Tuesday night, I sat in a packed auditorium while the Secret Police tried to determine the identity of a murderer through an evening of Mystery Dinner Theatre. At first, it was a total mystery, and the killer ran rampant – even killing other guests at the Dinner! But soon I developed a tentative alliance with another and, working together, we were able to hunt down and expose the killer, saving the life of the town’s radio broadcaster in the process! I visited Night Vale.
Not literally, of course. Literally I was at a Welcome to Night Vale Live Show, one audience-member among hundreds crammed into the Sheldon Concert Hall in downtown St. Louis. The Sheldon is a magnificent hall – dark wood, inviting stage, and dark purple seats – built originally for the Ethical Society of St. Louis, the Humanist community I now work for (we moved 50 years ago to a new location).
For the uninitiated:
WELCOME TO NIGHT VALE is a twice-monthly podcast in the style of community updates for the small desert town of Night Vale, featuring local weather, news, announcements from the Sheriff’s Secret Police, mysterious lights in the night sky, dark hooded figures with unknowable powers, and cultural events.
It combines horror with humor, the mundane with the supernatural, the everyday with the profound – all with a heavy dash of the absurd. In a single episode you might hear of strange, shadowy figures stalking the town, alongside an update on the progress of the high school football team (complete with two-headed quarterback, of course), all tied up with a strangely moving rumination on the meaning – or meaninglessness – of life.
It’s heady stuff.
Yet as I sat looking out over the audience of high school kids and their parents, college kids, and older folk – all in rapt attention throughout the evening – I thought “Wouldn’t it be cool if all these people were members of my Humanist community!” Perhaps it was the location – it was sweet to see a former Ethical Society filled to the gills with people – or perhaps the strangely Humanist note on which the show ended, but I felt there was definitely something I could learn from the show which would benefit my community. So, here are five things Humanists can learn from Welcome to Night Vale!
Make It Weird
Welcome to Night Vale is weird – really weird. The show is full of “random” asides, quirky running gags, and strange happenings. While we sometimes think that “weirdness” will be off-putting, and drive people away, Welcome to Night Vale suggests that weird is intriguing and engaging, and that if we can make the experience our Humanist community similarly weird, we might engage people more. Think about developing a vocabulary which fits your community, instead of making everything so clear and unambiguous that it becomes boring. If you have oddities as a group, consider embracing rather than trying to hide them. Weird can work!
Tell A Modular Story
While each episode of Welcome to Night Vale can be enjoyed alone (there is not a single storyline necessitating that you listen to every single episode to “keep up”), there are frequent references to recurring characters and events in previous episodes. This approach to storytelling – which we might call “modular”, since the pieces can function solo but connect together in interesting ways – is perfect for community groups which meet regularly. Every meeting should be self-contained and sufficient in itself, so that a first-time visitor can have a fulfilling experience without any familiarity with the history of the community. At the same time, connections should be drawn to other meetings – topics you addressed, speakers you had, big events in the community – to give a sense of continuity and development.
Don’t Avoid Big Questions
Welcome to Night Vale is surprisingly profound. Frequently the show tackles deep existential themes like meaninglessness, loss, love, and spirituality, and even though it approaches these topics in a whimsical way, it often strikes a chord. People wear t-shirts with slogans from the show not just because they are funny (I think), but because they find something genuinely meaningful in them. This speaks to the need people have to grapple with the great existential questions of life – ones which Humanist groups sometimes avoid for fear of getting too “religious” or “spiritual”. But if we don’t talk about these big questions, we leave that space occupied only by religions! So get big!
Help People Make Connections
Throughout the Live Show, the Welcome to Night Vale performers encouraged audience members to connect with each other. We were told to make eye contact with another person, and as the show progressed we were led through a narrative during which we pointed, raised our fists, glared, squinted, and smiled at our partner. It was as simple, silly, yet surprisingly powerful way to build connections among people who had never met before – and community groups can use it too! During your meetings, find ways to actively encourage visitors to take a moment to recognize that they are sharing the space with other people, and encourage them to make connections. In my talks I sometimes like to ask people to look around at each other, even ask each other a question. This can be a simply way to help build community.
Believe In Your Message
I can only imagine what the pitch for Welcome to Night Vale must have sounded like: “We want to do a radio show for a small desert town, except that the town doesn’t exist, and is filled with hooded figures, and tons of random supernatural events happen, but also it is existential and profound. Oh, and it ends with the weather forecast which is actually a band playing music.” Seriously strange! But the creators obviously believed in what they had to offer and stuck with it, and now the podcast is an enormous success. In my experience, Humanist groups often are a bit nervous about their message, scared of promoting Humanism in case it seems like they are “proselytizing”. But people respond to confidence – even if the message is unusual to them – and Humanist groups should believe in our message more. If we do that, perhaps we’ll have similar success…