POP Archives Deep Thoughts: The Curious Case of Archives in Horror Audio Fiction
Author's Note: Beware of MAJOR SPOILERS for The Magnus Archives, The White Vault, The SCP Archives, The Storage Papers, The Scarab Archives, and Archive 81. You have been warned! See also the list at the end of the article to find links for each podcast.
Before we had new media, before we had computers, even before we had television we had radio. From the 1920s to the 1950s, radio was the dominant source of electronic home entertainment. The first broadcast medium in human history, radio exposed an entire generation to new genres and formats that would later transfer to television: plays, soap operas, mysteries, situation comedies, variety shows, and cooking shows to name a few. A survey in 1947 revealed that 82 out of every 100 Americans listened to the radio making it the most significant source of news and entertainment that rivaled print media. It was a medium that relied on descriptive writing, overly dramatic, yet sometimes subtle acting, and, most of all, excellent foley (sound design).
"But, Sam," you ask, "what does radio have to do with podcasts?"
Well, in case you've somehow managed to pull a Rip Van Winkle and slept through the last two decades, podcasts are the successors to the old time radio plays of yore. In some ways quite literally if you ever listened to The Thrilling Adventure Hour. Podcasts, however, have the advantage of technology and a new generation of creators interested in telling stories that explore the medium's possibilities while providing accessible content to a wide audience of listeners. As of the writing of this article, in 2022 there are roughly 2.2 million podcasts available to download worldwide. That kind of proliferation can be daunting when trying to figure out what to listen to so, for the purposes of this article, we're going to stick to the audio fiction corner of the market. Obviously.
Like their radio predecessors, audio fiction podcasts rely on theater of the mind in order to build and maintain their worlds. The audience is not privy to a visual representation of the scene or the people involved, so they rely on the writing, acting, and sound to set the scene and the mood for them. From there, the imagination of the listener runs rampant, which can be both a blessing and a curse. While the extent of the nation-wide panic over Orson Welles' 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast has been largely debunked, the impact of the story remains intact. That Welles and his company could so thoroughly capture the imagination of the public speaks to the power of audio regardless of the visual component. And, like War of the Worlds, nothing sparks the imagination of an audience like a little horror.
Horror and audio fiction go together like peanut butter and jelly, like peas and carrots, and other food metaphors. As a genre, horror works best in short stories that make you break out in goosebumps while staring suspiciously at the shadows on the wall. In podcast form, horror has the added layer of experiencing a story as if it were being read to you, invading your ears and engulfing you in the sound of the author's voice and the ambient background noises. It's an intimate moment in time where the podcast has your undivided attention with your focus entirely on the audio machinations entrancing you for 20-30 minutes. If done right, horror stories linger but don't wear out their welcome while you the listener get a quick thrill or some social commentary to tide you over until the next episode goes live. Or, you're like me and you binge several seasons in a matter of weeks because I like giving myself nightmares.
Horror as part of audio fiction is also a sound designers medium that crafts a grounded reality to get the audience comfortable before teetering them off balance with the supernatural. Every creak and crackle, every distortion, every slurp and slap are designed to emphasize the story as it happens; drawing you in and entrancing you to keep listening even as the horror escalates. Whether or not a podcast succeeds on their sound design is a matter of personal preference, but there's still a lot of work that goes into the production of a horror podcast and I want to make it perfectly clear that I appreciate that effort even if I don't always vibe with the final product.
What interests me, unsurprisingly, is the frequency in which archives and archival practices appear in horror audio fiction podcasts. It was an unexpected surprise when recommendations were thrown my way, but then my curiosity was piqued and I had to dive in and start asking some questions. What is it about horror that lends itself to an archival setting? How does the podcast incorporate the archives? Does the archivist or archivist adjacent messenger impact the story? How do the creators imagine the archives and the work of archivists? How do archival themes weave into the narratives that were likely unintended by the creators?
Ya know, simple and easy questions that I will in no way over-analyze.
When is a Podcast Like an Archives?
I'll be honest, straight out of the gate, that you don't have to listen to more than the first season - or in the case of the SCP Archives, a group of episodes - to get the overall temperature of how an archives and/or archivist is utilized. In many ways it's like an establishing shot in a movie or television show; there to give the audience a sense of space before moving along to the main plot. For The Magnus Archives, Archive 81, and The Scarab Archives the archives is a physical space where the work is being done. Whether that's reading statements, listening to tapes, or cataloguing strange items, all activities are performed within an archives that exists within the reality of the podcast.
