It’s generally a bad sign when I have to try and diagnose some work’s appeal in terms of cultural trends as opposed to aesthetic merit, but that’s kind of where I fall with Welcome to Night Vale. I’d heard about the show briefly in some other contexts – it played a central role in the legitimately entertaining story of Dashcon’s rise and fall, and The Mountain Goats’ Heel Turn 2 debuted on it, so I’d actually listened to a couple minutes while skipping to that. But taken in full, I just can’t really see the appeal here. So I guess I’ll explain it, and then maybe you guys can figure it out?
Welcome to Night Vale is a fictional radio broadcast from the town of Night Vale, a desert town where every creepy and paranormal thing is happening simultaneously all at once. The first episode’s first skit offers a reasonable taste of what’s to come – the soothing narrator announces the creation of a new dog park in town, but that “it is possible you will see hooded figures in the dog park. Do not approach them. Do not approach the dog park.” So, there’s a dog park, but it’s actually the meeting ground for some ominous cult. Does the rest of the episode follow up on that?
Nope. That’s not really what Night Vale is. The show essentially proceeds as a series of disconnected skits, with the announcer acting as tour guide through a variety of Night Vale’s more ominous attractions. That announcer rather quickly dispenses with the illusion of being an actual news source, and instead acts more as the collective voice of the town’s residents – offering light commentary, talking about what “we all know,” that sort of thing. And so the episode continues in this fashion, talking about creepy lights in the sky and angels that don’t exist and seismic tremors that no one can actually feel.
It’s hard for me to really evaluate a series of tiny skits like this, much less invest in them. Listening to Welcome to Night Vale felt like hearing someone read the back covers of a bunch of low-budget horror movies one after another, with no context or connective tissue pulling anything together, and no characterization or execution to give them substance. The show stays broad, campy, and winkingly self-aware in its horror storytelling, but it never probes beyond “here’s another potential idea for a story,” like a long series of micro-creepypastas all lined up for consumption.
If there’s any element of continuity here, it’s provided by the show’s only two consistent characters, the announcer himself and new arrival Carlos, a scientist with hair so perfect that “we all hate and despise and love that hair in equal measure.” But Carlos is quickly reduced to another conceit used to set up creepypastas, and the announcer haphazardly jumps between maybe-sorta-kinda possessing a personality and also just acting as the town’s collective stand-in. His prose style also isn’t strong enough to really carry the show on its own – he has a solid radio voice, but the show leans far too heavily into repetitive monologues, falling back on regular sentence constructions like “No one does a slice like big Rico. No one” and “For shame, Desert Bluffs. For shame.” Like the stories themselves, the writing style is archetypal and self-aware, lacking the personality or conviction to drive investment or sell intrigue.
Having only watched a single episode, I hesitate to really come down hard on Night Vale, but its appeal is pretty opaque to me at the moment. The first episode was basically a lineup of all the least important elements of spooky stories – their basic premises. Anyone can think up an idea for a spooky story, but it’s how you sell that story that makes it impactful, and Night Vale never went further than simply mentioning one creepy idea before moving on to the next one. What evocation of these stories that was present was alternately too self-aware to parse as tense or just incredibly basic in its beats and descriptions – to offer another example, a sonic disturbance at the post office is at one point described as “a little like a human soul being destroyed by black magic.” Not only is that a trite and bland description, it’s also the least interesting part of the story. The big reveal is almost always weaker than the suspenseful material leading up to it, and Night Vale didn’t give any of its ideas enough focus to generate suspense.
So yeah, I really don’t know what to make of this one. The podcast is certainly popular, which means there’s clearly some appeal there, but it’s certainly not for me. From my perspective, this show seems designed to drain all intrigue and allure from horror stories, leaving them as the kind of useless summaries you might see browsing through Netflix. I know I’m not a plot-focused person, but my general assumption is that most people are a lot less plot-focused than they think they are, and that people tend to prioritize it anyway merely because that’s the language of description they’re accustomed to using. Is Night Vale appealing beyond the idea of reading a bunch of movie blurbs without seeing the actual movies?
I’ll probably never know. Perhaps the show does gain narrative continuity down the line, and all the threads announced in this first episode bear fruit eventually. Maybe I was supposed to find the show’s central joke a lot funnier than I did? All I can say is that nothing about the style or prose here really compelled me to continue, so this is very much where I get off. Cya later, Night Vale. I don’t understand you at all, but keep on doing your thing!
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