Sometimes you arrive to a party early, sheepishly waiting in your car until you think an acceptable amount of time has passed for you walk up to the front door and ring the bell. Sometimes you arrive right on time, entering your host’s home in a flurry of other guests. And sometimes you’re late after hitting unexpected traffic and getting lost despite your GPS…you end up having to park several houses away because the street is already filled with the cars of the more timely guests. You’re tardy to the party.
If you’ve read any of my other articles, you know I’m a huge horror fan. Almost everything I’ve written about thus far has involved that particular genre. So it might surprise you to discover that I’m a much more than a one-dimensional mistress of the macabre. I possess a surprisingly diverse array of interests that run the gamut from true crime to comics, science fiction to Shakespeare, documentaries to ancient myths. I’m a science major who minored in English literature, a relatively unheard of combination of subjects, and would like to think that I’m equal parts cool, logical intellectual and emotional, imaginative dreamer.
As you might expect, horror skews towards my emotional/imaginative side, though I’m never able to completely shake my logical side, constantly assessing whatever situation the characters find themselves in and trying to figure out how I’d escape similar circumstances no matter how unlikely they may be. Horror is fun—it causes your body to release adrenaline and dopamine, giving you a “rush”—and a number of articles have stated that watching horror movies can be good for your health (there are a plethora of such articles, but I wanted to stick with relatively reputable sources, so here’s one posted on CNN’s website and another one on Time’s website).
But my intellectual side can have fun too, and This Podcast Will Kill You is a great example of how a show that teaches its audience about science, specifically infectious diseases, can be both genuinely educational and wildly entertaining. Released in late October 2017, the first season is comprised of 12 official episodes, plus a bonus episode and a crossover with another podcast. Hosted by a pair of graduate students studying disease ecology, coincidentally both named Erin (Erin Welsh and Erin Allmann Updyke), the podcast has recently become a part of the newly established Exactly Right Podcast Network, founded by Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark, the murderinos behind the podcast My Favorite Murder. In fact, I only happened upon This Podcast Will Kill You because it was included in a preview of all the podcasts that are part of the fledgling network via a special My Favorite Murder minisode released at the end of this past November.
That makes me a little over a year late to this particular party.
Episodes of This Podcast Will Kill You generally follow the same format, aside from the first few episodes which are composed of the same elements presented in a slightly different order. They usually begin with a first-hand account of the disease they’ll be focusing on for the next hour or so. Sometimes these accounts are taken from books or journals of people directly affected by the disease, read by one of the Erins; in such cases, a written source is necessary because of the time frame in which the action takes place—the hosts can’t exactly contact someone who had the 1918 flu or the plague. That said, Erin and Erin make a point of trying to find individuals that can describe their experiences to the audience directly whenever possible. As you might expect, the narratives delivered by a person who actually lived through it are always more vivid and moving than something read from a text, though all of stories give the listener a remarkably intimate look at the disease that you wouldn’t be able to get anywhere else.
The somber mood is then broken with “quarantini” time. A clever combination of the words “quarantine” and “martini,” a “quarantini” is a disease-based cocktail that matches each episode’s topic. Some are simply popular drinks that have been renamed, some are slight twists on existing drinks, and others have been concocted by our hosts, who are committed to imbibing each and every creation regardless of their own personal tastes. I admire their creativity and dedication to pairing each illness with the perfect beverage. Unfortunately, I’m not a big drinker, or at least, not a big enough drinker that I have a wide array of various types of alcohol lying around the house just waiting to be turned into the ultimate cocktail, so I haven’t had a chance to sample any of them. However, I can find solace in the fact that the recipes for all of the “quarantinis” can be found on their website and social media pages, should I ever be inspired to try making a few.
Once the drinks have been poured, the episode gets down to business and the serious influx of information about the disease du jour begins as the Erins take turns teaching us all about the illness. First, the biology of the bacteria, virus, fungi, protist, or parasite that causes the ailment in question is described, as well as the symptoms that result from infection and how the body tries to fight it. Next, the history of the disease is explored, from the first evidence of its existence to modern times. We learn about past treatments, how the infected were viewed by the healthy (i.e. is there a stigma attached to the disease), how the disease affected society as a whole, and are occasionally regaled with tales of scientists fighting with each other over anything and everything, from what exactly causes a particular illness to who discovered what when (for purposes of bragging rights, monetary compensation, and/or winning prestigious awards). Things begin to wrap up with the state of the disease today, which includes current treatments, recent statistics (like how many people are reported to have contracted it in a particular year, the locations of those infections, and how many deaths were caused by it), and occasionally a brief discussion of “how scared should you be” of it.
Episodes end with the citing of some of the hosts’ sources, a vital part of all fact-based presentations. I say “some” of their sources because in certain cases they’ve mined their information from so many different places that it would be too time consuming to list them all during an episode. Both Erins mention their primary sources, predominantly books and scientific articles, sharing a little bit of detail about each one in case anyone is interested in learning more. A complete list of sources can be found for each episode via the appropriate link on their website, and they’ve also compiled a list of both fictional and non-fictional books dealing with the diseases they’ve discussed on Goodreads.
But that’s not all—buried within every episode are hidden gems, fascinating facts…answers to questions you never thought to ask. Here are just a few examples:
- What’s the connection between leprosy and armadillos?
- Which disease inspired the law that made spitting in public illegal?
- Why is Franklin Delano Roosevelt on American dimes?
- Where did the term “patient zero” come from?
If your interest has been piqued but you’re reluctant to listen because you don’t have a strong background in epidemiology (or general biology, for that matter), allow me to ease your mind. Erin and Erin didn’t start this podcast to cater to people in their field, they made it to share their passion with people from all walks of life. To ensure everyone can understand what they’re talking about, the ladies review key vocabulary as it comes up. What does virulence refer to? What’s the difference between an epidemic and a pandemic? Never fear, the Erins are here to explain it to you! And, refreshingly, they’re able to do so quickly and concisely without a hint of condescension.
As a proud science nerd, I’ll admit that I get really excited about things other people find excessively boring (like filling in Punnett squares, or livestreaming NASA downloading the initial blurry images of an asteroid). Of course, other people’s disinterest never prevents me from excitedly sharing whatever new facts I’ve recently stumbled across, but I’m always very aware that my audience couldn’t care less. With that in mind, let me assure you that This Podcast Will Kill You is not just for the scientifically inclined. It’s the perfect blend of interesting tidbits and practical information, which not only allows listeners to gain a better understanding of a disease itself, it helps them perceive the bigger picture—some diseases have played enormous roles in our general history, including the fall of the Roman Empire and the earliest known incidence of humans affecting global climate!
There will always be pathogenic bacteria, viruses, and other microscopic menaces loitering on surfaces, lurking in surrounding animals and people, and wafting through the air. Because all living things are affected by these creatures (even bacteria themselves can’t escape infection from viruses called bacteriophages), This Podcast Will Kill You is particularly important—education is the first line of defense against something that can harm you. Knowing how to prevent infections in general is a key aspect of maintaining your health, and being able to recognize the early signs of a disease can result in quicker diagnosis and recovery. This podcast won’t actually kill you…but not listening to it just might.
For more information on This Podcast Can Kill You, check out their website, where you can learn more about the Erins, decide which platform you’d like to use to listen to it, follow them on social media, and find detailed information about individual episodes (including quarantini recipes, a brief summary, and a complete list of sources).