9 Creepy Podcasts That Seem Like They're Based On Real Stories, But Aren't

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Do you like weird, strange, and spooky stories? Particularly ones that blur the line between fiction and reality? Good news: There are loads of creepy podcasts that seem real, but aren’t — and they’re exactly what those of us who like a little ambiguity with our listening are usually looking for.

One of the things I love so much about podcasts is the way they’ve brought back old time radio serials and updated them for the current time. What’s more, all of these podcasts that make you wonder, “Is this real? Is it fake? WHICH IS IT?” come from a long and illustrious storytelling tradition: In 1938, Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre Company adapted H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds for radio and launched it out into the world… without telling anyone that their show was a reworking of a sci-fi novel. Listeners all over the country thought that it was real — that aliens from outer space were actually invading the Earth — and, well… we’ve never been quite the same since.

These days, we like to think that we’re a little wiser… but we aren’t always. And I think that’s why these nine podcasts — and tons of others like them — still get us. They still make us wonder whether what we’re listening to is real. It couldn’t be… could it?

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1Rabbits

If you’re reading this, you’re probably already familiar with the creations of Pacific Northwest Stories (The Black Tapes Podcast and Tanis, both of which I’ve written about before). What you may not know is that earlier this year, a sister station popped up: The Public Radio Alliance. Rabbits is the PRA’s first podcast, and the premise is a good one. It centers around Carly Parker and her attempt to find her missing friend, Yumiko Takata… except that it turns out there’s a lot more to it than it seems. If you’re into alternate reality games — or if you just really liked the David Fincher movie The Game — this one will probably appeal to you.

I’ll be honest: I have a few quibbles with the writing in this one; I don’t think it’s as strong as, say, The Black Tapes. But it’s worth sticking with it — the first season ended on the 4th of July. I’ll be interested to see if there’s a season two in the works.

Listen here.

2Within The Wires

A production of Night Vale Presents (so, if you dig Welcome to Night Vale, you’ll probably like this one), Within the Wires takes the form of a series of “relaxation cassettes” — audio guides that function sort of like guided meditation. As you progress through the tapes, however, it becomes apparent that there’s something… else going on here. You’re a character, too, you see. You seem to be located at a place called the Institute; the cassettes seem to be some sort of… treatment? Or… not. There’s more here to find, if you listen close enough. If you dig far enough.

Just remember to breathe.

End Side A. Proceed to Side B.

Listen here.

3The Message

The Message likely won’t take you long to get through; it’s only one season, with a total of eight episodes ranging in length from between 10 and 21 minutes apiece. (Typically, they’re around 11 or 12 minutes each.) Add to that the fact that those eight episodes are riveting, and honestly, it’s easy to breeze through the whole thing in short order.

Like the Pacific Northwest Stories/Public Radio Alliance podcasts — and a few others on this list — The Message is done Serial-style: It takes the form of a broadcast journalist character conducting an investigation and sharing her findings via podcast. This time, we’re dealing with Nicky Tomalin as she attempts to unravel the mystery surrounding a message that was transmitted to Earth from outer space many decades earlier. What sets this one apart, though, is that Nicky isn’t quite as reliable as the narrators of this particular podcast genre usually tend to be.

Listen here.

4The Magnus Archives

If you’re into the SCP Foundation, you’ll probably dig The Magnus Archives. It follows Jonathan Sims, who has newly been appointed as the archivist for an organization in London called the Magnus Institute. Founded in 1818, the Institute spends most of its time researching the paranormal — but unfortunately for Sims, his predecessor wasn’t terribly organized, which means he’s got his work cut out for him.

The audio recordings that make up the podcast episodes chronicle Sims’reports as he plows through the mess that’s been left for him. However, the more he digs, the more he finds that the things documented in the Institute’s archives are more connected than at they at first appear… and that the Institute itself may not be quite what it seems.

Listen here.

5The Tunnels

Like a lot of podcasts on this list, this one is done in the style of This American Life and its spin-offs: It follows the format of an investigative piece of long form radio reporting, although the story it tells is fictional. Here’s the summary from The Tunnels’ website:

Griffin, Georgia is real; what’s more, the state does have a lot of spooky tunnels, rumored and confirmed, running beneath its surface. Both of these facts lend an air of truth to The Tunnels. It’s a fascinating listen, although it’s worth noting that the earlier episodes aren’t as well produced as the later ones. Stick with it, though.

Listen here.

6The Box

Addison Gilmore found a box hidden between the shelves of the bookshop at which she worked. Inside the box, she found a bunch of journals. And inside the journals, she found… strange tales. Odd stories. Something she thought was a large-scale fiction project. But it’s not. The Box is her attempt to figure out exactly what these journals mean — and as the plot thickens, it turns out that it’s much, much bigger (and weirder) than she thought.

Listen here.

7The Bright Sessions

Here’s a break from the “investigative journalism” style of storytelling fictional podcasts enjoy so much: Instead — in what is probably the biggest betrayal of the Hippocratic oath ever — we get to listen to the recordings Dr. Bright makes of her sessions with her patients. What kind of sessions? “Therapy for the strange and unusual.” Like The Magnus Archives, I suspect The Bright Sessions will appeal to folks who are fans of the SCP Foundation; it’s sort of like what might happen if the humanoid artifacts kept by the SCP Foundation were provided with therapists.

Listen here.

8Darkest Night

The Cyclops Project at the Rob Lobdow Center for Advanced Research allows scientists to “relive a person’s last waking moments and uncover the secrets of the dead.” The format sounds… sort of like an autopsy record…but… well, the whole “reliving a person’s last waking moments” complicates this idea somewhat. Each episode focuses on the memories of another deceased person —but they’re not unconnected. There are layers upon layers of mysteries in Darkest Night, all waiting to be uncovered.

Admittedly, this one feels a little less real than some of the others I’ve included on this list — but if you’re able to suspend your disbelief just a bit more, it’s quite effective storytelling. If you like the NoSleep Podcast, you’ll dig this one; the same producers are responsible for it.

Listen here.

9Limetown

In the early 2000s, hundreds of people — adults and children — living in a place called Limetown just… vanished. Limetown is journalist Lia Haddock’s attempt to get to the bottom of the mystery. It’s spooky and weird and disturbing, and the mystery of the first season is terrific.

The biggest disappointment of Limetown, however, is the fact that there still isn’t a season two yet. I don’t always mind ambiguous endings; the end of season one, though, doesn’t feel so much as ambiguous as it does not the end of the story. And that, I think, makes a big difference. As of June 2017, the creators are still planning on putting a second season together at some point — but given that they’ve all been working on other projects in the two years since the first season’s release, my sense is that we’re all just going to have to get comfortable with continuing to wait for a while.

Listen here.