Beyond those first seasons, however, the connection between the archives as a place and any archival practices to the supernatural/horror elements of the podcasts' main stories is negligible. The establishing shot has been made, the archives exists, now let's get to all the spooky stuff that just happens to take place in an archives. And, I want to be perfectly clear, there's nothing wrong with that. You need a setting for your horror, so it might as well be an archives since they often invite a more mysterious, eerie vibe when compared to their library counterparts.
So, then, what does the archive "look" like within these fictional realities? Well, given the format, descriptions of the archives are fairly vague, which is intentional and for good reason. If you follow the logic of these universes, then describing a space were people work to a character who would likely be in the place in question doesn't make sense, so the archives occupy a nebulous description that develops through either character dialogue or specific sound choices.
Archive 81 provides the best example of sound and dialogue creating the archival space in tandem. In the first episode, "A Body in a New Place," Dan Powell (voiced by Daniel Powell) is brought to the archive by his new boss, Mr. Davenport (David Powell) wherein this exchange happens:
(transcripts provided by the Dead Signals Patreon)
We’re here. After you.
Oh. Sure. [BOTH GET OUT OF THE CAR. FOOTSTEPS ON CONCRETE.] There’s… there’s a lot of space here, isn’t there?
Yes, Dan, we’re a fair distance into the woods. For the isolation. Sensitive materials, and all that.
Really loving the isolation. Very zen. And the building’s cool too; reminds me a bit of the library at my old college, uh, all the concrete, it’s super—
You know, I really appreciate your enthusiasm. [HE DOES NOT SEEM TO APPRECIATE HIS ENTHUSIASM. BEEP OF CARD BEING SCANNED. METAL DOORS OPEN. CONTINUED FOOTSTEPS.] Here it is. This is your su’s casa. Your den. Your... living space. Just put your stuff here. You can unpack later.
Oh. Yeah, sure, I’ll, uh, I’ll just put it on the bed. [HE DOES SO.]
Standard twin. You brought your own sheets, right?
Oh, no, I.. didn’t know I was supposed to.
Ah, doesn’t matter. Just use a blanket or something. You’re a trooper! .. Pantry’s through here. [FOOTSTEPS. METAL DOOR CREAKS OPEN.] Right by the stove and microwave.
How old is this place?
Pretty old, pretty old. [FOOTSTEPS CONTINUE.] This— [THE DOOR OPENS WITH A MECHANICAL WHIR. EVERYTHING IS ECHOEY HERE.] is the tape library. Archives 73-92, though you’ll just be focusing on 81.
It's two very short exchanges, supported by exterior and interior sounds, that tell us a lot: isolated in the woods, concrete building, spartan bunker-type living quarters, and an enormous warehouse of tapes other than the collection Dan will be working on.
In contrast, the first episode of The Magnus Archives, "Angler Fish," creates the archives through the Archivist (voiced by Jonathan Sims) as he lays out his current situation:
(transcripts provided by the Magnus Archives Transcripts Archive)
Now, the Institute was founded in 1818, which means that the Archive contains almost 200 years of case files at this point. Combine that with the fact that most of the Institute prefers the ivory tower of pure academia to the complicated work of dealing with statements or recent experiences and you have the recipe for an impeccably organised library and an absolute mess of an archive. This isn’t necessarily a problem – modern filing and indexing systems are a real wonder, and all it would need is a half-decent archivist to keep it in order. Gertrude Robinson was apparently not that archivist.
From where I am sitting, I can see thousands of files. Many spread loosely around the place, others crushed into unmarked boxes. A few have dates on them or helpful labels such as 86-91 G/H. Not only that, but most of these appear to be handwritten or produced on a typewriter with no accompanying digital or audio versions of any sort. In fact, I believe the first computer to ever enter this room is the laptop that I brought in today. More importantly, it seems as though little of the actual investigations have been stored in the Archives, so the only thing in most of the files are the statements themselves.
It is going to take me a long, long time to organise this mess.
I plan to digitise the files as much as possible and record audio versions, though some will have to be on tape recorder, as my attempts to get them on my laptop have met with… significant audio distortions.
Like Archive 81, The Magnus Archives gives you all you need to know about the archives in a very short amount of time: 200 years worth of case files, thousands of misfiled and loose statements, a filing system with no rhyme or reason, and a very prickly new Head Archivist trying to organize everything. Geographically speaking, the location of the archives within the Magnus Institute is unknown but it's not necessary information. If anything the podcast is inviting the listener to create their own architectural plans to the building and giving them carte blanche as to its design and layout. It isn't until episode 106, "A Matter of Perspective," more than halfway through the series, that we find out the archives is located in the basement of the Magnus Institute. And we all know how I feel about basement archives stereotypes. Insert frowny-face emoji.
