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In the first episode of What Happened in Skinner, journalist Marlowe Verne plays audio from a disturbing viral video: During a YouTube livestream, in which hosts discuss eerie found footage from 1929 on the island of Skinner, Oregon, we hear the sound of a violent home invasion. Over the course of 12 episodes, Verne traces this event to a murderous cult in Skinner.
A quick Google search will tell you there is no Skinner, Oregon. On the face of it, What Happened in Skinner — nominated for best indie podcast, a new Ambies category — is similar to the many fictional podcast investigations that emerged in the wake of Serial. But its creators had grander ambitions: The show is a particularly resourceful and elaborate exercise in world-building.
Showrunners Aaron Blanton and Katrina Braun describe their project as an ARG, or “alternate reality game,” a multiplatform narrative form that leaves bread crumbs for internet sleuths to find. ARGs occasionally have served as viral marketing campaigns for big-budget releases, such as J.J. Abrams’ Cloverfield, which Blanton cites as an inspiration. In addition to the podcast, Blanton and Braun created (fake) YouTube videos; (fake) websites, including a couple on the dark web; and forums on Reddit and Discord in which fans — or, as Blanton calls them, “players” — could interact with the character of Verne. They also left physical clues in cities around the world and mailed select listeners postcards from the Oregon coast, signed by Verne.
In all, the podcast cost less than $10,000, the creators say. Despite the shoestring budget, the world they created took on a life of its own: In October, fans on Discord held a heartfelt memorial for a minor but beloved character that had been casually killed off.
This story first appeared in the March 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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