Capitalism and Millennial Ennui in The Magnus Archives
Do you ever feel powerless?
A bit of a cheap way to begin. It’s a rhetorical question, and it’s barely even that. Of course you feel powerless. You’re alive in 2019. You are constantly bombarded by news of catastrophes and the slow, inexorable slide toward oblivion. You’re reading this, so you’re on the internet, which means you feel close enough to the problems to be affected by them, but not close enough to do anything.
And when I say you. I mean me. So I want to tell you about my free-fall into the world of a horror story about one of the most terrifying forces of all — helplessness.
I’m not generally a horror person. Not really out of fear or disgust, it’s just never been a genre that has called to me. This was before I discovered The Magnus Archives, London-based production company Rusty Quill’s chilling, engaging, and terrifyingly relatable cosmic horror podcast.
The Magnus Archives begins innocuously enough, with a rather terse man informing you that he has been hired by a paranormal research institute to organize their backlog of first person accounts of brushes with the supernatural. Anyone familiar with The Twilight Zone or similar stories will recognize the formula — an anthology-style series featuring short horror vignettes read out by a narrator, who comments at the beginning and end of each episode, adding in little details that contribute to the statement’s creep-factor. Early statements include a sanitation worker who finds a bunch of garbage bags full of human teeth, a man who hooks up with a woman made of worms, and an apartment building covered in meat.
The statements are unrelated to each other, or so it seems, and the speaker character John, the Archivist, doesn’t initially have much characterization beyond “grumpy and dubious”. But as the story goes on and the statements begin to connect, we get to know the small group working at the Archive, and a vast, compelling meta-narrative begins to emerge. We understand that nothing — not the people involved, the statements given, or even the Magnus Institute itself is at all what it seems.
The vignettes featured in each episode are compelling and cover a wide array of viscerally horrific and eerie stories (the dark, cannibalism, spiders, and heights, to name a few) but it’s really the meta-plot that grabbed ahold of me and wouldn’t let go. Never before have I realized just how effective horror as a genre can be to reflect our modern fears.
As the story goes on, the employees at the Magnus Institute find their lives totally overshadowed and consumed by their workplace, gradually realizing that they are unable to quit or even to stop working for any extended period of time without serious consequences to their health. The same eldritch entity they work for has their very lives in its hands, slowly squeezing down and demanding more and more.
And I realize that it’s basically cliche by now to point out a fucked-up situation and say “it’s just like capitalism!” But…well. A faceless entity that forces you to work under increasingly awful conditions, taking little bites out of your physical health and sanity, leaving you unable to quit without the risk of utter ruin…certainly sounds familiar. In the end, the true horror story of The Magnus Archives is the stark reality of helplessness. The horror of being trapped, of being unable to change your situation without prohibitive personal risk, and the realization that in order to save yourself, you’ll need to join with the very entities that are causing the harm in the first place.
When I brought up this link with writer and creator Jonny Sims (not to be confused with the character Jonathan Sims, head archivist of the Magnus Institute) he confirmed that it is indeed a theme he’s kept in mind throughout. That very specific brand of millennial ennui and hopelessness when faced with a society designed to destroy you in a bunch of subtle and nefarious ways.
“Gradually [the podcast has] become more and more an exploration of capitalism, but in a wider sense, complicity in systems you can’t escape,” Sims told me. “And systems that are in many ways actively doing harm. And how much you can square that with your own actions — the ways you try to combat it, and how you try to make peace with it. In a situation like that, is it the moral decision to let yourself starve, rather than inflict suffering on others?”
Within the story of The Magnus Archives it is gradually revealed that many of the “monsters” were once just people trying to survive in a world where all odds are against them. The employees of the Magnus Institute become increasingly hostile and angry with each other, unable to take out their — very justified — rage on the creatures who actually deserve it. There’s no shortage of stories that ask the question, is it morally permissible to harm others in order to protect yourself and the people you care about? But not so many that don’t respond with an immediate “no.” This theme — in order to have agency, become a monster — isn’t exactly uplifting, but it is also extremely 2019, and is a very good infrastructure around which to build up a horror story.
“I’d love for it to be a nice didactic propaganda piece on what you should do, but I don’t know,” Sims told me. “I think it’s one of the reasons that cosmic horror has endured as a sub-genre…it taps into this certain sense of helplessness. It’s not necessarily supernatural vengeance. It’s not the curse of your past. Sometimes there are bad things out there, and sometimes they notice you, and sometimes you walk into them. It maps very well onto this millennial feeling of being strapped into systems you can’t escape and you can’t control. And you just have to decide how to interact with them and make peace how you can.”
Most of us haven’t been held hostage by an eldritch entity intent on bleeding us dry (as far as I know) but the analogues to our current cultural landscape are so blatant that I almost feel sheepish pointing them out. The companies we work for benefitting from our labor and giving us almost nothing in return, forcing us to work in increasingly poor conditions because we’re afraid of quitting and losing our safety nets. We buy products from companies we know treat their employees badly and are actively destroying the environment, because their monopolies have made it difficult to do anything else. It’s hard to find the right tension between resistance and acceptance, especially when you are already in a vulnerable position.
I never thought of a horror podcast being a thing I could use to help me make peace with anything. It’s never really felt like a genre I could relate to or engage with. When I mentioned this to Sims, he granted that he understood why I felt that way. “Horror has a long history of being a racist white guy’s playground,” he said, alluding to H.P. Lovecraft’s well-documented xenophobia and puritanism. “It’s very easy to enjoy horror that is not predicated on direct threats to you. A lot of what I want to do with Magnus is provide horror that is not saying ‘oh, this isn’t for you because you are something to be feared’.” The podcast centers on queer characters, and never uses sexual violence or racism to generate any of the horror. In a genre inundated with content designed to make certain people feel othered, it is radically inclusive.
I allow that this whole article is pretty vague; it’s not possible to dig deep into the meat of what really makes this show so good without spoiling it all to hell. It really is worth it to go into this podcast mostly blind. But let me impress upon you that The Magnus Archives is the sort of art I want to be consuming nowadays. It captures that terrifying cocktail of dread, resignation, and the compartmentalization of having to continue on going to work and paying your bills, while in the meantime the world burns down around you. Watching people fight to hold on to their humanity and their sense of right and wrong as everything around them fades to shades of grey doesn’t exactly fill me with hope and determination, but it does make me feel ever so slightly less alone. And at the end of the day, that’s all I really ask of a story — to remind me that even in the midst of all this madness, others are fighting the battle alongside me.