in heavy rain while something inside scratches at the lid. This casket, shut in its chains and bearing the missive “DO NOT OPEN” intrudes into Joshua’s thoughts and he begins to walk in his sleep, waking in front of the coffin with key in hand. Unable to trust or avoid his unconscious mind, he begins freezing the key in a bowl of water each night so the cold wakes him before whatever’s inside that box gets the chance. And then his allotted time is up, and a crew of vaguely unsettling deliverymen take the coffin away.

In episode 10, Vampire Hunter, Jon recovers the statement of one Trevor Herbert, a homeless man and self-styled hunter of vampires. Trevor recounts the death of his parents that led to him and his brother Nigel encountering a vampire in the guise of a woman who offered temporary shelter from the streets in her home. Nigel does not survive this encounter, but neither does the vampire, and this is the start of Trevor’s career as a hunter. He doesn’t know how vampires reproduce or what they do with the bodies of their victims, but he does know how to kill them.

The common thread between these stories and other early episodes is the lack of explanation, and the horror of each statement is compounded by the looming unease of what else might lurk in the dark. When the creepy deliverymen come to relieve Joshua of his burden, one does not appear to survive the extraction, judging by the screams Joshua hears while he waits for them outside. Whatever the coffin is, it is larger even than the deliverymen who seem to have knowledge that Joshua does not. We learn from archival assistant Martin’s follow-up research into Trevor’s case that the man succumbed to lung cancer and passed in his sleep hours after delivering his statement. Trevor died having dedicated his life to hunting creatures he never understood.

Every kernel of knowledge we absorb begs more questions than are resolved. As listeners, we can only cross our fingers, listen, and hope that these loose ends and scant threads of a much larger mystery will be enough to keep our cast of deadpan, plucky, heartfelt, and hilarious researchers safe.

There is a moment in episode 39, Infestation, while Jon and assistants Sasha and Martin are taking shelter from an invasion of hostile worms and their walking ex-human flesh-hive, that Jon confesses that the reason he records every moment on tape is because he refuses “to become another goddamned mystery.” The unknown scope of the forces that move in this world prey upon Jon’s mind, and he follows the declaration with this line: “Every real statement just leads into something I don’t even know the shape of yet.”

But while Jonathan Sims and the archive crew witness horror after horror, there’s a lot more on the table for us as listeners and fans. The world is large and scary but there is liberation in the telling of stories that give form to fear. I used to live in North Carolina, and when I did, there was a summer where me and a friend would set out towels in the grass on sunny days and listen to audio horror until night. I was scared of a lot of things in that crossroad summer: What am I supposed to do with my life? Where do I go and what if it’s nowhere? If I find a job that takes me far away from what was my home, how much will I have to leave behind? All horrifying thoughts and none of them even remotely close to resembling flesh-hive worm people. But intangible fears are hard to express, and flesh-hive worm people offer a cathartic release. Having gone through the motions of simulacrum fear, the real thing becomes easier to face.

More than anything, the open-ended nature of these early Magnus stories remind me of tales told around a campfire, where a scary story shared becomes a bonding agent. To experience fear is to admit vulnerability, and we are never more vulnerable than when we are alone. Experiencing a scary story together makes us less vulnerable because we are no longer isolated. That summer of scary stories I mentioned is long gone as the past buries the past, but The Magnus Archives has revived those days in a way that has been a comfort. The world is scarier now than ever in our time and we need more scary stories to make us bold and brave and able to cope. And here’s the genius of Phase 1 of The Magnus Archives. Maybe you, the prospective new listener, are not really plugged into the fandom yet—that’s fine! You’re not alone. Jon, Sasha, Martin, and Tim experience these stories secondhand with you. Your fellowship of vulnerability is with them, which is going to make the next Phases so much scarier.

If you’re interested in reading more about The Magnus Archives and how horror makes us less alone, I can’t recommend this fantastic article by Kali Wallace enough.

 

Phase 2: Chills, Thrills, & Isolation
Seasons 2 and 3

Season One saw snippets about the Magnus staff’s lives sprinkled throughout the episodes with a big jump out of secondary statements and into the present with that shambling worm-horror, but in Phase 2, these snippets become regular postscripts at the end of each episode. The horror becomes twofold: There are the statements of the paranormal, and then there are the more immediate threats within the walls of the Institute. In episode 40 and Season One finale, Human Remains, we learn that in the mad scramble to avoid evil worms, Martin has stumbled upon the body of former Head Archivist Gertrude Robinson in the catacombs beneath their office. She has been shot. And with that discovery, the horror evolves. Jon says as much in a private recording that caps the episode, “My predecessor was murdered… She was killed in the archives, by someone who used a gun, and that scares me more than any spectre or twisted creature. Because that means there’s a killer. … I’m going to figure this out, and I’m not going to stop. They’ll have to kill me first.”

