Welcome to Night Vale is a podcast that has been broadcasting since 2012 as a strange mix between Lake Wobegon and the writings of H.P. Lovecraft. It follows the events that happen in the town of Night Vale, which exists somewhere in the American South West, as told by the community radio news show hosted by Cecil Palmer (Cecil Gershwin). Such events often involve Cecil’s boyfriend Carlos the Scientist (Dylan Marron), who moves to Night Vale in the first episode, as well as long time Night Vale residents like Old Woman Josie (Retta) and her angel friends who are all named Erika, The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives In Your Home (Mara Wilson), and Hiram McDaniels (Jackson Publick) who is literally a five-headed dragon.
Night Vale is not necessarily a horror podcast. There are certainly horror elements, but everything is brought up in a simple, matter-of-fact way of speaking, from the color of the sky forecast to the beagle-led apocalypse. Cecil’s journalistic integrity doesn’t always stop him from editorializing, but his tone of voice is almost always calm and reassuring.
But we have no idea what he looks like.
The Treachery of Images
“The Treachery of Images” is a famous painting by René Magritte, the Belgian surrealist. The text translates to “This is not a pipe.” The point of the painting is that the image of a pipe is not a pipe itself. A representation is not the real thing. Easy enough to understand, right? However, in an increasingly visual world, that’s not always quite so simple. Some of our biggest media forms are based on images– TV and Film– and then, of course, there’s “a picture’s worth a thousand words”, “take a picture, it’ll last longer”, and “pics or it didn’t happen”. Even our internet media relies on the image, from YouTube and Snapchat, to DeviantArt and Tumblr. So with the advent of the podcast, it seems counter to what we normally expect. It’s a bit of a step back to serial radio shows that aired before TV.
The relationship that Night Vale has to images is not fixed. Sure, we know that Carlos is a Hispanic man with great hair, that Cecil’s niece Janice uses a wheelchair, and that Tamika Flynn carries the severed hand of a librarian on a rope around her neck, but we have very little idea of what they actually look like– just guesses and theories. And this is, of course, by nature of the medium. It would be the same if they wrote a book. They could have chosen to use a more visual medium, an animated show or an indie comic would have fit the story excellently, but the medium of the podcast let them better use the horror elements of the show.
Horror and Image
Have you ever been watching a horror film, and for most of the movie they’re hiding the monster and it builds the tension really well until finally there’s the big reveal– and it just looks stupid. This is popular criticism for a lot of films, from Jaws to The Babadook. But why is that?
These panels are from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. It’s about how we literally read between the lines to fill in what happens between panels in a comic. Maybe the pursuer missed the man’s head or back and cut off his hand. Maybe the ax is embedded in the man’s nervous system. The thing of it is, until it’s shown on panel, you don’t know. The concept is similar in a horror film. A character walks into a dark room. They close the door and turn on a flashlight. They look around and the camera doesn’t show you anything. The flashlight shines into a mirror and Norman Bates is right behind them. It’s scarier to just have them in the dark room than when the monster is revealed because you don’t know what or even if anything is there. You fill in what happens and it’s revealed later. This makes the audience an active participant in the creation of the work, and it makes the audience invested in what they are consuming, which is why the jump scare works.
Night Vale works similarly. For example, in the second part of the “Sandstorm” episode, the show is hosted by Cecil’s Desert Bluffs counterpart Kevin R. Free. Kevin’s style of radio hosting is brighter than Cecil’s but a bit more sedated. He doesn’t have the same emotional range as Cecil. But Desert Bluffs seems like a perfectly ordinary desert town that just happens to be close to Night Vale. That is, until we get to the weather.
After the weather, Cecil shows up in Kevin’s broadcasting studio, and tells the listeners that the studio is covered in blood to the point that it’s seeping into his shoes, that everything is covered in guts and viscera. Desert Bluffs has been mentioned before in the show, but never “seen”, and this shift in tone from rival town to horrifying rival town also starts the plot for the season.
In Night Vale proper, however, it’s another story. The less-is-more paradigm contributes to the atmosphere of the strange town but in a way that serves less to disturb and more as one might think of their own home town. You don’t have to explain how John Peters (you know, the farmer?) got his imaginary corn, or why dogs are not allowed in the dog park, or the mysterious lights above the Arby’s. It’s a local radio station focusing on the town news, and it’s far more important for the people of Night Vale to know that Wednesday is going to be cancelled due to a scheduling error. Night Vale is not necessarily horror, but it uses the tropes and trappings of horror to great effect, and it’s precisely because it doesn’t use images. It allows its audience to become active in its creation, imagining how Cecil and Carlos and all of Night Vale looks. But ultimately we don’t need to see, just understand. And we do understand– we understand the lights above the Arby’s.
Invaders from another world.
Good night, Night Vale. Good night.
Paper Patches was created by Valerie and written by Valerie. Paper Patches is a production of Paper Patches. Today’s proverb: “If that’s thinking outside the box, then your box is too small.”