Aaron Mahnke on Amazon's Lore, Fear and the Pursuit of Legends

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Aaron Mahnke on Amazon's <i>Lore</i>, Fear and the Pursuit of Legends

H.P. Lovecraft would have liked Aaron Mahnke. That’s the sense you get when you listen to Mahnke, the creator and host of the popular podcast Lore, describe the process of painstakingly researching his stories of the macabre—or “dark history” as he likes to call them—by diving through old records and first-hand accounts that are often hundreds of years old. The grim work of poring over books and dusty shelves to find snippets of the fantastic and the terrifying would have appealed to Lovecraft’s antiquarian nature, and his tendency to romanticize his protagonists as professorial bookworms with a tendency to delve too deeply. In fact, that’s just it: Aaron Mahnke is basically a Lovecraft protagonist—just not an insane one (yet). He even lives in New England.

TV audiences are about to get a dose of those macabre sensibilities, as Amazon’s adaptation of Lore approaches its Friday, Oct. 13 premiere. The six episodes of the anthology series will explore the historical record behind classic myths and monsters, ranging from werewolves and vampires to the belief in “changelings” and the rise of 19th century “spiritualism” in the U.S., in episodes whose casts include the likes of Robert Patrick, Kristin Bauer van Straten, Adam Goldberg, Holland Roden, Colm Feore and Campbell Scott.

We, meanwhile, have had to sit on our hands for months after getting our first glimpse of Lore at a north Georgia episode shoot back in the spring—but no longer. On that set, I was able to sit down for an extended chat with Mahnke about everything Lore, from his podcasting process to the pains and joys of adapting a unique concept into an anthology TV program that combines elements of horror and historical nonfiction. Here’s what he had to say.

Paste: In terms of the format, what was your inspiration for doing these self-contained episodes where you examine a specific case or theme each time?

Aaron Mahnke: So, I had been writing novels for a while, and I liked what you would call “supernatural thrillers” or whatever. I live in New England, and there’s lots of great mythology. In writing these books I was bumping into all of these great historical tales that I couldn’t weave into the novels, so I started just filing them away and saving them for later. And once I realized what I was sitting on, I knew that I wanted to share these historical stories in a nonfiction format, but at the time I just intended them to be a free download. I wrote four of the five intended essays, and the word counts kept growing, and I couldn’t imagine someone reading this entire .pdf on their phone, so I almost ditched the whole project right there. But then I thought “Well, wait a minute. I read books by audiobook… maybe I could record them?”

Paste: Did you always have the interest in the macabre and everything?

Mahnke: Pretty early on, yeah. In fifth grade, when I was maybe 10 years old, I remember our teacher asking us to write a short story to work on our handwriting—she always said “chickenscratch”—and so I wrote a “scary story” because it was early October, whatever I thought was scariest at the time. And then I remember getting a book called Weird But True Tales out of the Scholastic reader around the same time, and some of the stories in there sparked something in my head that has been with me ever since.

Paste: What is your own personal definition of “lore”? Like, what does that mean in the context of the podcast and the show?

Mahnke: As I see it, “lore” is not mythology, and it’s not modern urban legend… it’s in that sweet spot between. It’s more documentable history with dark undertones to it, whether it’s supernatural or just sinister. It’s the early historical stuff that has gone on to cause us to fear things.

Paste: Well, you’ve certainly made it into a prolific engine of stories, with 59 (now 69) so far. How has your process of finding stories evolved, and how do you make sure that new ones keep coming in?

Mahnke: Well, I’m a creature of habit, so I kind of like building that writing routine into my day, every day. It’s like running; you have to keep up with it. As for finding stories, the good thing about going so deep into making the podcast is that in the course of research, you come across other potential stories the further down you dig. I’ll be researching one topic and find small pieces that are applicable to it, but I’ll find other, big pieces that are too important to lose, so I file those away. That keeps the vault of episodes growing.

Paste: So, with the archive of podcast episodes you have to work with, how is it determined which will become one-hour TV episodes? How much choice did you have there?

