It was a match made in horror heaven.
During the production of the 2017 music industry satire, Terry Tempest: The Final Interview, playwright Jamieson Ridenhour and actor Hayley Heninger bonded over their love of the macabre. As their friendship developed on the Magnetic Theatre set, they also discovered a shared interest in the then-emerging creative platform of audio dramas.
“Independently, we were both listening to an audio drama called ‘Alice Isn’t Dead,’ which is written by Joseph Fink, the guy that created [the acclaimed paranormal podcast] ‘Welcome to Night Vale,’” Ridenhour says. “It’s a side project he had done that was a single actress and a single writer, and I think both of us were kind of inspired by that.”
Ridenhour, who’s also a musician, already owned recording equipment. With that element in place, the duo created “Palimpsest,” which they describe on the podcast’s website as “a (mostly) single-voiced audio drama about memory, identity and the things that haunt us.” The tongue-twister of a title is defined as “something reused or altered but still bearing traces of its earlier form.”
The 10-episode first season, “Anneliese,” debuted Oct. 31, 2017, and ran biweekly until March 6, 2018. Written by Ridenhour and performed by Heninger, each season of “Palimpsest” has one key detail in common: It’s set in the same house — but the supernatural structure can appear in any year and location.
“Deciding that early on gave me a lot of freedom as a writer because it means if I want to set an entire season in London during World War II, it’s still ‘Palimpsest,’” Ridenhour says. “It’s really fun to think, ‘What other people have been through this house? What other kinds of things have happened over time?’”
That sense of liberty has taken the stories from a 19th-century freak show to what Ridenhour describes as “a disco episode set during the 1970s.” The latter was part of the standalone “Visitations” chapters released in 2022.
Prior to the release of “Palimpsest’s” fifth season — which, appropriately, took place on Halloween — Ridenhour and Heninger spoke with Xpress about their creative partnership and the joys of bringing original eerie tales to listeners around the world.
As of press time, “Palimpsest” sports over 700,000 downloads from listeners around the world. And while the material’s subject matter and quality have much to do with the project’s success, being ahead of the curve on a developing trend also helped.
“2017 was a really great time for us to start,” Ridenhour says. “Audio drama was getting this surge of interest, but the field wasn’t really crowded yet. There hadn’t been this explosion that there has in the last five years. So, I think we were able to get noticed in a way that we might not now.”
A firm foundation in the genre has also enhanced their work. Ridenhour’s mother was a horror fan, and he began watching horror movies with her when he was 11 years old. His fascination with the genre subsequently inspired him to write the plays Grave Lullaby and Bloodbath: Victoria’s Secret; animated short films Cornerboys and The House of the Yaga; and numerous works of short fiction and poetry. He’s also an English professor at Warren Wilson College and frequently teaches courses on gothic/horror literature and film.
“I’m always most comfortable there in this kind of gothic space, because I feel like there are real darknesses in the world, and narrative is one of the ways that we can work through those darknesses,” he says. “They don’t go away because we ignore them. They go away because we face them and talk through them. And for me, that’s sort of what horror allows us to do is face those things in a safe space where you’re encased in a narrative.”
For Heninger, the inherent layers within scary stories are appealing. Perhaps best known to Asheville-area audiences for her work in the locally produced horror short film How to Love Your Demon and the nonhorror web series “Transplanting,” the actor notes that in each “Palimpsest” season, the main character experiences “a very outward, spooky, haunting thing.” But beneath the spectral threats are relatable human dramas.
“I think it’s a good way to take that inner fear and put it out there and be able to explore it in front of you versus it being all trapped in your head,” she says.
Early on, Heninger says, she hesitated to critique Ridenhour’s writing. But as their professional dynamic grew, she’d suggest tweaks to the dialogue that would sound more natural for her to say. And their ease of communication has only improved with each season.
“There’s this trust where there’s not fear of insulting the other person,” Heninger says. “It’s an honest, open relationship where we can enter this ‘Palimpsest’ world. And it’s not about Jamie or about me. We’re in this space and working toward the same goal.”
Ridenhour notes that while he’s credited as the audio drama’s writer and Heninger the performer, the actual process involves a great deal of character creation in which both collaborators throw ideas back and forth.
“Often, even in a recording session, we’re rewriting lines of dialogue because of insight she’s got into the character,” he says. “It’s a really nice organic process where we’re both creating this thing together.”
“Palimpsest’s” technical side has likewise evolved with each season. While Ridenhour had audio recording experience as a guitarist in a studio, he’d never done an audio drama. And though they both acknowledge that the series’s first season was a bit rickety and raw on the audio side, Heninger says Ridenhour has “really stepped up his editing skills” and the sound quality has likewise improved.
“We were learning it from the ground up. And what that meant was it was purposefully minimal sound design in the first season because I just didn’t know how to do beyond that,” Ridenhour says. “I tried to make it feel like this is the aesthetic we’re going for. But then as we got further in, we’ve got EQ on her voice dialed in and we know where the mic needs to be set. And we can record an episode in an hour and a half now where it used to be like a three or 3 1/2-hour process.”
Quoth the raven
“Palimpsest’s” fifth season, “Lenore,” debuted Oct. 31, with new episodes posting every other week through March 5. The eponymous narrator first appeared in two of the series’ “Visitations” episodes as an auxiliary character. But she rises to protagonist level in this 1920s-set tale, which Ridenhour says has “kind of a Great Gatsby feel.”
He adds that Lenore is an American expatriate living in England who, at a young age, marries a mysterious man. The husband then whisks her away to his house in France. The season is told through her journaling about her life there. In crafting “Visitations,” Ridenhour and Heninger drew inspiration from fairy tales, English writer Angela Carter‘s folk tale reinterpretations, plus Bluebeard and Little Red Riding Hood.
“I think the trailer already gives away that it’s a full-on werewolf story,” says Ridenhour.
In the coming-of-age tale, toxic masculinity and bad marriages are also explored. Heninger is confident that it will be “Palimpsest’s” best season yet and feels especially drawn to her latest character.
“And God, the Bluebeard story is so horrific,” she says of the folk tale about a man with a secret murderous past. “I’ve found in talking to different people that not a lot of people are very familiar with Bluebeard. It’s not as common as Little Red Riding Hood and stuff like that.”
Looking ahead, both collaborators are committed to working together long term and are open to such new ventures as an ensemble production. But they’re happy with what they’ve built and continue to feel humbled that their experiment has found an audience.
“It’s a lovely surprise, but it was definitely a surprise,” Ridenhour says. “We forget about it because it’s just, you know, Haley and me in my basement, recording. And then we’ll get an email from, like, Argentina or somebody sends us fan art. And I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s right. People are listening.’”
Before long, people might get to experience “Palimpsest” through additional senses. The two have an agent who’s looking at developing the intellectual property into other media.
“It’s a side of the business that we don’t know, and we’re learning as we go,” Ridenhour says. “But we hope we will have some things to announce soon.”
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