Happy Halloween! Starting out an essay about a traditional aspect of horror saying that my limit for the genre has always been fairly low is an interesting choice, but bear with me. I’ve never been someone who chooses to actively seek out horror TV shows/films, and looking back now, at least some of that was partly due to a horror film I watched too young (and by too young I mean around 12 or 13), with a jump scare that I still vividly remember today. After discovering audio fiction, it took me some time to start listening to horror podcasts, and slowly I discovered that I have a completely different relationship with horror in audio. Just over four and a half years on after getting into audio fiction, some of my favourite fiction podcasts are now actually horror stories.
For Halloween last year, I put together a list of some of my favourite fiction podcasts which feature ghosts. Over the past year, my mind has often wandered back to that list, thinking about how ghosts are portrayed in different podcasts, and how I’ve enjoyed so many shows which feature ghosts in some way. This year, I wanted to expand on some of my thoughts about ghosts, and how this staple of the horror genre is portrayed in some fiction podcasts.
Ghosts are an important element of some of Tin Can Audio’s work, most notably in Middle:Below. Tin Can Audio are based in Scotland, and when looking at fiction podcasts coming out of each of the countries in the UK, something that’s always struck me as interesting is the amount of podcasts produced in Scotland or by Scottish folks which involve ghosts, or also more generally, the paranormal. For example, there’s Libby Thomas’ Glasgow Ghost Stories; Jester’s Baffies Productions’ comedy horror A Scottish Podcast, which takes a more amusing and satirical look at the paranormal in general; as well as Ghostly Thistle’s The McIlwraith Statements, which I’ll be looking at later on in this essay. Each of these shows has a different way of examining our relationship with ghosts and hauntings, local legends and scary stories, and trying to give meaning to the unexplained.
In Middle:Below, there’s a parallel world inhabited by spirits, called The Below. It’s not somewhere humans are supposed to end up, our world is The Middle – where ghosts are still scary to your average person. It’s established in the show’s first episode that Tyler is the only person who can move between the two – or, at least, he should be the only person who can – and moving from the Middle to the Below is as easy as opening a door in his flat, which isn’t always a good thing. And then there’s Tyler’s mate Gil, who just so happens to be a ghost. Gil’s not really your typical ghost, he’s friendly and really not scary at all, but there are other spirits who are scary. There’s a very clear distinction between these ghosts and Gil, and I’ve always been intrigued by this separation of good vs evil spirits; Gil wants to help Tyler, but there are plenty in The Below who are hostile to him or threaten him. There are malevolent spirits which haunt objects such as arcade games and phones, which Tyler helps to move on from The Below – sometimes by using some very unusual methods. Even though these are two separate worlds, there’s a real sense of co-existence, albeit an uneasy one, between the living and the dead; and Tyler has one foot in both.
Hughes and Mincks: Ghost Detectives is created by Sophie Hughes and Caroline Mincks; who, as the show’s title suggests, also voice the two main characters. The two investigate reported hauntings, as members of the public contact them for help. What strikes me the most about Hughes and Mincks: Ghost Detectives (apart from the excellent puns) is how human the ghosts are. It’s a world like ours, where not everyone believes in ghosts, but here they’re very much real. The tone of the show is generally fairly light-hearted, and there’s plenty of banter and questionable food choices to bookend Hughes and Mincks’ encounters with the ghosts they meet in each episode. These spirits aren’t always peaceful, they like moving things around and generally causing a bit of a nuisance; but the emphasis isn’t on how scary they are, but on the fact that they’re stuck in an existence between life and death and need to move on. Hughes and Mincks try to understand each ghost, sometimes even starting at the point of having to explain to them that they’re dead; as well as the unfinished business that’s keeping them tethered to our world. This often involves a compromise between the living and the dead, with those who have been haunted by a ghost often needing to help them. This leads to some emotional scenes, as the ghosts begin to finally say goodbye to their old lives, and sometimes also the people they cared about when they were alive.
Mincks is also one of the co-creators of Light Hearts (with Evan Tess Murray and Tal Minear), a sitcom set in a queer community space. With their involvement in the show, it’s not a huge surprise that Prism is haunted. But it’s not haunted by just one ghost, oh no, there are ‘significant ghosts’ – and I’ve always found that this phrasing from episode one shines a comical light on the situation right from the beginning of the story. However, here the ghosts aren’t portrayed as people; as also in episode one, Ryan explains that they’re “mostly just memories” at this point. What they are however, is more of a constant mischievous – but not dangerous – presence in the building that Janine and her customers have to learn to deal with, and also add some fun to the story. They aren’t the main focus of the show, but they do enjoy their pranks, and make their feelings about swearing very clear…
This loss of humanity in ghosts is also a theme which is treated in Ghostly Thistle‘s The McIlwraith Statements, even though many of the ghosts here look just like humans. This podcast for me is one of the most notable examples out of all of the audio fiction podcasts I’ve personally listened to where ghosts are a threat or pose a real danger to people. The story is very much rooted in how ghosts or the belief in the paranormal are often seen in modern society; and this world is also very similar to ours, with society split over the existence of ghosts. Our narrator, Sarah McIlwraith, was part of an infamous study into the paranormal when she was a PhD student, and some of the elements of the study’s investigations will be familiar to anyone who’s spent any time watching ghost hunting reality TV shows. What makes this story very different, however, is that Sarah can actually see ghosts. It’s a chilling thought, someone who could just be going about their everyday life, unable to escape seeing ghosts wherever they go. Sarah keeps her ability a secret, which obviously isn’t an easy thing to do when working on a study which investigates the paranormal. Sarah naturally has a certain amount of genuine understanding of the paranormal, but even she doesn’t understand everything about ghosts. There are some encounters with more malicious spirits, those who are so old they’ve forgotten who they were, and now resemble dark shadows. One of these shadows appears in episodes eight and nine, a dangerous spirit haunting a family home, putting people’s lives at risk. As with the other ghosts Sarah encountered during the study, there’s still a story about this ghost’s death to be discovered, and as she’s the one who can actually see them, the ghost is able to help her with this.
