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Courtesy of Night Vale

April 10, 2016

Surreal Slaps of Reality: Night Vale at the State

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The stage at the State Theatre had a simple set-up — four microphones set up across the stage, a portion partitioned off by an arrangement table for music, a simple curtain as backdrop and speakers strategically placed to reverberate in the eardrums of the audience. Simple, neat and sensible for the live show “Ghost Stories” of the popular podcast Welcome to Night Vale.

Welcome to Night Vale is a bi-monthly podcast — usually airing the 1st and 15th of every month — which follows the happenings of the fictional desert town of Night Vale through a community radio show hosted by a man named Cecil Gershwin Palmer (voiced by Cecil Baldwin). Started in 2012 by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, the podcast is extremely charming and has a dark, deadpan sort of humor. It constantly plays with the subjects of the surreal, as Night Vale is filled with the unreal and the very, very weird, from the Sheriff’s (not so) secret police to a recently discovered civilization underground, accessible via the town’s bowling alley. The show is a pretty big deal — in 2013, Welcome to Night Vale ranked second on iTunes’s top audio podcasts, and the show has consistently grown in popularity since its conception, with its producers appearing on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert last October.

“Ghost Stories” was decidedly very Night Vale-esque, following the podcast’s structure of occasional guest speakers and random and strange events. Cleverly structured, “Ghost Stories” captured the attention of the rapt audience; one quickly lost track of real time in trying to determine how the ghost story would finally end, and the effect was particularly amplified by the kind of spooky and science fiction-like background mus0ic by Disparition. It was particularly fantastic to see and hear radio host Cecil in person, whose voice is extremely soothing and emotive — being able to see his gestures and facial expressions evoked from the audience bursts of laughter and periods of silence that perhaps wouldn’t have been so impactful had we just been listening to the story.

“Ghost Stories” as an episode diverged from the regular show, becoming suddenly very real at times. It felt like a comical yet somehow painful punch in the gut, which might sound negative, but it’s not. The show maintained its wonderful surreal weirdness and brought a great deal of dimension and insight to the characters, by the end by reeling us back into very real parts of the Night Vale world. With these new insights, the episode emphasized that Night Vale and its residents are surrounded by an actual sense of reality, and that their lives follow trajectories in a distinct world, even if that world is not our own.

This, I think, is an integral part of Welcome to Night Vale which makes it so interesting. The show as a whole is absurdly surreal, but it’s clever because everything is part of a long, overarching story with plot arcs, extended jokes and developing relationships. Their universe is very much defined, with authority figures and laws, notions of “normal” lives and people with definitive pasts and stories to tell, however fictional they are. “Ghost Stories” is no different as it adds to the pieces of our desert town and indirectly points out an essential part of Welcome to Night Vale: that it is fun because it gives us a world that is vastly differently from our own, with amusing and fantastic events and silly and arguably exciting developments. It also pointed out that Welcome to Night Vale is in many ways a comical and quietly subversive commentary on our own norms. In presenting this very different reality, it frames what we perceive to be completely absurd as utterly mundane, casting existentialist tones on the ideas of “reality” and “society” themselves.

Ending on a very high note, “Ghost Stories” was whimsical and quirky to listen to. Cecil’s voice was, as usual, sonorous, deep and soothing, with that extra pizzazz that makes him so fun to listen to as he recounts the daily lives and happenings of Night Vale. As usual, the show faded out with an eclectic mix of an arrangement of sounds of computerized hums and musical instruments, with the trademark final words booming out to a rapt crowd: “Goodnight, Night Vale.”

Catherine Hwang is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at shwang@cornellsun.com. 

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