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A Few Things I Learned about Horror Listening to The Magnus Archives

Yes, I am extremely behind the times but I am firmly in the fandom now.

The Magnus Archives is in its final season, and I finally took my podcast app’s advice and started to listen at the beginning. It’s a masterclass in long form and short form horror and suspense. The larger narrative unfolds almost organically, with hints that begin almost immediately and payoffs that might wait episodes and episodes to pop.

The individual episodes are amazing. Each is deeply creepy in its own individual way, but it’s also fun once the overarching story becomes clear to go back and see those hints to the greater horror.

You can make the best horror yourself

The audio/podcast medium of the Magnus Archives means that the listener is left to imagine the horrors described themselves. Often the descriptors and subtle acting are just enough to let the audience create in their imagination something more horrible than what might be able to achieve in any other media.

I say it might be more effective than even prose, because we are engaging with a sense that is often far more intimate than reading words on a page. Someone is telling us a story, telling it just to us, and that is special because it creates an intimate connection not only with the person telling the story but the story itself.

That extra little bit of verisimilitude goes a long way. It makes things feel a little bit more “true.”

Don’t let the bigger narrative get in the way of this episode’s story

Like you might have guessed, I am a fan of the bigger story in the Magnus Archives.

The whole thing is set up very cleverly. Each episode is the written account of a paranormal experience that is usually read off by the head archivist of the Magnus institute. Two seasons are dedicated to doing things this way, firmly establishing the world of the story using accounts of side characters within the bigger narrative.

The bigger picture in the early seasons are hinted at by the notes that the archivist leaves after each account, talking about further research and follow up that could be done.

It’s a very interesting pattern, almost a fractal.

The important thing is that each account stands alone, even if they are a big piece of the greater mystery. Only once those rules of the universe are established (and firmly) do the creators think to expand on that established structure.

What would cosmic horror look like to the normal person?

The hardest thing about cosmic horror to me is the idea that it would exist completely unnoticed.

If you read Lovecraft, you’d know that horrors, monsters, and old ones are seen by a lot of people. And everyone seems pretty chill about it. This seems to imply that, while it might not be common, the horrors and unknown are at least understood to exist by people. Miskatonic University has a library of books well known enough that people study and try and steal them. And going back, Bram Stoker’s Dracula had its character of Van Helsing to come in and understand the horror of the vampire and give information to the protagonists so they can fight their evil.

In modern mythos how this is handled goes a couple different ways. Either it’s a thing that happens, there is a society, cult, or organization that covers it up, or it is a novel phenomena that is just discovered. But where there are people, there are store cashiers, grocery store workers, and random strangers on the street who are going to interact with them. To think that nobody’s going to notice weird shit happening, especially if the story takes place in any kind of populated center, is kind of ludicrous.

And when you do notice this particular plot whole you start seeing it everywhere. It does open some very interesting avenues of underdeveloped potential.

What would happen if you lived next door to a death worshipping cult? Or in the apartment underneath someone who’s been taken over by a cosmic horror?

The Magnus Archive knows!

These stories are told from the point of view of the NPCs or background characters. They have no idea that they are part of a much larger, much more frightening narrative. Their passive brush up against the uncanny might have left horrible personal scars, but they have no idea how close they were to absolute disaster.

It’s a great conceit and one that really could only work in a long form, episodic format.

If you haven’t had the chance, now is the perfect time to go and binge the Magnus Archives.