warning Hi, we've moved to USCANNENBERGMEDIA.COM. Visit us there!

Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

Into The Hive Mind: Embrace Your Fears, Or They'll Embrace You In 'Welcome To Night Vale'

Christine Bancroft |
October 9, 2013 | 4:24 p.m. PDT


"Welcome to Night Vale"—"The Twilight Zone" for fans of NPR. (Tumblr)
"Welcome to Night Vale"—"The Twilight Zone" for fans of NPR. (Tumblr)

"A friendly desert community where the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful and mysterious lights pass overhead while we all pretend to sleep. Welcome to Night Vale."

So begins the first episode of the gothic horror turned surrealist comedy turned community radio newscast that is the podcast "Welcome to Night Vale." Framed like an NPR radio show with a Lovecraftian flair, the show, written by New York writers Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor of Commonplace Books, has garnered an enormous online following that has been steadily ballooning since July 2013. Although the show had been running bi-monthly since 2012, for reasons no one seems able to explain, the fanbase exploded this past summer.

Subject: "Welcome to Night Vale", podcast by Commonplace Books

In "Welcome to Night Vale," a small desert town where death, horror and the supernatural are all faced with a sense of mundanity. There are hooded figures and a dog park in which hooded figures and only hooded figures (no dogs, no people) are allowed. The Sheriff's Secret Police routinely kidnap those whose thinking diverges from the omnipotent City Council's, but it's okay if you find yourself in the abandoned mine shaft/prison outside of town, because now it has HBO and king-size beds. There is a glow cloud on the Night Vale School Board that drops the carcasses of dead animals upon the town.

This is normal.

The Voice of Night Vale, the radio host himself, Cecil, is voiced by New York voice actor Cecil Baldwin. Cecil narrates the world of Night Vale with a voice as smooth as butter and an undeterred optimism to the horrific and often fatal day-to-day actions of the strange berg (not to mention an undying hatred of town rival Desert Bluffs, the local Night Vale naysayer Steve Carlsberg, and that racist who, despite being of possibly Slavic origins, wears a caricature of a Native American headdress and calls himself the Apache Tracker. What a jerk.)

Although Baldwin is typically the only speaker in each episode, occasional guest stars make appearances, including Mara Wilson as The Faceless Old Woman Who Lives in Your House, Jasika Nicole as Intern Dana and, most recently, Jackson Publick as mayoral candidate Hiram McDaniels.

This really shouldn't make me feel better, and yet. (Tumblr)
This really shouldn't make me feel better, and yet. (Tumblr)
All in all, it is framed like your typical NPR newscast: there are traffic reports, sponsor messages, community calendar updates, town news, sports, weather. The fact that the sponsor messages might just be Cecil making strange noises into the microphone, the sports involve updates on the two-headed high school quarterback Michael Sandero (who was cured of his cerebral palsy by being struck by lightning, and is now a top-rate football player) and the weather is a musical interlude by a guest contributor is not the point. Very few things faze Nightmare Fuel Station Attendant/narrator Cecil, unless, of course, it has to do with the perfect and beautiful out-of-towner, Carlos the Scientist.

("His hair is perfect and I fell in love instantly." And so did we all, Cecil.)

The show is distributed via iTunes and Commonplace Books bimonthly, on the 1st and 15th of every month. To date, there have been 32 episodes. Also, they have a bangin’ social media presence, written in the same darkly comedic style as the show. Their Twitter is disturbingly hilarious and, at times, inspirational.

The Fandom: No agreed upon name, but potential names include "Dear Listeners," "Listeners" and "Night Valians"

The angels won't let Old Woman Josie watch TV. Artwork by Jasmine Grant (Tumblr, via jebmin.tumblr.com)
The angels won't let Old Woman Josie watch TV. Artwork by Jasmine Grant (Tumblr, via jebmin.tumblr.com)
So here's how it goes: You're on Tumblr or Facebook or Twitter and you see a friend of yours mention "Night Vale", or retweet something from their bizarre and fantastic Twitter or Facebook accounts, or reblog some of the fantastic fanart or say something that makes no sense out of the context of the show (or, sometimes, not in the context of the show.) You don't pay much attention to it the first, or second or tenth time, but eventually, you see something that piques your interest.

So you investigate it. Bad move. Everybody knows the protocol: If you see something, say nothing and drink to forget. But you don't. You keep going. Then you listen to the first episode. It's only 20 minutes, right? And you don't understand what the hell is going on, so you listen to another one. And then another. And then, you're not really sure how it happened, but you're immersed into the world of Night Vale, and you've grown to accept the strange, even embrace it, recognize the mundanity of the terrifying and indulge in long-winded philosophical discussions on the existence and meaning of our lives, and do we even exist?

The dog park is a place of terror; the hooded figures are Eldritch horrors beneath black fabric; helicopters of various colors indicate different play conditions for youngsters, and if you try to explain any of it, you'll be looked at with any mixture of cautious suspicion to outright concern for your mental well-being.

