There's no shortage of terrible stories or spooky places on this Earth, which means that Aaron Mahnke, creator of the popular podcast and Amazon TV show Lore, still had plenty of unsavory topics to cover in his upcoming third book, The World of Lore: Dreadful Places. Due out in October, the book contains expanded versions of the stories Mahnke told on his podcast as well as new material. And, like the podcast, it's well-written, rooted in deep historical research, and ridiculously entertaining.
Each chapter brings a creepy story from folklore to life, whether it's passed on by generations of people living across America or it sprung up overseas. Ghosts and other supernatural creatures dominate the collection, but Mahnke reminds us that humans can be monsters, too. In "Echoes," for example, he introduces us to Dr. Walter Freeman, who invented the lobotomy in 1936 and performed it on patients without anesthetic. Hair-raising stuff.
October also brings the second season of the Lore TV series and the launch of Mahnke's new podcast, Unobscured, which he describes as "Lore on steroids." Amid so much activity Mahnke found time to speak with SYFY WIRE about his latest projects, his fascinating research process, and why he believes some places just plain feel more haunted than others.
Your podcast, TV show, and books are compelling in part because they're rooted in actual history. Let's talk about your research process. How do you know when you've found a story worth telling?
Lore is a hybrid creature in that it requires good storytelling but also historical information for context. So, when I'm picking a topic, I need to be sure that there's enough material associated with it to provide a journey for audiences. Not every topic makes the cut. People like to reach out to me with some cool, creepy facts, but they don't necessarily make for a good story. I have to take [my listeners and readers] from point A to point B, making sure that they're following me every step of the way, and that takes a special kind of topic.
What's it like to conduct historical research on folklore as opposed to a subject that's likely to have a large archive of written sources?
I have to treat every topic differently. Something like the Jersey Devil, for instance, is very localized. So you won't necessarily read about it in the New York Times. But you might find articles about it in the local newspaper or old lesson books from the area. But then there's something like the vampire panic in New England, which we discussed on a previous episode of the podcast. It required more historical research from sources spread out all over the world, including scholarly papers and other kinds of texts written by historians.
In the beginning, I was doing all the research myself. These days I have research assistants, which is great because each story takes about 15 to 20 hours' worth of research. Assistants are also helpful because I get pulled down rabbit holes really easily with interesting facts. For example, if I'm researching someone like Edgar Allen Poe and the time period he lived in, I'll see that everybody in his life seemed to have died of tuberculosis. That leads me to reading about how there was this deep fear back then of being buried alive. The next thing I know I'm looking at blueprints of something called safety coffins. The research assistants help me stick to the stories' most salient points by providing me with an outline.
The historical context you provide also helps to make the stories feel more real. What else can folklore teach us about the people who keep it alive?
The stories communities tell can reveal a lot about their belief systems. For example, if some food goes missing, there might be a story about some small creature in the forest that stole it. These kinds of stories explain the questions that a culture hasn't found answers to yet. Folklore can also show us how communities explain why bad things happen or what things they value the most, or even what they fear most.
Your most recent book is a collection of stories that focus on places: haunted places, places occupied by evil. What makes some places riper than others for ghosts and other kinds of monsters?
I suppose the answer depends on what you believe, whether you're a skeptic. The most common metaphor used to describe these places is that they're sort of like batteries that charge up on bad things. They're often sites of excessive tragedy or loss of life or evil acts.
Consider the story of the Danvers State Hospital in Massachusetts. It's the focus of an early episode — and a chapter in my latest books — called "Echoes." Most of the old hospital is gone, but the original administrative building is now a central part of a condo complex. [The residents] tell all kinds of stories about things that happen there that are just difficult to explain away.
Between the podcast, the TV show, and your book series, you're very busy. Anything else in the works?
October seems to be my season, if you want to call it that. My new book comes out in October, and the podcast will roll out weekly episodes all month. Episode 100 arrives the week of Halloween, and I'll be covering a topic that I've wanted to cover for a long time.
My other podcast, Cabinet of Curiosities, continues to truck along, and on October 3rd I'm launching a third podcast called Unobscured. It's a season-long documentary that explores large, misunderstood historical events. The first season will consist of 12 episodes and will cover the Salem Witch Trials. It'll feature historian interviews and a new soundtrack by Chad Lawson, who's the Lore composer.
The second season of the Lore TV show premieres on October 19, and then hopefully sometime in November or December, I'll be able to take a nap.