Sunday, June 16, 2024

Welcome to Night Vale and the Human experience

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A lonely heart, a wandering eye, an empty stomach, a shoulder to cry on. This is what makes us, us. Welcome to Night Vale. 
I was lucky enough to attend a Welcome to Night Vale live-show this month during their tour through Europe. Now, it’s nothing new that WTNV is one of my very favorite podcasts. I actually enjoy all podcasts by Night Vale Presents (especially Alice Isn’t Dead that has forever a special place in my heart). For over a week, ever since the performance, my mind has been in a constant buzzed bliss of feeling particularly alive and human, which is admittedly my usual feeling when it comes to this creepy-slash-comedy podcast. But how weird is it that a strange and foreign town where every conspiracy theory is true and everything that can go wrong does awakens such a homey vibe and that Night Vale has become one of my go-to feel good shows?
Welcome to Night Vale initially found its popularity first and foremost among Tumblr users and it’s easy to guess why: what’s not to love? The show’s worldbuilding is outstanding, its voice acting is nothing short of perfect and from the very beginning it has managed to create a perfect vibe of creepiness, ranging from mildly uncomfortable to gut clenching, with just the perfect amount of humor to make it all go down. This only covers the reasons why WTNV is high quality content but in my opinion, what makes it such a deeply individual show is that it is, at its core, about the human experience.
Left to right: Joseph Fink (co-writer), Cecil Baldwin (main voice actor), Jeffrey Cranor (co-writer).
Most fiction aims at making the viewer/reader/listener empathize and relate to its characters. I find that this is particularly true of fiction set in a different setting than ours: since the surroundings aren’t the obvious way people are going to relate to the characters, writers tend to work extra hard on making the characters’ emotions believable so the story is still relevant to the consumers’ sensibilities. Jeffrey Cranor and Joseph Fink, co-writers of Welcome to Night Vale, process no different. Night Vale treats the unfamiliar as familiar, and the familiar as unfamiliar. Practically, this is where the show’s eerie vibe comes from. Night Vale is decidedly presented as other, as markedly different from our world. Citizens of Night Vale think nothing of a five-headed dragon and a faceless old woman secretly living in everybody’s home both running for mayoral elections, but a carnival coming to town with its cotton candy and rollercoasters and game booths frightens them to no end. They don’t bat an eye at Boy Scouts being forcedly and violently selected randomly to go through a painful process possibly ending in the fateful transformation into an Eternal Scout, but the minute you suggest that maybe it would be a good idea to open the local dog park to dogs and dog owners, then you’ve lost them.
So how exactly is this friendly desert community that is so unlike what we know also highly relatable to compensate?
Well, you learn to see the familiar behind it. First of all, there is the fact that we simply get used to the weirdness of the way this world works. A first-time listener will probably be confused by the forbidden dog park, by the interns disappearing one after the other, by the agents from a secret-yet-menacing government agency spying on your every move, but for long-time listeners, they’ve become an integral part of the background and not weird at all after dozens of episodes. Any good worldbuilding establishes rules for the consumer to understand how exactly the universe the story takes place in works.
I’m thinking of getting a tattoo with the definition of science straight out of Webster’s Dictionary. So it’ll say, quote, “I don’t know, but I’m trying to find out, OK? ” − Carlos the Scientist
Night Vale is a highly regulated town. Anyone who has ever complained about strict rules can take a good look at themselves and laugh because our world is nothing compared to the thought police constantly going on in Night Vale. From the secret-yet-menacing government agency to the City Council, not to mention the angelic presence that has taken over the city, the glow cloud (ALL HAIL) at the head of the local school, or the community radio station management that has never actually been seen, only vaguely heard from under the door of their office where growls can be heard at any time, all citizens are under constant supervision of some form of threatening authority. Talk about a police state.
What these structures do is familiarize the listener to the universe. This is the hereditary laws of ASoIaF, this is the Hogwarts school rules and laws of magic of Harry Potter, the bending forms of Avatar. There’s a way things work. When a universe has established limits, then the consumer can immerse themselves more fully in a universe that makes sense.
“The world makes sense. I… I believe that. I do. It has to. Otherwise it wouldn’t make sense! And that would be the worst thing that could possibly happen.” − Steve Carlsberg (Episode 53, “The September Monologues”)
This is about making the unfamiliar familiar, giving it structure, but authority is not the only way to establish rules of worldbuilding. Something Night Vale captures so uniquely is interpersonal relationships and the diversity of humankind. Now, I’m saying humankind, but in the world of Night Vale, humans definitely aren’t the only people dwelling the desert. Is it weird if this post that has turned all around Tumblr with so many additions to it I can’t possibly show them all here reminds me very strongly of Night Vale?
This is what makes a universe coherent: people living in it and the way they interact with each other. Unlike some shows, WTNV has consistent worldbuilding and characterization and the nuances of prejudice and oppression are played out very smartly. Now, in fiction, the way it generally works is: if you’re going to have a metaphor for actual prejudice in your piece of fiction, you better not have it be illustrated by straight white males as the victims. Night Vale follows this rule very well. It contains a lot political discussions tailored to that universe: there are talks of the rights of non-corporeal beings, of supernatural beings, discussions about whether death should be a meritocracy or not, and all sorts of oppressions from the local authorities, etc. But this isn’t at the cost of representing actually marginalized individuals.
