THE VOICE OF ANXIETY16 March 2016
Welcome to Night Vale is a horror-comedy podcast by New York-based writers Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor. The show, which first began in 2012, is effectively community radio from a town where every ghost story and conspiracy theory is real – and it’s a bit of an internet sensation.
Many things drew fans to the podcast. For a start, it’s just good art – beautifully written, acted and produced. There’s also the incredibly casual and wonderful diversity – the main character is queer, as are many others, and even though race could have been ignored in a show with no visual elements, the writers have made an effort to ensure the names are noticeably diverse.
But the show has another, unexpected draw. In interviews, Cecil Baldwin (who plays Cecil Palmer, the ‘Voice of Night Vale’) has mentioned that many fans listen to the show to soothe their anxiety. Between the police, the librarians and the street cleaners, Night Vale turns the everyday into a horror story, which doesn’t seem like something that would make an already-anxious person feel better about the world they live in. So why are they drawn to it?
In an interview with the New York Times, Joseph Fink discussed a connection between the podcast and his father’s death, six months before he had the initial idea.
“You have this town where death is common and there are terrifying things that are coming at every second and everybody is okay with it and gets on with their lives,” he says.
Which is interesting because if you think about it, that’s every town. The experience of being human is defined by the fact that we are going to die – every second is spent with an uncertainty about what the next one will bring. There is never, ever a
guarantee that we are going to see a new morning; the world is a terrifying place. But people with anxiety are told not to be scared.
The way that most well-meaning people address those with anxiety is a problem. They tell them that there is nothing to worry about, that they should just relax, that they’re being silly. But that’s not how anxiety works. You can’t just choose not to feel that fear. It may not be in response to anything concrete but it’s still a real emotion. It feels justified, even when you know it isn’t. So telling these people to just be sensible and stop feeling these things does nothing but make them feel stupid and discourage them from talking about the way that they are experiencing the world.
In Night Vale, things are scary. Computers and mirrors and bread provide a genuine cause for fear and every trip to ‘Big Rico’s Pizza’ could be your last. But this doesn’t stop any of the citizens for a second. If the people of Night Vale – or the people of the real world – stopped and considered the sheer number of dangerous things surrounding them and took the time to be scared of each and every one of these things, they would be incapable of doing anything. In the face of such overwhelming terror, the only option any of us have is to accept it and get on with our lives.
We acknowledge that the world is, to quote the podcast, “mostly void, partially stars” and try to focus on the points of light. Obviously, for people with anxiety disorders, this isn’t always an option. But I believe that accepting your fear and living in spite of it is much more helpful than having it dismissed, being told that there’s nothing to worry about. It’s not patronising – it acknowledges that even irrational fear is still real, because fear is only an emotion, whether it’s the result of making a phone call or of the hooded figures who populate Night Vale’s dog park.
Night Vale may be incredibly surreal, but in many ways it is also astonishingly realistic. In the novelisation that was released late last year, the authors talk about “the bland tragedy of everyday life” and I would argue that this is what this weird, funny podcast is actually about. Things are often terrible. For proof of that, just try watching the news. And instead of ignoring this, the show acknowledges and accepts it: to quote episode 42, Welcome to Night Vale talks about life, happiness and freedom “as a bird in flight! With all the dependence on physics and exhaustion and food supply and merciless gravity that the actuality implies”.