In 2015, Aaron Mahnke launched the podcast Lore, a documentary and storytelling podcast about folklore, ghost stories and spooky, documented historical events. It rocketed to the top of the podcasting charts, and has since earned half a billion downloads. In the process, it helped Mahnke create a storytelling empire both within and outside the podcasting world, including an Amazon Prime series, an illustrated story collection, and a podcast production partnership with iHeartMedia that has resulted in additional podcasts.
Mahnke is coming to this area on Thursday, April 13, as part of the WTAMU Distinguished Lecture series, connected with the current focus on fairy tales at Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum. He’ll be speaking at this ticketed event on the importance of folk tales and legends in culture and society.
A week ahead of his lecture, Brick & Elm’s Jason Boyett spoke to Mahnke about his work, about podcasting as a storytelling medium, and about whether the relative “age” of Texas Panhandle communities impacts our folklore.
[Note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.]
Jason Boyett: Have you ever encountered any particular stories or folktales about this part of Texas?
Aaron Mahnke: Well, Texas is full of great stories. You have a really nice intersection of history and superstition. We did an episode—episode 114, “The Gateway”—about San Antonio. The Alamo was the main feature of that episode, which you might expect, but the Menger Hotel was in there, which has a lot of really good folklore and legend about it. Both were really complex tales. There’s a lot going on in the Alamo story on a lot of different levels, but people still tell those ghost stories.
Outside of San Antonio, the Marfa Lights have been on an episode about the global folklore of ghost lights and mysterious lights out in the landscape around us.
JB: That leads me to the next question, because I know you live in New England. The history of white European settlement in the Texas Panhandle only dates back 150 years. (Our Native American history, of course, is much deeper.) Compared to other parts of the United States, where European settlers first arrived 400 years ago, is there a difference in the type of folklore we might have here?
AM: As an untrained anthropologist—I’ve never gone to school for this—I tend to think of folklore like wine. At the root of all wine is grapes. How they’re grown and where they’re grown gives you different flavor profiles. New England is an older area and folks have been here over 400 years. They come over from Europe and those ingredients mix with the Native American cultures that were here. And there were a lot of different European cultures. They all had their own take or slant or type of folklore, and all those things get mixed together.
But even in a younger area like Texas, you have a lot of Native Americans and the Spanish were very active for hundreds of years. It’s just all about that mix. There’s something magical in this idea of folklore and superstition when all these cultures collide. Even in a place like Texas that feels “newer,” there’s a lot of beauty and texture in the stories.
JB: I’m a podcaster myself with a local interview show and I don’t like to answer when people ask if I have a favorite episode. So I won’t ask you that about Lore. But is there a certain genre of folklore that you find yourself especially drawn to?
AM: As a podcaster, you always try to keep the audience happy and give them what they came for. But within your audience, there are always groups looking for different things. So we tell ghost stories, [talk about] haunted places, a little bit of historical true crime that has a slant toward folklore, monsters sometimes. We really try to deliver all these things.
For me, though, I’m drawn to how we handle life and death, which is admittedly a big topic. That includes things like vampires, zombies, revenants, premature burials, human dissection and all the history that goes with that. Even darker stuff like medicinal cannibalism, which is pretty much what it sounds like. For me, that’s where it really comes together. You start to see people making life-and-death decisions based on the folklore they’ve grown up with. It’s fascinating.
JB: Podcasting has transformed storytelling culture, whether it’s serial, true-crime stories or podcasts like yours. Obviously, storytelling has been part of the human experience for years, but do you think this digital element has transformed storytelling in a unique way? Has it changed the way you think about telling stories?
AM: We could have the conversation, as podcasters, about whether this is just a return to the “golden age” of radio, or have we come full circle—we took on visuals [with television] and now we’ve thrown visuals off again. In a lot of ways it does feel like that. When I put out an audio drama [like Bridgewater with iHeartRadio] am I just putting out a radio drama? It does feel like we’ve almost gone backwards.