Mahnke: It wasn’t all up to me, but I’m part of the process. Some episodes are more story driven, and some are more theme-driven from the podcast. So, for example, there’s a podcast episode on curses, which is mostly a collection of smaller stories. But some of them are much more narrative, like the tale of the Brown family in Exeter, Rhode Island and this mysterious sort of illness that seemed to be draining the life out of them. In TV terms, that’s an “A-story”—it has the legs to go an hour. The challenge was to go through the catalog and find the episodes with a big A-story at their heart.

Paste: What about a theme or story you really want to tell, but it doesn’t have that immediate “A-story”?

Mahnke: Well, the really cool thing about the show is that we have some opportunity to break new ground in terms of technique. What I do in the audio show, is I tend to give people contextual information early in the episode, which is like giving the audience 3D glasses at the beginning of a movie. I’m saying “I’m going to hand you these tools, so when you see the thing it comes to life.” So when you understand something like the concept of a “safety coffin,” or how tuberculosis works, you go into hearing the story of Mercy Brown, and people like her being exhumed and having their hearts cut out, with a little more perspective. And we get to show those stories with a mix of filmed elements, animation and other forms of re-creation that help give the audience the contextual information they need.

Paste: When you record new episodes of the podcast these days, are you putting thought into, “Will this make a good TV episode?”

Mahnke: I think I told myself that I should be doing that months ago, but I’m not sure if I’ve managed to do it. It makes sense, but I don’t want it to limit the kinds of stories that the podcast is still able to tell.

Paste: What about when you listen to the completed podcast episode? Are you doing dream-casting in your head for the actors you’d like to see in those roles?

Mahnke: No, that’s where I’m able to trust the talented people around me, thankfully. They really hit a home run with Robert Patrick on this episode [the second episode of Lore on Amazon]. He previously worked with Glen [Morgan] on [The] X-Files and Gale Anne Hurd on Terminator 2, so it’s neat to see the connections come full circle.

robert patrick lore.jpg

Paste: Has the experience of making Lore ever impacted what you actually believe in, personally?

Mahnke: No, I sort of try to stay outside of that. If it was a show by a skeptic, for skeptics, it automatically has a limited audience, and it’s the same on the flip side of that coin. My personality just tends to be more interested in the stories and the people, and what they say about us.

Like, what does it say about us, that people believed there really was a werewolf in the village killing people, and not just some crazy dude? Then there are stories where you just scratch your head and you can’t get your mind around them. Look at the Middle Ages, when there were these laughing plagues, for instance. They happened; they’re documented, but there’s a lot less obvious psychology around them to explain what happened. They’re still hard to explain today.

Paste: It feels to me like we’re in an interesting time when horror is getting serious critical attention and appraisal on TV, and it’s become more mainstream than ever. Is this a “moment” for the horror genre?

Mahnke: I think so. The psychology major in me wants to say that it has a lot to do with how disconnected and lonely we can be in this digital world. It’s very easy to be numb to a lot of what’s going on around us, and horror is one of those genres that forces you to feel something. You leave an experience of seeing a film like Get Out and you feel your heart beating. You know you’re alive in that moment. Maybe we crave that right now.

With that said, Lore was never truly meant to be “horror” as such. I always think of the descriptor as two words; I always go back to “dark history.” There’s always an element of reality.

Because, at the end of the day, if they put out another Jason vs. Freddy movie, it might be slightly scary, but when you find out that someone actually stuck his wife into a fireplace in Ireland in 1898 and burned her alive, because he thought that would bring his “real wife” back, that’s what’s truly scary, because people actually did it. I basically spend my life now exposing the underbelly of how broken humanity is.

Paste: Does that make you a cynic?

Mahnke: No, because there’s a lot of victory in it, too. There’s an episode called “Half-Hanged” about a woman named Mary Webster from Massachusetts who was convicted of witchcraft in the 1600s and hung, but she survived and walked away. It’s like the biggest middle finger in the world to the people around her: “I’ve lived through your persecution and still managed to walk out of here.” I love stories like that.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror geek. You can follow him on Twitter.