Alli Smalley, Carla García, Danilo Battistini, Diane Casanova, Eric Nelsen, Fairies, Fairy, Fool and Scholar Production, Hem Cleveland, Horror, K. A. Statz, Peter Lewis, Podcast Review, Podcasting, Robert Kirk (folklorist), Sophie Yang, The Secret Commonwealth of Elves Fauns and Fairies, The White Vault, Travis Vengroff
[The following contains spoilers.]
Are the beings that inhabit the white vault – and that terrorise the few humans who ever happen upon them – fairies? I feel like I’m all written out when it comes to assessing the various choices that have been made by this innovative horror podcast, but I’m still returning to pay it a third visit. This time, I will entertain the theory that The White Vault might be, in its heart of hearts, a fairy story.
Fairies seldom frequent modern horror and, when they do so, they tend to be only backhanded fairies. By this, I mean that a horror narrative will cite phenomena that it implies would have been once regarded or categorised as fairies, within traditional belief systems. The narrative will duly submit itself as a more accurate or realistic updating of the available information. This is a repercussion that runs through H.P. Lovecraft’s mythos; it is also particularly a feature of Guillermo del Toro’s movie Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), in which fairies are made both immediately recognisable and thrillingly unfamiliar.
The beings in K. A. Statz’s The White Vault are not merely predatory supernatural creatures. They have a society or even a civilisation of their own that they are at pains to keep hidden from most humans. This is the first way in which they resemble fairies.
The fairies are traditionally imagined as a departed civilisation – one that was once in charge but that, with the arrival of Christianity, and then modernity, has been forced to cede a lot of ground. As the Reverend Robert Kirk, a seventeenth-century expert on fairies, had chronicled, “when ƒeverall Countreys were unhabitated by ws, theƒe had their eaƒy Tillage above Ground, as we now.” Although Kirk’s Secret Commonwealth (1692) had agonised over the precise existential status of the fairies, some of his academic sources had insisted that they are “demoted” angels, who are neither welcome in heaven nor officially on hell’s payroll. Their unpopularity is an enduring problem for them. This is represented in the circumstances of J.M. Barrie’s character Tinker Bell, whose flagging mojo is restored only whenever children boisterously proclaim their belief in her.
During the first two seasons of The White Vault, we might have attributed the show’s supernatural beings to folklore that was native to its setting of Svalbard. The third season confirms that these beings are as international or as cross-cultural as the fairies once were. When they pop up again in Patagonia, whose mountains are conveyed through some suitably stirring, Thronesish choral music, they are just at home here. Apparent evidence of their doings also arrives from China’s Heilongjian province.
In common with Kirk’s fairies, the beings in the white vault dwell in “Cavities and Cells” underground or in mountains. Statz’s innovation is to throw blizzard conditions into this arrangement. There are of course existing fairies or phased-out pagan gods that are in their element in the ice. These inevitably populate the folklore of countries where ice abounds, such as Norway. The beings in the white vault might comport themselves just as well in jungles and deserts, but from where this podcast has apprehended them they look firmly like a civilisation in the deep freeze. The ice is not so much to protect them from the humans; it is perhaps rather that they have strategically withdrawn from the world and that ice is the best means of ensuring that they are not disturbed.
The second way in which the beings in the white vault resemble fairies is in their usage of changelings. Kirk had picked the fairies up on this ruse:
Some Men of that exalted Sight (whither by Art or Nature) have told me they have ƒeen at theƒe Meittings a Doubleman, or the Shape of ƒome Man in two places; that is, a ƒuperterranean and a ƒubterranean Inhabitant, perfectly reƒembling one another in all Points, whom he notwithƒtanding could eaƒily diƒtinguiƒh one from another.
The eeriest factor in the third season of The White Vault is the return of Graham Casner (Peter Lewis), a lone survivor from the first two seasons. Season three is actually personally addressed to him and we are meant to be listening in on it over his shoulder. As with love in James Murphy’s lyric, Casner comes back but he is never the same. He has the same voice but it is very subtly different or strangely weighted. His improbable survival story always sounds like an alibi. Clearly, until he reveals whatever surprise he has been laden with, he will remain a figure of enormous discomfort for us. We will never want to be left alone with him. We will always think that he is really one of them.
We had learned in season two that the beings in the white vault can issue copies of human beings. This theme of copying comes to be oddly reflected in the podcast’s format, which sometimes requires its non-English-speaking characters to impossibly read out new English translations of recordings that they had made prior to their deaths. I had previously wondered whether this was “simply an unavoidable glitch in the podcast’s design.” Now it is – or it has become – a potent source of confusion and unease, especially about the motivations of the Documentarian (Hem Cleveland) who is curating the podcast. Does her own fluency with changelings point to some connection with the beings in the white vault and some inappropriate pooling of their modus operandi?
Lucas Criado (Danilo Battistini) is season three’s equivalent of Casner. He is the archaeological team’s guide at Base Camp Piedra but, unlike with Casner, he is compromised from the outset. Once he has delivered up the team to the beings in the white vault he is no longer an important piece in the game. He becomes too overwhelmed to be effective and he thereafter serves to just demoralise his fellow expedition members. During his meltdown, he can be heard gibbering, “When you feed it, it claims you.” He is not so much a functioning copy as a corrupted and expended original.
At Base Camp Piedra, there is a touch of fairy dust when the goofy research-assistant Simon Hall (Eric Nelsen) is menaced by a swarm of unidentified insects. These could be horseflies or vulture bees, but we are probably picturing a horde of irascible tinkerbells, pouring out and pummelling him with their tiny fists. The archaeologists quickly fall prey to an easy irony. They are constantly analysing irrelevant data whilst they remain oblivious to the great fact of the looming peril that they are in. This team are on the threshold of a supernatural world but they are also drifting on its periphery. It is uncertain whether the beings in the white vault are merely toying with them or whether there are any more significant plans afoot.
The beings in the white vault are possibly so antagonised by modern humans because of the latter’s compulsive recording and filming. To us, this is simply the standard behaviour of the twenty-first century, but to them it might represent an encroachment upon their own jealously-guarded magical powers. For humans to be able to replicate themselves in photos and videos is a relatively new historical development. Just imagine how unsettling the idea of encountering a doppelganger would have appeared to earlier generations. Yet if you can produce endless instant images of yourself at the push of a button, you will be easy in the company of yet another of these high-definition photorealist changelings.