What started off as one man’s journey to face his fears has turned into a six-season podcast with a cult following. From extreme narcolepsy to flesh-eating beetles, Jeff Emtman’s podcast, Here Be Monsters, sheds light on dark, creepy, and taboo topics. Part reportage, part confession, and part raw emotion, he seeks to not only address our fears that keep us up at night but find compassion in them.
We caught up with Emtman to discuss his creative process, what constitutes fear, and how he breaks down these macabre themes.
Tell me about the podcast. How did it come to be?
I used to have these sleepless nights. I’d find myself at two or three in the morning, awake in bed, fidgeting. I was afraid of strangers, the future, my mortality, and lots of other things. And I realized that at the core of them all was a fear of the unknown.
So, I made a podcast about all those things. I called it “Here Be Monsters” in homage to an often mistranslated phrase that’s inscribed in a tiny copper globe from the 16th century. It’s unlikely that the sculptor ever visited the region of “DRACONES” the globe warns of. Similarly, I had never experienced the things that scared me.
What’s your creative process like? How do you choose your topics?
My co-producer Bethany Denton and I look for untraditional arcs in topics. We find stories the same way, though: through personal connections, research, or poking around the deep corners of the internet.
You’ve got some wild and edgy episodes that deal with fear and the unknown. What constitutes fear?
When my brother and I were kids, my mom took us to the pet store. We picked out two gerbils. My brother named his “Lucy” and I named mine “Einstein.” Lucy and Einstein didn’t have much personality, and they largely communicated in frequencies too high to be audible to my brother and me. My mom would sometimes use them to shred important documents.
Lucy and Einstein were the personifications of fear. The slightest sound would send them running for cover, as would any shadow that crossed their path—for these resembled the birds they’ve evolved to run from. Gerbils also have an adaptation that allows them to physically drop their tails when a bird picks them up. The way a gerbil lives, this is the ultimate definition of fear.
With Here Be Monsters, you make intangible fears and unknowns personal — it’s not just investigating the supernatural. Would you say that your podcast takes on these unsettling topics as a way to help listeners not only address them, but also to empathize and relate with their (and others’) fears?
Yes, definitely. Strange, scary, or macabre topics wind up getting covered a lot in the media. And rightfully so, but I get annoyed by media that projects “otherness” on the people they cover.
Those in polite society want to think themselves somehow fundamentally different from the racist, the sex offender, the crazy, or the abuser. Hell, I know people who think it would be impossible for them to ever hold different political or religious beliefs. This view of the fundamental self is laughably wrong, but it comes from a place of personal fear and fragility.
Do you have a favorite episode? One that really gets at the heart of your vision for the show?
Occasionally, I feel like we stumble onto some small piece of that idyllic show. My favorite episodes aren’t really the “best” episodes or most popular ones; they’re the ones that contain fragments of that idyllic form of the show.
- “Barry’s Mental Tempest”: A person with schizophrenia learns to stop fighting his voices, learns to speak to them instead. Produced by Luke Eldridge.
- “The Wake Up Stick”: A person who can’t wake up in the morning pays someone $10 a day to knock on his window with a stick. Produced by Lisa Cantrell.
- “The Ocean of Halves”: A person who’s a sex worker documents her nightly preparations, her clients’ sexual histories, ansd her desire for changes in the way society treats sex. Produced by Jeff Emtman.
What do you hope people gain from listening to your podcasts?
It’s easy to see nuance in people you love. Same is true for situations you’ve been in, or places you’ve gone or experiences you’ve had. It can be harder to see nuance in the strange or unfamiliar, which is why these simplistic narratives often dominate popular conceptions of societal outgroups.
My ultimate hope for the podcast is for it to extend the nuance more broadly. I want to see every system, person, and place, as layered and complex. I hope that’s a noble goal. It’s my way of fighting the fear of the unknown.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
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