The creeping, quiet dread of the desolate Midwest—those distant areas where there’s nothing but corn, a gas station, and one ancient diner for miles—is the ideal setting for the terror and dysfunction that lives inside the Gothic family home, like the one in Dorothy Harper’s boarding house in Unwell and the town of Mt. Absalom.
Unwell is a Midwestern Gothic horror podcast that launched February 20th, and I received the first three episodes in advance for a review.
Lillian Harper moves to the small town of Mt. Absalom, Ohio, to care for her estranged mother Dorothy after an injury. Living in the town’s boarding house which has been run by her family for generations, she discovers conspiracies, ghosts, and a new family in the house’s strange assortment of residents.
Unwell is produced by HartLife NFP, the Chicago-based company behind the long-running podcast Our Fair City, with each episode written and sound designed by a different member of the writer’s room and production team they have pulled together from across podcasting. Executive producers Jeffrey Gardner and Eleanor Hyde open Unwell’s first episode with an acknowledgment of country—a statement regarding which Native tribes’ land HartLife NFP produces art on and about—which is one of many ways to illustrate the care with which they have approached the American Gothic, a genre that is often rife with racism specifically against Native Americans. Unwell, from the very outset, builds an environment where the harmful stereotypes found in American Gothic literature—the “monstrosity” of queerness or Native Americans, the bone-deep fear of “racial mixing”—are directly and explicitly subverted in the text, even within the first three episodes.
With this care and consideration towards its audience and its genre, it’s no surprise that Unwell’s characters, especially those living in Mt. Absalom, are all just this side of the uncanny, while remaining people listeners could plausibly imagine meeting in a one-horse town. Lily, the protagonist played by Shariba Rivers, is fractious and irritable, having been forced to come down to the town she hates to help her mother, but believably so, completing tasks that she feels compelled to in order to protect her mother’s health. Dot Harper, played by Marsha Harman, is just as ill-tempered as her daughter, if not more so, with a lack of empathy for others that speaks to the theme of generational trauma that lingers, quietly but noticeably, in the background.
Between the writing and the performances, Unwell’s tackling of the micro- and macrocosms of generational distress is, so far, flawless—it is agonizing, cringe-worthy, and at times, hilarious in its weirdness. Rivers and Harman enact a contentious, sometimes emotionally abusive, sometimes awkwardly loving, relationship with a long history, parallel to the house that is falling apart around them. Mt. Absalom is practically a character in and of itself, composed of voices who hide secrets and the truth even while some, like boarding house resident Abby Douglas, attempt to root it out, a common Gothic theme. With celery festivals, battles over rotting casserole, and overly-familiar locals, there’s enough odd humor to balance out the terror of the unknown, which Unwell has already laid the groundwork for in its subdued, eerie sound design.
The concept of horror versus terror was first defined 1 by Ann Radcliffe, a Gothic writer in the late 1700s and early 1800s:
“Terror and horror are so far opposite, that the first expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes, and nearly annihilates them.”
Terror is the unexplained dread, the formless shadow, the borderless and oncoming supernatural, while horror is the encounter with the monstrous being, seeing the shadow in the light, the frozen fear when faced with whatever has been terrorizing you. Terror is the dread of a thing; horror is the dreaded thing itself. Devendra Varma, a mid-1900s expert in Gothic literature, said that “[t]he difference between Terror and Horror is the difference between awful apprehension and sickening realization: between the smell of death and stumbling against a corpse.” 2
Since Radcliffe and Varma, the separation between horror and terror has become more contested in how clearly distinct it is, but one thing is for certain: whatever is happening in Mt. Absalom and the boarding house is nebulously terrifying, as it is both restrained and unknowable. The soundscape in the boarding house and Mt. Absalom is as quiet as the secrets they have built into the foundation of the story; they linger on the creak of footsteps on floorboards, the wind chimes dancing in the wind, and the absurd celery jingle that plays on the radio. This restraint in design is not found often in horror or horror-adjacent podcasts, which tend to rely on identifiable scary noises, increasing loudness of volume, and mysterious whooshing sounds. It becomes even more of a triumph to know that there are four sound designers in the Unwell production team with very distinctive styles, and even so, they have created a fully cohesive world.
Unwell uses its detailed sound design to round out the edges of a sense of place, of what it means to be in Mt. Absalom. Occasionally, footsteps or crickets will be a touch too loud, but these are momentary blips in levels, not purposeful jump scares. The design has not yet used those and Unwell doesn’t seem constructed for them in the first place, though it has not totally eschewed the unidentifiable and feverish in order to create apprehension. American Gothic loves to heighten a sense of anxiety and wildness through one sudden moment of frenzy, like in the climactic scene at the end of episode five of The Haunting of Hill House. It is too early in Unwell to have reached this type of breaking point, but listeners can experience nervous feverishness in the overblown and rapidly-paced arguments, thanks both to skilled performance and expert dialogue editing, and the unidentifiable in the haunting sounds of the boarding house when everyone, it seems, has left the room.
American Gothic, especially that set up against the frontier, formed out of the settler understanding that the wilderness is a symbol of evil. There is something there, they said, that is untamable and dangerous; our descendants will be as helpless against it as we were. The wilderness is not just out there, but it is in here, in our blood and in our minds. Unwell has targeted one specific area—the Midwest—and packaged its bizarre and unearthly nature into every corner of the podcast: into the audio, when immersing listeners into what it means to be isolated; into the writing, when pointing out what it’s like to live with the deep shadows of a Dark Sky town; into the performances, when characters valiantly try to create understanding but only plant strife. Unwell is leading the way to a new understanding of fiction and horror in 2019’s audio landscape, with the same caliber of execution that HartLife NFP has long been known for.
And maybe the wilderness isn’t all bad in Mt. Absalom.
“This place is wild,” Lily tells her father during their second phone call. “Well, you were a wild kid, so you’ll fit right in,” he laughs, right before the connection to the call warps, warbles, and dies, leaving Lily alone in this dreadful, mysterious place.
Unwell‘s website includes transcripts alongside each episode.
Image Credits: Mike Tewkesbury