The outlier in this grouping is The Scarab Archives as it provides no description, at all, pertaining to the makeup of the archives as a place with dialogue or sound design. In the first episode, "The Key," Dr. Delbert East (voiced by Thomas Crain) gives a history lesson on the Lazarus Foundation and then starts talking about his supernatural research and the disdain he has for his current occupation as an exiled academic in charge of the archives like it's some sort of punishment. The only information the listener receives regarding the archives is that there are thousands of items waiting to be catalogued. That potentially provides an idea that the archives or the Lazarus Foundation needs to be a large space, probably, but it still lacks any substance to latch on to as a listener. The sound design reveals nothing, the script gives even less, and now you're stuck with a cranky man telling you he doesn't want to catalogue the scary items in the nondescript building for reasons.
Let's just say I have opinions about The Scarab Archives and move on.
But let's not forget the other three podcasts in this group. The White Vault, SCP Archives, and The Storage Papers are unique in that the podcast is the archive. Actually, Archive 81 also fits in this group as well. It's like a Venn Diagram of podcasts! Each of these podcasts addresses the audience with full knowledge of what they are presenting to you and how you're receiving the information with all of them falling into the "found footage" subgenre of horror to some extent. Why found footage? Well, sometimes you need to justify why a recorder is on at all times no matter how far-fetched the suspension of disbelief.
The SCP Archives is unique even amongst this grouping due to the nature of the podcast's existence. It's a podcast that consists of audio adaptations of stories from the SCP Foundation, a collaborative writing wiki of reports and files on entities, items, locations, and the pseudo-government agency tasked with studying and containing the anomalies. The opening narration makes sure to let the listener know that the records they're listening to are confidential documents, effectively placing them within the reality of the SCP Foundation with a measurably high security clearance (though plenty of information is still redacted) since they're able to access the reports. It isn't so much found footage as it's employee usage of institutional records - something that would be typically accessed in the day-to-day operations of working for the Foundation. Through the use of sound cues, the podcast simulates the experience of sitting in a library reading room while reviewing old tapes for research. And it's a clever way of presenting the material.
The White Vault is specifically using the podcast format to capture the feeling of found footage horror in the most traditional sense. The Documentarian (voiced by Hem Cleveland) explicitly states at the top of each episode that she has compiled the recordings and writings of the research expeditions to Ny-Ålesund and Patagonia and arranged them in "the believed order of the records found." There's no pretense on her part and the listener is given interim descriptions of media degradation, distortions in recordings, handwriting analysis, the report and paper conditions, and tentative timestamps for even the most innocuous scraps. All of it speaks to the bigger picture of the events taking place. It's a meticulously detailed assemblage and adds to the intensity of the storytelling with every collection - episode - revealed. The podcast is her means of presenting the footage to the listener, though she never outright acknowledges the podcast as the format.
The Storage Papers and Archive 81, however, fully embrace the podcast format as part of their storytelling. At the end of the first episode of Archive 81, Dan's friend Mark (voiced by Marc Sollinger) lets the listener know that what they've just listened to is the "found footage" of Dan's last known whereabouts:
Hey, my name’s Mark Sollinger. What you just heard was a small portion of the audio my friend Dan Powell sent me. He—I guess the best way to describe it would be— [SIGHS.] would be that he disappeared, right after sending me this. No one else seems like they’re gonna be able to help, so I will be releasing all of his audio to everyone, to—everyone. If you know anything about archive eighty-one, or what happened to Dan Powell, please email me at email@example.com, that’s Archive Eight One Podcast At Gmail Dot Com, and if you don’t, just tell all your friends about the podcast, um, leave a review on iTunes, visit our website archive81.com, just—get the word out. I-I really need to know what happened to Dan. Okay. Thanks.
Similarly, The Storage Papers' host, Jeremy (voiced by Jeremy Enfinger), often references the fact that the entire purpose of the podcast is to make sense out of the documents he found in his purchased storage unit. At the end of each episode he asks the listeners to email, subscribe, and share on social media as part of the performance:
(transcript provided by The Storage Papers website)
Please consider reaching out to me if you have any pertinent information regarding this case either by social media or email...I will be filling any additional information received in a much more organized manner and will provide updates to cases as often as possible on the show. If you believe you have witnessed something truly unexplainable yourself, and would like to share your story, I would be glad to add it to these archives. You just never know whether or not your testimony can help.
In both instances, Archive 81 and The Storage Papers are directly addressing the audience and making the listeners part of the story with the podcast acting as a facilitator. There's a long tradition of audience "participation" in horror that goes back to the Gothic and Victorian stories of authors like Edgar Allan Poe, M.R. James, H.P. Lovecraft, and modern authors like Stephen King and Amelie C. Langlois. The reader as witness or accomplice turns the tables on the reader, pointing the finger at them as a way of saying, "Oh, you thought you were an impartial third party? Not today! You just witnessed a murder! You just enacted a ritual by reading these words! Gotcha!" It's the same with horror audio fiction in that the act of listening makes the audience complicit in the events that have unfolded.
