Making Peace With Your Monsters: Comfort Horror and Audio

13 min read

In 2018, the first year I started making audio drama (also known as fiction podcasts) after becoming a fan of the medium myself, I was on an overnight red eye flight back home from visiting a friend. As the dim, cramped, claustrophobic Spirit Airlines cabin rumbled and the hours dragged on, I needed a way to distract myself. I put on my headphones and pulled up my podcatcher. I began with the first episode of GONE, a psychological horror podcast about a person who has suddenly awoken in a dark world where everyone else has vanished. As I listened to Sunny Moraine’s voice describe the haunting terror that filled this new world, I drifted. I felt myself drawn down into the darkness and the dread. I was swaddled by it, and despite the tiny seats and the kids crying and the people talking at two in the morning… I drifted off to sleep.

Why would people take comfort in horror stories? Why does audio drama seem particularly good at creating the kinds of stories that comfort listeners through gruesome tales, monsters, and ghosts?

What is “Comfort Horror”?

“Comfort horror” is not necessarily a genre in itself, but rather a term to describe an effect upon an audience. During my research into the connections between storytelling and handling stress, I found that more and more people are seeking out stories that hit this “comfort” button, rather than stories that are dense and exciting. It is possible that not only are audiences looking for feel-good shows like the Great British Bake Off or Abbott Elementary, but they are also turning towards horror.

Not everyone gains comfort from the same kind of stories. I can fall asleep on airplanes to GONE, but I cannot stand body horror. Conversely, I had another friend tell me they listen to the gnarly medical podcast Sawbones to fall asleep. People take comfort in horror stories across mediums. They’ll fall asleep to serialized horror in X-Files, Hannibal, and Supernatural. The hugely successful Haunting of Hill House and Midsommar are frequently named as sources of comfort within the more ‘prestige’ horror television and film genre. Video games like Outlast and Resident Evil have also been shared as examples of gamers finding comfort in horror. People take comfort in different sub-genre types of horror as well: body horror, ghost stories, monster tales, true crime. Listeners don’t need the standard blood and gore to name their comfort shows, because they also enjoy dark comedy or creepy/cryptid themes in podcasts like Death by Dying, Welcome to Nightvale, or the Cryptonaturalist.

Horror is well-studied for its potential impact to support mental health–the kind of support that is desperately needed these days. Consuming scary stories as a stress-reducer is a fairly well-known phenomenon among horror fans. Horror stories trigger physiological fear responses, which in turn reduces cortisol levels. They are a kind of “mental training” or “exposure therapy” for people with various forms of stress or anxiety. Fans of horror seek out these stories to destress, to regulate their emotions, and even to meditate and sleep. This phenomenon is so well understood, there are horror audio dramas that literally have comfort built in; NoSleep and Scare You to Sleep are specifically designed for those who want to use horror podcasts to fall asleep.

Experiencing proscribed horror can offer a sense of control, especially among trauma survivors. This is well-documented among true crime fans, particularly certain survivors of sexual assault. These audiences find solace in better understanding the minds of violent people, yes, but in particular these survivors like shows that humanize the victims and their families. True crime shows that focus on the stories of crime victims are a form of justice and comfort after the horror in the audiences’ own lives.

In order to better understand the elements of “comfort horror” in audio drama, I wanted to speak with someone else who also experienced comfort while listening to horror. Safi Harriott, a Black, queer movement artist of the Jamaican diaspora, is one of those people.

When I asked her about her example of “comfort horror” audio drama she said, very insistently, “OLD GODS OF APPALACHIA”.

audio-player-details^^^^^Clip: Lisette and Safi OGoA Shout-out

Transcript: Lisette: First of all, when I say comfort horror in audio drama, what are the audio dramas that come to--
Safi: (interrupting while clapping on the beat for emphasis) OLD GODS OF APPALACHIA!
(Both laugh)

In our discussion, we broke down the elements that contribute to her personal sense of comfort in horror podcasts. We explored what might be common elements across the many different kinds of horror that would convey comfort.

Real Life Horror: Acknowledgment of a wound

We live in a horrific world, one filled with disease, violence, bigotry, and disaster. What makes it all the more horrific is the ongoing societal and governmental refusal to acknowledge those horrors. In 2020, people turned to the 2011 film Contagion to commiserate about the failure of governments and our neighbors to contain COVID-19. Black audiences felt a sense of catharsis after Jordan Peele’s Get Out because it is a gut-wrenching portrayal of the insidiousness of white supremacy. Horror stories can only work if there is something in our minds and in our societies that we refuse to confront otherwise, because we are afraid. And we should be. As my military-minded dad likes to say, “It’s not paranoia if they are really out to get you”.

