Sounds Spooky: How Do You Make A Podcast Frightening?
The tapping of mysterious footsteps, the whisper of wind through trees, exactly the right blood-curdling scream … Making listeners jump out of their skin is a specialist audio art. To mark the launch of the brand-new Novel podcast Ghoul Guide and the second series of Spooky Sh*t, producer Clarissa Maycock and sound designer Nicholas Alexander get together with Andrew Dickson to discuss how it’s done
Andrew Dickson: So, Clarissa, tell us about Ghoul Guide. Great title. What’s it about?
Clarissa Maycock: It’s a new Novel podcast for Global hosted by Rachel Fairburn, a standup comedian who’s really interested in ghosts and supernatural things. She loves them, but she’s also genuinely very scared of seeing ghosts. [laughs] In each episode, she and I go to some of the UK’s most haunted locations and a guest storyteller tells her three ghost stories associated with that place. The catch is that one of these stories is genuine, while the other two have been made up. Overnight, she has to investigate – well, technically she and I investigate, because I’m recording – and then she finds out the truth in the morning. It’s partly a ghost-hunting podcast, partly call-my-bluff, partly a comedy podcast. Rachel’s really funny and fascinated by all this stuff.
AD: So you’ve been to a series of famously spooky locations, and you've been recording in the dead of night? Wasn’t that … actually frightening?
CM: Rachel was absolutely terrified, genuinely! But what really surprised me was how scared I was going to be. When I was in the dark in the middle of all these creepy locations and had my headphones on, I could hear absolutely everything that was happening. It was such an unexpectedly terrifying position to be in, suddenly to be surrounded by all these sounds in the middle of the night, which I couldn’t immediately identify. There was a moment in episode 1 when we were recording on the walls of Ruthin Castle in North Wales , which is meant to be this very haunted place. It was the first time we’d been out ghost-hunting. Suddenly there was this really loud pop on the microphone – no idea why, completely unexplained, never happened again. It sounded like there was someone right there behind me. I jumped and screamed, and that really freaked Rachel out. From her perspective, it was totally silent and then I lost it for no apparent reason. That freaked us both out. We ran back to the hotel.
Nicholas Alexander: When you’re recording on location, you have to have the levels quite high to check everything is sounding good, don’t you. But of course that adds to the scary atmosphere. You’re so immersed in the sound of the place.
CM: Absolutely. I could hear things like insects moving, the wind rustling in the trees, footsteps that were quite far away – but I couldn’t tell that they were far away. I was on edge quite a lot of the time.
NA: If you were doing all of your location recording at night, that must have been quite hard, logistically, too?
CM: Yeah. And a lot of these locations were very remote, so we were constantly checking in with someone at Novel, just to make sure we were safe. They wanted to check that we were in communication and still OK and that nothing had happened. And obviously that we hadn’t been kidnapped by ghouls.
AD: Nick, in the new series of Spooky Sh*t , your job has been quite different – you’ve been designing and mixing sounds rather than recording on location. But you must have been thinking about those types of sounds too, right? Whistling wind, mysterious footsteps: they’re horror tropes, in one way or another …
NA: Yeah, in some ways making Spooky Sh*t is the opposite process to Ghoul Guide. It’s a chat podcast, hosted by Jamali Maddox. Various guests come in to tell him about a scary moment in their lives, and try to convince him that there’s some kind of spooky explanation. Jamali’s a complete cynic, doesn’t buy it at all. Soundwise, it’s a very clean setup – just the two of them in the studio. So my job as a sound designer is to go in and create an atmosphere that makes you believe you’re on, say, a creepy road in Ireland or hearing footsteps that seem to come out of nowhere. It’s about creating the right acoustic space.
AD: What kind of sounds actually scare people? What really works?
NA: I’d never claim to be an expert on horror movies, but the interesting thing to me is that often it’s sound that really frightens people rather than visuals. If you think about The Blair Witch Project , say, it’s all in the atmosphere and the suspense and what you hear on the soundtrack, rather than what you see on screen. If you actually saw, say, the monster that’s coming to get you, it’s hard to make it look convincing – it’s awful prosthetics or terrible CGI. We’re much more frightened of things we hear but can’t see. So being able to play with that in a podcast is really fun.
