Q & A: Kristin Harris and Allison French on their podcast, “Life After Midnight: Strange History, Salem Style”
In the shadowed corners of Salem, the local podcasters are whispering in the dark. As the creative community takes to the microphone, they fill our ears with unique talk-shows, old-school style radio-theater, discussion of historical tales, and explorations of everything from pop-culture and politics, to true crime and planetary science. My new favorite podcast, “Life After Midnight: Strange History, Salem Style”, features a unique and in-depth look at all things sinister. With episodes like “Murderous Purpose: Turning Murderers into Movie Stars”, I knew I was in for a trip down a morbid, and totally engrossing rabbit hole. I was pleased to have the opportunity to pose questions to local “Life After Midnight” podcasters, Kristin Harris and Allison French.
Q: The purpose of your podcast, “Life After Midnight: Strange History, Salem Style”, is to explore the dark side and educate the masses on the macabre. What inspired you to start a podcast about the darker side of history? Why do you feel it’s important to remember morbid history and ensure stories of this nature are told?
A: Kristin: I’ve always been intrigued by the folklore aspects of history, mainly stories that we hear and wonder about where they come from, what the origins of those stories are, and why we cling to them in our culture. From a very early age I was obsessed with ghost stories, stories about vampires and other mythical creatures, and especially those that had a darker story to them. I feel that there is something to be said for why society, as a whole, always takes interest in things that frighten us, and in some cases, almost idolize those things. They are an important part of our culture, and so Allison and I have set out to educate people about where these attachments come from, and in our research it’s been interesting to see where in human history the darker aspects or obsessions in human society have originated from.
Allison: I think it’s been a long time coming for both of us, for sure. We both grew up being interested in things that were a little unorthodox. I had some bizarre paranormal experiences as a kid, but I still can’t really put my finger on where the obsession with this whole subcategory began. All I can really recall is that I’ve always been attracted to things that were on the darker side. It went from being the elementary school kid obsessed with Halloween, to being the high school kid voluntarily choosing the most tragic, eerie topic – that no one else wanted to pick – to do a project on in history class. I think part of it was sort of rebellion; there’s always something sexy about the stuff that’s controversial. But I also genuinely think I got a real high on diving headfirst into content that might give someone else nightmares. The more dark history I researched, the more I realized how important it is to know about some of these stories. I learned more about human beings & culture by studying the Manson Family than I ever learned from half of the content I was taught in grade school. And this is coming from a massive history nerd.
Q: How do you plan the subject of your episodes? Is there research involved?
A: Kristin: Really we just got together one day and decided that we both had so much to say about the weird shit we were obsessed with, and that we really wanted to have a go at making an academic endeavor into some of the themes discussed in the podcast. But we also wanted it to be accessible for a wider audience. Usually, to plan an episode, we think about something that has always intrigued us, whether it be Salem’s kooky portrayal in movies, serial killers who are idolized, why people believe in vampires, strange diseases people believe in, and things like that. Then we have to narrow it down a bit, and think of things within that topic that relate to each other, and then, yes, lots of research commences. Allison and myself will each pick two or three points within that topic to focus on, split up the work between us, and then come back and share our findings and fit that into an episode format, usually within an hour, but sometimes more, as we have a whole lot of crap to say. The research is very intensive, with both of us tracking down not only books from experts on certain topics, but also primary sources, court records, burial and death records, and things of that nature to make sure that we are covering all aspects of the topic from all sides.
Allison: Just to add to what Kristin said – I think the most exciting part about planning episode content is the stuff you just kind of fall into. You start somewhere and then the next thing you know, the dots start connecting. For example, we were talking about our eagerness in doing an episode about some of our ‘favorite’ famous murder stories, but which ones do we pick? How do we tie them together? We sat down and basically just started having a conversation about these different examples, and suddenly one of just sort of said, “isn’t it funny how the media craze & sensationalism surrounding these crimes is what people remember the most about them?” And that was it – the episode topic just, sort of, was born. So I would say each episode is absolutely something we research heavily, but our favorite part about the episode preparation process is the details that come from discussion.
Q: You mentioned discussing sensationalism revolving around crime and heinous acts, which was covered in your most recent episode, why do you believe people have such a strange fascination with the macabre?
A: Kristin: I think that people use those things as an outlet to explore into their own thoughts. One of the things that I have studied in particular, while I was attaining my Master’s, was death in American culture. In studying this theme and realizing how that seems to connect with so much in our repeated popular cultural themes, I began to notice a pattern. And it is widely thought by many who study anthropology that death is one thing that is a definite for all humanity, and therefore, cultures from all over the world can at least connect on that one point. We are the first species to have a conscious awareness of the fact that we are going to die, inevitably, and out of that anxiety has come all of the ritual we see around the death of a person, all of the popular culture references to death, and the obsession in some parts of culture, with the idea of immortality. So, all of these things are, perhaps, some of the most important parts of our culture because they are, in a sense, a collective of personal beliefs that can be translated across almost all cultures. In the case of heinous acts, well, what is more terrifying than the thought that another person, possibly someone you know and love, could decide to end your life at any given moment? We already feel such a loss of control with the knowledge that death is imminent, add to that the prospect that even more control is taken away, and this intrigues people. We want to know why someone would upset that balance, and sometimes in a horrific and violent way.
