"A friendly desert community where the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful, and mysterious lights pass overhead while we all pretend to sleep. Welcome to Night Vale."
Intriguing, unnerving, and ultimately enticing, these words open the pilot episode of Welcome to Night Vale, a twice-monthly podcast with a seemingly permanent spot on the iTunes most-downloaded charts. For two years, Night Vale has produced simultaneously creepy and heartwarming shows by featuring a whole roster of eerie creatures while telling the adorable story of how two men in this world fall in love. And in the process of creating a weird and wonderful town for its diverse and surreal cast, Welcome to Night Vale has created a home for listeners of all different identities, ethnicities, and orientations.
Created and written by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, the ongoing series presents as a community radio program hosted by Cecil Palmer, longtime resident of the fictional small desert town and narrator of the podcast. During the episodes, each 20 to 30 minutes long, Cecil reports local news stories in a deep and resonant voice, occasionally receiving calls or visits from other residents while on the air. Of course, Night Vale's news isn't exactly the same boring fare that you'd expect from your local network affiliates -- after all, Night Vale is a town where dark, hooded figures lurk in the dog park, otherworldly lights appear in the sky around the Arby's, and all wheat-related products are banned because of their ability to turn into malevolent spirits.
"The modus operandi of Night Vale is to make the normal seem different and the different seem normal. A lot of humor comes from that; a lot of the horror comes from that," says Cecil Baldwin, the voice actor who plays Palmer.
At the center of this balance is the relationship between Cecil and his longtime crush and current boyfriend, Carlos the scientist. Over the course of the show, listeners grew more and more attached to Carlos, just as Cecil did, and they felt just as giddy when Carlos left Cecil a voice mail and probably squealed with delight when the two finally got together. And although audiences have made a big deal over each romantic gesture, the citizens of Night Vale, often worrying about strange glowing clouds in the sky or tiny underground civilizations, couldn't care less that their community radio host is in a gay relationship.
"Carlos and Cecil's relationship is the least weird thing about Night Vale," says Dylan Marron, voice actor for Carlos. "I think a ton is being said about it by not saying something about it."
Baldwin says listeners, no matter their sexual orientation, relate to Cecil and Carlos, "especially people who have found this online and people who might feel disenfranchised by the communities they live in."
Carlos and Cecil's relationship is just one example of the diversity of Night Vale citizens. When Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor first conceived the show, they aimed to "tell a story we're interested in telling, and we're not interested in telling a story about a boring, homogenous society," Cranor says. Despite the constraints of telling a story using only narration, sound effects, and music, Fink and Cranor manage to depict a community of many different ages, ethnicities, and species.
"The characters in Night Vale are not defined by what they look like or their gender or their ethnicity or their physical form," Baldwin notes. "They're defined by how they treat other people."
"It's important to remember [Night Vale] is an American community that has many different kinds of different people. Why call a character David Jones when you can call him Nazr al-Mujaheed?" adds Baldwin. "That brings an evocative image into the listener's mind. My task then is giving Nazr al-Mujaheed a distinctive personality and a voice that is a character rather than a caricature."
Thanks to the podcast's growing popularity, the cast and creators began putting on live shows throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe. Because the live shows added a visual component to Night Vale, Fink and Cranor had to make an important decision about casting the part of Carlos. Although Cranor himself had voiced Carlos briefly in the podcast, the creative duo decided to give the part to an actor who actually fit the description of the character.
"It's very rare to get the kind of awareness that those two have," says Marron, their eventual choice for the part of Carlos. "They really found it important to make sure that the face of Carlos is not going to be some straight white guy. They actually wanted to cast a queer Latino actor to play that part."
Welcome to Night Vale's dedication to diversity and inclusiveness and its strong writing have earned it massively enthusiastic audiences both online and at live shows. The podcast has enormous followings on sites like Tumblr and Twitter, where fans post original art, costumes, and writing inspired by the fictional town and its residents.
"[Our fans'] response to liking a story is to let it inspire them to create things, which is not the traditional model of being an audience member. That's such an active stance to take," says Marron. "I feel like the fans have contributed to what this has become in such a beautiful way."
Many teenagers, especially those who identify as LGBT, find refuge in Night Vale, where even the strangest characters and events can be commonplace.
"We get a lot of people, teenagers, preteens, that have written us and told us in person that as somebody who is gay or understands themselves as genderqueer or gender-fluid or transgender, they feel comfort in our show that they don't feel in a lot of other places, and they feel normal," says Cranor.
Even families approach Baldwin after live shows to tell him about long road trips with Night Vale episodes playing in the background -- it's often the case that younger fans introduce their parents to the show.
"I feel like in a lot of ways, the parents now have common ground with their kids and that they can talk to their kids about ideas of sexuality and individuality," Baldwin says. "It was a much more difficult conversation before. So I find that it's becoming this multigenerational tool in relating to other people."
The show has touched so many people in countless ways. Some listeners with anxiety or insomnia listen to Night Vale before bed to relax. Once, a listener who just returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan told Baldwin that Night Vale reminded his unit of home and what they were fighting for. Another listener told Cranor that the podcast helped her connect with her son who has Asperger's syndrome.
But most of all, Night Vale is your town: As a listener, you create the Night Vale you want to see in your head, and no matter who you are, where you come from, or who you love, you are a member of the community. As Night Vale becomes more popular and keeps spreading across the Web, this message will reach even more people.
"[That] is exactly what story telling is and has been since Homer and Shakespeare," Baldwin says. "It's a way to go and interact with other people who you maybe wouldn't get a chance to interact with and realize we have more in common than we have differences."