Binge or Purge?: Lore.
Amazon Prime tries to turn a popular podcast into binge-TV gold with Lore, but something got lost in translation.
Creepy TV is a hot commodity these days. American Horror Story, Channel Zero, and Penny Dreadful have explored a corner of supernatural terror that was once only to be found on the fringes. Given their success, everyone is clamoring to have their own show about urban legends, monster myths, and everything that goes bump in the night. Enter Lore, Amazon Prime’s fact-meets-fiction TV series based upon an award winning podcast of the same name.
After having sat around the campfire for half of the first season’s scary stories, I have to say that Lore inspired more yawns than goosebumps. Half of the problem is that Amazon does a very poor job of preparing you for what Lore is actually about as a product. The other half of the problem is that Lore seems to be having trouble deciding what it is actually about – creepy pasta horror story or educational history lesson. By the end of three episodes, I’m still not sure what Lore is, but I know what it isn’t: worth my time.
In 2015 writer/producer Aaron Mahnke created Lore, a podcast that “exposes the darker side of history, exploring the creatures, people, and places of our wildest nightmares.” Inspired by shows like Unsolved Mystery and The X-Files, the show looks at the historical underpinnings of spooky folklore in a manner akin to listening to a ghost story around the campfire.
As a show, Lore blends narration with historical recreations and dramatizations, animated sequences and documents from the past. Each episode stands alone, looking at a different creature/event. The first season is six episodes long, all of which are available on Amazon Prime starting October 13th.
Episode 1: They Made a Tonic.
This episode is nominally about premature burials and the superstitions they created, such as the Vampire. It begins by looking at the story of two sisters, one of whom was buried alive. Her plight was discovered when her sister had a vivid nightmare and became convinced she was still alive. They found the poor girl with bloody fingernails and a stricken look upon her face, now truly dead. From there, the episode explores a New England community struggling under the plague of Tuberculosis, which resorted to macabre rituals to ascertain that the afflictions they faced were not of the devil.
The very first episode highlights all of the problems with Lore. There is only the flimsiest connection between the stories being assembled. Beyond that, there is hardly any discussion of false burials, the TB epidemic in New England or even Vampires. In fact, when they claim the second story is the first American Vampire, I was confused. Nothing else in the show hinted at Nosferatu until a line of dialogue connects the case to Bram Stoker writing Dracula. Overall, we just get a couple anecdotes and a threadbare connection to a popular monster.
Episode 2: Echoes.
We begin with another urban legend about an escaped mental patient who was credited with several fictitious murders. From there, we pivot to the story of Dr. Walter Freeman, who pioneered the medically dubious technique of pre-frontal lobotomies and whose life story reads like a Greek tragedy.
By now I can guess how this whole thing is going to play out. We get a couple of creepy stories with very tenuous connections to each other that are juxtaposed. A bare-bones history lesson is the pretext for the show to feature about half an hour of dramatic historical recreations. These really are just ghost stories with a tattered shawl of historical scholarship thrown over them.
Episode 3: Black Stockings.
The third episode leads with the dramatization, this time of an Irish family where the lady of the house has become the prime bread-winner, inspiring her husband to believe she has become a faerie changeling. From there, we get a brief history of the fair folk in Irish folklore and then are whisked to America to hear the story of Annie Oakley. Why? I can’t honestly tell you at this point.
The through line in this story completely lost me, but that could be because I had become so disinterested in Lore by this point that I probably missed the throw-away bit of trivia that connected these stories.
The Historicity Channel.
Lore is emblematic of the kind of attention seeking that caused The History Channel to become the laughingstock it is today. Once a place you could actually learn something, the channel slowly submerged itself in aliens, Bigfoot, and doomsday hokum in order to gin up ratings. Now, you can’t believe a damn thing you see on that station. Likewise, Lore leads with bunk and rarely gussies it up with much scholarship.
That is a shame, since the actual factual nature of urban myth and legends is pretty fascinating. If the first episode had delved into the how and why Bram Stoker picked up on the Brown case as a seed of inspiration for the most famous horror story in the English language, I’d have been intrigued. If it had offered any insight into the how and why false burial was so common, or the how and why TB was ravaging New England, or really anything at all besides a half-hour ghoul story about unearthing and eating the hearts of dead relatives, I would have been interested.
Lowest Common Denominator.
Lore reminded me of a section of the children’s library in my home town that perennially drew my attention. It was what you would nowadays call the paranormal section: books filled with aliens, crypto-zooligical monsters, the Bermuda Triangle and Atlantis. Most of it was trash, luring you in with wild promises and salacious claims, only to trot out the same tired arguments and grainy photos as proof. Despite the paucity of real science, there were a few books that took themselves seriously, at least seriously enough to gather up eyewitness testimony, newspaper reports and a few “expert” testimonials – some from actual experts you wouldn’t laugh out of a courtroom. Lore could use some of that rigor.
Binge or Purge?
I have say that Lore is a solid Purge. Since the educational aspects of this show never materialized in any meaningful way, the heart of the series is the dramatizations…and they’re more tacky than sinister. I really got the Unsolved Mysteries vibe from them, and that series was just barely on the respectable side of the ledger when it came to their programming. A few alien and bigfoot episodes would sneak in, but mostly you got crime stories with actors working for scale pantomiming the events. In 2017, that just doesn’t fly.
Lore’s first season is mostly drawing from the early podcast episodes, so one could hope the standards will go up, but since these are the stories they chose to lead with I’m not holding out any hope. Lore doesn’t work as a “stranger than fiction” show or as a creepy pasta adaptation vehicle like Channel Zero. It’s a misshapen mish-mash that was so underwhelming, I wouldn’t bother with the podcast based on the show’s performance. That’s a pretty bad first impression.