But I think what the digital age of storytelling has done is clear a lot of the fluff out of the way. There are fewer obstacles now, from the standpoint of new creators trying to reach a wider audience. Everybody has the tools right in their pocket. Podcasts don’t need a big budget for splashy visuals or massive marketing. I don’t necessarily think the playing field has become level, but what podcasting has done is made it less steep.
JB: A lot of what you do with Lore is tell stories that, for a previous generation, might have been campfire stories. But you can add atmospherics and control the style and content and drama. Do you see it in that light?
AM: I do. It is sort of a controlled environment for a campfire story. There’s also a little bit of a teacher in me. I think storytelling is much better when you can bring the context into play. There’s that old adage that when you take the text out of context, all you’re left with is a con. Stories can be a little empty or hollow unless you give a little bit more of the context of what’s going on. We can talk about Jack the Ripper, but in order to understand Jack the Ripper, you’ve got to understand the labor movement in England at the time and what was really going on with the matchstick girls. Some people will say “Why are you bringing politics into storytelling?” But you don’t get the story of Jack the Ripper without the social or political elements that were going on at the time.
I want to give people a good ghost story experience around a campfire, but before we tell the story, let me give you a couple of tools you need to really get the most out of it. I love doing that. I really do.
JB: You’re 8 years into Lore, the podcast. That’s a long time in a rapidly changing medium. How has podcasting changed since you began?
AM: Well, there certainly are a lot more podcasts out there than there were when I started. Millions more than back in 2015, but I think that’s good for the industry. Lore was one of the first podcasts to be adapted for television, which was a lot of work to make happen. But today, that process has gotten smoother. TV companies are buying into the idea that they can do it in reverse. Instead of “let’s go find podcasts we can adapt,” they’re looking at podcasts as a way to test ideas for television, or as a place to grow an audience for a TV show.
How many streaming platforms put out a show and then put out a [companion] podcast with one of the stars as a co-host? It’s like podcasting has been welcomed into the fold of TV, film and book publishing as a primary source of media. It’s been pretty amazing to watch.
JB: Have you gone back to your first episodes and relistened to them? Have you changed or grown as a writer and storyteller?
AM: Do you do everything yourself? Your audio production and all that?
JB: Yeah, I do, although now I have an editor. I haven’t gone back to those early episodes because I know I’ve grown a lot as an interviewer. I’m a little afraid to go back and listen.
AM: I do my own, too. I write it, record it and all that stuff. I made the mistake of going back about three years ago. I was [recording] in a room that was not treated for sound at all, with hardwood floors, horsehair plaster, wood furniture. It sounded like I was in a cave. Everything echoed. That’s why there’s music in the background of Lore—to distract people from the horrible audio.
What I decided to do a couple years ago is what I call remastered versions. Arbitrarily, I decided to do the first 50 [episodes] over again. I opened up the script, re-recorded it into my microphone on today’s setup, produced it with Chad Lawson’s music and my production levels of today.
It’s funny, though. You would think listeners would say, “Thank you! You’ve made it sound better.” But there are a whole bunch of listeners who are like, “Don’t you dare take those old episodes out of the feed.” So both are in the feed now.
You’re probably better off just not going back and listening to your old stuff.
JB: What’s next for you? Do you have another 8 years of Lore?
AM: We’ve got two more [episodes] in the remastering project and after that, Lore is going to go from biweekly to weekly new episodes. Eight years in, we’re going to start doubling our output. I don’t know if that’s wise, but that’s what we’re going to do.
Bridgewater just wrapped up its second season. I have another of that same style that’s in casting right now, and another fiction show that’s in the scripting phase right now.
Then there’s all the other historical documentary stuff I make over at Grim & Mild. Cabinet of Curiosities just hit its 500th episode and that’s a nice milestone to have under my belt. And I’ve got a lot of other projects on the backburner that I can’t talk about yet.