The fandom is as much a draw to "Night Vale" as the podcast. With no actual physical description, for the most part, of the characters or town, a deluge of creative output has poured forth, inspiring listeners to not only create their own ideas of what the characters look like or act like outside the parameters of the text, but also, to examine closely the intersection of fear and humor. As bizarre (and hilarious) as "Night Vale" is, the show encourages listeners to identify what frightens them, and mostly, in this case, it is fear of the unknown. “Night Vale” takes place in a world that is familiar to us—there is a post office, a bowling alley (and arcade fun complex), a police system, town politics, all within the context of a newscast—but it is, at the same time, completely unknowable and alien. The draw is in the space between. It was said that the works of H.P. Lovecraft, an obvious influence on the show, wrote about the world in between fantasy and reality, the knowable and the unknowable, and the fandom has embraced that world with open arms and seeks to explore it.

Fandom activity: Cosplay, fanwork, headcanon, humor and analysis

 Sunnyvale, Calif. is about 10 minutes away from my house so I will be dressing up as a hooded figure and visiting the new dog park with my dog. (Tumblr))
Sunnyvale, Calif. is about 10 minutes away from my house so I will be dressing up as a hooded figure and visiting the new dog park with my dog. (Tumblr))
The “Night Vale” fandom is arguably a rather young one. Although the show has had a strong fanbase since its incipience, the explosion of new fans in July has added a whole new dimension to its activities. The first and foremost activities of the fandom are creative ones. Again, because no one is sure what Cecil or Carlos or Steve Carlsberg (get it together, Steve) look like, any interpretation of the characters could be, and are, correct. The only thing we know about Cecil is that he has hair, mostly human characteristics (eyes, nose, etc.) and at least occasionally wears a tie. Carlos is a little more described, given Cecil’s infatuation with the man: He has “teeth like a military cemetery”, a strong jawline, beautiful black hair with a touch of grey, and is, generally, perfect. (Although in later episodes, we discover that Cecil’s interpretation of perfect evolves.) Also, Carlos has a variety of labcoats for different occasions, including formal and casual labcoats.

Some interpret Cecil with a third eye, given his apparent omniscience in regards to the goings-on about the town. Others describe him with tentacles or moving tattoos or glowing eyes; some consider him to be a thin dork and others, a suave and well-dressed gentleman. My friend’s headcanon Cecil is a cat. And they’re all right. We don’t know what Cecil looks like, or Carlos, or Mayor Pamela Winchell or…Steve Carlsberg. Fans will then cosplay or draw their interpretations of the characters, leading to some of the most beautiful (and yes, as strange as it is mesmerizing) art of any fandom I’ve seen in recent years.

Headcanons are not limited to the descriptions, but the actual actions of the characters outside of the parameters of the show. Because we can’t see the characters and are limited to 20 minutes of a one-man newscast (possibly by an unreliable narrator, or, at the very least, a biased one), we are free to imagine our own ideas for how they act and who they are. Similar to the “Sherlockian Game” mentioned in previous columns, fans imagine the world of Night Vale as though it truly exists (albeit with a supernatural twist, without the hindrances of “science” or “reality”). A game of “what if…,” the premise is often explored in forums, discussions or fanfiction.

What if Cecil isn’t just the voice of Night Vale? What if he is Night Vale, and the town grew up around him—a sentient, immortal, corporeal being that symbolizes the entire town? What if Cecil had eyes all over his body that monitor various parts of the town, and he refers to them as his “sources” when reporting on their findings? And just where is Night Vale? We know it’s somewhere in the American Southwest, so is it Arizona? New Mexico? But they talk about the presence of a Ralph’s grocery store, which only exists in California, so maybe the show takes place somewhere in the Californian Mojave? (Or maybe writers Fink and Cranor, being from New York, don’t realize that Ralph’s only exists in California and made an honest mistake.) Not only is this a fantastic creative exercise, it allows fans to explore an unknown without fear of being “wrong” because you can’t be wrong, or right, or anything.

If Cecil can be anyone, then anyone can be Cecil. I am Cecil. You are Cecil. We are all Cecil. (Tumblr, the awesomely-named gabrielsaunteredvaguelydownwards.tumblr.com)
If Cecil can be anyone, then anyone can be Cecil. I am Cecil. You are Cecil. We are all Cecil. (Tumblr, the awesomely-named gabrielsaunteredvaguelydownwards.tumblr.com)
Other activities include analysis of both the show and the fandom. It’s gotten huge praise from social justice bloggers for its representation of a queer relationship, particularly because Carlos is a canonically non-white character (he is the only character, other than one of Old Woman Josie’s “angel friends” who is has a confirmed race. One of the angles is black. But angels are also not real and only tell lies).

In addition to scholarly analysis, fans have contributed to the show to make it accessible for others, including the deaf, non-English language speakers or hearing impaired, by creating fan-transcripts, translating the show to other languages (including American Sign Language) and engaging in analytical discussions.