Safi told me that she enjoys horror audio drama because the stories don’t start by pretending the world you are about to enter is all sunshine and roses. The audience is given information ahead of time–even if the characters don’t know–that this is a horror story.

"The monsters may be hidden, but we acknowledge they *are* there." Safi Harriott.

Some stories do this explicitly by acknowledging real world horrors as synonymous with the fantastic. Old Gods of Appalachia is an excellent example, where the real-life history of union-busting violence and black lung in Appalachia are married closely with the specters and haints that are central to the overarching plot of the story. Other podcasts acknowledge these wounds indirectly, as in Bridgewater when the characters discuss the impact of cultural appropriation of Algonquin stories in their larger monster-search. Horror anthology podcast NIGHTLIGHT, written and performed by a team of Black creatives, showcases stories about real-world horror both explicitly and implicitly.

By speaking to real-life wounds and violence, horror allows people who are impacted by that fear to enter into a space where the horrors won’t be ignored. Instead–directly or indirectly–the audience takes comfort in the fact that the horror will be confronted.

The Monsters of the Land: A sense of place

Both Safi and I have experiences of being ‘disconnected’ from place. She is a part of the Jamaican diaspora now living in the Washington, DC area, and I lived in four countries before I was 18. During the interview, we talked a little bit about our own experiences as people who have moved between cultures all our lives, and why we are particularly drawn to horror audio drama as a way to explore ephemeral sensations of place. Colonization was, and is, an act of violence upon people and the places they belong to. Again, you can gain a sense of comfort by acknowledging the horrors that may be inherent in familiar towns, in the forests you’ve never hiked in before, in the country of your ancestors, or even places hidden from plain sight.

Good horror stories, in general, have a clear sense of the place. Whether you are talking about ghosts or monsters, evil lakes or caves, a lot of horror audio dramas are rooted with a sense of place (or at the very least getting lost in a specific place). Old Gods of Appalachia explores the narrative purpose of its stories that span across one of the world’s oldest mountain ranges. The White Vault takes its time to root its story and its characters in the Andes or the dark caverns of Norway.

This is where sound design comes in as a curious way to generate both a sense of horror and comfort. Many horror audio dramas have less music or sound effects, and focus more on atmospheric tension and “texture” of the setting. In Old Gods, they rarely illustrate with sound effects when describing a scene. There are no jump scares. Instead, music drives the tension in the scenes underneath Steve Shell’s baritone narration.

audio-player-details^^^^^Clip: OGoA, Episode 1: "Old Number Seven: Barlo, Kentucky 1917"^^^^^

Transcript: (low, thrumming music in the background) When the undertaker ran out of coffins, the bodies of the black miners were dumped two and three at a time into rough-hewn crates and lowered into unmarked graves well outside of town. If digging too deep into the mines was the first mistake, this was the second. Somewhere in the underneath, a barrier cracked. Memories awakened. Bones and flesh defiled, burnt and offered. An invitation. An invocation. Worship.

In The White Vault, the sound design is immersive as you follow the characters through a supposedly empty cave or out in the open in howling blizzard winds. The framing device–‘found footage clips’ that are edited with a narrator pointing out the most ‘pertinent’ sections–tells you that something happens next, but still makes you wonder when, where, and how exactly the monster will make itself known within the space of the clip or the cave. There are some jump scares, but you know where the characters are and you’ve just been warned that something terrible happens from the preceding narration. The certainty of the horror allows the listener to stay immersed in the present and pay attention to the characters moving through the space.

audio-player-details^^^^^Clip: OGoA, Episode 1: "Old Number Seven: Barlo, Kentucky 1917"^^^^^

Transcript: Documentarian: There are several hours of recorded audio of the team playing cards, drinking coffee, complaining of the cold, and monitoring Karina. Then, this. Group Recording: [recorded] [bunker ambiance] [Walter] How could you bluff with a pair of fives! [Jónas] Don’t complain, we are not even playing for bets. [Graham] Well played, Jónas. [Rosa] I could have beat you! Why did I fold…   [Walter] I’ll reshuffle. Is there more coffee? [Rosa] I think there’s /crash/ a bit left. [massive crash as the large metal door swings inward, smashing against a concrete wall] [Graham, simultaneous] Shit. [Jónas, simultaneous] What? [Rosa, simultaneous] Fuck.

This approach creates an expansive sense of place rather than a disruptive or claustrophobic one. For Safi, rich, ambient sound design makes the audio space easier and more comfortable to mentally explore, like walking deeper and deeper through a massive forest.  

“I can feel that this place lives inside me…the music and sounds build out the texture of the place, like revealing more and more trees…it lets me see more of the ‘forest’.”
Safi Harriott

Haunted Times: Dismembering and remembering the past

According to Safi, her sense of comfort is also tied to pacing–the speed and emotional range of the story’s plot beats.

