Formats Unpacked: Uncanny

How a paranormal podcast has built a fanbase of believers and non-believers

Thanks for joining us.

With Halloween just around the corner, we’ve a real treat for fans of spooky stories about ghosts and paranormal activities.

Unpacking the format is our very own Emma Greengrass. Emma is the Operations Coordinator at Storythings. She once found a crystal ball in her mother’s underwear drawer. If you’d like to chat paranormal activities with Emma, catch her on Twitter.

Over to Emma…

What’s it called?

Uncanny (BBC Podcast) 

What’s the format?

Uncanny is a podcast format. The writer and journalist Danny Robins sets out to investigate paranormal cold cases told to him by the people who experienced them. A team of psychology and parapsychology specialists, Chris French, Ciaran O’Keefe and Evelyn Hollow (amongst others), help shed light on matters. Each episode is just under 30 minutes. The show originally aired on Radio 4 in October 2021. 

What’s the magic that makes it special?

If you are fascinated by the unexplained and love a good ghost story - then this show is for you. It covers everything from ghosts, apparitions and poltergeist activity to time-slip experiences and UFO sightings. 

One of the reasons Uncanny is so compelling is its testimonial approach. No actors are brought in, instead we get witnesses. People who are often sceptical themselves. People like Ken in Case 1: The Evil in Room 611, a geneticist whose scientific mind still finds baffling the poltergeist events he experienced in 1981 in halls of residence on the sixth floor of a 1960s tower block in Belfast. 

Another reason for the show’s success are the theories and reflections from experts who offer sceptical and non-sceptical points of view. Danny Robins pauses the story at key moments to talk with them about what they have heard but when the testimony resumes, the narrative often throws rational explanations into question. This approach effectively builds both suspense and intrigue in a format that might fall flat otherwise. 

The theories offered are fascinating in themselves. Ciaran O’Keefe, psychologist and sceptic, in Case 10: Don’t Sleep in this House sheds light on how the profound impact of cold and fear on human human physiology and psychology might make someone believe they are hearing sounds inside a room when the noises are actually coming from outside the building, and cites evidence from a similar case, and also from the military. Meanwhile, it is non-sceptic and paranormal psychologist, Evelyn Hollow, who points out that although we will never know for sure, how likely is it really that the poltergeist phenomena experienced by Phil and his friend Jimmy are the sounds of another climber arriving at the bothy – given that it is the middle of night and Luibelt’s remote location in the Highlands of Scotland. 

And then there is Danny Robins... He presides over each case with enthusiasm for all things spooky. His energy is infectious. But more than energy, it’s his open mindedness about the content that contributes to the balance the show is able to strike between both sides of the scepticism/belief divide, and this partly explains how Uncanny was able to build a strong audience and online community (#UncannyCommunity). The show capitalised on these often opposing viewpoints by actively encouraging a listening audience to consider themselves part of the expert panel and to put forward their own questions and theories (which they did as #TeamSceptic and #TeamBeliever on Twitter and emails) – the show included contributions in episodes that revised earlier cases. 

I have a fascination with ghostly stories and the paranormal (inspired by a mother who read Prediction magazine and kept a crystal ball hidden in her underwear drawer) but I am also interested in what psychology offers in terms of insight into the human experience of hauntings, so when I found out about the show, I was quickly hooked. For me, the real magic of Uncanny is that although the rational explanations are intriguing they never land quite as powerfully as the words of the person who is telling us their story. Over and over again they say: ‘I can’t explain it, but this is what happened!’ In the end, it seems there are no rational explanations, only theories.

Favourite episode?

Uncanny Summer Special: Canadian Horror Story and Uncanny Summer Special Part 2: The Room Next Door tells the story of a nightmarish family holiday that takes place in Twillingate, Newfoundland in 1998.

Similar Formats

Danny Robin’s earlier podcast series: Haunted involves people talking about their ghostly encounters and also draws on expert insight.

Life Changing has a similar direct approach with people telling Dr. Sian Williams their real life stories of resilience and transformation.

Thanks Emma.

As a firm skeptic, I really enjoyed listening to the summer special. I even subscribed. They get the tone just right. I’m never quite sure if, or how much, Danny Robbins’ tongue is in his cheek. The balance of story and explanation really kept me listening.

I’d be interested to hear from readers about formats that get non-fans of a subject or genre subscribing. I touched on this recently when I talked about football fan channels.

For all our new subscribers, Storythings is a strategy and production company. We help brands and organisations tell stories that make people hit the subscribe button. If you’d like us to run a Formats Unpacked workshop, get in touch. They’re really productive and a lot of fun.

Thanks for reading. See you all next week,

Hugh

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