Here Be Monsters & other uncomfortable podcasts

KCRW's anxiety-inducing podcast embraces our fears, anxieties and the unknown – we take a listen, and pull out some more podcasts that will leave you sitting uncomfortably

Feature by Brian Cloughley | 22 Jun 2018

So, what’s this all about then? Hard to say. There’s definitely a theme running through Here Be Monsters, but it’s tricky to put you finger on exactly what it is. It describes itself as a “podcast about the unknown” and this is true, sort of. A lot of episodes are based on questions whose answers are indeed unknown – can I remember my own birth (ep 26)? What happened to that three-legged fox that was kicking around (ep 89)? Am I communicating with a dead child or is it just the ayahuasca talking (ep 34)?

If you want to pin it down a bit more, you could say it’s about internal unknown things. A typical programme might involve a narrator talking about things that aren’t unknown in an objective sense, but things that they find in themselves that they can’t quite explain – their fears, beliefs, prejudices and whatnot.

Then again, that’s not quite right either, because the narrators seem a pretty self-aware bunch so you can’t really say the stuff in their heads is unknown. Maybe it’s closer to the truth to say that they’re about internal things that are not fully understood – fears of strangers (ep 17), of going bald (ep 47), of sasquatches (ep 25).

When you see it written down it’s obvious: it’s about fear. But, actually, fear seems too strong a word. The fear of strangers episode has the show’s creator Jeff Emtman traveling across America in an attempt to cure his social phobias, but if he’s willing to jump in a Mack truck with a total random you can’t really say he has a fear. No, it’s more like anxiety. Low-level, free-floating, nerve-jangling anxiety.

And it’s not just a podcast about anxiety, it’s also a podcast that provokes anxiety. In addition to the disconcerting subject matter, they throw in all sorts of audio tomfoolery – changes to the pitch and speed of the speaker, distorted samples, and fleshy squelches. As often as not, sound effects in a podcast are little more than empty gimmicks but here they really do amp the anxiety factor. Of course, whether you want to listen to a podcast that makes you feel anxious is up to yourself.

If you do choose to embrace it, Hypnosis of Hunger is a fine place to start. The back-story has producer Bethany Denton finding a box of cassette tapes in her bedroom. They date from she was eleven and her parents sent her to a weight-loss hypnotherapist. She recorded their sessions and gave them to Bethany, as a tool to help her relax. On their own, the recordings would be laughable (“picture yourself...40 pounds lighter”), but in Here Be Monsters style it’s mixed together with unsettling ambient music and titbits from Bethany about her relationship with food later in life. It’s haunting and chilly. The ‘unknown’ in this episode are those unconscious forces in your brain that push you to eat, drink, purge, whatever. And the anxiety? Yeah, there’s plenty of that too.

5 more podcasts for uncomfortable listening

1) Terrible, Thanks for Asking – Sad, sad stories and tense background music should equal podcast misery, but these tales of pain and discomfort are unexpectedly uplifting.

2) Adrift – A podcast about social anxiety and incompetence has no right to be this cheerful, but Geoff Lloyd and Annabel Port make unremitting embarrassment seem fun (NB. It actually isn’t).

3) This is Actually Happening – Deeply personal stories about life-changing events. Compelling but liable to turn you into a speechless wreck of emotional incontinence.

4) Beautiful Stories from Anonymous People – Host Chris Gethard takes a call from a random listener. The only rule is that he has to stay on the phone for an hour, leading to episodes that are variously funny, sad, odd and excruciatingly uncomfortable.

5) The Big Loop – These stand-alone dramas mix creepy sci-fi with podcast genre tropes to unsettling effect. Not a million miles from an audio Black Mirror.