Personal Essay: Chelsea Davis
I’ve just settled into my seat for a flight from Florida to San Francisco, and my back is already killing me. The chronic lumbar pain that has for the past two years remained mostly a low-level nuisance—a dull but constant unpleasantness, like an irritating live-in uncle—blossomed this past week into a full-on agony. (Probably, this had nothing to do with the fact that I’ve just wrapped up a five-day visit with my very own irritating uncle. Probably.) Standing up sends hot streaks of pain up and down my entire back; walking makes me gasp; and sitting is worst of all. But I’ve got to get back home to see my doctors. So, here I am on this flight, popping Vicodin and grimly expecting the next five hours to make Hostel look like a grade-school sleepover.
When the pain is like this (which has increasingly been the case in the days following that flight), horror podcasts are a balm to me, one of the few distractions so immersive that I can get outside my body. I scroll through my library and find one of my all-time favorite Pseudopod episodes, Mary A. Turzillo’s “Bottle Babies.” Released in February 2009, this was one of the first stories that got me hooked on the ’Pod. Turzillo’s piece is a dark little fairytale about children whose parents raise them in bottles and boxes, their flesh distorted to fit their glass prisons. If you ever read that hoax chain email bewailing the plight of the Bonsai Kittens, it’s kind of like that, but featuring human kids instead of cats (and much better storytelling).
Although I’ve listened to “Bottle Babies” many times, when narrator Ben Phillips once again purrs the third sentence of the story into my ear—“She didn’t have any friends, because mom and dad didn’t want people to come into the house and discover Bobby”—I feel a familiar lurch in the pit of my stomach. It’s the shudder, the under-my-skin tingle, telling me I am already, in a very physical way, under the story’s control. My mind and my flesh belong utterly, for the next 40 minutes, to that author and that narrator. Like the bottle babies, I am trapped; but unlike them, I am a very willing prisoner.
I’m not going to pretend that that flight wasn’t awful; it still was. But it was a lot less awful because I was plugged in to Pseudopod and NoSleep and Nightmare. They carried me far and away from the steel hell of that plane, letting me dwell briefly in the other, tiny hells that the podcasters were whispering into existence for me, and only for me. That intimacy—that sense that a tiny Ben Phillips, or Alasdair Stuart, or Tatiana Gomberg, is sitting right there in my ear, transporting me to worlds that no one else around me can see—is what I love most about any kind of radio. That intimacy is also what makes radio the perfect vehicle for horror, a genre that works best when it looks its audience straight in the eye, grins, and murmurs, “All of these bad, bad things you’re about to hear: I will make you feel like they’re happening not to these characters, but to you.” And in demanding this level of attention, as Pseudopod co-editor Alex Hofelich pointed out to me recently, horror radio arguably trumps film: unlike a movie, where the viewer can always just cover her eyes if the scene gets too suspenseful or grisly, there’s no equivalently half-assed way to listen to audio without losing track of what’s going on. You’re either completely inside the story, or you’re completely severed from it.
Is horror, then, an escape or an immersion? It’s both, and therein lies the complex beauty of the genre. On the one hand, horror sure as hell helped me escape that plane, just as it has helped me escape many other, much darker days. (My desire to help others find that same escape is why I’ve begun contributing to Pseudopod as an associate editor and audio producer.) Yet horror—and especially that profoundly captivating medium, audio horror—also refuses to let us escape. It forces us to confront, and find catharsis for, the violence, fear, hatred, suffering, and other unsavory aspects of human existence that polite society does its best to avoid thinking about. These unpleasantries aren’t going anywhere. That is why Pseudopod’s stories still pose, each week, the same basic question that our forefather in creepy radio, The Shadow, used to ask its audiences over eighty years ago: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?”
And we suspect you want to know, too.
Chelsea Davis is Audio Producer and Associate Editor at Pseudopod. She is a PhD candidate in English with a research focus on horror and the Gothic--meaning she gets to read, write about, and teach creeptastic stuff all the livelong day. She has also produced radio as a reporter and freelancer since 2006.