13 Spooky Podcasts About History That Will Hook You From Episode One
You know the saying, “the truth is stranger than fiction?” A lot of the time, that really is the case — and these spooky podcasts about history prove it. There are plenty of events in our own pasts, in our own world, that seem to defy explanation; from possible “haunted” history to strange disappearances and from terrible crimes to science we still don’t fully understand even now, we only need to look as far as ourselves to be amazed and astonished. And, thanks to the quickly-growing world of podcasts, there are innumerable ways to learn about these odd, unsettling, real-life events.
One of the most interesting things about the podcast explosion has been watching the formats evolve over the years. Audio-based storytelling and information transference obviously isn’t new; ultimately, the podcast is simply radio, while listening to the radio is, in essence, not dissimilar to crowding around the town crier or village storyteller — just at a further range. But with the accessibility granted by podcasting, more people have been able to play with both form and content more easily than ever before, and through rapid trial and error, a huge number of styles have emerged.
When it comes to podcasts about the weird, the creepy, the spooky, and the kooky, they often fall into three distinct schools: Lore-style storytelling podcasts that merge history with folklore and the supernatural; Serial-style journalistic podcasts that investigate and analyze historical events like a good news report or academic work would; and My Favorite Murder-style conversational podcasts, where two or more hosts with larger-than-live personalities have spirited discussions about both broad topics and specific events. As such, most of the podcasts on this list — lucky number 13 — can be described as one of these three styles.
Accordingly, some of these selections may float your proverbial boat more than others. If, for example, conversational podcasts aren’t really your jam, a couple of the options here might not do it for you; if you love storytelling podcasts, though, those options are just waiting for you to queue them up.
So go ahead. Grab your headphones. Turn off the lights. And get ready to a deep dive into our own darkest tales.
From Lore creator Aaron Mahnke comes Unobscured, a series that “[digs] deep and shed light on some of history’s darkest moments.” Whereas Lore tells a new story with each episode, Unobscured is more like Serial in that it tells just one story in great detail over the course of an entire season. There’s also a bigger “cast of characters” here, so to speak — although Mahnke still serves as the series’ main narrator, listeners also hear regularly from a group of historians offering insight and expertise on the matters at hand. Oh, and if you want to dive even deeper, both primary and secondary sources are provided for each episode, giving you plenty of places to start.
Season one, which debuted in October 2018, examines the Salem Witch Trials. No word on what season two will focus on yet, but no doubt it will be just as fascinating a topic as the first.
2. Listen With The Lights On
Hosted by Jessica Bloustein Marshall and Patrick Garrett, NPR’s Listen With The Lights On isn’t strictly a history podcast; it does, however, deal with legends and folklore and why we’re so drawn to them — which means the podcast frequently dives into historical territory. (Legend and folklore don’t happen in a vacuum, after all.) From an examination of Albany’s ghost train to a look at why so many of us are so dang scared of clowns, Listen With The Lights On offers tons of spooky tales from real life that you’re best off listening to… with the lights off, actually. For maximum effect.
Listen With The Lights On may be on hiatus at present; the most recent episode is dated June 2018. But there are 44 episodes in the archive, so even if the podcast isn’t updating anymore, there’s still plenty to keep you busy. By the way, if you like your podcasts short and sweet, as opposed to hour-long epics, this one should fit the bill; with the exception of a few live episodes, each episode is generally 20 minutes or less, with most clocking in somewhere between 10 and 15 minutes.
3. Hollywood And Crime
OK, I’m cheating a bit here — what I’m classifying as Hollywood And Crime is really three different podcasts that can all sort of be grouped under that title: The original Hollywood And Crime; Young Charlie by Hollywood And Crime; and The Wonderland Murders by Hollywood And Crime. All part of the Wondery network and hosted by Tracy Pattin (with Stephen Lang joining for Young Charlie and Charlie Brand coming aboard for The Wonderland Murders), Hollywood And Crime takes you through some of Hollywood’s most notorious murders.
