Fear in your ear: the unstoppable rise of the horror podcast

By his own admission, Danny Robins has always been “obsessed with ghosts”. “I think it might have been growing up with atheist parents,” says the writer and broadcaster, who co-created Radio 4’s lauded Sir Lenny Henry vehicle Rudy’s Rare Records, among many other works. Among them is the 2017 investigative podcast about the paranormal, Haunted. “As a kid, I was very aware of the absence of belief,” he continues. “I think I might have just wanted to be part of a club. To be part of a club of believers.”

Now in his early 40s, Robins is trying to recruit as many believers as possible to the club via his new docudrama podcast, The Battersea Poltergeist. Available on BBC Sounds, it tells the story, beginning in 1956, of a bizarre 12-year-long haunting that resulted in Shirley Hitchings (just 15 at the start of it all) and the victim of the titular spook, fleeing to Bognor Regis. A poltergeist in Enfield in 1977 may have inspired Hollywood, but it’s south-west London’s one that put in the longest shift.

“There was a moment in my early 20s,” says Robins, “when I was convinced that I was dying. I was having a panic attack, but it bred a fear of death in me. That’s what ghosts are all about, isn’t it? A way to mitigate our fear of facing the possibility that our existence has been meaningless. As much as ghost stories are frightening, they offer comfort, too.”

Robins’ new show – alongside others including The White Vault, Limetown, The Left Right Game, The Magnus Archives, Alice Isn’t Dead en Video Palace – understands that we don’t just want to be scared but to be shown there’s more to the world than the tangible. It’s perhaps no coincidence that many of these series have gone up the podcast charts at a time when so many of us are entombed within four walls. We’re coming for the scares, but we’re looking for magic. Audio is – and always has been – the perfect format for it.

“I’ve always found ghost stories to be much scarier in audio,” says Julian Simpson, creator of The Lovecraft Investigations, Radio 4’s episodic horror. Now three series in, it’s a podcast about a podcast, starring a Mulder-and-Scully-style duo reporting on events that loosely relate to the mythos of the influential US horror writer HP Lovecraft. “The sound provokes your imagination,” he continues. “What we’re scared of as individuals is always going to be more frightening than what a special-effects department can come up with.”

The seeds of this revival were planted decades ago in the so-called golden age of radio. Looming like a Martian tripod over all that followed is Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre. While not explicitly focusing on horror, it did open with an acclaimed production of Dracula in 1938, en, in the same year, Welles’ infamous live adaptation of HG Wells’ 1898 novel The War of The Worlds – transplanted from 19th-century England to the contemporary US – resulted in a deluge of calls from people believing the show wasn’t drama at all but an emergency broadcast about a real alien invasion.

“A few policemen trickled in,” recalled the actor Stefan Schnabel later of events at the radio studio. “Then a few more. Soon, the room was full of policemen, en [there was] a massive struggle between the police, page boys and CBS executives, who were trying to prevent the cops from busting in and stopping the show.”

There followed The Mysterious Traveler, Escape, and the long-running Suspense, which ran for 20 years between 1942 en 1962. Earlier still was 1934’s immersive Lights Out, the creation of the writer Wyllis Cooper, wie, when that show wrapped up in 1947, would then create Quiet Please alongside the actor Ernest Chappell, a former newsman whose dulcet tones were perfectly suited to the narration of Cooper’s chilling tales. Highlights are numerous, but Cooper’s Death Robbery, starring Boris Karloff as a scientist concerned with the reanimation of dead animals, should be your first port of call. Chappell’s The Thing on the Fourble Board is ostentatiously a story about two friends eating pork chops together, while also being one of the most frightening radio dramas ever.

And yet, while the aforementioned were more popular than television in their time, where they differ from this new wave is their lack of communality. We don’t gather around the radio to listen to these stories but consume them alone on our phones – with terrifying consequences. “The listening to audio is more of an individual pursuit than it was in the golden age of radio,” says Simpson. “The experience is much more private and more direct, and can therefore be more affecting.”

Much like the horror audio dramas of yore were born out of necessity – radio being the dominant medium – Simpson and Robins think the circumstances of our present, unprecedented times, are leading to the popularity of this new wave.

Ben Walker recently produced The Harrowing, a theologically themed onslaught of terror set within a remote island community off the coast of mainland Scotland. “As someone who works in TV and audio, this feels like an opportune moment for audio drama," hy sê. “It’s an incredibly difficult environment to make scripted TV or film in, and if you can find a way to do it, it is very expensive to implement. Audio drama recording can continue without such barriers. And I think at the moment we’re doing a lot more by ourselves than we ever have before – working, socialising via Zoom, just generally living in our own heads more. Audio drama, which is an intrinsically intimate experience, especially with headphones on, feels like a particularly good fit.”

It’s clear all involved believe deeply in the medium – and Robins is still as obsessed with the subject as he was in his youth, as is clear when he discusses the Battersea-based spook whose story he’s telling; partly as scripted drama, partly as an ongoing paranormal investigation.

“I haven’t yet met someone who can provide answers for everything that happened," hy sê. “Part of the excitement is we’re still making the series as it goes out, so listeners’ emails – their questions and theories – can have a real bearing on the show. We have our own theories on what happened – but it is possible somebody will spot something we haven’t.” He smiles. “I’d be lying if I didn’t say I still lie awake at night thinking: how the hell did all those things happen …

“It’s a great time for horror, and I have no doubt that ties into the uncertain times we live in. The boom in scary stories is not so much scratching an itch or delivering a desire, but more acting as a mirror in reflecting back the chaos and fear we feel.”

The Battersea Poltergeist is on BBC Radio 4, with episodes 1-4 from Monday 29 March to Thursday 1 April, and episodes 5-8 Monday 5 April – Thursday 8 April at 11.30pm

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