Halloween might technically be more than a month away, but everyone knows that pumpkin season really starts October 1. (Or should.) And while it might be traditional to sit around a campfire and tell spooky stories, that's far from the only way to get your adrenaline and paranoia pumping. Ditch the smoke and s'mores, and instead listen to these scary podcasts from anywhere. They're guaranteed to make you want to check under your bed – and are much more original than that urban legend about the woman whose head pops off with her necklace.
To help you figure out which podcast might suit your tastes, we compared each to a scary film. (After all, just because you like Halloween doesn't mean you like Hostel.) If you like sleeping, don't listen too late at night.
If you like Cabin in the Woods, listen to My Favorite Murder. Technically iTunes classifies My Favorite Murder as comedy, but trust us, this podcast will make the hair on the back of your neck rise. Comedians Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark gather in each others' apartments to recount and debate grisly true crime stories. While the tension is sometimes punctuated by laughter – as when Karen interrupts a story about a serial killer with an anecdote about the time she accidentally used a sanitary napkin as a headband – the pair are incredibly effective storytellers who excel in delving into the creepiest details of any murder. Plus, they often read listener-submitted “hometown murders,” stories of real, little-known killings that happened in listeners' hometowns.
If you like The Blair Witch Project, listen to Archive 81. Even podcasts are getting into the found footage genre now, as this radio drama is composed of (supposedly) found audio clips. The main character, Daniel Powell, goes to work cataloging taped recordings for the Housing Historical Committee of New York State, and his mysterious boss requires Daniel to record everything he does for “legal” reasons. Then Daniel vanishes, and his friend Marc releases the tapes into the world in an effort to find him. Archive 81 isn't the only podcast to use found footage; listen to The Black Tapes and Within the Wires, which is created by the producers of landmark scary podcast Welcome to Night Vale, if you want more.
If you like Halloween – or really anything that John Carpenter or Wes Craven dreamed up – listen to The NoSleep Podcast. Back in the dark abyss of Reddit is a sub-reddit titled “r/NoSleep,” where users share short horror stories they've written themselves. Each episode of The NoSleep Podcast is an anthology of these stories, with actors (and some very creepy sound effects) bringing the stories to life. While the quality varies with each story, there are more than seven seasons' worth of episodes, so you're guaranteed to find some you like. Don't know where to begin? Check out this “starter pack” of episodes recommended by the podcast's host and producer, David Cummings. And if you like what you hear, check out Pseudopod, another horror anthology podcast.
If you like 28 Days Later, listen to We're Alive – A “Zombie” Story of Survival. Full disclosure: We have not yet finished this radio drama, because there are 48 episodes of varying length and a sequel podcast, We're Alive: Lockdown. But despite the length, this podcast's plot is pretty much revealed in the title. Bloodthirsty zombies have descended upon Los Angeles, and Army Reserve soldier Michael Cross recounts the story of how he's managed to stay alive so far. This podcast is often more thrilling than horrific, but Cross and his fellow citizens' attempts to navigate their new, zombie-filled city are vivid and addictive.
If you like Silence of the Lambs, listen to Sword & Scale. This podcast's tag line proclaims, “A show that reveals that the worst monsters are real,” and they are not messing around – the true crime stories that this show covers are very, very monstrous. (Seriously, if you can't handle graphic descriptions of gruesome crimes, do not listen to this podcast.) However, if you like your horror with a side of psychological analysis, give this podcast a listen. Be warned: The host, Mike Boudet, plays real 911 calls in some episodes and they are as difficult to listen to as you'd expect.
Honorable Mention: If you like Changeling, listen to In the Dark. By the traditional, “keep you awake at night” definition of scary, In the Dark doesn't exactly qualify, but it's horrific in its own way. This Serial-like podcast focuses exclusively on the case of Jacob Wetterling, a young boy kidnapped and killed in Minnesota in 1989. His case became a national phenomenon yet went unsolved for more than two decades largely owing to, this podcast's reporters argue, law enforcement's incompetence. So what exactly makes this podcast scary enough for this list? First, the podcast delves deeply into the horror of being a parent who loses a child, to wonder for decades if your son will ever come home. Second, by exposing just how deeply law enforcement agencies apparently messed up Jacob's case, it's all too easy to imagine just how many other missing children remain lost because of basic policing mistakes.