Archive 81 makes a point of stating this at the end of the Golden Age mini-arc. Throughout the series, the show built an atmosphere where sound was the primary method of communication for the supernatural. It also ties, thematically, into the podcast's meta-arc about the transcendent power of stories and sound, that there's magic and power in the signal or the transmission or the simple act of humming a lullaby. After two seasons of Dan on the run or trapped in another dimension, the listener finds Mark somehow in the 1920s (it was a cult thing, don't worry about it), working as a radio play script writer. Once the first three acts of the script adaptation of Wing Beats are performed (an homage to Orson Welles and the War of the Worlds broadcast - see the radio stuff was important!), complete with disturbing soundscaping and insidious dialogue, Mark addresses the audience again:
Hi there. It's me. It's Mark. I know, weird, right? This whole thing's been so fucking weird, but, that's been the case ever since Dan got that archiving job. So...the fourth act is you. You, the human being listening to this. With your headphones or in the car, you are part of this, you're...complicit in this, if that's the right word for it. It's all been a ritual, by the way, but you probably picked up on that, you're not dumb. I mean, it wasn't a coincidence that scenes were reflections of each other and it was all about stories and song...you got that. Yeah...turns out...I don't have free will? Which means time travel's possible? It's probably best not to think about it, just try and live your life and not think about the fact that you're basically a fucking meat computer.
It's such a well done culmination of story and themes before the podcast jumps into its third season where those same ideas are turned up to eleven.
The Magnus Archives has a less explicit example of the audience as witness trope in that it's a matter of listener interpretation. Throughout the series, we hear the turning off and on of tape recorders as an indication of when events start and stop. What we hear is, ostensibly, the important bits within the show's reality. At some point, though, you start asking yourself, "If these are all recordings, then who's listening to them?" Then, when you find out the tape recorders have become an element of the supernatural, and possibly a manifestation of one of the Fears, you ask again, "What are the tapes for? Who's listening?" It isn't until episode 197, "Connected," that Annabelle Cane (voiced by Chioma Nwalioba), avatar of the Web, lays out the integral nature of the tapes and the Archivist:
We found the one we believed most likely to bring about their manifestation. We marked him young, guided his path as best we could. And then, we took his voice...His, and those he walked with. We inscribed them on shining strands of word and meaning, and used them to a weave a web which cast itself out through the gate and beyond our universe. So that when the Fears heard that voice, and came in their terrible glory, they might then travel out along it. Or be dragged.
It's one of the final big reveals of the series, but it still allows the listener to ask more questions: When did the recorders change? Were they always supernatural? Has this podcast been the Fears entering our reality the whole time? Did I just bring the Fears across dimensions by listening? What dark magics do you wield, Jonny Sims?! It's a much longer walk to get to the conclusion, but The Magnus Archives was always good at playing the long game.
Speaking of long walks, we've now established the extent to which the archives are visualized within the theater of the mind as well as how the podcast as a format acts as an informal archives to the listener. In the midst of developing this section, I've mentioned the use of tapes and podcasts and radio without really examining the relationship between technology and the archives in-universe for each show. Part of visualizing the archives includes the level of technology at the disposal of the characters as well as how the supernatural interacts with that tech, which, in turn, tells us something about how the creators think about the archives.
The Ghost in the Machine
As I said earlier, the archives as a space for horror is more than likely chosen for the air of mystery they conjure. This is largely based on the fact that most people don't know what an archives is or how to differentiate it from a library. Other prevalent stereotypes like basements full of dusty shelves with cobwebs hanging limply in the darkened corners tantalize the imagination with ideas of mysterious documents and books waiting to be uncovered while eldritch creatures lurk just around the corner aching to be released. Plus, occult knowledge hoarding is kind of a staple of horror as well. One must justify the existence of the monster under your bed, so why not remove the middle man and make the horror occur in the place where the research happens?
There's also a more or less agreed upon notion within urban fantasy and modern horror that the supernatural doesn't play well with digital technology. It's why cell phones never work and computers crash almost immediately regardless of how new or up-to-date their model. Because modern tech has nothing on the ancient and unknowable. Either way, if you're trying to use any digital recorders you're less likely to hear the creepy voices than if you have a good old cassette recorder on hand. So, if you want an environment that supports the idea of the frightfully macabre but is also 10-20 years behind the current technology, then the archives must be the place for all those needs!
