Every Halloween I explore a suitably spooky topic, from a book about an alleged Canadian haunting, to Japanese books on the supernatural. I’ve also suggested some international ghost stories for Halloween. Still, there is no substitute for hearing spooky tales in audio, so this year I will focus on the best podcasts that cover mythology, mysteries and folklore, all of which have at least some international content. I’ve also included podcasts that take a more skeptical and scholarly look at these issues.
The Night Time podcast covers the strange and the supernatural in Atlantic Canada. This is a relatively new podcast, and it has content that would be difficult to find in detail in other venues. In the first episode the creator of the podcast, Jordan Bonaparte, interviewed his own grandfather about a possible UFO sighting. He then interviewed his own grandmother about the same sighting in a subsequent episode. What I like about the series is that the creator carries out his own research and interviews, on topics such as disappearances, visions and archaeology, usually with a strong Atlantic Canadian flavor. Some of the episodes, such as the “Overton Stone,” shed real light on the region’s history. As an Oak Island skeptic, the interviews regarding that topic intrigued me less. I was glad, therefore, that he also recently did an episode (#21) titled “A Skeptical Look at Oak Island and Bell Island,” which consisted of an interview with Brian Dunning of the podcast Skeptoid.
Some of the best episodes of the Nighttime Podcast have dealt with disappearances, such as strange case of Maura Murray in New Hampshire (episodes 14 and 16), and the three episodes that covered the case of Emma Filipoff (episodes 2, 23 and 24), who vanished from Victoria, British Columbia. As always, Bonaparte interviewed people who were closely involved in the cases. For example, in episode 24, he had a lengthy conversation with one man who had been mentioned in an earlier podcast as a possible suspect in Emma Filipoff’s disappearance. Overall, the Night Time podcast is an original podcast with unique content, which will leave you feeling that you are sitting at a kitchen table in Nova Scotia, while listening to a neighbor tell a favorite story.
The Moth is a podcast in which people tell stories before an audience without notes. I love Joan Juliet Buck’s story“The Ghost of Rue Jacob,” which manages to be both funny and frightening at the same time. Think “The Devil meets Prada” mixed with M.R. James, all set in a sinister Parisian condo. If you go to the “Moth” website the wrong story comes up when one clicks on the link for “the Ghost of Rue Jacob,” so you can either view her talk on Youtube, or download directly it from the iTunes podcast feed.
From the ghosts of Paris you can switch to the witches of Burgundy in the 1460s in the CBC “Ideas” podcast episode “Tinctor’s Foul Manual.” This episode is not a scary story, like that of Joan Juliet Buck. Instead, it is an erudite discussion of a single book, which justified witch trials in a city in northwest France during the 100 Years War. The book itself was written by a Dominican inquisitor, who sought to justify the torture (or burning at the stake) of a number of women, many of whom were prostitutes. This particular case was one of the moments that began a witchcraft hysteria that would last over a century, and claim perhaps forty to sixty thousand lives. The academics interviewed drew parallels between this time, and more modern events. As such, the true horror in this podcast is not the supernatural, but humanity’s cruelty to those it fears. If you are a bibliophile, this may be the right podcast episode for you.
Tanis is a mystery set in the Pacific Northwest, which has connections to places as diverse ancient Egyptand the modern Ukraine. This is a work of speculative fiction, carefully presented as a true account, as a young man named Nic tries to learn the truth about a series of strange events in Western Washington. He is helped by MK (short for Meercatnip), a character in the tradition of Lisbeth Salander in Stieg Larsson’s “the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” A world class computer hacker, she researches the paranormal “breach” called Tanis online, while Nic does the real-world (and dangerous) legwork in person. If you are looking for a fictional podcast in the tradition of “Twin Peaks,” you may find this podcast addictive. There is also a related program, called the Black Tapes podcast, which you might wish to explore.
If you are looking for a skeptical take on cryptozoology and the supernatural, you will certainly want to investigate Monstertalk, a podcast created by Skeptic Magazine. The hosts of Monstertalk typically investigate one topic in detail by interviewing authors and academics. They clearly love the content, and their final question is typically “What is your favorite monster?” Still, they have little patience for the credulity, bad information, and implausibility of most of these traditions. At the same time, their discussion of the Tibetan idea of Tulpas in the context of Slenderman, or the origin of the Jersey Devil narrative, is scholarly, thorough and erudite. My one warning is that most episodes are quite long, often over an hour, so if you listen to the podcast while falling asleep, it may take you a while to finish it.
Brian Dunning has created a wonderful podcast with Skeptoid, which now has over 500 episodes. The episodes cover topics in cryptozoology, the supernatural, conspiracy theories, sham treatments, and more. Most of the episodes are quite brief, unlike Monstertalk, and all explore doubtful claims or stories with reason.