Strange it may be, but Night Vale is human, and the full diversity of human experiences is on display here. Sure, there are five-headed dragons, little girls whose body is actually an adult male hand, teenagers whose shape is constantly changing, from butterfly to motorbike, and all the likes of a fantasy world, but there’s also names such as Nazr al-Mujaheed, Maliq Herrera, Carlos, Michelle Nguyen, etc., floating around, the main character is a Jewish gay man in love with a Latino scientist (and not Dumbledore-gay, rather “explicitly-fell-in-love-with-a-man-in-the-first-episode” gay), many characters are nonbinary and their pronouns are always respected, several are physically disabled, etc. Some of them are main characters, some are minor characters mentioned once or twice, all of them are presented as valid and important and worthy of respect. Is it still that weird to describe Night Vale as my feel-good show?
[Sidenote: This part isn’t just about Welcome to Night Vale but about the creators’ other work as well. Actual queer representation well done is not commonplace and, as a gay girl, this is something that matters to me a lot. We need our Steven Universes and the likes, and it feels amazing to have writers we know we can trust with our sympathy for queer characters, we can trust that we can safely identify with them, because they will be respected and won’t fall to deadly overused tropes that ought to be buried already. Not only is WTNV constantly being inclusive through, of course, big things such as a queer protagonist in a long term same-sex relationship − and here may I add that Jeffrey Cranor and Joseph Fink (respectively authors of Within the Wires, Alice Isn’t Dead, and both co-authors of Welcome to Night Vale) have yet to write a straight protagonist in their podcasts − but the show is also filled with very casual representation such as one-episode minor characters who are queer, safe inclusion (“Ladies and gentlemen and those of you not clearly falling into either category”), or simply acknowledgment (Cecil often asks young people if they have someone special in their life and he never assumes heterosexuality). I’ve talked before about queer romance in Alice Isn’t Dead and, the way Within the Wires is going, I’m most likely going to be writing a similar review about it when the last episode is finally out. Both writers make us feel taken care of as queer consumers, it feels really awesome and writers like them are all too rare.]
I’m not necessarily here to make the point that WTNV is amazing at representation (although it is, and not just in their own universe but also in real life through their voice actor choices), but rather that representation is part of an overall trend on WTNV, which is to create a town that people can relate to. A big reason why it’s so relatable is because it depicts the actual diversity of our world.
And the best diversity of all is the breadth of human emotions. I have rarely heard a piece of fiction as introspective on human feelings than WTNV. Because that makes us as listeners empathize with the characters more than anything, this is the true strength of Welcome to Night Vale.
One of the great fears among a life of great fears, perhaps the last great fear is the fear of being no longer useful. We find a role in life, and we do that role to the best of our ability for as long as that ability is there. But all of us — even me, dear listeners — will someday hit a point where we no longer are able to do that thing that we define ourselves by doing. And more than the fear of injury, more than the fear of death, this is the fear that looms. The loss of self. The self that is self we imagined we were our whole lives. But we were never that self, not really. We were only a series of selves, living one role and then leaving it for another. And all the time convincing ourselves that there was no change. That we were always the same person, living the same life. One arc to a finish, not the stutter-stop improvisation that is our actual lives. − Cecil Palmer
This is tied in with the last point I want to make, which is that Night Vale is a very hopeful show. The general structure of an episode is: a story intercut with weird interludes (sometimes classic radio items such as traffic, commercials, other pieces of news, etc, sometimes personal anecdotes and development) leading to a looming catastrophe, then a music break with the weather, and the blessed post-weather section. That last part is hard to describe for a non-listener, perhaps the best way to convey what the post-weather parts of WTNV episodes feels like is to say that it’s the feeling of an itch being scratched, the feeling of coming home, of the first bite of an apple, of being alive.
Oh. I am still here. I am looking at my fingers. I am examining my limbs, I am placing one hand on my chest (like in the chanted blood oaths we were forced to swear to the flag each morning as children), and I feel the circulation of air and fluid throughout my body, the simple machine of liquid dynamics and electrical impulses that sustains through some ridiculous coincidence of physical law, the sentience through which I am speaking to you. − Cecil Palmer
I may or may not be exaggerating. Not all episodes have a blissful ending. But it is a general trend, Cecil and the city overcoming whatever force of evil was upon them earlier, but the events are always secondary to the feelings it prompted in Cecil’s heart and in every citizen’s. The show’s very nature is to blame for this: everything (or almost everything) is expressed through Cecil and his own personality and his rationalization of what happened and the emotions he felt. There is no third-person point of view here, only the voice of Night Vale and what he observes. All the events have to be seen through a very individual lens and what results is a show that gives a huge space to human emotions. And through the chaos of these, hope. With its raw description of human emotions, WTNV makes the listener feel understood and acknowledged. This is very hard to explain without giving too many examples, though I could give hundreds. I can only give my own testimony as an example: I was in a room full of hundreds of people and it was completely, entirely silent during the last part of the episode performed on stage. My mouth was gaping the entire time, tears actually rolling down my cheeks, and everyone was completely entranced. We all left the event feeling a lot more alive and infinitely more human.
Because Welcome to Night Vale is filled with a full range of believable and genuine characters who are given the space to display deepfelt emotions, despite all its weirdness, despite being creepy and odd and sometimes a little bit frightening, it remains one of the most relatable shows I’ve ever had the chance to listen to. Strong recommend for anyone who wants to be amazed and shaken to the core in under half an hour every two weeks.

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