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Lore proves podcasts can inspire disturbingly effective TV

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In Amazon’s new show, the true monster is human nature itself

Photo by Curtis Baker / Amazon Studios

Podcasts have become a new kind of go-to for producers and studios looking for material to adapt for television. The built-in serialized structure of something like Homecoming (soon to be a series from Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail) or even StartUp (reimagined as the upcoming ABC sitcom Alex, Inc.) make them perfect vehicles. These shows have already demonstrated an ability to grab an audience and hold onto it, week after week, in the exact same way a successful TV series needs to.

This week — on Friday the 13th, no less — Amazon Prime Video is taking its latest television swing with Lore, an anthology series adapted from Aaron Mahnke’s podcast of the same name. For more than two years, Lore the podcast has been creeping listeners out with real-life tales of horror, would-be witchcraft, and medical malpractice. Turning that into a series covering those same topics seems like a no-brainer: the most straightforward possible example of cutting and pasting across mediums.

But Lore the series is actually more than that. I was able to watch half the season’s six episodes in advance, and found the show is able to turn the inherent creepiness of Mahnke’s podcast into original stories that are even more unnerving and resonant. Lore does more than just chronicle disturbing tales from our own history. It’s able to illuminate and highlight failings of human nature itself.

For those who aren’t familiar, the podcast usually revolves a common theme, with Mahnke himself detailing historical tales that come together to form a tableau of horror. The series follows the same format: Mahnke serves as a narrator, guiding viewers through stories, and setting up thematic bookends that bring each episode together. But rather than focusing on a broad collection of stories, each episode tells the tale of a particular character, like Dr. Walter Freeman (House of Cards’ Colm Feore), who created and popularized the transorbital lobotomy, or George Brown (Campbell Scott), whose daughter Mercy was key to the development of the vampire myth — and likely Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

The format will seem familiar to anyone who’s watched The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, or even Amazing Stories — with the twist that all the stories are based on true-life events. The series definitely uses that fact to help dictate its overall approach and aesthetic. While most of the episodes are shot in a straightforward manner, showrunner Glen Morgan (The X-Files) isn’t afraid to incorporate documentary-style reenactments, or let the show switch up its tone and look based on the needs of a given tale. The episode focusing on Dr. Freeman, for example, frames the thousands of lobotomies he performed as an attempt to attain a semblance of 1950s-era American perfection, and it’s presented in black and white that somehow calls to mind old episodes of Leave It to Beaver or The Andy Griffith Show. The changing styles let the show’s episodes feel varied and fresh, even when a given installment may only take place in one or two locations.

A lot of the appeal is also due to the cast. “Streaming show based off a podcast about scary folklore” doesn’t necessarily suggest a high caliber of acting talent. (Perhaps that’s too many cheap “based-on-real-life ghost stories” cable shows talking.) But Lore’s performers are a welcome surprise. Along with Scott and Feore, actors like Robert Patrick (The X-Files, Terminator 2), Adam Goldberg (Fargo), and Kristin Bauer van Straten (True Blood) appear in other episodes of the season. That gives the show a heightened bit of prestige, elevating what would otherwise be simple genre material. Lore is scary, but the acting also makes it genuinely earnest at times.

That willingness to dive into human consequences is what really makes Lore the success it is. (Over the three episodes I saw, at least.) Given the topic of folklore, it’s unavoidable that a program like this will explore people’s fears and insecurities. Those are the things that turn people toward notions of fairies, witches, and the undead in the first place. The supernatural in and of itself is a way of bringing order to a world full of chaos. But Lore is also incredibly focused, arguably more so than the podcast, on the consequences of those kinds of beliefs — particularly for women.

The three advance episodes are all stories of men desperately seeking control. In one, Campbell Scott’s character goes to extraordinary lengths to save his family from tuberculosis. In another, a man is so terrified by his wife’s independence and free will that he decides she must have been corrupted by supernatural forces — with devastating consequences. And in the story of Dr. Freeman, a middling physician who actually begins trying to help people becomes so enamored with the fame and attention he receives that he never realizes the damage he’s doing to everyone around him, patients and family alike. Each story is one of a male-dominated power structure threatened by a challenge to that power, either directly, or just due to the frailties of the human ego. In each instance, those men strike back — and the women in their lives inevitably pay the price, emotionally and physically.

This makes Lore incredibly disturbing, and even hard to watch. The joy in Mahnke’s podcast is often in putting the puzzle pieces together; his bemused, affable delivery makes it fun to pick apart the pieces that have led to some of our best-known myths and legends. But the focus of the series makes the human stakes all too clear. Folklore may be born from our inability to understand things that are beyond our reach, or that haven’t been explained away by science, but it’s also a doorway into the worst aspects of human nature.

When threatened by the unknown, people rarely just throw their hands in the air and wait for things to strike at them from the dark. The basest human instincts seek an excuse to act on existing desires, or a scapegoat to blame — even if that blame makes no logical sense, or the resulting actions compromise our own moral values. The true horror of Lore isn’t the threat of vampires or surgical experimentation. It’s humanity itself, which makes a show about tales of the past feel strikingly vital and resonant for today. Lore is disturbing, but it’s also thoughtful and revealing. In that sense, it proves the worth of scary stories and folklore, which have always been a way of explaining ourselves to ourselves.