In a medium like podcasting, where anyone with a microphone and a dream believes they can succeed, simple ideas and execution stand out.
Lore, a folklore podcast from supernatural fiction writer Aaron Mahnke, adheres to that concept. With nothing more than his calm, if unpolished, voice, Mahnke acts as a historical tour guide, tackling topics ranging from deeply disturbing stories set in physical spaces—prisons, asylums, the woods—to the real-life origins of cannibals, vampires, and warlocks. With no need for showmanship, he lets the eerie piano soundtrack and spine-chilling truths of his script crawl under the skin of his listeners. It’s the podcast equivalent of sitting around the campfire with only a flashlight and an all-too-real spooky story to tell.
Mahnke’s project spread faster than any of the folklore he covers in each episode. Nearly six million monthly listeners return every two weeks to hear Mahnke hawk dark historical tales and otherworldly myths. Hence after just six months of producing the podcast, Mahnke was fielding calls from Hollywood. The strong premise and execution caught the attention of one of the busiest and most powerful producers in showbusiness, Gale Anne Hurd.
“The scariest things in the world are things that could actually happen,” Hurd says. This is what initially drew her to Lore.
Phoning from her Los Angeles office, the CEO of Valhalla Entertainment is taking her time to collect her thoughts. The producer of genre blockbuster royalty like The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, and Aliens, as well as the more recent peak TV powerhouse, The Walking Dead, is explaining how Lore crossed her desk when she takes a slight pause and says, “Honestly, it was the phone call you only hope for and dream of.”
In less than a year, Mahnke had gone from being a relative unknown to having Hollywood bigwigs waiting by the phone for his calls. The high praise from Hurd, who was a “big fan” of the podcast, snowballed into her production company finding a home for the project on Amazon. The TV series, which has the appropriate release date of Friday, Oct. 13, now has to live up to the growing folklore of the hit podcast, and that’s brought its own set of challenges.
“From the very beginning we realized that it’s not a scripted show,” Hurd says. “This is not something I had done before, but it was absolutely essential to maintain the grounded nature of the podcast by making sure that we had archival footage. We absolutely did not want this to be talking heads, people talking about things that are scary. That’s not scary.”
To make scary happen, Hurd and Mahnke enlisted a guy with plenty of clout in the business of bringing monsters to life: The X-Files writer, director, and producer Glen Morgan. Their approach to the material is to stay true to the podcast and also incorporate Morgan’s retelling of nonfiction. The show will thus strive for a documentary feel, using a mix of animation and existing footage interspersed with a scripted narrative. “As long as it thematically connects to the story we’re telling,” Morgan says, “we can show things that [Mahnke] can’t.”
While matching the series with a producer famous for helping bring “Monster-of-the-Week” into the pop culture lexicon seems like a no-brainer, the process was actually more organic than meets the eye. Morgan was a fan before he knew the TV series was in development. He was so intrigued by it that he emailed Mahnke to set up a meeting, because the podcaster listed The X-Files as one of his creative inspirations on his website. After a face-to-face meeting in Los Angeles, in which Morgan says the topic of the television show didn’t even come up, Mahnke, who was unavailable to participate for this story due to a book tour, eventually suggested Morgan as a potential showrunner. It was an easy fit, and soon Morgan signed on. Even with all the rich source material Mahnke gifted him, Morgan wanted to make his vision for Lore clear: He was going to “do the podcast.”
Outside of Atlanta, in an office complex turned soundstage, rain drops are thudding down as Morgan graciously offers his office as an interview space. He walks deep into the pitch black chamber and flicks on the lamp on his desk. The mostly empty room is an “I Want To Believe” poster and a few pencils hanging from the ceiling away from being Fox Mulder’s office. Swaying in and out of the dim desk light, Morgan opens up about the freedom he has to play in the space between fact and folklore here, much like his work on The X-Files and the cult hit Millennium. In fact, Morgan was exploring lore long before Lore.
“I’m interested in the facts. I’m a historian,” Morgan says, meditating on the origins of his fiction writing for The X-Files. “Back in the day, I’d get science newsletters with a five-page magazine that came every Monday. So you took the facts, but in the middle, I make shit up. And inevitably everybody would go, ‘Oh I read about that.’ No, I made that part up. So that to me is what causes folklore, and that’s why I’m interested in both projects to have a similar approach.”
While much of the episodic framework of Lore will be added in post-production, the setup on this day of shooting is for the scripted narrative portion of the episode. The action is contained inside the wooden framework of a replica doctor’s office from the 1940s where actor Colm Feore wields a long ice pick-like device. As cameras are nearly set to roll, he readies for a monologue about the “transorbital lobotomy,” a medical procedure once believed to reduce manic symptoms in the institutionalized. Feore is playing real-life Dr. Walter Freeman, known as the “Father of the Lobotomy,” who performed more than 2,500 lobotomies in the United States between 1946 and 1967, using a process that involved pushing a long needle through the eye and breaking through the skull to disconnect the frontal lobes and the thalamus.
The story comes from episode six of the podcast, “Echoes,” which digs into asylums, or as Mahnke describes it, “The mother of all horror settings with a dark pedigree unlike any other.” The episode recounts the ethical dilemmas of the “hospitals of the mind,” places intended to help the sick but for a long period of time only generated pain and suffering for patients.
In the midst of Feore reciting his lines while he stands over a patient with an ice pick in hand, thunder from outside the building rattles through the set and production carries on, as if mother nature stopped by for an unnerving cameo.
“It was hard to conceive how horrible it was,” Feore says between takes. “Crying, screaming, miserable, chained up, unhappy, cold, batshit crazy. Being in those circumstances only made some people crazier because they lost all hope.”
Freeman’s procedure left many patients either in a vegetative state or struggling to regain basic motor functions. This was at a time when patients had virtually no alternative medical options to treat mental illness and a doctor’s word was taken as gospel. Freeman offered justifications, believing he was doing the right thing, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. There was a rather large ethical and practical gray area to Freeman’s work, which to Feore makes this a timeless topic.
“The real horror of it for me is here’s a guy who philosophically believes he’s got to do something and just happens to be wrong about what it is and can’t see that,” Feore says. “Certainty and uncertainty are a wonderful pandora’s box to open with this show. We fool ourselves if we try to pretend we’ve made a great deal of progress. We don’t know as much as we think we know.”
We do know these stories, as chilling tales or warnings from the past, resonate with listeners. To Morgan, the purity of the podcast medium is what hooked him in the first place. “[Podcasters] are not hindered by conceptions about what would make a hit,” he says. The same can’t be said for television, but what really stood out about the potential of Lore on the small screen was that even folklore that has been twisted and transformed over the years can offer contemporary insight. “These are deceptively yesterday’s issues,” Morgan says, “but they are also today’s issues.”
“We’re living in a climate these days that’s driven by fear, and I think this is an opportunity to see how fear of the past and of the unknown drove people to do, in many cases, the wrong thing,” Hurd says.
In its own way, the television adaptation will build on the foundation Mahnke put in place, giving viewers a chance to conceptualize the dark past of human nature in a new light.
“A podcast is just storytelling,” Feore says as he’s summoned back to the doctor’s office for a final take. “It turns out just storytelling is something we really like and we really need. Stories about other times and other lives are enormously instructive in how we might want to live, evolve, and develop and find a new respect and compassion for each other.”
This article was originally published in the Den of Geek Special Edition Magazine. Click here to view the full issue!