That's certainly the case with The Magnus Archives. As pointed out in "Angler Fish," the Archivist has plans to digitize the statements stored in the archives, but he's found that some statements just don't want to record digitally. Thus, the need for an old tape recorder acquired from storage that seems to do the trick. This justifies the lo-fi charm of the cassette tapes and allows the listener to develop a keen sense for when the supernatural elements appear. We know a statement being read pertains to one of the Fears by virtue of it being recorded within the episode, but the sound editors also get to play with a wide variety of distortions and static effects to create motifs for specific characters or the Fears in general. Even in the reality of The Magnus Archives, there are some things that cannot be known or heard on analog tech.
Interestingly, though, episode 65, "Binary," contains a direct-from-subject statement by a computer scientist who monologues about digital vs analog after commenting on the Archivist's tape recorder:
Magnetic tape. Everyone thinks it's analog, but it's digital. A lower-tech version than what we use now, but people forget that it was used to store computerized data for decades. Maybe it reminds people of a film reel, or, or maybe nostalgia turns everything analog.
Although people always think of digital as not really there, but the thing is information is always physically present. It doesn't exist as some formless nothing. Even within the tiniest, most advanced storage systems, physical memory cells change and alter themselves to render that information in a language all of their own.
I like this episode as a whole because it sets up some important themes about binaries and categorizations that pay off in later episodes. It turns out, nothing is ever as black and white as we want it to be; the universe is messy and muddled, people even more so, and something as seemingly mundane as magnetic tape can still have far more value and importance than first thought. "Connected" comes to mind, again. It's also a great way of subverting the "supernatural doesn't like digital" trope by demonstrating how the Fears can interact with advanced technology outside the archives. Just because a digital recorder won't capture the statement doesn't mean the Eye or the Web or the Spiral can't reach you through your computer. Look up Sergey Ushanka if you don't believe me.
I think the analog technology angle also works as a way of creating a physical, almost tactile experience. You can hear the weight of a button being pressed on a tape recorder or a reel-to-reel more than the lighter buttons of a digital recorder or app. That physicality, created entirely through sound, grounds the listener, letting them know that there's a beginning and an end to the episode or segments within the episode.
The SCP Archives has the same lo-fi background quality and physicality when it comes to the archived reports. The sound of a tape deck is the typical cue for when the listener is accessing recordings and transcripts, indicating that the SCP Foundation is fully committed to an analog approach to documenting anomalies or they haven't gotten around to updating their procedures. Given that they're a pseudo-government agency with seemingly unlimited access to personnel and funding rather than an academic institution relying on donations, I'd say it's the former. Some SCPs do create distortions within the audio, but any interruptions to the information is usually the sound of redaction.
The Scarab Archives makes an attempt at skirting the line between analog and digital effectively recording the supernatural, but little comes of it. When the series starts, Dr. East is using a digital recorder that works just fine and even picks up on some whispering voices. In episode four, "The Book," East has suddenly switched to an old tape recorder (also acquired from storage) after his computer was confiscated. There's no real change in the recording quality or in the recorder's ability to pick up weirdness. It's a thing that happens with little fanfare.
The remaining podcasts subvert the trope primarily by never making a big deal about it. In the case of The Storage Papers, Jeremy is either reading old documents (and violating so many privacy laws) or recounting events he experienced after the fact. The supernatural is distanced from the paperwork and the recap, making the podcast a sort of dead space. The White Vault keeps its focus on the found footage aspect, which means the footage has to be viable to justify the playback on the podcast. Therefore, the entities encountered in Iceland and South America can be heard and "seen" by the characters in-universe without any major disruptions to the recordings. The Documentarian adds her commentary on the state of the footage, but if anything's unusable, then she makes a point of informing the audience.
Archive 81 takes the trope and dropkicks it out the window. Archive 81 has no time for this trope because the entire podcast is one big subversion of it. In the Archive 81 universe the supernatural and technology might as well be one and the same because sound, song, and stories are entirely the point! The podcast features an array of outdated technology; cassettes, reel-to-reel, radio, and wax cylinders, but never downgrades them as a method of transmission because listening is part of the experience. All forms of media are valid because they all accomplish the same goal.
I do find it interesting that digitization seems to be the primary objective of the archivists, at least at the beginning. It presents a contrast of modern day practices vs the cosmic unknown, but once the plan is laid out it's ultimately abandoned by the show after a point. Dan in Archive 81 gives us his job description in the first episode, telling the audience that he's supposed to "Log tapes, organize them, clean up the archive, digitize everything, and create a new metadata taxonomy." But it never happens. The Archivist wants to digitize the archives' statements, but he soon realizes how daunting the task is three episodes later. The series is even further along when it's pointed out in episode 88, "Dig," that the archives has no centralized database to search for statements, which brings into question why digitization is even occurring if there isn't a repository for those records to live. The Scarab Archives makes mention of a digital archive at the Lazarus Foundation, but it's preexisting in the show and has nothing to do with Dr. East and his plans.
