Not too long ago, I had the chance to see a live show of Welcome to Night Vale as the popular podcast does its tour of the West Coast. The audience was kindly asked not to reveal any details of the touring script since it would eventually be recorded as an actual episode of the podcast, so this won’t exactly be a recounting of the funny as hell and eerily satisfying experience of watching a live performance piece. Instead, I’d rather focus on why Night Vale works as theater and as a podcast. Why has a, until recently, unknown podcast combining elements of Alfred Hitchcock, Stephen King, George Orwell, H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Rod Serling, and David Lynch captured the imaginations of fans around the world? Simply put: Night Vale relies on the fans to fill in the blanks, creating the world of Night Vale through a combination of being very specific and very vague.
Created over a year ago by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, Welcome to Night Vale is a podcast centered around the town of Night Vale – which seems to be in an as-yet unknown location in the American Southwest – and the seemingly mundane things that happen to occur there as reported by the Night Vale Community Radio host, Cecil Palmer, voiced by Cecil Baldwin. On any given day, Cecil could report on the angels that took up residence with Old Woman Josie for a time, the Dog Park that no one is allowed to go to, speak about, or think of, or the helicopters of various colors that correspond to specific groups keeping tabs on the town. There are also several ongoing storylines such as the upcoming mayoral election between Hiram McDaniels (a five-headed dragon) and the Faceless Old Woman (the one who lives in your home), the current corporate infiltration of Night Vale by StrexCorp, and Cecil’s relationship with Carlos, a scientist who moved to Night Vale to study the phenomena that make it the “most scientifically interesting community in the U.S.”
Art by meeshyarts
As you can see, there’s a lot going on in the seemingly normal town where a mountain can randomly appear and citizens are mandated by the local government to eat at a pizza place once a week on penalty of a misdemeanor. Within each roughly 25 minute episode, listeners are given more insight into the workings of Night Vale while also being treated to the entertainingly weird underbelly of the town and its residents. The popularity of the podcast is due entirely to its fanbase, which is true of any podcast, but Night Vale’s rise has an element of interaction with its fans that differs from other popular podcasts like This American Life, The Nerdist, and The Moth. Night Vale isn’t about interviewing a celebrity or telling personal stories. Night Vale is theater of the mind, a program that requires its fans to “see” everything that’s happening based solely on Cecil’s descriptions. Because of this, the imagination of the fanbase is an additional element of Night Vale’s popularity and its success.
Like most radio shows, Night Vale has to be overly descriptive in order to establish its own reality and set the tone of each episode. So when Hiram McDaniels is revealed to be an “eighteen-foot-tall, five-headed dragon, weighing 3,600 pounds” and each head has differently colored eyes and voices, we get a picture of him in our minds but there’s also enough latitude there that someone with artistic talent could take the description and create a version of Hiram that’s no less accurate than another fan’s rendition. In contrast, incumbent Mayor Pamela Winchell has had very little said in the way of her personal appearance, but Cecil has provided many broadcasts that describe her near-demonic personality, which also allows the imaginations of fans to run with what they think Pamela looks like. Similarly, we have a vague idea of what Carlos looks like based on how Cecil described him in the pilot episode, but in 39 episodes of the podcast we have absolutely no idea of what Cecil looks like. Some have used his voice actor as a template, but many fans have essentially crafted their own image of Cecil out of thin air, though there does seem to be a running theme of adding a third eye. Even the community of Night Vale is a vague collection of buildings and landmarks, none of which are entirely set in stone by some map of the area. By keeping it intentionally vague, the creators can easily use the layout of the city at their leisure, but it still allows the fans to speculate and create. Plus, it’s really hard to put a house that may not exist on a map.
Art by littleulvar
Night Vale has also benefited greatly from social media outlets, specifically tumblr, where fans have formed their own communities that share insights on the episodes or whatever pieces they’ve created to express their fandom. Again, it’s no different from any other podcast, television show, or movie with loyal fans. But Night Vale isn’t like Supernatural, which has a healthy and active fanbase present on pretty much every social media platform. Supernatural is a live-action television show, one that gives its fanbase visual depictions of its characters and settings. So if someone dresses up like Castiel, Dean, or Sam there are ways in which that costume or any pieces of art can be compared to the television counterpart. Night Vale’s cast and settings exist entirely in the head cannon of the fanbase. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone criticized because their Glow Cloud costume wasn’t accurate. More so than live-action or animated programs, Night Vale lives and breathes on the investment of the fanbase in the show and the characters. God forbid Cecil and Carlos ever broke up is all I’m saying.
That’s why I think the live shows continue to work. Very little changes in terms of how the show is presented except for a live musical performance for the weather segment and the presence of Cecil Baldwin reading the script. Cecil is still in character and the news reported is still of the same quality. The only real difference is the presence of the audience, but even then there’s still a sense of the audience perpetuating the illusion of the podcast. Sure, there are more audible reactions to what Cecil reports, but the audience doesn’t need visual cues. We know Carlos, Steve Carlsberg, and Tamika Flynn but we don’t need the live show to give us a definitive image. We already have the idea in our heads and all we really need is Cecil to transport us to a sleepy little desert town where our existence is not impossible, but it’s also highly unlikely.