In my breakdown of Phase 1, I talked about the unifying power of scary stories. While this Phase of The Magnus Archives can still unite us as fans and listeners, the characters of the show are driven further and further apart by Jon’s advancing paranoia. Rather than standing together against fear, it is the archive staff that Jon is afraid of. He works in secret with police officer Basira Hussain and becomes hostile to his staff. Stil, someone did kill Gertrude, and the listeners know that something is wrong with Sasha, who encountered an unknown entity in the catacombs while running from worms. Her manner is now changed, and she’s got a new voice actor. Hmm. Wonder if she’s been replaced by that creature that mimics people from episode 3, Across the Street? This could be a problem. Despite everything, Institute big boss Elias assures everyone that all is fine, and encourages them to just go back to work, but Season 1 has left its scars, and there is no going back.

The focal point of The Magnus Archive’s horrific evolution into Phase 2 is this: The archive staff are no longer united against the big bad world and big bad things that dwell within (and outside) it. The scariness has evolved from the alien stuff of Way Out There to the very close and very personal trap we can sense closing around us but cannot in our franticness identify an escape from. Episode 56, Children of the Night, sees Jon explode at Martin after Basira delivers a second statement from vampire hunter Trevor Herbert dated after his supposed death that accuses him of being untrustworthy. A mortified Martin admits to lying on his CV about completing high school, and Jon’ relief is palpable, as is ours. The heartbreak of this stretch of the show is that by now, we are attached to these characters and bleed from both sides when they clash. Jon’s wrath is slicing and brutal as he tears into kind and a bit of a pushover at this point in his progression Martin, and it hurts to hear. The performance is extraordinarily well-done and we sympathize with Martin but also understand that Jon’s anger is rooted in isolating fear. His head is a scary place to be, and we’ve been there with him through every episode.

In Phase 1, the scares are sterilized by the fact that they, for the most part, happened to other people. Both the archival staff and we the listeners are spared the traumatic aftermath of mortal peril. Now, every clash amplifies the character’s vulnerability because they are driven further apart, which feeds the greater horror of being trapped with no one to rely on and only finite time.

For me, transitioning into this phase was cresting the top of the roller coaster, and everything after plunged into a wild time period of marathon in which the headphones and episodes never went off. The deeper horror of Phase 1 was creeping and conceptual, but then the show hits you with this injection of adrenaline labeled Phase 2. The variety of each statement recorded by Jon ensures you can expect something new and different in every episode, while the supplemental update on the state of his search for Gertrude’s murderer makes every end a cliffhanger. It’s an immensely marathon-able combination, and Jon’s desperation for answers was rivaled only by mine. I couldn’t wait to hear the next episode, again and again.

When the answers do come, the thrills don’t stop. In time, Jonathan learns of the existence of The Entities—cosmic incarnations of fear who are sustained by earthly Avatars that prey on and instill the fears of their patron into mortal beings. The vampires killed by Trevor Herbert? They were aligned with The Hunt, a primal force of determination and predation. Trevor was too. The fake Sasha (eventually discovered) belonged to The Stranger and the real one is dead. And Jonathan Sims and the entire Magnus Institute? They are agents of the Entity known as The Eye. The goal of every Entity, we come to learn, is to reshape existence in their image, editing the laws of reality to favor the flavors of fear that feed them through a ritual enacted by their Avatars.

The immediacy of the danger increases throughout Season 3 with the introduction and return of more adversaries, including a living mannequin that harvests people for their parts and a man with long curling fingers that travels an endless labyrinth of doors that can open anywhere. But behind all of this, the isolation persists. Jon is an Avatar who subsists off bearing witness to the deepest fears of others, a vampire in his own right. When he asks questions, the recipient is compelled to answer, and will feel The Eye watching them for the rest of their days. This of course, makes him difficult for the others to trust. But there’s no time to dwell on that reality for too long. Servants of The Stranger are going to destroy the world. Even deadly Elias, who is revealed by this point to have murdered Gertrude Robinson, takes a backseat in this race against time.

