In 2020, fear as entertainment is a difficult proposition. In a time when the ideas of empathy and regard for the wellbeing of others have never felt simultaneously more vital and more assailed, when victims are reduced to hashtags as the worst moments of their lives are played on a loop to be scrutinized and distorted, when there’s fresh horror every time you open your phone, why now, of all times, would you want to listen to a ghost story? Inundated with terror and trauma, separated from those we love by fear of further tragedy, and either barred from or frightened by the world outside our front doors, this unprecedented moment for our collective spirit demands something more. Deserves something better.
In Another Room, a narrative podcast in eight parts adapted for these uncertain, isolating times from the celebrated in-person immersive experience and its sequel of the same name by original creators Aaron Keeling, Austin Keeling, and Natalie Jones of E3W Productions in partnership with Violet Hour Media, parts the veil shrouding the classic haunted house story and, in the process, offers something I never thought to want but after listening realize all of us desperately need. An acknowledgment that a person’s pain is real and personal and that it matters. That feeling powerless doesn’t have to be a permanent sensation. That some fights can be won.
Elevated by chillingly transportive sound design and a well-crafted, progressively complex narrative, In Another Room is a haunting and surprisingly humane listen that loses none of its horror and heart in its transition from live experience to “purely auditory phenomenon,” proving that the creators at E3W don’t need you to visit their house to give you a good scare: they can bring the ghosts to you. But even more than that, In Another Room turns out to be a tale fitted for these times. One where the dead have the agency to tell their own complex truths, where the living listen and learn and reflect and change, where, with cooperation and love, any danger, no matter how horrific, can be overcome. It’s a ghost story with hope.
In Another Room follows the investigations of Wendy Morrow, a paranormal researcher whose relentless hunt for proof of life after death leads her to embark on an overnight exploration of the infamous House on Harvard Boulevard; its walls the only witnesses to over eighty deaths spread across a century of pain and blood. We get the impression that her single-minded pursuit comes at the expense of her relationships with the living, while the deceased are coldly catalogued in her overflowing files; the agony of others merely data to aid in her research. Undeterred by warnings from the House’s current owner, Wendy crosses the threshold into what can best be characterized as a malevolent Venus flytrap with hardwood floors. As the House’s darkness closes in around her, Wendy comes to understand that the ghost stories she’s been studying have been told at a very human cost.
The preexisting structure of the live experiences lends itself perfectly to the podcasting format, as a select tragedy from a given room’s history transpires over the course of a single installment, each featuring a new cast of woebegone spirits. The writers demonstrate exceptional creativity and care in making every episode distinct; exploring different time periods, experimenting with tone, and focusing on a compellingly diverse collection of characters. Unique too are the circumstances that led each of the House’s victims to become permanent residents and the manner in which they experience their afterlives, positing that even in the same haunted house, no two hauntings are exactly alike. While at first Wendy’s investigation seems to serve as a simple framing device for an anthologized collection of standalone tales with nothing in common but the same cursed address, it is important to note that listeners would do well to follow the established release order, or else risk losing the full impact of the story’s gradual evolution into a more serialized narrative and its genuinely shocking conclusion.
Transferring a story originally written for a visual medium to a nonvisual one is no easy feat, and certainly not guaranteed the level of success achieved here. You by no means need to have seen the original shows to appreciate the podcast; the recorded stories more than stand on their own. In fact, as someone who attended both iterations of the immersive experience, I was most struck by how the podcast’s writing invariably enhanced my appreciation for and understanding of the characters I once met. With new supporting roles to play off of created to occupy the spaces once reserved for silent audience members, including Wendy as she’s drawn deeper into the recollections, more facets of the ghosts’ personalities and backstories emerge, making what follows all the more devastating.
