The Magnus Archives is a cosmic horror podcast told in an epistolary style. An epistolary story is told in a “found” format, through letters, journal entries, logs, recordings, and much more. This means that the written or recorded material of the story also exists in the universe in which it is being told. If a story is simply narrated to us, the story exists in our world, but not in that of the characters. An epistolary story means that another character in the world could ostensibly fall upon the material and find themselves in the story as well.
This is an important distinction, because I believe that this epistolary style of storytelling is incredibly effective in The Magnus Archives. The show was created by Jonathan Sims and follows Jon Sims (a fictionalized version of the creator and main actor of the show). He is the head archivist at the Magnus Institute, a research center dedicated to the study of the paranormal. Jon’s job is to organize, record and digitally preserve each “statement” that has been archived. People come to the Magnus Institute to share a statement about a supernatural experience that they’ve had, typically it is in written format which is then recorded and read by Jon, or it is done through in-person interviews. Either way, all of the statements are recorded on tape (the show is set in our modern day, yet something about the statements makes it impossible for them to be recorded digitally without corrupting the technology they’re stored on). The use of tapes and tape recorders is an iconic part of the show, one that really works to its advantage.
The use of tape recordings allows the show to seamlessly merge script writing and dialogue with prose and monologue. When Jon begins recording, we are often able to get snippets of other characters, whether they are other Magnus Institute employees, those being interviewed for statements, or the freaky and evil antagonist of the week. For the first season of the show, the format is mostly the same. The introduction that states what the story will be about, the statement, follow up remarks, then possibly some dialogue. The statement is always told in first person and is written like a regular prose short story. It follows someone who has had a traumatic supernatural experience. The follow up remarks usually consist of Jon being cynical and attempting to explain why the statement was false. Sometimes co-workers or other characters will step in during the recordings, but glimpses of them are pretty minimal, unless they themselves are giving a statement.
This format gets turned on its head in the final episodes of season 1. We finally get an episode with no official written statement, and it’s an on-the-ground recording of the invasion of the archives by Jane Prentiss, local evil worm lady. This is the first dialogue-only episode, and it is one of the first major turning points in the show. Jon finds out that Gertrude Robinson was murdered, and marks a slow descent into full on paranoia for Jon. In season 2, he begins adding “supplementals” after each statement, recording his findings and evidence as he attempts to solve the mystery of who killed Gertrude, and what on Earth is going on with the Magnus Institute.
While the extra content and character interactions are different in the following seasons, what remains the same is the format of “introduction, statement, supplemental.” With the familiar format, we are able to fully immerse ourselves in the world of the show. By the end of season 4, tape recorders start recording by themselves whenever something creepy is happening, and the tape recorders almost become a character themselves, following the protagonists and serving as a possible alarm that something will go wrong.
Each statement starts off seeming disconnected from one another, as we slowly “zoom out” with all the episodes, we begin to see how they interconnect. After over 100 episodes, we finally find out what the big picture is. There are 14 “fear entities”, each one being an eldritch representation of some base human fear. Some examples are the Lonely, the Dark, and the Eye, also known as the “Ceaseless Watcher”, the entity in control of the entire Institute. After this, you can see how every single episode connects with the wider web of the story.
"The Magnus Archives is a shining example of the combination of prose, scriptwriting, and horror that are perfectly suited for the audio format."