 

Phase 3: Moments of Kindness
Seasons 4 and 5

Season 3 ends with the implosion of The Stranger’s ritual and the tragic death of archival assistant Timothy Stoker. Have fun on your kayaking trip, buddy. On a positive note: Elias, whose affiliation with The Eye has given him the ability to see out of any oculus on the planet, be it organic (eyes), mechanical (cameras), or symbolic (drawings of eyes and cameras), has been played by Martin and now must continue ruining everyone’s lives from a jail cell. Hey remember that conflict of interest about The Lonely I mentioned a second ago? Unfortunately, creepy Elias’s crawly bestie Peter Lukas (voiced by Alasdair Stuart of Pseudopod fame!) will be taking over the institute in his stead. By the time Jon wakes from the coma the end of Season 3 left him in, a disquietingly passive new normal has fallen over the institute.

So what do you do once you’ve saved the world? If you work for the Magnus Institute, the answer is, you grapple with your complicity within the machinations of the unkind forces. Episode 121, Far Away, sees an Avatar of the fear of death—The End—named Oliver Banks, offer his statement to the comatose Jonathan. He reveals to Jon’s unconscious body that the tendrils of death that infiltrated his dreams so long ago (Episode 11, Dreamer) are now visible when he is awake. Oliver recounts his attempt to escape The End by traveling to Point Nemo, the spot farther from land than anywhere else on the planet, but the tendrils find him there too, and realizing that he cannot escape his fate, he murders the ship captain and follows The End’s guidance to position their boat in the path of space junk crashing down to earth, killing everyone on board. He tells Jon, “You’re not quite human enough to die, but still too human to survive… I made a choice. We all made choices. Now you have to.” Later, Jonathan Sims wakes up. The rollercoaster of Phase 2 is over. Understanding the cost his life will extoll from others, Jon has made his choice.

The isolation of this phase is colder than the hotblooded suspicion and accusations of before. This is the dread of The Magnus Archives at its most existential. Prior to this point, the immediate danger of a killer on the loose or evil ritual justified the horror of becoming cogs in the fear machine. Those distractions are gone now.

But even at its bleakest (and it gets bleak), The Magnus Archives centers the humanity of its characters. It surprises with moments of sweetness. Coworkers shooting the breeze over after-work drinks and defying powers beyond mortal comprehension to save someone you’re only kind of friends with, etc.. You know, the normal sweet stuff. By episode 132, Entombed, Jon is in possession of the coffin that Joshua Gillespie looked after so many episodes ago. Inside is an ally—Basira’s ex-partner from the police station, Daisy Tonner—who entered the casket during a ritual and disappeared. There is so much he can do nothing about, but this is something he can try to fix. In the end Jon is successful and Daisy Tonner, who is an Avatar of The Hunt going through a similar struggle to him, is saved. You cheer, and four episodes later in 136, The Puppeteer, when Daisy’s had enough of Jon’s moping, cheer again. “Get over yourself!” she chides him. “You’re always talking about choices; we all made ours. Now I’m making a choice to get some drinks in. Coming?”

But how do these moments like these evolve the horror? Notes of kindness elevate the stakes by reminding us that the bleakness is neither everything nor forever. Even when Elias succeeds in manipulating Jon into fulfilling his ritual and transforms the world into a nightmare hellscape where Avatars of all fears torture undying humans for the observation of the all-powerful and all-seeing Eye, The Magnus Archives uses kindness to drive home the horror. When the new world emerges, Jon and Martin, now a couple, have escaped to Scotland for what they thought would be a pleasant vacation. They still get their time alone, but it’s as they traverse the domains of various Entities on their way back to London in the hopes of reversing things, if that’s even possible. The settings are wildly inventive, gruesome, and fantastical—my personal favorite is the garden of pulsating, living flesh that we learn are reshaped people—but the sweet normalness of Jon and Martin’s romance grounds the narrative. They bicker and joke, and somehow even at the heart of the inferno, have something to lose.

 

If you read all the way through this giant wall of stan text and are a fellow Magnus adherent, I’m so excited to ride out these remaining episodes with you. If you read all the way through this and have yet to begin The Magnus Archives, I wish you bon voyage and encourage you not to worry! The fandom fun will continue long beyond that time when the curtain falls on the final season.

Thank you to Jonathan Sims, Alexander J. Newall, Frank Voss, Mike LeBeau, Ben Meredith, Lydia Nicholas, Fay Roberts, Sue Jon, Imogen Harris, Sasha Sienna, Evelyn Hewitt, Lottie Broomhall, and every single person involved with writing, producing, and creating this fantastic podcast that has been so much fun to listen to.

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