It’s still Halloween season, yo! While we all eagerly await the latest Scream Fortress update, I thought I could tell you about something you could be doing in the interim: listening to a podcast. Yes, probably you already know what I’m talking about — Welcome to Night Vale. So this isn’t really a recommendation. My recommendation is, why aren’t you already listening? Instead, I want to talk about its setting methods for my third 2013 Halloween post.
I’ve complained a lot on this blog about setting, so I thought I should take a post to deal with something that does setting very well. Night Vale does just that. On the off chance you don’t know, Welcome to Night Vale is a bi-weekly podcast (that’s one every two weeks, not two every one week) of around twenty-two minutes. It is set in a town in the desert, somewhere in America. That town is the place where all conspiracy theories are true and any horrible thing can, and does, happen. Features of the town include a subway that takes passengers through the frightening and enlightening heart of the universe; a dog park forbidden to citizens, enclosed in a black (possibly obsidian) wall with no doors or gates; and an invisible clock tower that shifts around town.
The weird stuff isn’t really where Night Vale shines — and I say that given that Night Vale’s weird stuff is amazing, varied, and always tantalizing. Never just weird, it’s also interesting (the two do not always go together). Night Vale’s real strength lies in its creation of the mood of its setting. Part of the mood is simple to identify: real town in America. Every episode is the radio broadcast of the local independent news, read by a man named Cecil. Cecil spends equal time on the plot of whatever weird thing is happening this week as well as mundane problems like budget issues, dry scones at the PTA meetings, and the high school football team. It is apparently a real place, inside its hypothetical existence as fiction. That is, people have things to do.
This is counterpointed and highlighted violently in the twinned doppelganger pair of episodes, in which we learn that the nearby rival town, Desert Bluffs, is as happy as you would have guessed, given that everyone in Night Vale hates it, except it is the enforced cheerfulness of the corporation. Everyone hiding from the sandstorm must keep track of how many hours of work they lose to the natural disaster and make them up by week’s end — probably the single most frightening thing in the show thus far…).
There is at least one other element to the mood and setting that sets Night Vale apart: a consistent weaving together of aforesaid tone and setting with a theme, a thesis, if you will. Night Vale has something to say about the world, and everything is pointed toward saying it.
I find the show funny as often as spooky, and I imagine all its fans do the same. But I could imagine people being upset, because the show’s thesis is almost bleakly existential. Everything reminds listeners, and characters, of the futility of existence. Often, the events and the monsters vocally remind listeners of the futility of existence. At one point the school board closes the schools because they happened to look up at the sky and wonder what the point of math and English was in the face of the proof of the meaninglessness of life. An angry reporter interrogating them looks up to prove his or her point and slowly gives in to the same feeling of existential dread. Lots of people have talked about the show’s Lovecraftian monsters and setting and characters, but this is what brings the show in line with Lovecraft’s fiction: the unremitting sense of ultimate hopelessness.
Except, Lovecraft didn’t anticipate all of existentialism, just part of it. Except, I said the show was “almost bleakly existential.” The humor could undercut it, and sometimes does, but actually hope is offered in a few different ways. There is the standard existential answer of creating meaning for oneself: most of the characters we hear about week after week do this, like Old Woman Josie and her angels. Clearly, given the way the show deals with them, the angels do exist, but everyone in town insists they do not, and Josie does not care, because believing in them makes her happy (succinctly boiling down every discussion of faith for the individual, actually).
More important in the show still, though, is the value of personal relationships. The show consistently reminds listeners of the impossibility of knowing another person; they are their own universe, locked away from yours. However, you can share. Your “time and space can intersect,” as intern Dana puts it (and Cecil too, I believe). It is not that there is no hope, but that the hope is still actually meaningless, with no impact on the course of the world. Only our perception of it.
That is why Night Vale goes in a collection of Halloween entries: not because of its hooded figures, its monstrous fly salesmen and its tiny underground people trying to kill all surface dwellers. No, instead it is real horror, using those images to underscore, again and again, a thesis of despair colored by tiny swatches of hope. It is the desert that houses Night Vale itself: bleak and endless, a killer of life, with small bursts of beauty and color. They are what add meaning to one’s experience of the desert. But the desert will still kill you. Not because it hates you, but because it is your nature to die, and it has nothing with which you can stave off that nature.
That is what Night Vale does. And that is why it is scary, even when it makes me laugh. And with that, I give you the weather.