Fear is living: Horror as therapy

Ameena Golding/Staff

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When Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor produced the first episode of “Welcome to Night Vale” more than five years ago, I wonder if they had any inkling of the therapeutic effects that would be found in their “friendly desert community where the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful and mysterious lights pass overhead while we all pretend to sleep.” Night Vale Presents now hosts seven podcasts, varying widely in focus — but the poignancy of Fink and Cranor’s horror persists.

“Welcome to Night Vale” and “Alice Isn’t Dead,” penned by Fink, are very different stories, but they share the common genre of horror storytelling podcasts. “Welcome to Night Vale” is a public radio show for the fictional city of Night Vale. The voice of Night Vale is our main character Cecil Palmer (Cecil Baldwin). It is clear from the first episode (which warns listeners to stay far away from the dog park) that this is no ordinary town. The question of Night Vale’s reality (and whether it matters) is one that persists throughout the show.

“Alice Isn’t Dead” is set in our world. We learn that our narrator, Keisha (Jasika Nicole), has discovered that, despite her belief otherwise, her wife is not dead. Angry, confused and most of all hurt, she sets out in search of both her wife and answers. She soon finds she has wandered into a nightmare when she watches some monstrous creature, who she names “the Thistle Man,” eat a man in a truck stop parking lot. She flees the truck stop, but the Thistle Man, and the horrors he is associated with, follow.

So yeah, the worlds of these podcasts are terrifying, but it is in this terror that comfort can be found. “Alice Isn’t Dead” is explicit about Keisha’s anxiety disorder and how it is this very anxiety that helps her to face these horrors. Night Vale is about a community of people that live in a town that tries to kill them every other week, but they still gather for town halls and football games in the midst of this terror.

The plots of “Night Vale” are all presented in an absurd guise — one of the enemies worships a great yellow smiling god (*cough cough*), and the resistance is led by bookish preteens — but it is ultimately a very simple story about very real fears: censorship, surveillance and the dangers of capitalism.

In “Alice Isn’t Dead,” Keisha is literally chased by a creature that eats humans. The show, however, is also a look at anxieties regarding police. Keisha discovers that police are either part of the conspiracy or at least willfully blind to it, and she is stalked by a monstrous woman who chooses to travel in a police cruiser.

The horrors of these worlds are abstract and overblown only until closer examination — the fears and dangers of our characters are things people face every day. Maybe the horror is not quite as literal and maybe the monsters are harder to spot, but they are real all the same. Our character’s triumphs are often equally absurd (a sentient, fist-sized river rock is involved in the defeat of one of the antagonists in “Night Vale”), but at their core, these triumphs remind listeners that no matter how overwhelming the horrors, we possess the ability to face them.

In one of the more terrifying moments of the first season, Keisha is physically attacked by the Thistle Man. As she narrates, we witness her harnessing fear as she realizes “that anxiety is just an energy. It is an uncontrollable, near infinite energy, surging within me. … I told my fear to overtake me, make me more afraid. I am not afraid of feeling afraid, make me more afraid. All of that energy, I turned it outwards. I pushed it into my arms, my legs, my teeth. Fuck the Thistle Man.”

Not only does she find power in fear, but FDR had it wrong: Fear is not to be feared. Earlier in the show, Keisha talks about how she’s scared “pretty much all the time just of living, of life,” but this doesn’t stop her. She keeps on living. That’s the power of these shows.

Listen, I’ve been terrified of basically everything for as long as I can remember. And when I say that, people don’t always understand, or they think I’m exaggerating — but there are so many days when mustering the courage just to get out of bed feels akin to gathering the courage to face off with a Thistle Man.

There’s something so deeply and weirdly comforting about being handed a story that says, “It’s OK, your fear makes sense, you should be afraid, because after all, the world is full of terror and evil — but you are not alone, and it is worth it to live, in spite of and in the midst of this fear, because there’s a lot of love and beauty, too.”

The nightmares of these podcasts are always just a backdrop. At first glance, they may be horror stories, but at their core, they are love stories. Cecil and his boyfriend Carlos (voiced by Dylan Marron) first express their feelings for one another after Carlos is nearly killed in a miniature town beneath the bowling alley. They kiss on the trunk of a car, lit by a neon Arby’s sign and unknown lights in the sky. Cecil tells us that “We understand the lights. We understand the lights above the Arby’s. We understand so much. But the sky behind those lights, mostly void, partially stars, that sky reminds us: we don’t understand even more.” There is so much we don’t understand and that is scary, but it is also OK.

Keisha drives these nightmare roads, looking demons in the eyes as they wrap their hand around her throat, because she just wants to find her wife and be with her again. Like Cecil says, we are all just hoping to find someone to “keep the light on a little longer against the endless pressing dark.”

In my favorite episode of all 100+ episodes of Welcome to Night Vale, Cecil implores his listeners to resist the oppression of StrexCorp. He acknowledges their fear, but challenges them, asking, “Are we living a life that is safe from harm? Of course not. We never are. But that’s not the right question. The question is, are we living a life that is worth the harm?”

“Night Vale” and “Alice Isn’t Dead” don’t pull punches. The world is fucking terrifying. Even without the existence of people choosing to do evil, life can be random and cruel, and there’s no protecting against that. But as Cecil reminds us, “Death is slotted for us all … and we have every reason to be afraid. But we also need to learn to put that fear aside … and experience something else. Contentment. Worry. Calm. Hunger. Spinal parasites. And a great deal of love, of every kind. So put that fear in a place where you can find it when you need it, but don’t carry it with you! Don’t carry it with you.” Be afraid, be in love, be both. That’s life.

When it all comes down to it, being in love is just being scared together.

Contact Danielle Hilborn at [email protected].