Monsters in the dark

Podcast explores humanity’s fear of the unknown

Carta Marina by Olaud Magnus, circa 1539
David Accomazzo | Boulder Weekly

In the summer of 2010, Jeff Emtman, then a student at Fairhaven College, was suffering a sleepless night when he had an epiphany.

“[It was one of those] early morning insomniac revelations that you have sometimes, and I woke up and I realized that most of the decisions I make in my life are in some way stemming from fear,” Emtman says. “The path I’ve chosen in my life is to avoid uncomfortable situations, to avoid discomfort and rejection and to avoid potential heartbreak. I’ve just set up my life based around these fears.”

He decided to start facing his fears head-on. Having a self-described “unhealthy” fear of people he didn’t know, he set out on a 51-day journey during which he hitchhiked into Middle America and back, befriending total strangers and sleeping in parks and truck stops. After the trip, he moved to Boulder to pursue a radio story about a friend of his who was trying to become a boxer, but it fell through, leaving him jobless and in need of a new project. Still fascinated with those moments when humans confront the unknown, he birthed a podcast called “Here Be Monsters,” which he describes as “about monsters, not just the kind you find in picture books, but the kind that lurk in the uncharted corners of your mind.”

The first episode dissects an experience with “prisoner’s cinema” — hallucinations that naturally occur in absolute darkness — Emtman had while playing hide and seek in an underground bomb shelter. The second examines how pre-Columbus mapmakers illustrated the unknown. The latter inspired the name of the podcast; medieval cartographers would draw sea serpents in water and put warnings such as “here are dragons” on uncharted or exotic territories. He won a SoundCloud Community Fellowship to support his work, netting him up to $5,000 (UPDATE:) $3,500 in financial assistance, and he is currently wrestling with new ways to generate income, including applying for grants or begging listeners for donations, anticipating the day the money runs out.

Emtman’s style stems in part from his experience studying journalism in college. The content in traditional media such as newspapers bored him, and faced with uncertain job prospects, he decided to throw caution to the wind and make content that he would be interested in consuming.

“When I was in my journalism classes … there was this subtle fear that seemed to be underlain in every professor’s tone, since a lot of professors also worked at newspapers. And I could just feel them each year I went to college get more and more stressed out about their job security,” Emtman says. “And I was like, ‘Well, I think I can see the problem here. I don’t buy newspapers because I think they’re boring.’ … I would buy newspapers if they interested me. So I was like, why don’t I make media that I would want to be the consumer of.”

The podcast certainly doesn’t follow radio journalistic conventions regarding storytelling, that’s for sure. It’s like the public radio show Radiolab at its most esoteric. Emtman calls friends and puts the conversation into the podcast, simulates himself Googling a centuries-old book, and interviews an expert in maps, all placed over a rich sonic background of guitar, low droning tones, minimalist music and atmospheric ambiance. There’s little that’s traditional about the podcast, and that stems from his dislike of traditional journalism.

“It was so interesting how much I love journalism and how much I didn’t love what they were teaching us to do,” Emtman says of his journalism education. “Sometimes I debate whether or not I consider myself a journalist or not. … My goal is to allow people to understand different perspectives and find the similarities and differences in their own opinions for themselves.”

Visit to listen to “Here Be Monsters.”