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Just as the most effective lies often hold a grain of truth, the most terrifying stories are usually grounded in reality. Imagine hearing tales of European noblewomen torturing, killing, and biting the flesh off the bodies of young girls, practitioners of voodoo in the French Quarter who could predict financial success as well as the survival of sick children, mysterious cases of humans spontaneously bursting into flame — and then being told that the stories were not stories at all, but that they actually happened. The nonfiction horror podcast “Lore” does just that, sneakily teaching its audience the ugly parts of history and unveiling the lasting effects of past injustices under the guise of a typical ghost story.
“Lore” is narrated, written, and produced by a single man: Aaron Mahnke. After the wave of acclaim surrounding the podcast’s initial release in 2015, Mahnke’s investigations into scary, real events have been adapted into a collection of books as well as a horror anthology series on Amazon Prime. The latest chapter of “Lore” is Episode 98: Never Alone, released on Oct. 15, detailing the formation of Seattle Underground in the mid-1800s, a seedy collection of gambling parlors and brothels that resided beneath the shiny, new downtown Seattle that was constructed after a devastating fire burnt most of the city to the ground.
An episode of “Lore” typically mirrors the plot progression of a thriller or mystery novel, first teasing the listener with a pivotal scene and then rewinding to reveal what led to that scene. Mahnke thrusts the listener into the midst of a strange, eerie situation without warning, capturing their interest with a brief taste of what seems to be just another ghost story. Mahnke then switches gears, explaining seemingly unrelated yet extremely detailed historical background that will eventually tie into an explanation of how reality informed the ghost story he began telling earlier in the episode. The clever strategy of beginning each podcast episode with anecdotes allows “Lore” to use the whimsical lacquer of a campfire tale to disguise otherwise dull history lessons and create a sense of unresolved mystery that a listener can only quench by listening to the rest of the podcast.
Given that “Lore” features no guests, no other voices or conversation to provide a change of pace, Mahnke alone carries the burden of keeping listeners engaged. His narration style is functional and pleasant enough for the most part. Mahnke’s relatively slow speaking pace and precise pronunciation are reminiscent of a father reading bedtime stories to his children, which builds an intimately eerie atmosphere and allows his audience to more easily absorb the plethora of information that he recites. Occasionally, however, a few oddly placed pauses and strange intonation can cause Mahnke to sound like a politician instead, reading off a script without fully processing the meanings of the words he’s speaking. Nevertheless, even if Mahnke’s delivery of the content is lukewarm, “Lore” still holds a certain charm because of his phrasing and spot-on word choice, painting vivid pictures with elegant prose.
“Lore” is especially refreshing in its unique take on horror — much of the horror genre tries to either prove or disprove the existence of supernatural creatures and scare the audience with the possibility that these demonic menaces actually exist. “Lore” does not take a stance on whether ghosts are real, but displays an anthropological view on how the very endurance of ghost stories illustrates the long shadows that traumatic histories can cast on the present. In the end, what “Lore” presents as truly terrifying is not supernatural beings, but instead the real people who committed the injustices that gave the ghosts reason for seeking vengeance and lingering in the earthly world.
History is often presented in truncated, bite-sized pieces. The result is that many people forget the past is a whole web of causes and effects happening in tandem. Some may mistakenly assume that historical events occur in a perfectly linear chronology, each event waiting politely for the previous one to finish before beginning, or worse yet, they unconsciously think that each war or reformation period exists in its own vacuum. To counter this, “Lore” deftly unites the plotlines of simultaneous histories through their common tangent point of a ghost story and effectively uses the horror genre as a platform to make the dark parts of our history memorable and visible in popular culture.
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