The first season, which is a full 26 episodes long, keeps the Black Dahlia murder at its center while simultaneously examining several other brutal crimes that occurred around the same time. The six-part series Young Charlie bounces back and forth between Charles Manson’s life before he masterminded the Tate-LaBianca murders and the investigation and trials following the murders. And The Wonderland Murders, also told in six parts, offers a new examination of the four unsolved murders committed in Laurel Canyon on July 1, 1981. If you’re a fan of You Must Remember This’ darker episodes — the Charles Manson season, for example, or the “Dead Blondes” series — this one is worth checking out.
4. The Strange And Unusual Podcast
Writer Alyson Horrocks was raised in California, currently splits her time between Massachusetts and Glasgow, and, periodically throughout the year, writes, narrates, and produces episodes of The Strange And Unusual Podcast. Taking its name from the iconic Beetlejuice quote, the show covers a wide range of topics: Sometimes it dives into historical true crime, as in the episode “Wolf In Sheep’s Clothes,” which tackles the 1873 murders of several Norwegian women on the Isle of Shoals; sometimes it looks at supernatural topics, as in the two-part series on necromancy called “Raising the Dead”; and sometimes, it digs into urban legends and folklore, as in the very first episode, which covers — among other subtopics—the tradition of summoning Bloody Mary in a mirror.
The podcast’s storytelling style is its greatest strength, so if you’re a fan of podcasts like Lore, you might want to give this one a try.
Does body horror squick you out like nothing else? Then hurry up and put Sawbones in your ears — or maybe actively avoid putting Sawbones in your ears, depending on whether being squicked out by body horror sounds like fun or like the worst thing ever to you. Co-hosted by Dr. Sydnee McElroy and her decidedly not-a-doctor husband, Justin (he’s one of Polygon’s co-founders), Sawbones — subtitled A Marital Tour of Misguided Medicine — dives deep into the extreme mess that is medical history. If you’re curious about, say, how we went from thinking arsenic was medicinal to recognizing it as actual poison, or if you enjoy trivia about guys who survived having a tamping iron driven through their brains, that’s what’s on the table here.
It’s gross. But it’s also really funny, so if horror-comedy is your jam and you don’t mind a little blood, get those earbuds ready.
6. The Conspirators
The Conspirators is probably best described as a weird history podcast: In each episode, pseudonymous host Nate Hale guides listeners through such varied topics as the Sarah Winchester House, the Villisca Axe Murders, the history of exorcisms (including a look at the case that inspired The Exorcist), and how LSD factored into MK-Ultra and actual brainwashing. Presentation-wise, it’s in the Lore and The Strange And Unusual school of podcasting; check it out if you like shows that basically sound like someone is telling you a really creepy, true bedtime story.
7. Cult Faves
Cults have never really gone out of style — but in recent years, they’ve come back into vogue in a big, big way: Between Wild, Wild Country, the whole NXIVM thing, American Horror Story’s Cult season, Emma Cline’s hit novel The Girls, and much, much more, cults have been all over our current cultural landscape.
It was with all that in mind that writer Gwenda Bond and writer, editor, and producer Cher Martinetti launched Cult Faves, a podcast that “[delves] deeper into extreme belief and the extreme believers they attract,” as Bond described it over at Salon in July of 2018. Like a few other podcasts on this list, Cult Faves isn’t strictly a history podcast; it also addresses contemporary cults and cult-like movements. But many episodes do focus on cults both famous and not-so-famous throughout history, beginning with the short-lived Source Family of the 1960s and ‘70s. If you, too, find yourself fascinated with why and how cults flourish, Cult Faves is definitely worth adding to your podcast queue.
8. Unexplained Mysteries
The Parcast network's podcasts don’t really break any new ground, format-wise; they all cover a single type of subject (which typically gives the series their names — for example, the podcasts Haunted Places, Serial Killers, and Conspiracy Theories all cover exactly what it sounds like they do) and they’re all generally presented in the same style (storytelling, rather than conversation, with a great deal of attention paid to the background sound design). They are, however, quite good at what they do — and Unexplained Mysteries is no exception.
