The podcaster: Aaron Mahnke, creator of hit horror podcast Lore and author of several supernatural thrillers, describes himself as human flypaper, gathering up scattered bits of the past to see what might yield more darkness or intrigue. Lore has grown into a massive success since its debut just over two years ago, allowing Mahnke to expand the universe of the show in new and ambitious ways. With a new book (The World Of Lore: Monstrous Creatures) hitting stores October 10 and a new Amazon series premiering October 13, it’s worth investigating what makes this formula such a draw for audiences; one answer might be that the horrors of antiquity can bear an uncomfortable resemblance to the ones we suffer today. Below Mahnke talks about the three Lore episodes that have resonated with him the most.
Aaron Mahnke: Looking at everything that I’ve done, it’s hard to pick just three [episodes], because I love everything. But I would say this is one of my favorites because of the way it defies expectations. It’s the story of a woman named Mary Webster in the 1600s in colonial Massachusetts who had been accused of witchcraft before. They hauled her off to Boston, she’s gone on trial, she’s been acquitted and sent home, and the people in town don’t like her. She’s not as religious as them; she’s outspoken. She’s the cranky lady who speaks her mind, and people don’t like that in her day and age.
At some point, one of the town elders gets sick, and they blame her for it. They think that she’s bewitching him. A bunch of the younger men in town break into her house and drag her out into her own yard, and then hang her in the tree right there. And when she’s dead, they cut her down and walk away. And the next morning, she gets up. I love it because it’s this moment where she just gives the town a big middle finger.
The second half of this story is that she is an ancestor of Margaret Atwood—this well-known Canadian author who’s the creator of The Handmaid’s Tale is related to Mary. Margaret Atwood wrote a poem called “Half Hanged Mary.” It’s all told from Mary’s perspective; every stanza’s a different hour of her life. And it says, “I wasn’t a witch before, but now I am one.” And I love that. I love that she’s basically saying, “You tried to kill me for being a witch, and I wasn’t. But now I’ve basically come back from the dead. So what am I now?” It’s a great story. There’s a lot of victory in it. I like that.
The A.V. Club: How do you source these stories? How do you come across them, and how much research is involved?
AM: Every episode is different. Every episode pushes me in a different research direction. Some episodes need local newspapers and firsthand accounts. Some episodes need scholarly journals. I just kind of chase them where they go. On “Half-Hanged,” I think I found a scholarly journal entry about the events that took place, and it might have been about a larger topic, and it was one story referenced in it.
But that’s what I do for a living, you know? I’ll read about something, and I have to pay attention to the smaller stories that are mentioned and then say, hey, maybe I could find more about that and chase it down. My brain has to be like flypaper: I’ve got to be able to catch things all the time and then chase after them.
AVC: What characteristics do your favorite episodes share, in terms of their implications of the modern day, or their continued relevance?
AM: A common theme that pops up in a lot of episodes is this idea of The Other: the person who sits either outside of our expectations for society, or they’re outside of just the basic physical similarities. The person of color who sits outside of a white community, for example. You have those stories throughout history in different flavors, but they still pop up. The theme is still there constantly.
I’ve now published 69 episodes, and The Other is just this common thread that pops up so often—not that I’m trying. It’s not like I go in with an agenda, or say, “I’m going to talk about this thing.” It’s just that you read enough folklore, and you dig deep enough into the people behind it and the reasons why, and the lives that were affected, and you realize that it’s always just about our fear of the things that are different from us.
And that’s just as true today as it ever has been. We just do it in different ways. We don’t drag people out and hang them in a tree, but maybe we run out with tiki torches and protest statues. Our fear of difference and of change, and the people who don’t fit in with us, it’s still just as strong as it used to be.
AM: “The Castle” is a story about the serial killer H.H. Holmes [from] Devil In The White City. It’s the story of a guy who begins his criminal career as a medical school dropout who is turning in bodies to claim insurance money on them, defrauding insurance companies. He moves on to basically build a murder house, right at the height of the World Exhibition that’s going to take place in Chicago in the 1890s. He builds this thing in anticipation of it, and people come into town to live there during the Exhibition—mostly single women who come and stay at his place—and the place is built to kill and remove bodies.
The reason why I think it connects with so many people is because it’s the intersection between the depths of depravity that some humans can slip into, but also that amazing ingenuity and problem-solving that humans have always exhibited, whether it was crafting stone tools or fitting gas pipes into an apartment room so that you can drug someone and drop them down a body chute and boil them. It is this really fascinating meeting point between this sick person and someone who was incredibly intelligent and creative. It draws you in.