The podcast Lore covers both folklore and mystery, and has risen to the top of the podcast charts based on the quality of host Aaron Mahnke’s storytelling. The host also writes supernatural thrillers, which has doubtless honed his ability to craft a compelling narrative.
If you enjoy listening to true crime podcasts, you’ll likely enjoy the carefully researched and well-written stories on Casefile. For example, in episode 28, “Lindsay Buziak,” the Australian narrator describes a bizarre mystery on Vancouver Island, Canada, with a complex cast of characters. In the end, the narrator interviewed a police officer involved with the case, who corrected some factual errors, and gave the official perspective on the investigation. If you listen to the episode, please be sure to listen the 77 minute original episode, not the 6 minute follow up, which has the same episode number. For some reason, British Columbia seems to have an unusual number of unsolved murder cases involving women, such as that of Lisa Marie Young in episode 26 of Casefile.
Of all Canada’s mysteries, none is as long-standing, complex and disturbing as British Columbia’s “Highway of Tears.” Highway 16 passes through northern British Columbia, including territory pertaining to Aboriginal peoples. At least nineteen women, and likely many more, have either disappeared or been found murdered on this stretch of highway over the last 40 years. What is remarkable is that the first murder took place in 1969 (and there were possible earlier cases), and the killings continued for decades. As many people have commented, it seems likely that more than one killer was involved, given the duration of the murders. If this is true, what has made this particular area so attractive to killers over such a length of time? You can gain some sense of the scale of the crimes from this map of where some victims were found. For much of that time, the disappearances received little attention, likely because many of the women were Aboriginal, or may have been involved in sex work. The podcast, “Stuff they don’t want you to know,” has detailed coverage of this topic in their episode, “What is the Highway of Tears?” This particular episode was thorough, well-researched and chilling.
As the hosts say, how many other women have disappeared in that region without being included in the investigation? The police have only considered cases to be part of the “Highway of Tears” file if the bodies were found within one mile of the Highway. This criteria has received much criticism for being arbitrary definition that excludes many possible crimes. What is most remarkable about this horrific series of murders and disappearances is that only a single killer was ever convicted. You can learn more about that case at the Generation Why podcast, episode 148, “Cody Legebokoff.” In this episode, the two hosts interview author JT Hunter, who wrote a book about Legebokoff, The Country Boy Killer.
If you want to learn more about this haunted highway, you can watch this 48 hours documentary, “The Highway of Tears.” The documentary begins with Peter Van Sant’s interviews with the family of Madison “Maddy” Scott; the case of her disappearance has a shocking twist. Still, for me perhaps the most troubling point in the documentary was when Peter Van Sant was taken back to an archives room, which had 750 boxes of files and evidence on the murders. At this moment, one has a sense of the scale of the police work in the case. According to the documentary, more than 60,000 people have been interviewed, and 1,400 possible suspects have been investigated. As the police officer describes the number of men they’ve found with vans that don’t have door handles on the inside, or with trunks that contain duct tape and wrist restraints, one comes to have a bleak view of men. Even though this a blog post on scary podcasts, I have to mention that in 2012 Outside magazine also had a great article titled “The Vanishing” about the Highway of Tears. Still, I want to close with a podcast. The CBC has a new podcast series titled “Who Killed Alberta Williams?”, which covers the Highway of Tears. It will be an eight part podcast and slideshow, and the website suggests that this will be a carefully researched piece of journalism. The slideshow has been professionally done, and I particularly like that it’s captioned.
The Thinking Sideways Podcast has three hosts -Devin, Steve and Joe- who research and discuss a historicalmystery each week. Unlike the Nighttime podcast, they don’t do a great deal of first hand research, or interviews with people directly involved with the case or topic. Instead, they use the general literature to discuss a wide range of historical mysteries, from the “Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe” to the “Fate of the IXth Roman Legion,” all with a good dose of humor. They also cover more contemporary oddities, such as Cicada 3301, which I’ve also covered on this blog. It’s the banter between the hosts that draws people to this podcast, as much as the eclectic and interesting content. You can find the podcast on iTunes here. With 180 episodes, if you find that you like this podcast, it should keep you entertained for a long time.
If you are interested in Edgar Allan Poe, the Truth podcast has a episode that explores his death with a brief play of about 13 minutes in length. I’d suggest skipping the first three minutes of the podcast to avoid the fund-raising pitch. Still, the play is powerful, the sound work is well done, and the story has a twist. Warning: the episode deals with drug use and is not appropriate for children.
Radiolab is perhaps the most respected podcast today, and has influenced countless other podcasts that have followed it. Radiolab has an episode, “Haunted,” that explores the story of a grieving man and the paranormal. In “Haunted Dreams,” the podcast tells the story of a man troubled by a recurring nightmare, and how he dealt with this challenge. They also have an episode that’s appropriate for Halloween titled “Ghost Stories.”