CM: That sounds like such a fun creative process. In Ghoul Guide, we’re sort of relying on people coming along with us and trusting that we’re not exaggerating anything. We’re not trying to be like one of those ghost-hunting TV programmes where we’re constantly trying to scare people with manufactured material, jump scares or whatever. There are all sorts of unexplained sounds that we come across on the way, but the idea is that they’re real.
AD: Obviously the podcasts you’re both working on are very different, but what’s striking to me is that they both involve the crossover between horror and comedy, which is a really intriguing space. Often when we’re frightened, we laugh. Strange, that, isn’t it …
NA: Definitely. If there’s a jump scare in a horror movie, the thing I’ll do immediately afterwards is laugh. Those emotions are really closely linked. In Spooky Sh*t, we definitely try to enhance that and bring out the comic aspects of these scary stories. We’ll sound like we’re in some kind of scary space, building up the tension, and then suddenly we’ll cut back to the studio, and Jamali's saying something cynical that totally undercuts it. The tension is suddenly released.
CM: I agree about that relationship between comedy and horror. In Ghoul Guide, I think we put in a lot more comedy than we were originally expecting. But in a weird way that perhaps makes the scarier bits scarier.
AD: Are there particular sounds you’ve used again and again when you’re designing soundscapes, Nick? Any cast-iron spooky favourites?
NA: It’s more about creating the right atmosphere for each moment. I’m trying to react to what each episode is and what it does. I work with a number of sound effects libraries, trying to find the right effects and weave them into the sound texture. In James Acaster’s episode, for instance, he took us on this spooky scout trip in the woods, and so it was all about finding the right sort noises of twigs breaking and rustling through leaves, putting the odd owl into the background. You want to make it sound authentic, so it’s about researching the right kind of animal noises in the UK, rather than using just crickets chirping or whatever. In another episode, where Jamali speaks to Alison Spittle, she’s talking about a scene with a ouija board, so it was about finding the right scraping wood sounds to make that scene come alive, then adding a ticking clock into the mix, alongside some eerie music by Erik Satie. I love a nice ticking clock. That’s great for tension.
CM: We did a slightly simpler version of that in Ghoul Guide. When I was choosing the locations, it was partly about choosing different-sounding places – one time we’re on a haunted beach, another time a haunted forest, then a haunted basement. The contrast between those spaces is really important.
NA: Such a smart call. You don’t want every episode to sound like you’re in a really echoey stone chamber. Pretty quickly, that’s not so frightening. [laughs]
CM: It also really opened my eyes to all the different spooky stories there are in the UK.
NA: There must be a haunted pub in practically every village.
CM: Each of them claiming to be the most haunted pub in Britain. [laughs] But actually there are so many great stories we found. In one episode where we go to a haunted beach in Dunwich, Suffolk ; in Anglo-Saxon times, there was a settlement there that was as big and as important as London. It could have been the capital of Britain, but hundreds of years ago there were enormous storms that were so severe they basically washed the whole town into the North Sea. They call it the Lost City of Dunwich, this British Atlantis just off the coast of East Anglia. Walking the beach at twilight, you’re meant to be able to hear the bells from all the churches that were washed into the sea.
AD: And you got the bells on tape, right …
CM: Unfortunately not … Actually the beach wasn’t quite as spooky as I was hoping it might be. But when we were walking back, I suggested walking down a sort of forest road just behind the beach. Rachel got such a bad feeling that we couldn’t go much further. We genuinely had to go home. Then the next day we went back, to see if it was still scary in the morning, and we found that there was this drop which we’d nearly fallen off. Not a dangerous one, but still. That could have gone badly. Or at least embarrassingly. I like to tell Rachel that maybe a ghost scared her away that night to protect her.
AD: Clarissa, I was thinking about what you were saying earlier, about picking everything up on your headphones, hearing absolutely everything that’s going on – even perfectly innocent noises. When we’re genuinely frightened, exactly the same thing happens, right. There’s all this adrenaline pumping around your system, which makes you listen really, really hard. Your senses are on high alert.
CM: Oh definitely. And sounds are a really sneaky way to get into someone’s head, right. You’re hearing something, but you’re not sure if it’s real. Like, “Did I just hear footsteps? Who’s there?”
NA: Obviously we’re biased because we work in audio, but I think there’s so much to be said for leaving enough room for the listener’s imagination to fill in the gaps. In some ways, the more room you leave for that to happen, the scarier it can be. You’re not putting in every footstep, you’re not putting in every sound. Leaving room for the imagination is often more frightening than any sound effect you could put in.