Allison: I couldn’t have answered that any better. I totally agree. I still can’t even really explain my own morbid fascinations. I will still read Creepy Catalog, in the dark, before bed, fully knowing that I am heading into the ‘big fucking nope’ part of the internet, yet I love every second of it. I get jumpy, and wide-eyed, and every simple creak in the floorboard is suddenly danger, but I keep reading. A sensation I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to explain. But it’s the same thing with being fascinated by the macabre – it’s not an average part of everyday life, it’s the things that aren’t ‘the norm’, and whether we want to admit it or not, we crave that. Everybody’s a little weird in that way, they just won’t always admit it. When morbid stories or murders suddenly become high-profile, widely-reported news stories, everybody latches on, and the abnormal becomes the normal, which gives everybody something to hide behind. It’s suddenly not weird anymore because the newspapers say, “here”.
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Q: Speaking of high profile history of a heinous nature, Salem is known for the infamous Witch Trials, but can you tell us about any other especially sensationalized crimes that took place in Salem?
A: Kristin: In our episode “Murderous Purpose: Turning Murderers into Movie Stars,” we talk about the murder of Captain Joseph White that occurred in Salem in April of 1830. This was a highly sensationalized murder, reaching publications all over the United States. This was partly because it was a shockingly violent crime perpetrated against a well-known and wealthy member of Salem’s merchant class, but also in part, because of the involvement of Daniel Webster, who was a prominent prosecutor, to investigate the case. As this case unraveled, the Knapp brothers, who had conspired to have Captain White killed by a man named Richard Crowninshield, became stranger and stranger, which only added to the fascination. I won’t completely ruin it for you, and you can listen to the whole story on our podcast, but this case was so influential that a ballad was written about it; it was used as inspiration for “The Tell-Tale Heart,” written by the great master of Horror, Edgar Allan Poe, and some like to posit the rumor that the inside layout of the White mansion, (now known as the Gardner-Pingree house on Essex St. in Salem) was used by the Parker Brothers as the first board design for their game of Clue, when it was first released. Sadly, it’s been difficult to track down a whole lot of hard evidence about if that is true, but I guess some still think it’s a fun story to tell.
Q: What are some of your favorite “macabre” locations in the Salem area? Is there a place in The Witch City you particularly enjoy haunting or that you find especially inspiring?
A: Kristin: To me, as someone who had the privilege to work there for a few short years, the Witch House, here in Salem, will always be my favorite haunt. It’s one of those places that when you’ve had the opportunity on a cloudy, misty day when it’s quiet, to just sit in the house and absorb and appreciate the simple fact of where you are at that moment, it stays with you. It’s the only remaining home in Salem with a direct tie to the Witch Trials, as it is the former home of Jonathan Corwin, one of the magistrates that presided over the trials, but it is so much more than that. It’s a beautiful representation of 17th century architecture, but it has also seen almost every period in Salem’s history. It sits roughly in the same place it did, only being moved to accommodate the widening of the streets as they changed, but it is still on its original property, and when you think about all that’s transpired in Salem since the house was built and how many people have seen that house, it is pretty amazing.
Allison: I’m not sure if there’s any one location within the Salem city limits that really triumphs over any others for me – there’s so many wonderful spots, it’s hard to pick a favorite. I think Broad Street Cemetery is a pretty powerful place, I always get a strange feeling of solitude when I’m there. I will admit that there are a lot of spots I’ve become a little too used to – not necessarily desensitized, but if they’re on my tour routes, they start to become, well, routine. I still get a little choked up every now and again when I’m near the Memorial, particularly when I’m standing by George Jacobs’ memorial bench & talking about him. But aside from all of this, one of my favorite things about New England and especially Salem, is how many spots you feel that ‘time warp’ effect. Salem has this magical way of allowing you to step back in time for a moment, as if the houses are trying to tell you stories.
Q: Why is podcasting important to the modern creative scene in Salem and beyond?
A: Kristin: Salem is very much a city that clings to its history and its identity very fiercely, and there are people that cling to those things just as fiercely, but it’s also a city that continues to grow, to challenge itself and to be open to new avenues of information. There is a lot to be said for some of the interesting (to put it mildly) ways that information and history is shared in Salem, We feel that in an age where not everyone has access to some of these institutions, we are in a place that we can offer another avenue. Accessibility for history and education can come in many forms, and there are several companies here, like Creative Salem, that are really the forerunners of community engagement in the new age, and we hope that we can be the spooky side of that and continue to add to the creative and entrepreneurial movement that seems to be happening in town. Hopefully that can spread beyond the local scene, and we’d like to reach as many people as possible. In the future, we hope to have source lists for our listeners as well, so they can see this information for themselves. We try to mention all our sources in our episodes, but it will be helpful to have them written down for people.
Allison: Once again, I couldn’t agree more. Salem is a highly creative city. Creatives don’t all listen or learn the same way. Presenting material in a podcast form is highly accessible to not just the world of so-called “good listeners”, but to a world of people – like me, honestly – who often need auditory stimulation in order for something to really be absorbed. It’s also about outreach. Podcasts from any given location are generally within reach for anyone in the world. Using this kind of creative avenue, we aren’t just getting our material out there, we’re making connections with people from all over – from one community of weirdos to the next!
Find out more about “Life After Midnight: Strange History, Salem Style” on their Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/lifeaftermidnightsalem/
“Life After Midnight” logo by artists Kenny Harris: http://www.kennyharris.net/
Amber Newberry is Editor-in-Chief of Salem-based horror and dark poetry press, FunDead Publications. www.FunDeadPublications.com
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