Maybe the real horror is the digitization projects never fulfilled along the way.
But, while we're on the subject of archivists abandoning their projects, I've talked about several characters within these shows, all of whom take on the role of archivist in some way, shape, or form. Hopefully, if you've gone to the lengths of using an archives in your horror audio drama you'd be savvy enough to include an archivist as part of the set dressing. Though I'm sure long time readers wouldn't be surprised that this isn't always the case. Quite the opposite, in fact. Anyway, it seems only fair that we examine how the podcasts characterize their archivists as well.
If I was going to had out an award for the best depiction of an archivist among these six podcasts, then the winner, hands down, is the Documentarian from The White Vault. By virtue of her presence as the hand behind organizing the podcast you're listening to, she positions herself as the most authoritative chronicler of the events as presented. As I said before, the Documentarian is meticulous in her descriptions, providing as much commentary as she can to better inform the listener of what they're hearing and how it fits into the timeline of events. She's also transparent to a fault, revealing her personal involvement in the story as it progresses. There is a point in the series where she tries to maintain some distance by not delving too much into her background, but eventually acknowledges that she can't maintain that distance when she, and her family, become more involved in the plot. Because, once again, neutrality is a lie!
More than any other archivist in this article, the Documentarian has the most realized archival collection by the end of the series. She's selected, arranged, described, and presented the events to the best of her ability. Her last words on the matter to the audience are chilling, yet absolutely relatable from an archival point-of-view: “This concludes the files, do with them what you will.”
Archivists might as well put that at the end of every finding aid and digital record.
Again, the SCP Archives is unique in that each episode is a different report with vastly different characters, so there's no go-to archivist character that represents the SCP Foundation - mostly. That's the charm of the podcast, a cadre of voice actors always playing a new Foundation employee, soldier, SCP, or bystander with very few recurring characters. There are episodes that feature an archivist giving a report, the most prominent that comes to mind being "SCP-1981 - 'Reagan Cut Up.'" In the episode, Dr. Robinson, a researcher and Managing Archivist of Inert Safe-Class Objects and Anomalous Items at Site 73, gives his testimonial on the events that led to former president Ronald Reagan viewing a Betamax tape of his 1983 "Evil Empire" speech. The tape, after a minute and a half of viewing, warps into script deviations and imagery of the president being horrifically injured or killed with every rewind of the tape producing different speeches and methods of bodily harm.
There is, however, one consistent voice in the SCP Archives who could qualify as an archivist, depending on how you view the show as a whole. The Narrator (voiced by Jon Grilz) is the most featured voice as he presents the procedures and descriptions of the SCPs before recordings and transcripts are performed. And while Grilz has voiced characters other than the Narrator from time to time his voice is most recognizable in that particular role. In the most recent multi-part story, "Serapis," the Narrator is interrupted at the end of Part 1 by another Foundation agent who calls him Agent Gallio and pulls him out of retirement for the Serapis project. This implies that Gallio, as the Narrator, has been an archivist for the entire existence of the podcast, delivering the files from the archives to the listener as part of the conceit of the listener being a Foundation employee as well. If this is the case, then well played SCP Archives. Well played, indeed.
And then there's Dr. Delbert East and the supporting cast of The Scarab Archives. Dr. East is infuriating as both a character and an archivist. Again, he sees himself as an academic pariah and constantly belittles his position as an archivist. I understand that this is a perfect position for character growth, but I'll tell you right now that the "growth" East experiences comes in the form of a haunted Halloween skeleton (don't ask) laying out all of his character flaws in one speech that rallies him to have some kind of unearned come-to-Jesus moment. Even more aggravating is the lack of engagement with the supernatural as anything more than an inconvenience. In any other series, the supernatural as a mundane element of your job would be fine - even funny - but The Scarab Archives wants it both ways, a workplace dramedy and cosmic horror, but it doesn't have the time or acumen to accomplish either. Thus, we're left with no stakes or attachments, just a cranky archivist with no redeeming qualities who's the main character.
Okay, East does deaccession an artifact in episode six, "The Ring," but in his hubris he makes a mistake and gets his intern killed so...yeah he's not very good at his job.
