Our perception of the world is definitely affected, to some extent, by the stories that intrigue us every day. Think about Stephen King’s It, which has struck clown terror into the hearts of entire generations for good. For those who follow the events of the surreal world of Night Vale, instead, creepiness lurks in a whole different range of mundane elements: dog parks, for instance. If you are unfamiliar with the podcast phenomenon, born in 2012 from the minds of Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, I guess you may find it hard to figure out how places like that – ordinary and apparently safe – could ever be considered terrifying.
The power of Welcome to Night Vale lies right here. One episode of the famous podcast is all it takes to be taken on a journey into an apparently normal dimension where it is peculiar details, unexpected characters and the contradictions of normality itself to send shivers down the listeners’ spine. The podcast narrates the adventures of what looks like a quiet small town in the middle of the desert, through the point of its local radio speaker Cecil. In Night Vale there are a library, a dog park, a radio station: nothing we wouldn’t expect from a placid American small town. But the librarians are fearsome creatures you should keep away from, the dog park is populated by hooded figures and in the radio station’s toilet there’s a cat, appeared out of nowhere, that keeps floating around.
“Librarians are hideous creatures of unimaginable power. And even if you could imagine their power, it would be illegal. It is absolutely illegal to even try to picture what such a being would be like.”
Although the most ordinary objects, here, acquire a dark undertone, the narrator sounds generally calm and impassive in the face of the town’s absurd events: Cecil doesn’t seem surprised by his fellow citizens praying to a glowing cloud chanting a litany, but he is terrified by wheat and it products.
Night Vale’s success, though, is not only due to its authors’ storytelling prowess and the unexpected visions they craft for us every episode. There’s also great empathy, emotionality and a stunning ability to carry out philosophical reflections and deal with big issues through what – at first – sound like simple nightmares and delirium. Death, existence, the meaning of life, love. Which is where the podcast’s two main characters come into play: the speaker Cecil and Carlos, a scientist arrived in the small desert town to investigate its peculiar phenomena. What we know about Carlos is that he has “beautiful hair”, thanks to Cecil’s dreamy description. Between such an apparently mismatched pair – as one is fully integrated into the town’s oddities, the other a man of science in search of the truth – in fact, love blossoms. With no further spoilers, let me just tell you to that this relationship is the most important subplot of the series. One of the most powerful traits of Night Vale, in fact, is representation: in this dimension you can find various sexual orientations, skin colors, kinds of (dis)ability. Characters that elsewhere are commonly pictured as marginalized, laughed at and neglected, here are welcomed with tolerance, curiosity, inclusivity and empathy.
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This is also what makes the podcast’s fanbase so special. Night Vale is a community haunted by monsters and unsettling creatures, but where anyone is welcome; and the same goes for its fandom, that takes pride in the fact that it comprises every kind of people, for size, identity, color, orientation. An active, passionate fanbase, who have made the show grow far beyond its podcast format.
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Every year, in fact, the team of Welcome to Night Vale brings its own show around the major cities of the world: a live version of their incredible stories, whose copyright has been purchased by FX with the intention to create a TV series. And, at the moment, two books set in the Night Vale dimension have already been released and made it into the New York Times Best Sellers chart. The success of the team behind this gem shows no signs of abating, recently cemented by the launch of another successful podcast, Alice isn’t dead, a first-person narration of missing Alice’s girlfriend’s tireless research across the States on board a truck. At what has now become the Night Vale production company, ideas don’t seem to be running out yet. So let yourself be taken to the faraway desert of Cecil’s radio reports.
And remember, all hail the glow cloud.