Welcome to Night Vale: Paranoid Podcast

Sometimes things are off; they’re not entirely explainable; they’re eerie, or uncanny. In 1964, Jim Templeton was out with his daughter and captured the image of what appeared to be a man in a white suit just over her head. Many people now know the photograph as the Solway Firth Spaceman.

In 1997, multiple people across Phoenix, Arizona witnessed the passing of strange lights in the sky flying in a V-formation.

Then, there are the conspiracy theories: chemical-laced contrails, extraterrestrials at Area 51, and secret government experiments.

As if the modern world were not scary enough, the added ambiguity and weirdness that these legends bring is not always welcomed. In fact, it’s much easier to just cast them off altogether, but at the same time it really is fun to indulge conspiracies. “Night Vale,” the fictional setting and namesake of the podcast “Welcome to Night Vale,” offers a distillation of the weirdness we all crave, at least a little. At once vaguely menacing and humorous, it’s a must-listen.

The premise for “Night Vale” is simple­—there’s a town in the Southwestern US where all conspiracies are real. The creators Joseph Fink, originally from California, and Jeffrey Cranor got the idea for the show after Fink moved to New York out of college. From there, “Night Vale” began as a hobby but grew into something much more. Narrated by the steady and somewhat unsettling voice of Cecil Baldwin, the show reached the status of most listened-to podcast on iTunes in July 2013. Fink and Cranor seemed surprised by the resounding success of their side project, and were enthusiastic to keep the series going.

Each episode is comprised of two elements with the town news report as the main attraction. Fink has described it as “NPR meets The Twilight Zone.” A strange event sets the overarching storyline, such as the arrival of an unnaturally attractive scientist or the appearance of a mysterious glowing cloud on the outskirts of town. The show is then sprinkled with other stories that are shorter but no less bizarre, even frightening. For example, “Night Vale” hosts a dog park but no one is allowed in the dog park. Also, be sure to ignore the hooded figures that gather there. Most segments leave me somewhere between laughing and shuddering.

Fink and Cranor intersperse the episode with musical interludes, the longer ones called “weather reports,” which feature a wide variety of artists and styles. At first, Fink played songs that he personally enjoyed. However, as the show grew in popularity, artists began approaching him, asking to be included in the podcast. While Disparition (ambient electronic music that is well worth a listen) comprises most of the shorter interludes throughout the show, the weather reports include anything from acoustic guitar to hip-hop. Rest assured that it’s all very weird though.

So, the question remains: how is “Welcome to Night Vale” so successful? For a podcast that is utterly surreal and premised around conspiracies, what is the draw for so many people, including myself? The argument that everyone watching it just has a weird sense of entertainment aside, I think “Night Vale” is so successful because of its format. It’s the scary story told around the campfire or the horror story broadcast on the radio that the whole family gathers around to hear. Because we can’t see the characters of “Night Vale”—the hooded figures or the lights over the Arby’s—we’re forced to use our imaginations. The result is something funny and absurd but at the same time disturbing. With everything in our culture offered up to us visually, there is a reasonable desire to go back to when things weren’t so clear cut. It’s fun when simple words about the lights in the sky, our paranoias, and the plain weirdness of daily living can be distilled and projected for us. There’s a reason we have conspiracies and urban legends; it’s our imaginations at work. “Night Vale” lets our imaginations play, and that’s fun.