In The Magnus Archives and Archive 81 we get two archivists who follow similar paths the more they get involved with the supernatural. In both shows, the role of an archivist is initially positioned as having some importance, which is good! Dan is hired as a temp contractor to view and digitize Archive 81, which Mr. Davenport insists he view in full. Thrust into a new position of academic power, the Archivist attempts to organize the mess that is the Magnus Institute's archives to prove himself despite how unqualified he is for the job (he only has an English degree!) There is an overwhelming sense of internal and external pressure coming from Dan and the Archivist. They're both way in over their heads even before the weirdness starts, which is entirely by design as higher powers lay their traps.
You see, The Magnus Archives and Archive 81 make a point of subverting the Chosen One trope with their archivists. While the listener is following the story of these particular characters, it doesn't necessarily mean they're the most important person because of Fate or Destiny. By the admittance of everyone's favorite immortal eye-hopper, Jonah Magnus, in episode 160, "The Eye Opens," the Archivist was simply someone he chose to carry out his ritual. It's a real gut-punch of a twist because a lot of the fourth season of the Magnus Archives is devoted to examining how avatars are created.
The character of Agnes Montague, the supposed messiah of the Desolation, offers a direct examination of the trope in episodes like "Twice as Bright" and, fittingly enough, "Chosen." Agnes was deliberately crafted in fire by her mother and members of the Cult of the Lightless Flame. Her story is tied up in the ideas of Destiny and Free Will that are foiled only by a seed of doubt. Listeners are meant to make comparisons between Agnes, the Archivist, and other avatars within the show, drawing conclusions that there may be some purpose behind certain people becoming avatars. The twist, however, is cleverly foreshadowed in episode 158, "Panopticon," after Martin Blackwood (voiced by Alexander J. Newall) rejects his supposed "role" as a Chosen One, calling it out for what it really is, manipulation as a means of assigning self-importance. And then, two episodes later, Jonah Magnus crushes those Chosen One notions even further under his high-heeled boots, I assume. The Archivist was chosen out of convenience, someone Jonah knew he could mold and manipulate. No bloodlines, no Destiny, just rotten luck.
It's what makes most horror, as a genre, so frightening. When you really think about it, horror isn't about grand, sweeping stories with clear cut examples of good and evil. Horror is about awful things happening to people for no discernible reason. It's bad luck and bad timing without a means of fighting back. Like a force of nature, it just is. Cosmic horror specifically likes to ruminate on these ideas, contemplating the speck of human existence in comparison to the age of the universe and how mankind is helpless against such forces. Again, it's interesting that four out of the six podcasts featured in this article (five if I really stretch it for The Storage Papers) tackle cosmic horror to varying levels of success.
Dan finds himself in a similar position to the Archivist when he reaches the end of his rope regarding the tapes of Melody Pendras, the cult, and the Visser Building. When he confronts Mr. Davenport about why they hired him for the job, Davenport makes a similar confession to that of Jonah Magnus: convenience. He knew when he hired Dan, and when his company hired Melody back in the 1990s, that they would accomplish their goals (and by extension the goals of the company) because they were driven by their greatest asset and flaw, curiosity.
Quite honestly, curiosity is the fatal flaw of practically every main character in these podcasts and it's a staple of horror as well. If you're not curious, then you're not going to inspect the seemingly haunted house. If you're not curious, then why would you open the Book of Occult Things? If you're not curious, then why did you even become an archivist in the first place?
I do love how curiosity is presented in these shows. It's such a subtle trait, almost benign in its influence, but the ramifications of it are so meaningful. We're all curious about something, and people who work in knowledge management, archives, and library sciences have to have some level of curiosity to do their job, right? But what if you took it too far? What if there are things we shouldn't know? What's the cost of solving the mystery? It's one of the core tenets of becoming an avatar of the Eye in The Magnus Archives - the desire to know something even if it harms you or others. Curiosity is what drove the Archivist to seek answers at the Magnus Institute, it's what made him continue to read statements despite knowing they were changing him for the worse.
And that's really the what lies at the center of horror and the archives, the true climax to all of this analysis and speculation. When it's all said and done, it's a cautionary tale about the archivist becoming the monster.
Now, I'm not saying that these podcasts think actual archivists are monsters, at least I hope they don't. But I do find it curious that the spectrum of monstrosity is explored through these characters in particular. On the one hand, the main character is arguably who you'd want to explore those idea through because their reactions are front and center with the audience. On the other hand...nope, that's pretty much it. I seriously doubt the creators looked at the archival profession and went, "Yep, the real monsters were the archivists the whole time." No, exploring the line between humanity and monstrosity is pretty common in horror as the line blurs between the two. That all of these characters happen to work in an archives or perform archival functions is purely coincidence. But that doesn't mean I can't find meaning in it!
