This article contains spoilers for Archive 81.
Like all great horror stories, Netflix’s Archive 81 starts off small.
Film conservator Dan Turner (Mamoudou Athie) is approached by a mysterious corporate benefactor, Virgil Davenport (Martin Donovan) to restore some tapes from the ‘90s. Somehow this simple job escalates into a pulse-pounding supernatural mystery that incorporates a Roaring Twenties era demonic cult, mold that bends time and space, and an honest-to-goodness Lovecraftian horror.
It’s easy to see why Archive 81 has caught on with viewers. The show spent several days in the number one spot on Netflix’s “Top Ten” feature before Ozark bumped it down to two. This story, based on a podcast of the same name, slowly unspools into something properly huge. By the time Dan wakes up in the ‘90s in the final moments of season 1 to watch MTV’s Kurt Loder announce Kurt Cobain’s death, Archive 81 has taken its audience on one hell of a journey.
Thankfully Archive 81 parcels out its reveals pretty judiciously. And in at least two separate instances, it has characters provide an expositional rundown of everything we’ve learned so far. Still, all these concepts and terms like Kaelego, Comet Kharon, Baldung witches, and The Otherworld can get pretty overwhelming. With that in mind, we want to create a space to tackle them each individually, just in case anything is unclear. Here are some of the headier concepts from Archive 81, explained.
Forget Dan Turner and Melody Pendras (Dina Shihabi) – Kaelego is arguably the main character of this whole she-bang. Kaelego is a pan dimensional god and/or demon who select followers on Earth believe will usher in a new era where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts. By performing a magical ritual, the Vos Society (and its 1990s offshoot) believe that they can invite Kaelego to our realm.
It’s unclear what Kaelego would do upon arriving here, but according to Iris Vos, he can do just about anything and she fully expects him to solve all of humanity’s problems (not least of which is restoring Iris’s fertility). He is represented by a statue that the Vos Society smuggled into the country to play a central role in their summoning ritual. Kaelego also pops up several times throughout the series as a sort of “ghost in the machine.” All of the filming of these events has somehow captured his essence in the ether and he can occasionally be seen on film. In one instance, he even tries to break through his film constraints to enter into our world but Dan stops him.
Though he seems quite real, Kaelego is not an actual figure in any existing mythology on Earth.
“This is kind of a Lovecraftian element to this show, which is an elder god or demon depending on how you look at it. So it feels real but it’s an invention and obviously draws upon many tropes and other ideas, but the monster or god or demon himself is our creation,” showrunner Rebecca Sonnenshine told The Wrap.
In another interview with EW, Sonnenshine elaborated that Kaelego’s physicality was borrowed from another unlikely movie monster.
“But he’s kind of a little bit based on Hannibal Lecter, the way he kind of looks up, and he kind of tilts his head down and looks up. That’s kind of how the design began, a very still character who watches very intently.”
Ultimately, Kaelego is not real in any sense. But due to some borrowing from popular culture, he seems quite familiar.
Thanks to pop culture’s recent obsession with mirror universes and alternate timelines, Archive 81’s Otherworld is fairly easy to wrap one’s head around. As its name implies, The Otherworld is quite simply…another world. It’s the metaphysical realm that Kaelego occupies.
Some might call it heaven, some might call it hell, some might even call it another planet, but in practice it’s simply a parallel universe to our own. The Vos Society (more on them in a bit) and other Kaelego sympathetics don’t have much of an interest in The Otherworld beyond it being the place that they need to access to bring Kaelego home. Funnily enough, however, those who seek Kaelego end up becoming quite familiar with The Otherworld anyway. Due to improper magickal techniques, Iris Vos gets trapped there for nearly a hundred years. Melody and Samuel Spare (Evan Jonigkeit) get trapped there for nearly thirty.
None of these three individuals likely have any sense for how long they’ve been in The Otherworld though as time travels differently there. It also isn’t necessarily an unpleasant place. When Dan visits, he is tempted by the prospect of his family reunited. Melody gets to experience something similar as she waits in a church for her mother to return.
Ultimately it’s safe to think of The Otherworld like Stranger Things’ Upside-Down – just with fewer monsters and less ambient lighting.
The Vos Society
Though Kaelego is ancient and perhaps even timeless, The Vos Society is where the human portion of Archive 81’s story truly begins. The Vos Society is a parapsychological organization created by the rich Vos family in the 1920s. The Vos family is made up of two brothers (Jonah and Lukas) and one sister (the aforementioned Iris). Their father started the quest for Kaelego before he died but it was Iris who really took to the mission.
As far as we can tell, the Vos Society is not based on any real-life organization. Still, “spiritual societies” and the like have dotted the Western cultural landscape for centuries. The early 1920s in particular seemed to be a lucrative time for organizations seeking enlightenment outside of the usual scientific or religious channels. There are dozens of notable secret societies from the early 20th century.
More than any real secret society, however, The Vos Society resembles a fictional one. For an example of another prominent sect of demon-worshippers, look no further than the classic 2018 horror movie Hereditary. In fact, if you liked Archive 81, that movie is an excellent next watch.
Comet Kharon and Kharonite
One interesting feature about the demon Kaelego is his close ties to a celestial object. In the world of Archive 81, Kaelego can most easily be summoned when a fictional comet known as “Kharon” (alternative spelling could be “Charon”) is passing over Earth. Also known as “The Ferryman”, Kharon is named after the ferryman of Hades who carries souls across the river Acheron in Greek mythology.
The magical ritual to open The Otherworld and summon Kaelego can only work when The Ferryman is overhead. Kaelego’s relationship to Kharon persists even when the comet isn’t making its journey across Earth. A type of hallucinatory mold called Kharonite (or stardust) will begin to infest areas in which Kaelego’s followers garner his good favor.
In our world, there is no comet known as Kharon or “The Ferryman” (though there absolutely should be because it sounds rad). There is, however, one prominent example of a cult building its mythology around a comet. In March of 1997, 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult committed suicide, believing that they would be transported to a spaceship that was tailing the Hale-Bopp comet.
While The Vos Society is intent on bringing Kaelego into the world, there is another faction just as committed to keeping him in The Otherworld. It’s unknown what this faction’s name is but it does include many creatures known as “Baldung Witches.” Archive 81 did not provide much information on these magic-users but we do know that they appear to be human beings capable of supernatural abilities.
Melody’s mother, Bobbi, is a Baldung witch, which makes Melody at least half a witch herself. The only way to safely open a portal into The Otherworld is through the talents of a Baldung witch. This is something that the Vos Society never quite grasped. Though the Vos’s and later Samuel knew to utilize Baldung witch blood, they would have needed the witch’s full participation to pull the ritual off.
There is no such thing as a “Baldung” witch in any known mythology. Their name, however, almost certainly comes from 16th century German artist Hans Baldung. One of his best known works is called “The Witches” and it’s pretty rad.
Archive 81 is available to stream on Netflix now.