In the “expanded cinematic universe” age, we often take for granted how difficult it is to tell a story that spans multiple generations and weaves disparate pieces into one grand narrative. Many have tried, many have floundered.
Anyone with such sprawling storytelling ambitions, however, could take a lesson from the horror anthology podcast Old Gods of Appalachia from Asheville, North Carolina’s DeepNerd Media. Launched in 2019, Old Gods is an engrossing and otherworldly saga, set in an alternate version of Appalachia, where the land is riddled with supernatural entities — so-called “haints” and whatnot — and the humans who often find themselves tangled up with them. After a friend recommended it, I powered through all available episodes in two weeks.
As of this writing, there are three seasons comprising more than 40 free episodes (with even more for Patreon subscribers). What starts out as the tale of a doomed coal town named Barlo, Kentucky, expands into a whole universe with narrative tentacles that reach back to 1756 and forward well into the 1900s. The podcast’s penchant for nonlinear storytelling zips you back and forth in time and gives you the sense there’s an infinite number of people, and creatures, to meet in every holler the show visits.
Maybe you spend three episodes with a small-town magistrate, or a young couple that make a bad deal, or a little boy whose family meets a grim fate. You might leave these characters behind for a bit, but in the Old Gods world, they usually all get consumed back into the bigger story in a masterful way.
So far, that bigger story has grown to the tune of more than 9 million downloads since the show’s start, according to the Old Gods website. There’s also a role-playing game in the works, which quickly bypassed its $50,000-fundraising goal on Kickstarter and is up to more than $2 million. The estimated release date is March 2023.
Then there’s the spooky stuff. Old Gods offers a legion of dark creepy things, as old as the land they haunt — creatures that shapeshift, wear peoples’ skins and are so evil maybe you don’t want to know too much more about them. Some walk among the humans in the show, some don’t. But somehow, they always seem to be watching.
If you’ve ever looked at a dark patch of forest and felt like there was something foreboding in the pines, that’s the kind of primal creepiness Old Gods harnesses. You don’t have to be from Old Gods’ Appalachia to understand that deep-seated uneasiness of dark woods and secluded wilderness — that truth we all know on some level that nature, if it really wants to, can do us all in.
It’s also through these ancient baddies that the show explores the region’s complicated history with the coal and railroad industries. A mine collapse in the real world is horrifying enough, as are the long-term health effects of breathing in coal dust, or being trapped in the depths of debt to a company. In Old Gods, predatory coal companies like the fictional Barrow & Locke that would leave the land and its people depleted aren’t just a byproduct of ravenous capitalism. They’re literal evil, and their minions are smooth-talking and clad in expensive suits. The hollowing of the mountains and its miners are real.
The bullies from Barrow & Locke would run entirely unchecked if not for the women of Old Gods — the grannies and the witches, like the Walker sisters and the Underwoods, multi-generational families with a lot of backbone and not only a gift for fighting evil, but the desire to protect those who can’t do it themselves.
Made in Appalachia
One of the best parts of the show is that it actually comes from Appalachia. Appalachia runs along the eastern US, stretching up from parts of Alabama and Georgia, continuing up through Eastern Tennessee, Kentucky and Ohio, through West Virginia and up into Pennsylvania and even a southern portion of New York. The show’s creators Steve Shell and Cam Collins hail from Virginia, a relief when it’s no secret media representations of the area can often be misguided at best, and destructive at worst (the 2018 documentary Hillbilly is a great dive into the damage wrought by stereotypes around poverty and lack of education).
Shell is the primary voice on the podcast. Though he may be talking about creatures with glowing eyes and dead miners possessed by an evil from the mountains where they died, his deep tones and smooth delivery provide some reassurance that nothing of that nature is coming for you as long as he’s telling the story.
Perhaps most of all, there’s a richness to the world of Old Gods, a coziness despite the danger, a satisfying fullness that can be otherwise more difficult to create when you’re talking about far-off galaxies and alternate dimensions. Old Gods feels lived in, layered and refreshingly contained — even if the old evil in the mountains is usually about to bust free.