No discussion of these podcasts would be complete without “Welcome to Night Vale,” certainly the strangest and funniest community in the podcast universe. It’s a good counter-balance to the darker material of the true crime podcasts. The premise of the show is that the listener is hearing public announcements for a very strange town.
I was also just interviewed for the “American Horror Story” episode of Backstory, a history program on public radio, which is also available as a podcast. It was great fun doing the interview in a small sound studio in Portland. The room was soundproofed with egg carton-like foam, I could see the sound engineer through a glass window throughout the interview, and the mike was immense. Despite my nerves, it was a fun conversation. My host was as knowledgeable as he was gracious. You can hear my segment of the episode, “Where the Windigos are,” here. The segment is just under nine minutes long.
If you want to learn more about the Windigo, read my own Dangerous Spirits, which is available in the United States, Canada and the UK. The book discusses an evil spirit, the Windigo or Wihtigo, which could transform people into a monstrous being according to the spiritual beliefs of Algonquian peoples in both Canada and the United States. While the book deals with oral narratives, it also explores the history of colonialism amongst Indigenous Peoples in North America from the arrival of Jesuit missionaries in New France to the present.
I had a lot of fun doing research in old records such as the Jesuit Relations, Hudson Bay Company diaries, the transcripts of Canadian murder trials, and oral interviews held by the Minnesota Historical Society. There are a wealth of historical events set in Canada, such as the case of Charles Janvier, a French-Canadian whom Native peoples believed to have transformed into a windigo while near Nipigon, Ontario in 1779 (p. 106-109). The fur trader in charge, Mr. Fulton, killed him for having terrorized his party, and forcing them to take part in cannibalism. Mr. Fulton then reported to the commanding officer in Michilimackinac, in what is now upper Michigan. He was absolved for the killing, but advised to leave the area.
Although the windigo is perhaps best known in Canada, there are also many stories from the United States, such as the history of one truly terrifying female windigo in Minnesota (p. 35, 53-54), and the Penobscot account of a resourceful wife who faced a windigo in what is now Maine (p. 55). Indeed, in some areas of the mid-West –such as around Star Lake, Minnesota, as well as Wisconsin (p. 66)– later settlers also adopted windigo tales. There may even be a tie between windigo narratives and the experience of the first colonists in Virginia, including the Jamestown settlement in Virginia (p. 71-72). The windigo is a belief woven throughout the history of two nations, which endures in the popular culture, literature, film and video games of both countries (p. 67-75). Indeed, many people will have first heard of the term windigo because of its adoption by filmmakers, such as Larry Fessenden’s film Wendigo, which is set one dark winter in upstate New York.
Most importantly, however, these narratives have deep roots in Algonquian beliefs, which has shaped contemporary Indigenous literature. A number of recent books and films by Native authors use the windigo as a means to understand their experience: “. . . Native works focus on the traumas associated with colonialism, such as residential schools, sexual abuse, and cultural loss, which are all equated with the windigo spirit” (p. 67). Such narratives are even beginning to move into non-native coverage of the windigo. Some film buffs will be familiar with this depiction of the windigo from films such Antonio Bird’s Ravenous, which rethinks the experience of 1840s California by telling the experience of one remote army outpost in the Sierra Nevadas (p. 74). The film uses the windigo as a metaphor for the consuming hunger of Manifest Destiny, as my colleague Grace Dillon has discussed.
You can find a review of the book at Canada’s History, in which Nelle Oosterom said that “Dangerous Spirits is a fascinating look at the stories of the Windigo heard by early missionaries, fur traders, colonial officials, and legal authorities, and those told by Native elders. Smallman has written a book that is highly readable and well researched.” A recent book review in Alberta’s History said that “The author covers a vast range of topics about wetigos, including historical references and their presence in popular literature. This is a well-written book, and the only way one can properly describe it is ‘fascinating.'” In the Canadian Journal of Native Studies Gerald McKinley wrote that the book’s argument was “compelling and effective.” Jennifer Brown wrote a review in the American Indian Culture and Research Journal, in which she said that this “book provides the most comprehensive overview available of the windigo. . . ” I was also surprised recently to come across a well-written blog post by Dana Hunter that critiqued the cultural appropriation of Algonquian beliefs in an episode of the TV show Supernatural, based in part on my book.
For another podcast about this evil being, listen to this episode “Wihtigo” of the CBC program “Ideas.” Maureen Matthews traveled to Hudson Bay in 2009 to talk to Omushkego elder Louis Bird about these evil spirits. Bird had many tales about about strange footprints and odd encounters in the boreal forest. The Cree concept of evil bears some interesting similarities with those regarding witches in an old Burgundian manuscript, as discussed in the podcast episode “Tinctor’s Foul Manual.”
Have a good and safe Halloween everyone, and if you are taking out children to trick or treat, please be sure that they have a flashlight or glow stick. And if you want to read about a true mystery, please read my blog post on the ghost ship Baltimore.
Shawn Smallman, 2016