It’s so difficult talking about Unwell without spoiling a big part of the plot, but the town of Mt. Absolom definitely has a very unique relationship with ghosts. Again, the theme of co-existence between the living and the dead is very important to this story, though each of the ghosts of Mt. Absolom has their own unique relationship with the town and the people who live there, as well as different abilities. Fenwood House, a boarding house and Lily’s family home, is old, and has a lot of history tied to it; so it’s not a huge surprise that it also runs ghost tours. A creaky old house which claims to be the oldest continually inhabited structure in Ohio, it absolutely has haunted vibes right from the start. As we get to know this town better, we also discover that there are other buildings which are haunted too. One of the lesser-spoilery ghosts is Norah, who has been in the town observatory for over 100 years. On the surface, it’s a more traditional haunting, one ghost haunting the building where they died, with some unfinished business, but Norah is anything but scary. And her unfinished business? She wants to rebuild the observatory’s telescope – the telescope she started to build herself, using her own designs – but of course, she can no longer do this on her own.
Less is Morgue, from The Praeps Collective, completely throws out the idea that ghosts are scary. Evelyn is an absolute cinnamon roll who must be protected at all costs, and her podcast co-host Riley (who is a ghoul) is the scariest of the two by a long way – though admittedly, Evelyn does pull the scary ghost card in some more extreme circumstances. This is a world where humans live side-by-side with monsters and cryptids, but people can’t see Evelyn – apart from Riley. Even though Evelyn’s current state in the afterlife still ties her to Earth, there’s a sense of disconnect between her and the current world, especially at the beginning of the show. She hasn’t been a ghost for all that long; after dying in 2004 in an accident at a Nickelback concert, she’s missed out on around 16 years of events on Earth. Her outdated pop culture knowledge places her as being from the early 2000s, and even though she can interact with technology, unfortunately (fortunately?) she’s unable to use Twitter as a ghost to learn about what’s going on in the world outside the basement.
There’s an interesting crossover between ghosts and technology in Battle Bird Productions’ We Fix Space Junk. It’s more of a low key role in the show’s first season, but the fact that Kilner’s spaceship is haunted is introduced through a quick mention in the very first episode. And for the rest of the season, this presence is always in the background, lurking around, just like your typical haunting – except that there’s one person who knows for certain that this ghost exists. You wouldn’t necessarily think you’d get ghosts in space, and it’s a twist on traditional ghost stories – there’s a ‘ghost in the machine’, and it’s the ship’s old AI. AIs in this universe are fully sentient, and this one in particular has some dubious morals. Even after this ‘haunting’ has been resolved, the effects of this ghost’s actions are still very felt much later in the story, affecting one character in particular.
I also want to briefly mention a few other podcasts which feature ghosts in some way, as I was thinking that delving into them deeply would give away too much of the plot. Weaver, created by Newton Sweeney, wrapped up its first season last week. I won’t spoil anything, but I really enjoyed the season finale. The story deals with some very human issues such as isolation and loneliness, and being unable to physically reach out to others. To me, it feels even more relatable after the last 18 months, but of course, our narrator is no longer alive.
Courtney Floyd’s The Way We Haunt Now opens with Eulalie buying an old phonograph which turns out to be haunted. The ghost begins to intrude into audio recordings of Eulalie’s students, before turning into something more sinister. There are two sides to this story, and this definitely isn’t your traditional haunting. The story also flips the harmful trope of disabled folks not needing their mobility aids in the afterlife, as one of the ghosts is a wheelchair user.
In Calliopic Productions’ We Know None ghosts are not a main part of the plot, but they do make up elements of local legends which were investigated by the now-missing Frankie. In the podcast’s third episode, we hear the recording of her exploration of an abandoned shopping centre, said to be haunted by a poltergeist since its closure two years prior. Before this, in episode two, there’s her investigation of a derelict hotel which, on the surface, is also haunted; but it turns out that it’s the fae who are inhabiting the hotel. The Fair Folk are an important part of Welsh folklore and superstitions, and it takes someone local to the area to know what to do when confronted with them.
I also wanted to mention the recent Halloween episode of Someone Dies in This Elevator, a podcast created by Tal Minear (there’s another name we’ve already seen in this essay!), as I really liked the use of a ghost as a symbol for a now-lost past. In a second-person story, a group of friends investigate an abandoned amusement park, and the ghost they come across is not of an individual person, but the spirit of the park itself. I found this embodiment of the past which haunts the present, this longing for a life which no longer exists, very interesting, as well as the consequences of being tied to one place for eternity.
There are many other stories involving ghosts in audio fiction, including some notable shows that I haven’t mentioned here for fear of spoiling twists or major plot points for folks who haven’t listened to them yet (shout out to the word ‘nope’ for no reason in particular…). I’m very glad that audio fiction has given me a space to genuinely enjoy ghost stories, and horror in general, and I’m always excited to discover more!