The level of monstrosity ranges from "Oops, all bad stuff!" to "No, I'm literally a monster!" In the case of the latter you have the Archivist of The Magnus Archives slowly changing into an avatar of the Eye who feeds off the fear contained in statements, compels statements forcefully from live subjects, and appears as a being made of eyes in statement-givers' dreams. And in season two of Archive 81, Dan is physically changed into a human-machine hybrid, playing tapes through the mechanisms installed in his body. Dan's change, however, is obviously more external than internal. While his body has been altered, and other characters constantly comment on it, he's still, personality-wise, the same. A little hardened and short-tempered, but a good person. The Archivist has a much longer arc about the blurred line of human and monster that ultimately comes down to the choices made by individuals. The Archivist is only as monstrous as he chooses to be.
On the other side of the spectrum, the Documentarian of The White Vault makes a crucial choice in the final season that she knows will result in one person's death but also save countless lives. When she makes the call, perpetuating the cycle of her family's involvement with creatures beyond their understanding, she breaks down in tears with the knowledge that she purposefully sent a man to die. To her, she's become monstrous even if her intent was to save others. One could even make a case for Jeremy of The Storage Papers slowly turning into something else, putting him somewhere in the middle, the more he's involved with the supernatural elements, though the podcast hasn't expanded on it as of the writing of this article. And, depending on the story, the SCP Archives often has characters pondering how effective the Foundation actually is in its capacity to Secure, Contain, and Protect.
In all of these examples, each person, whether an archivist or not, has been touched by the supernatural and changed in some way shape or form. Because of their involvement and choices made, they're not the same people they were when they started. And I think that's one of the best ways to describe working in the archival profession.
There's a level of involvement and engagement with materials in the archives that fundamentally changes you as an archivist and as a person. Some work with documents surrounding terrible events or the mistreatment and abuse of minority communities or the papers of horrible people. There have been panels at the last few Society of American Archivists (SAA) conferences all about the psychological toll on archivists, particularly Black archivists, who work with materials relating to slavery, the Holocaust, and other historical atrocities. The emotional and physical damage done to archivists is rarely talked about, but it exists nonetheless because archivists are not passive automatons who lack emotions. Empathy and sympathy are not character flaws, they're assets, and assuming someone isn't affected by consistently working with sensitive materials or even the world around them is just willful ignorance.
What I fear more than anything is numbness because that means I've stopped caring. It's very easy to give in to that type of coping mechanism and it can just as easily lead to apathy. There's a spectrum of monstrosity, yes, but the worst kind of monster is someone who could do something but doesn't care to. We don't need anymore real world monsters than we already have. It's fitting that horror gives us the space to explore those feelings.
Was this the intentions of the podcast creators? Probably not. Again, a lot of my analysis is based on speculation and an over-analytical mind, but each of these podcasts is worth your time to make your own conclusions. The variations on how an archives is depicted and how archivists are portrayed when viewed through the lens of horror is a fascinating rabbit hole to fall down. I do wish there were was more representation for female, non-binary, POC, and LGBTQ+ archivists and characters within the shows overall, but I'm mostly happy with what I got. Ace archivists represent!
And if you have any other horror podcasts or podcasts in general that feature an archives or an archivist, please leave a comment or drop an email. I'm always looking for more properties to examine and discuss!
Podcasts Featured in This Article
Archive 81 is a found footage horror podcast about ritual, stories, and sound. Produced by Dead Signals, the podcast was created by Daniel Powell and Marc Sollinger and also stars Amelia Kidd.
Secure. Contain. Protect. There are things that go bump in the night. Fantastic things. Horrible things. Redacted things. The SCP Foundation was built to keep humanity safe from a world of beings it doesn’t want to know exists. And these things have files. A LOT of files. Produced by Bloody Disgusting Podcast Network.
For nearly two decades, the mysterious Lazarus Foundation has collected supposedly paranormal items and stored them safely in a secret location known as the Scarab Archives. Produced by Lazarus Creative Co.
In July of 2019, Jeremy made the fortuitous decision to make the only bid on an abandoned storage unit. At first disappointed by no apparent treasure, what he discovered instead is a trove of the most extensive documentation of seemingly unexplainable events he’s ever seen. Produced by Grinner Media and Rusty Quill.
The Magnus Archives is a weekly horror fiction anthology podcast examining what lurks in the archives of the Magnus Institute, an organisation dedicated to researching the esoteric and the weird.
Created by Jonathan Sims and Alexander J. Newall and produced by Rusty Quill.
Explore the far reaches of the world’s horrors. Follow the collected records of a repair team sent to a remote arctic outpost and unravel what lies waiting in the ice below. Produced by Fool & Scholar Productions.