By Samantha Gomez
[This article originally appeared on the site Old Man Geek, run by Bleeding Cool writer Ray Flook]
Welcome readers…welcome to Night Vale.
Well…ok…not really Night Vale, more like a comprehensive introduction to one of the most beloved podcasts out on the Internet these days. If you haven’t heard of it before, I hope this post excites you to the point of running to your nearest computer, knocking over anyone who might be in your way and downloading the first episode. Alright, maybe you can forgo part of that last bit. We here at Old Man Geek do not condone violence. Especially not the kind that can be traced back to us. So please be polite…but stay eager! And this goes same for all of you who maybe have heard of the show, but know very little and are not sure whether to take the plunge. For those of you who are huge fans – enjoy the nostalgia!
Welcome to Night Vale (WtNV) is the brainchild of Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor and first appeared on iTunes way back on June 15th, 2012. The basic story is of a little town in the desert areas of the U.S. (we never find out which state or where exactly in the desert) where every weird conspiracy or urban legend takes place. It is told via the golden, dulcet tones of Cecil Baldwin, who plays Cecil Palmer, the local radio host. Every two weeks we get a new episode filled with weird, creepy, and often hilarious events happening around town.
So what makes this particular podcast special? The concept of the “strange town” is hardly new. Television shows like Eureka, Haven, and Bates Motel use this as a central theme. It’s also strewn across literature from H.P. Lovecraft’s Innsmouth, MA to Stephen King’s Derry, ME. If what you want is a seemingly normal town with a dark secret, there is a whole page on TVTropes.com for your perusal. What makes Welcome to Night Vale special is that, the secrets aren’t really secret and the weird and horrible seem almost…normal as it’s being reported.
Most works within this trope usually show an outsider who arrives reasons only known to them and is struck by the odd happenings around him/her. You are meant to relate to this character, who often acts as the narrator. In this case, the outsiders are not the focus and instead are looked upon with either disdain or adoration, depending on how the true storyteller, Cecil, feels. All the strange events that occur such as the appearance of angels, mind-controlling pyramids, condos that are not what they seem, fugitive dragons, etc, are considered mundane, everyday life and anyone who believes otherwise should not be trusted.
It is this, more than anything else that sets Night Vale apart. Instead of feeling like the intrepid explorer searching out the truth, the listener is instead treated as one of the many townspeople, listening to the local news. The appeal here is if you’ve ever felt like the odd duck, the misfit, the weirdo, well…there is a place for you here. And so what started out as a small project escalated into a worldwide phenomenon, which has the entire cast (yes, there are other voices than Cecil’s that make appearances) and writing team traveling to meet as many fans as possible.
Since the popularity of the show spiked, WtNV has gone ahead and brought in new voices to really round-out the story. Many may not seem well-known, but a few names do stand out among the crowd. There is Mara Wilson, of Matilda and Mrs. Doubtfire fame, who plays The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your Home (no, really, that’s her name, I don’t make this stuff up). Another voice that might seem familiar is that of Jasika Nicole of the former hit television show Fringe (and less known is her role as Egypt in Take the Lead, a fun film about Antonio Banderas helping inner-city kids through the power of dance – don’t judge me on how I know this). There is also Jackson Publick, most known for his work on The Venture Bros. But this is just a handful of the talent who bring to life the fun, creepy, beautiful world of the town of Night Vale.
The feeling of complete, warm acceptance makes Night Vale not just a figurative community, but a literal one. Episodes have been written by fans, which have then been performed and recorded. People have been asked to submit music for the “weather” section of the show, which allows fans to find new, up-and-coming performers. There have also been collaborations with artists, who create beautiful artwork that is sometimes turned into merchandise. Fans not only relate with each other, they relate with the creators. In a time where interactive media is really taking off and there is still confusion about how to integrate the fans in a way that feels genuine, Cranor, Fink, Baldwin & company have fallen into naturally
And if all of that isn’t enough to wet your whistle and make you come back for more, have I mentioned how interested they are in having characters of all walks of life? Race and sexual identity issues aren’t really addressed in Night Vale because, there, it really isn’t an issue. People are who they are and they eat together, work together, and run away from monstrous librarians and fight evil corporations together. By doing this the show has created a space for fans to talk about how easy it can be to remain inclusive without making such a thing about it. Women are strong characters here, without going into the normal tropes. Cecil’s personal storyline leads him to a boyfriend, an event that is organic and, especially given what generally goes on in the town, the absolute least crazy thing to “reveal.” Here is where I must say that I’m not trivializing real world problems with identity, but rather convey the wonder and excitement that is finding a fandom that is not only friendly to all of these walks of life, but is doing so with great purpose and conviction! Which is something that, while not super rare, is not super common either. So it bears mentioning, ok?
Alright, so I showed you what makes WtNV special from all other sci-fi/horror/fantasy stories out there, but why should you listen? What makes this podcast worth your time?
I mean, you’d have to catch up through over 50 episodes and that’s not including the live episodes that can be found here at Commonplace Books for whatever you can afford to pay! Did I mention that the writing is extremely tight and the actors are ridiculously talented? Because it is and they are! At first you’re going to listen to this and feel completely lost. This is normal. But once you really get into it (and trust me, this is inevitable), you will notice that there is a method to this particular brand of madness. Despite what you may believe in the beginning, the continuity is upheld to an amazing degree!
And did I mention that It’s hilarious? When you get past the absolute creepiness that underlies every word spoken, the absurdity hits you hard and often. In a strange way, it makes the town more comforting. Sure, there’s dangers hidden wherever you look (whatever you do – DON’T GO IN THE DOG PARK! DON’T EVEN LOOK AT IT!), but it’s all handled with an air of the mundane that is particularly funny and even creepier than just setting it up to be scary. You find yourself becoming more irritated about the town racist (ugh – what an embarrassment!) than worried about the malevolent forces he’s uncovered.
So if you enjoy creepiness, humor, and overall amazing writing and casting, then you should look no further! We are always welcoming new neighbors…if you can find us, that is.
And as always, whether you live in New York, San Francisco, Delaware, or under a rock…
Goodnight, Night Vale. Goodnight.
Check-out these additional resources for more information:
Welcome to Night Vale (Official website)
The 42 Stages of Welcome to Night Vale Addiction
11 Burning Night Vale Questions Answered by Cecil Baldwin
The Leonard Lopate Show: “The Creepy World of Welcome to Night Vale”-Interviewing Joseph Fink, Jeffrey Cranor & Cecil Baldwin
Samantha Gomez is a new part-time contributor to Old Man Geek. Office monkey by day, super mega nerd by night, Samantha is obsessed with reading, radio dramas, superheroes, and all things weird. If you want to see more of our fearless junior reporter, she can be found by hooting gently like an owl during a foggy night under the full moon when she will appear with a tray of cookies and fun stories to share. Otherwise, you can check out her stuff on Instagram: @pardonmysass; or on Twitter: @pardonmysass