Fan resources, people and places to know:

If you want to know more about Night Vale, I would recommend, you know, listening to the actual show first. Although this will actually answer very little and will likely leave you only marginally less confused than you were before, it’s nice to have a starting place. Once you’ve done that (so you can avoid any spoilers), head over to TV Tropes and do your best to work through that without drowning in the abyss of the site.

Some actual footage of the Eldritch horrors that are the Hooded Figures. (Actually, they're grim reapers from Bryan Fuller's "Dead Like Me" Tumblr, but this is as close as we're going to get.)
Some actual footage of the Eldritch horrors that are the Hooded Figures. (Actually, they're grim reapers from Bryan Fuller's "Dead Like Me" Tumblr, but this is as close as we're going to get.)
On the Commonplace Books site, there is a Frequently Asked Question section to help you with character names and spellings, and for you to peruse vague and unhelpful answers about more concrete details about the world (again, encouraging the creative output of the fanbase and ambiguity of the show.) There is a Night Vale wiki to help you keep track of what we know so far. Tumblr, ostensibly the location of the show’s most concentrated fans, has thousands of blogs dedicated to “Night Vale,” and thousands more that are, at least, partially focused on “Night Vale” content.

Some recurring characters include: Old Woman Josie (out by the car lot) and her angels, John Peters (you know, the farmer?), Larry Leroy (out on the edge of town), the Glow Cloud, Mayor Pamela Winchell, the sinister and omnipotent City Council, murderous and monstrous librarians in Night Vale Public Library, mayoral candidate Hiram McDaniels, Steve Carlsberg, the Apache Tracker, You (the character), You (the listener), The Faceless Old Woman Who Lives in Your House, Interns (especially Intern Dana), Hooded Figures, the Man in the Tan Jacket, pizza restaurant owner Big Rico (No one does a slice like Big Rico. No one.), Night Vale Daily Journal publishing editor Leann Hart and, of course, Carlos and Cecil.

Cecil does not understand how to prank text. But you deserved it anyway, Steve. (Tumblr, via nightvaletexts.tumblr.com)
Cecil does not understand how to prank text. But you deserved it anyway, Steve. (Tumblr, via nightvaletexts.tumblr.com)

Keep an…ear…out for recurring locations including the hole in the vacant lot behind the Ralph’s, the house that does not actually exist, the dog park, the radio station, the Desert Flower Bowling Alley and Arcade Fun Complex, the Arby’s, an underground city, the Museum of Forbidden Technologies, the Sand Wastes, the Scrublands, the public library, high school, abandoned mine shaft, scenic Radon Canyon and the Night Vale Harbor and Waterfront Recreation Center (which has one minor drawback, in that it is located in a desert). Don't forget the awful town of Desert Bluffs, located nearby to Night Vale and is probably definitely a horrible place to live.


“Welcome to Night Vale” (often shortened to “NV” or “WTNV”) has been compared to numerous other surrealist works, including “The Twilight Zone,” “Lake Wobegone”, various Stephen King and Neil Gaiman works, “Twin Peaks,” “The X-Files,” and others.

Websites to look at: Dark Owl Records and The Shape in Grove Park (believed to be some of the first all-“Night Vale” Tumblrs), A Softer Night Vale (crossover between “WTNV” and “A Softer World”), this fanscript Tumblr, Little Night Vale Things, Fuck Yeah Welcome to Night Vale, Night Vale Quotes, Know Your Meme’s page for the show, the WTNV Wikia, the WTNV TV Tropes page, the official Facebook and Twitter pages, writer Cranor’s Twitter, writer Fink’s Twitter, actor Baldwin’s Facebook. The show also has been doing live shows around the country (I went to the Los Angeles show at the Largo on Friday, Oct. 4), but they recorded the show at the LA Podfest on Oct. 5, which can be found here, featuring musical guest Sara Watkins.

Also, while listening, always listen through to the credits—the proverbs are Broken Aesops and always entertaining. The show has a store here, and if you enjoy the show, you can donate here! The creators provide the show for free, so please, give back if you can. If you’re still not convinced to give it a try, check out these three articles from Buzzfeed, this article from the Artifice and this NPR interview with the creators. Then you should consider the error of your ways. As the show’s tagline says, “Turn on your radio…and hide.”

Next week, I will be taking a hiatus from the spooky-themed October columns to take part in a very, very important personal event. (It’s Disneyland. I am going to Disneyland. This is very important.) I will be back the next week to talk about the Fannibals in “Hannibal”. Until then, good night, readers…good night.

Columnist Christine Bancroft can be reached here or found saying stupid things on her dumb Twitter here. She will be dressed as the TARDIS on Oct. 15 for her Halloween Disneyland trip.



Craig Gillespie directed this true story about "the most daring rescue mission in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard.”

Watch USC Annenberg Media's live State of the Union recap and analysis here.