I similarly found myself not missing the richly crafted sets and inventive staging that are customary highlights of all E3W live productions. Radio, and more recently the narrative podcast, as a medium has a rich ability to galvanize the imagination. Listeners are invited to fill in all the dark blanks with images from their own nightmares. As you close your eyes and the words and sounds of each chilling tale fill your head, you can’t help but imagine all of it playing out in your own living room, your own bedroom, your own house. That strange feeling elicited by only the most affecting of horror fare comes over you; call it paranoia, a sixth sense, a chemical reaction in your brain that recolors your perception with a filter of unease. Nothing has changed from one moment to the next, yet the air in the room has taken on an almost unnatural stillness. Familiar but unnerving. You become acutely aware of how quiet it is. How alone you are. Every sense heightened, instinct kicking in, bracing for the danger you’ve been tricked into believing is there. Your body tenses. A simple thing like turning off a light switch suddenly has more weight; a heaviness of apprehension. In other words, you’re spooked.
This palpable sense of disquietude is amplified by the ingeniously evocative sound design of CJ Drumeller, constructing a multifaceted sonic backdrop, an almost tangible atmosphere that both immerses and unsettles. The more naturalistic sound effects and foley work are effectively mixed and excel at establishing a depth of space for each eponymous room and the many supernatural goings on therein. The scratching of a planchet against a Ouija board as you sit on the bed. A loved one crying out in surprise from across the room. A mournful tune from a piano echoing down the hall. There is nuance to every physical action, every vocal filter that, while seemingly a small thing, significantly strengthens the immersion beyond what would be possible if all levels were equal and static, as though everything were happening right in front of the same microphone. This work feels satisfyingly natural, as though it all really was captured by Wendy Morrow’s fateful tape recorder.
Equally effective are the design’s more unnatural flourishes, manifesting an elevated level of tension through a subtle but insistent soundscape of dread that occasionally unravels into a cacophonous, almost surreal torrent of layered terror. At neither end of the spectrum does this feel manipulative, as it always feels rooted in articulating the mounting anxiety a character is experiencing, and we along with them. Even at these fever pitch moments, there is a delicacy and intentionality to the design’s choices that demand our rapt attention, the kind that can only be given with both headphones in. This is not an aural assault, a crutch that many modern horror movies rely on to jolt, startle, make the audience flinch. There are no jump scares In Another Room. It doesn’t need them.
I have on more than one occasion remarked after attending an E3W show that I wish I could have gone through the experience with two brains: one to be completely swept away by the depth of feeling and visceral fear they imbue every moment with, and another to carefully absorb every meaningful word spoken and idea expressed in their meticulously rendered scripts. While in the case of this podcast, another visit to the house is only a tap away (and free of charge), the quality and complexity of the work that my sentiment suggests is in no way diminished. But beyond all the gripping suspense, the carefully threaded mysteries, and pithy dialogue there is something more this time around that deserves to be highlighted: the humanity with which the wordsmiths at E3W treat their incorporeal subjects.
What if the worst day of your life was the only thing you were remembered for? Worse still, what if that worst day was also your last? Unable to speak for yourself, the story takes on a life of its own as it’s passed from teller to teller; embellished and exaggerated until it becomes all but unrecognizable. Processing your raw, personal anguish into a simplified spectacle. In Another Room goes out of its way to stress the importance of honoring the nuance that can be lost in the translation from life to legend. Every victim deserves to be the keeper of their own story, and it is this wish for agency and authenticity that defines how each chapter is presented. While still embodying many of the horror conventions expected from the genre, this podcast walks the fine line between sympathy and the sensational, both empathetic and entertaining. Eschewing the glorification of gore and instead standing on the principle that if the dead cannot be here to speak for themselves, then we should take great care when speaking for them. While their deaths may be the reason we tell their story, E3W reminds us to never forget that their lives matter too.
These days it can be easy to feel like a ghost. Isolated, unseen, watching in frustration as the world passes by, and when you reach out trying to make a difference… nothing happens. In times like these we turn to the artists. To divert us even as they show us the right path to take. For escapism and a means of escape. And if all art is indeed a reflection of the times we live in, the best art reminds us that we have the power to change what we see in the glass. This wasn’t the Halloween season any of us, least of all E3W, envisioned all the way back in March, but, true to the spirit of artists everywhere, they adapted, experimented, and found a way to connect with more people than ever before exactly when we needed it most. They reached out from their haunted house to each of ours with a very different kind of ghost story. One to remind us that every new moment brings with it the potential to alter course and rewrite the narrative. That with enough compassion, understanding, and resolve we can overcome whatever horrors we may face. Together, pushing against the darkness, out the front door, and into the light.