Just entering its second year and with 47 episodes under its belt, Unexplained Mysteries covers… well, unexplained mysteries. The Roswell Incident? That’s here. The mystery surrounding a man calling himself Roland T. Owen who was murdered in a Kansas City hotel in 1935, only for it to come out later that he wasn’t Roland T. Owen at all? That’s here, too, in a two-part episode pair. The Dancing Plague of 1518? Yep. Hosted by Molly Brandenburg and Richard Rossner, Unexplained Mysteries is straightforward, but effective all the same.
9. The Apex & The Abyss
A one-person operation written, hosted, and produced by Erika Gwynn, true crime podcast The Apex & The Abyss describes itself succinctly as, “The true stories behind what keeps you awake at night and afraid of the dark.” Within that simple description, however, is a veritable smorgasbord of stories: Stories about serial killers like Aileen Wuornos and Dennis “BTK” Rader; tales of mysterious disappearances, like that of Johnny Gosch; recounting of unsolved mysteries, like what happened at the Hinterkaifeck homestead; and much more. The research is solid and the storytelling is clear, making this one well worth your time.
10. Astonishing Legends
Astonishing Legends is one of those podcasts that’s incredibly easy to marathon completely by accident: Each time you finish one episode, you tell yourself, “Just one more…”—and the next thing you know, hours have gone by.
The earlier episodes are less historically focused and more about weird things people hosts Scott Philbrook and Forrest Burgess know have experienced, so initially, it might sound more like a true ghost stories podcast than anything else. But starting around mid-2015 — specifically with the episode about Spring-heeled Jack — the ratio of history-based episodes to episodes featuring modern tales of the weird went up. There’s also a smattering of folklore scattered throughout the show, as well, so if your interests when it comes to topics of the strange and unusual are vast, Astonishing Legends will probably scratch a whole lot of itches for you.
Highlights include last fall’s multi-part series about the Black Monk of Pontefract, a multi-episode deep dive into what historical events might have inspired the Resurrection Mary urban legend, and an in-depth look at the Dyatlov Pass Incident.
Not to be confused with Unexplained Mysteries, Unexplained is, as it describes itself, “a show about the space between what we think of as real and what is not. Hosted by Richard MacLean Smith, the podcast goes all over the world and travels throughout time, chronicling those events — real things that have actually happened — that “continue to evade explanation.” Exhaustively researched and yet still accessible, Unexplained is truly a trip and a half.
If you’re into the fictional podcast Tanis, check out the season three Unexplained episodes “We Are The Witchcraft”; this three-part series examines what exactly happened to Jack Parsons, who was both essential to developing NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and — apparently — a magician.
12. Wine & Crime
Wine & Crime admittedly doesn’t have a super spooky atmosphere — it’s classified as a comedy podcast — but the subject matter is super spooky. It’ll likely be a hit with the My Favorite Murder Murderino set: Each episode matches a true crime topic with a specific bottle of vino for a wine pairing unlike any you’ve ever experienced before. Hosts Kenyon Laing, Amanda Jacobson, and Lucy Fitzgerald are as well-researched as they are hilarious, and in a refreshing break from the “all murder, all the time” territory that makes up the bulk of many true crime podcasts, they tackle everything from cults to cruise ship disappearances and from exorcisms to catfishing. Grab your corkscrew and pour yourself a tall one — we’ve got a lot of ground to cover.
13. This Podcast Is Haunted
Similarly, if you dig My Favorite Murder and are also into ghosts, This Podcast Is Haunted might be worth picking up. Jen Vos and Cate Reed’s show is geared towards “sharing ghost stories and exploring the creepy side of history” — and like My Favorite Murder and Wine And Crime, they do so in a hilarious and conversational style. Sometimes they dig into centuries gone by, bringing up topics like the Salem Witch Trials in Massachusetts and the many places in the UK Anne Boleyn’s ghost is said to haunt; other times, they address more recent history, like the episode on the various ghost that may or may not be haunting the Disney parks (a subject near and dear to my own heart). Earlier episodes tend to be on the shorter side (about half an hour), while later ones have grown in length (an hour or more).