AVC: It does seem like society is more preoccupied with the “tortured genius” variety of serial killers. It’s what captures our imagination.
AM: The good thing about [covering] H.H. Holmes is that there’s a lot of existent research and material. I wish there wasn’t—this is a pretty twisted guy—but at the same time, it’s there, and I was able to build a healthy episode on that.
It’s not on my list, but there’s another episode I did a couple months ago called “Homecoming,” which is essentially a part two to his story. We focus so much on the mansion and this thing that he built to trap and kill people, but that’s half of the story. Afterwards, he runs away and takes a train ride all across the country with a family that he’s—not kidnapped, but they’re kind of in his care, and he’s killing children off along the way. It’s a rough story.
AM: Shifting gears to a different realm of folklore, this is a story set in the time of Spiritualism. Spiritualism was this era of our history where people became really, really interested in what happens to people after we die. It comes about at the culmination of a few different fields. There was a guy named Franz Mesmer who believed that our life force—whatever it was that made us a living thing—existed inside of our hearts and our bodies. He called it animal magnetism, and you could control it to heal people. It went from medicinal theories to becoming more of a religious thing, where the spirit was important, and connecting with that spirit, and so you had séances and planchettes that pointed to letters to spell out messages.
It all kind of came about after the Civil War, and millions of people were struggling with loss and pain and grief, and they went looking for this thing. Some tricksters came on the scene to fool people and make money, like the Fox sisters from Rochester, New York, who traveled around the country for 40 years doing these onstage séances. Noises would happen when they asked spirits to communicate, and it turns out that they could just kind of move their feet and toes and click them, and snap the bones, pop the knuckles, whatever. That’s the noises that people were hearing.
AVC: They were so committed to that deception.
AM: Forty years! Can you imagine? Their toes must have been tired.
So that was the Spiritualist movement. And Episode 61, “Labor Pains,” just talks about one particular individual in that. There’s a man, John Murray Spear, who claimed he could go into trances where the angels would communicate plans to him. He had all these different types of things that he was going to do, but the main goal for him was to craft this mechanical living being that would be the New Messiah. The mechanical body for the second coming of Jesus Christ. It was a nine-month building process, to mirror labor and pregnancy, and there was a “Mary” who was there at the birth.
I like it because we really haven’t let go of this idea of spirituality and technology somehow having some connection in our culture. We just saw the other day, there’s a developer who used to work for Google who went to work for Uber to help work on their self-driving cars. In the process of all of this, he’s gone off and registered for a new religion, in ancipation of the growth in A.I. And here we are again, right? We’ve gone from the late 1800s with a guy building essentially a table with glass tubes and metal pipes and calling it Jesus Christ, and now we’re moving into artificial intelligence, and some programmer from Google starting a religion. I don’t know. I feel like we’ve just come full circle.
AVC: Moving forward with your show, do you think it will continue to draw that line between the past and present, or speak to the cyclical nature of things?
AM: I think it has to. I think storytelling has to do that: it has to speak into the times and make comments. I think it’s always done that to some degree. [For example,] Little Red Riding Hood: there’s a lot of layers to it and a lot of origin stories, but at the end of the day, you’ve got a story of trusting strangers and women knowing their place in society and all those different pieces. We have to talk about how folklore connects with our modern world. I think that’s why folklore is still so powerful and so popular, because it does connect. It speaks to where we are today. To some degree, we probably hope that we can look into the past and find answers for the challenges we face.
We live in a world that is increasingly without shadows. Modern medicine, technology, mobile phones, social networks—we’re removing so much of the shadow, the gray areas and mystery from life. And I have a design background, so when I think about design, I think about white space. If you just covered a postcard with all sorts of artwork, nobody would ever see anything. You have to give it space to breathe so that the important stuff stands out. And I think when you get rid of the shadows, you get rid of that white space. We need a little bit of mystery in our lives to really process everything we go through. So that might explain why people flock to things like the podcast, and hopefully the TV show and the book.
AVC: How do you hope that the new Amazon series will serve as a complement to Lore the podcast? What would you hope viewers get out of that experience?
AM: Some of these stories are just more powerful when you tell them with visuals. To see them take place is amazing. So the hope is that people can experience these dark tales in a new and fresh way.