“My brain doesn’t like loads of emotional narration. That’s why other comfort media– comedy, rom-com, silly drama or fun action stuff–will not work for me. It will trigger the ‘I am feeling really stressed out’ chemicals in my body because there’s too much emotional swing. So the thing that I love about some of my favorite horror stuff…is knowing the range is not going to swing outside a certain range. I can settle into a receptive and listening state. I’m not going to be pushed outside these boundaries… Whatever happens in terms of plot is not going to take me outside of that.”
Safi Harriott

Good horror has to build a sense of dread; it’s one of the hallmarks of the genre. That means the timing of the emotional beats of the story are generally slower and more intentional. Slowing down is also more comforting to an overworked nervous system. For Safi (and for me), the shows that we find comforting don’t have wild pacing; there’s a slow build-up of tension, then a cathartic release at the right time; when the monster is fully revealed. In Station Blue, for example, the show builds tension by focusing on the mindset of the isolated main character rather than things happening to him. The moments of fear or action happen only once or twice in each of the beginning episodes, but with gradual intensity and frequency as the season goes on. The true terror is only clearly revealed at the finale. In many ways, a good horror story is also a good mystery.

Timing also brings up the importance of time in horror. Most horror stories acknowledge the fact that not only do the monsters exist, but they have been here for a long time. Ghost stories are clear examples of the genre’s use of non-linear time. The past is present and we are all haunted all the time. Director Guillermo del Toro is well known for modernizing gothic horror–a genre defined by politics of time and place–and being influenced by his Latin American storytelling tradition of magic realism–another genre defined by politics of time and place. Toni Morrison’s iconic novel Beloved explores this (literal) dismembering and remembering of the past. Racial violence and the legacy of slavery are horrors that are non-linear. Beloved is an important and powerful example of horror and the use of non-linear storytelling as a means to comfort and heal.

Safi pointed out that audio drama has access to the same tools of timing and time to explore the past and recontextualize our monsters. Other people have also pointed out that ‘recontextualization’ is an important part of addressing trauma, recognizing the origins of trauma, and how removing that context is a part of the cycle of violence.

"Trauma in a person decontextualized over time, looks like personality. Trauma in a family, decontextualized over time, looks like family traits. Trauma in a people, decontextualized over time, looks like culture." Resmaa Menakem

The Survivor Narrator: Trustworthy voices

What does it mean to have a “trustworthy” voice, one that you trust enough to bring comfort within a horror story? As discussed before, it’s important for these storytellers to show that even in horror, they are approaching sensitive issues with care. They don’t treat the audiences with disdain, but rather with trust. These storytellers are aware of the real value of that overused phrase “audio is intimate”.

“No gotcha moments,” Safi told me. “I want these voices to be like…they aren’t trying to surprise or catch me off-guard, but it’s like they are letting me in on a secret.” As a child of teachers and storytellers, Safi is fond of voices that sound like the elders of her family telling ghost stories and other grisly tales. These voices are inherently comforting to her. These are people and stories that have seen the horrors of the world and gotten out on the other side. They are voices that can tell her the secrets of how to survive, too.

I also found it interesting that she brought up other trustworthy voices that sound, to her, like they are siblings or friends as it seems to me that the comfort I get from a lot of my comfort horror stories fall into this category. It’s a little bit of that intimate confidante approach; these are narrators that are telling us “hey, we are also totally thrown off by the horrors we are encountering, we don’t know what we are doing, but we’re figuring it out together.” You want to root for them because you see yourself, and your struggles and need for help, reflected in them.

Yeah, very millennial of us.

While comfort horror across mediums shares a lot of the above elements, horror audio drama is unique. Audio has the particular quality of conjuring that impossibly old sensation of telling stories around a fire. Audio has its own three-dimensional ability to move you through time and space. It is the difference between, as Safi puts it, what sounds “trustworthy” and what sounds “true”. Audio drama allows you to explore both.

"Comfort horror in audio drama means...having a relationship to time that allows me to explore space, hauntings in space, to reveal, and learn and understand the wounds of space that are not accessible in types of horror like slasher or if the story is linear." Safi Harriott.

Special thanks to Safi Harriott for contributing her voice and thoughts to this piece. Safi (she/her) is a content strategist, trained dancer and movement artist from the Jamaican diaspora.

Lisette Alvarez (they/them) is the founder and executive producer of Stormfire Productions. Aside from evangelizing the magic of audio drama, Alvarez is an aspiring novelist, seasoned digital strategist, and enthusiastic globetrotter. Follow their travels near and far on Twitter @lisettewalking.