I failed American history in both middle school and high school. It was always difficult for me. I suspect because it was all just names and dates on paper. Most of the world history that I can remember, I got from literature classes so I have weird frames of reference and big, glaring gaps in my timeline. I play a mean game of Six Degrees to Kevin Bacon. I have encyclopedic knowledge of Stephen King novels and Nine Inch Nails albums. I remember all my friends’ birthdays and middle names. But battles and kings and which President signed what when? It goes in one ear and out the other. My brain is, evidently, not wired for history. And while I’m excellent at trivia and remembering random facts (like that the soup served the night the Titanic sank was cream of barley or that the first repeating rifle was patented in 1860 – useful, probably, but I haven’t yet figured out how), I failed to see when I was a student that history is just people doing stuff. It always has been. It always will be. Had I come to that realization a lot younger I think I would have found it much more intriguing.
But lately, say the last two or three years, I’ve found myself really interested in history. I’ve been reading books about founding fathers and watching documentaries about war and shit. Maybe it’s that facing mortality thing that happens in our thirties when we realize that they weren’t lying: if we ignore history we truly are doomed to repeat it. As an extension of crippling self-analysis and blinding isolation in recent years, I have begun to apply this philosophy to both my personal history and to my desire to be a more responsible citizen-student of the world. Now that I’ve been on a little bit of a history bender, my inner history buff is waking up and crawling out of her cave, a bumbling idiot blinking in the light. Poor thing.
On the other hand, I have always been a sucker for a good horror story.
Conveniently situated right there in between history and horror is Lore, the podcast with Aaron Mahnke (pronounced “main-key”). Mahnke takes an idea that runs through folklore or urban legends, that kernel of fear or discomfort at the heart of those stories, and he finds an incident in history where that thing was real, nightmares come to life (or vice versa, the real thing that spawned the nightmares of those to follow for years and years). It’s like a history lesson, a psych class, and a great campfire ghost story session all mixed together. It doesn’t feel hokey at all, though, the way one might expect historical scary stuff to be presented now that we all live with the crap on the History Channel and every other cable network stuffed down our necks all the damn time. Do you remember Unsolved Mysteries? I loved that show, but it’s the shining example of cheesiness in this genre. RIP, Robert Stack.
Mahnke seems to be interested not only in figuring out why we’re scared of certain things, but also in showing us that we’re absolutely right to be. I suppose that’s why it’s a history show and not a storytelling show (although, it must be noted that Mahnke has much to say on story structure and the importance of storytelling, which is an extra special bonus for the literarily-minded among us). The study of folklore is probably one of the most psychologically illuminating disciplines, giving us tremendous insight into how our forebears looked at the world they lived in. I can wrap my head around that a lot more readily than I can military strategy or economic conflict. For me, it’s a logical window into history. Thanks, literature degree, for reprogramming me so successfully! What Mahnke does lessens that distance between the listener and the story by putting real people and events in our faces (our ears, really), rather than just telling us about characters in a story. He tells us what we should have already known: history is fucking grisly.
Perhaps Mahnke would disagree with my take on what he does, with my assertion that folklore is an essential and compelling aspect of history rather than something separate altogether. He says, in the episode A Dead End:
“A funny thing happens somewhere between real-life events in the past and the stories we tell each other around the campfire or dining room table. Much like the true and tried telephone game where the message is passed from person to person through a long chain of possession, these old stories shift and change. The change is never visible. They adapt to a new culture or take on elements that are only relevant to a particular generation. But after decades, sometimes even centuries, these stories stand before us transformed. Which is the difference between history and folklore, after all. With history, there’s a paper trail, a clear image of the original that time and distance has [sic] a more difficult time eroding. Folklore is like water, forever shifting to fit the crevice as the rock breaks down.”
If you’ll allow me my own extended analogy, I would contend that history and folklore are, together, like the Mona Lisa. History is the exquisite draftsmanship, the layers of tempera on wood, the grime on top of that, the stripping away of said grime after numerous restorations, the object itself, hanging on a wall. Folklore is the velvet rope and the UV glass and the armed guard we use to protect and preserve and responsibly view her, while we aren’t allowed to take flash photos and we wonder what the fuck she’s smiling about. For whatever reason, we tend to ignore that on a summer morning in a sweltering room in Italy a few centuries ago, a madman woke up, had a wee, ate some breakfast, and then picked up a paintbrush because that was his bloody day job. Weird, right? (That last bit blows my analogy but it’s worth thinking about from time to time.)
Anyway, if you’re interested in all the fucked up shit humans do to each other and then tell stories about, definitely check out Lore. Also, I’ve gotten hooked on another, very similar podcast (they all seem to run together these days, just an endless stream of “This is Podcast, I’m Hosty McVocalFry”) called Unexplained. It’s British, though, so there are a lot more ghosts and fairies and Lady of the Lake types. Still, delicious. And if you run across any fun history podcasts, let me know. I’m always on a quest for more happy earhole food.
Eew. That was gross. I’m never saying that again. Sorry.