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Amazon’s Lore expands a popular podcast into a chilling TV series

Blending history and horror, this adaptation of Aaron Mahnke’s hit podcast dives into history’s dark pseudoscientific underbelly.

Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

When Amazon announced it would be making an original series based on Lore, Aaron Mahnke’s hit podcast about folklore and its often terrifying role in history, the obvious question was: Just how would this work?

The result, also called Lore, debuted on Amazon on Friday, and it’s a compelling mix of the original elements of Mahnke’s podcast with the appeal of the classic reenactment show. The result is often chilling and always interesting — largely thanks to the sheer bizarreness of human history.

Lore tackles folklore, superstition, and pseudoscience, and their often devastating impact on individual lives

History-based podcasts like Lore and The Dollop have gained popularity in recent years partly because there’s just so much oddness in the annals of human history that’s predicated on quirky belief systems, from medical quackery to the paranormal. The appeal of such podcasts is that you get to learn about what’s behind those historical oddities. But the appeal of the new adaptation of Lore is that you get to see them dramatized — not that you’ll necessarily want to watch the gory truth playing out before you.

Amazon’s Lore starts off with a look at some of the ghastlier moments — or decades — in modern history, ranging from the horror of the lobotomy movement to the surprising origins of Dracula. What Lore’s reenactments do particularly well is to make visceral the real physical horror attendant in many of the superstitions and pseudoscientific experiments that characterized these moments: It’s one thing to know theoretically that lobotomy victims often had ice picks inserted into their eye sockets; seeing it demonstrated by a frankly gleeful doctor, all while Mahnke’s calm narration reminds you this isn’t a horror movie but real history, is another thing entirely. Even fans of Mahnke’s podcast who remember hearing that at one point an unlucky New England tuberculosis patient was forced to drink a mixture made from the bodily fluid of a dead relative will find that watching this drama build to its gory climax in live action is a whole different matter.

Like all reenactment shows, this one runs into the main problem inherent to that conceit, which is that the fictionalization of historical records occasionally veers into the realm of the cheesy and/or overdramatic. But director Darnell Martin chooses to lean into the real-life horror of such moments rather than away from it, so even when things get cheesy, they’re often still fascinating. After all, as the opening card reminds viewers each episode, everything we’re seeing onscreen is something a real human being had to suffer through at one point.

I had wondered how Amazon’s show, which runs 45 minutes an episode, could treat some of the subjects in Mahnke’s half-hour podcast without running out of material. But writer Bryce Zabel has solved that issue neatly with lots of background context and sidesteps into tangential historical subjects. The series makes interesting use of archival footage and other supplemental material, and those side trips are often more interesting than the fictional reenactments. For example, one episode smartly uses archival photographs to illustrate the ways in which women were gaining independence throughout society during the 19th century, as well as the many restrictions still being placed on women who were viewed as too independent.

Which brings us to another thing Lore does really well: It amplifies historical voices that are too often erased.

Lore doesn’t skimp on showing how much it sucked to be marginalized back in the day

Whether it’s discussing the societal restrictions placed on women or the appalling treatment of the mentally ill, Lore reminds you how often folklore intertwined with fear of the other to keep the marginalized downtrodden. It manages to do this with surprisingly little fanfare — for instance, in just a few minutes, it thoroughly walks viewers through the tragic life of Rosemary Kennedy, explaining that her life was bracketed by tragic events that resulted primarily from a lack of understanding of women’s physical and mental health, and from the social stigma attached to the mentally ill.

The show sometimes relies too much on the power of its actors to bring home the reality of its horror, and this doesn’t always work — but when it does, it works very well. In fact, perhaps the show’s greatest strength is that it often dramatizes just how badly things could go wrong when anyone with power got caught in the grip of a fictitious belief — and just how helpless men and women throughout history actually were to protect themselves from such people and their belief systems.

The third episode in particular is a harrowing account of a tale that seems all too familiar today: a potentially violent man threatened by the independent woman he married. Where social custom should have tempered whatever his violent impulses were, instead folklore, specifically a belief in changelings, gave him a socially sanctioned excuse to carry out violent revenge upon her for her independence. It was an isolated form of witch burning — but it happened in the 19th century, not the 17th.

As viewers are faced with the emotions and mounting terror of the unlucky modern woman who’s suddenly accused of being a fairy, Lore achieves its best result: It reminds us, chillingly, that the customs and backward superstitions we’ve consigned to the dustbin of history might have more resonance in the modern world than we realized.