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Podcasts Servant of Pod with Nick Quah
Halloween Special

What makes a story…scary? You can cut this question a few different ways: through story structure, through sound design, through narrative mechanisms. In this week’s episode, Nick talks to Jeffrey Cranor, the co-creator of Welcome to Night Vale and co-writer of Within the Wires, about the ins and outs of building a scary, spooky, or creepy podcast experience. The episode also features notes from some great spooky pod creators — Unwell, Mabel, Here Be Monsters, Archive 81 — talking about the various ways they think about the nature of scary.

Random Number Generator Horror Podcast No. 9

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Servant of Pod Halloween Special Episode 22

Thu, 12/3 7:27PM • 29:49

SUMMARY KEYWORDS

sound, horror, podcast, hear, characters, scary, spooky, night vale, laughter, monsters, faceless old woman, people, ghost, creepy, watch, movie, run, mabel, horror films, favorite

SPEAKERS

Mabel Martin, Jeffrey Nils Gardner, Rudy (Joshua K. Harris), Gregory (Robert Blythe), Jeffrey Cranor, Becca De La Rosa, Dan Powell, Abbie (Kathleen Hoil), Mabel (Mabel Martin), Jeff Emtman, Faceless Old Woman (Mara Wilson), Marc Sollinger, Nick Quah, Lily (Shariba Rivers), Eleanor Hyde

Jeffrey Cranor 00:02

You might have a ghost that is staring at the character, and we talk about the ghost's face, and we talk about the distance and the alienation from the ghost, and maybe we describe the ghost--or the specter--the figure that the protagonist sees. And then the ghost maybe starts screaming, maybe it's just yelling up at the top of their voice. Maybe it's like a banshee. Or maybe they're telling a story in a long-dead language that the character can't understand but gets it. And so you build all of this, and then suddenly you drop it out, because maybe the character blinks and then the ghost is gone, and it's silent.

Nick Quah 00:43

Here's a question I might regret asking. What makes a story scary?

Jeffrey Cranor 00:49

I think it was Stephen King that was like, "Spiders aren't scary. What's scary is seeing a spider, turning your head, turning back and the spider's gone."

Nick Quah 01:02

From LAist Studios, this is Servant of Pod. I'm Nick Quah. This week: Spooky podcasts. Just in time for Halloween. If you're a fan of spooky pods, there's no doubt you've heard this: [Music] That's the theme to Welcome To Night Vale. The tremendously successful show about a desert community where the supernatural runs amok. The show was co-created and is co-written by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor. Jeffrey also co-writes another spooky-ish pod, Within The Wires, and has co-written several best-selling Night Vale books. Now Jeffrey is also making Random Number Generator Horror Podcast No. Nine with the voice of Night Vale, Cecil Baldwin. In it, he and Cecil watch and chat about classic movies like Psycho and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, along with cult favorites like Black Sheep and Dead Alive.

Jeffrey Cranor 02:17

The thing I've been learning about, watching so many horror films this year, and trying to read more horror novels, is that the stuff that's really effective really gets to the heart of our lack of security, and maybe our extreme guilt for how we feel about ourselves. And so, you know, ghosts, and monsters, and evil forces that can kill, or maim, or hold us prisoner--those things often are externalizations of the things that we feel inside. So I think tapping into a universality is really important. And I relate it to humor, in the same way that I think about the way jokes don't age well. And I'm not just talking about, like, culturally insensitive jokes. I mean in the way that certain styles of observational humor kind of run their course after a while. It's just, you know, the notion of making fun of airplane food is just not quite the same now as it used to be, because airplane food is different, and who gets airplane food is different, etc. But, you know, when you watch older horror films, it's really fascinating to see what people were going through, and watching movies from the 1970s, people were really tuning into Satan and stranger danger.

Nick Quah 03:30

Yeah, Satanic panic was a big thing back then.

Jeffrey Cranor 03:32

It's a huge thing. And we created those things as "horror markers" because what we were starting to realize was the the massive amount of abuse of children, or the kidnapping of children, more often than not takes place within families...

Nick Quah 03:48

Yeah.

Jeffrey Cranor 03:49

And within tight communities, and it's easier to imagine that it's just "The Devil." It's just some other entity, like Satan worshippers, that are doing all of this, when in all actuality, it's coming... The call is coming from inside the house. [Laughter]

Nick Quah 04:06

One of the more vivid, striking images that I kind of love in Night Vale is the faceless old woman, and I was curious if you could talk a little bit about the creation of characters, and what it means to you guys.

Jeffrey Cranor 04:17

Yeah, it's so funny. It was such... It was a Twitter joke that Joseph made, way, way back in like 2012 or something, like... I think it just started with, "There's a faceless old woman who secretly lives in your home." And that was the whole tweet. [Laughter]

Nick Quah 04:31

Which is something that the Night Vale Twitter account does all the time. [Laughter]

Jeffrey Cranor 04:33

Yeah. And I just thought that was a really funny tweet, and so I would tweet kind of like, "Well, I'm just gonna progress her character," so I would make little Tweets of like, "The faceless old woman who secretly lives in your home is disappointed by your diary entry. You haven't mentioned her once." [Laughter] Or I don't know, whatever, you just make a joke, or something, and it was usually meant for being funny, off of this kind of loose horror trope. And then we we wrote an episode for it, and we structured the entire episode about the faceless old woman being in your home.

Faceless Old Woman (Mara Wilson) 05:01

I wish you could see me, just cleaning and reorganizing, making sense of the nonsense plants and muscles in your fridge, but you never look. If you would just glance left or right every so often, you’d see me. I’m right next to you, right now. I’m even in the mirrors, but you just stare at yourself, staring only at your overripe potato of a face. I’m there in every mirror, if you could just look for me in the background behind you. Also, what’s your wifi password?

Jeffrey Cranor 05:32

And it was entirely about the fact that you can't really see her. You know she's there, but she's constantly doing things, affecting your life. You know, kind of being a poltergeist, almost like being mean, or doing stuff that's almost prankish to you, and putting the listener into that almost... It was almost a second-person storytelling sort of mode. And so I think that, to me, was what got me really into her as a character, because it's so hard to imagine what something would look like, facelessly, and I think the unseen face is really, really scary, because you can't get a grasp on the being's humanity.

Nick Quah 06:15

That's kind of one of my favorite distinctions between a visual format and something that's not visual. Like, if it's text, or if it's audio, that you're able to lean into the undescribables. I think it's probably my favorite of all of the horror ideas of like, you see something, you cannot really mentally process it, and therefore you are ruined. Which is a little bit of what The Ring does, I think.

Jeffrey Cranor 06:38

I love writing Night Vale--and some of the horror elements of Within The Wires, too--in podcast form, because the podcast doesn't let you see anything, so you can only really give the listener little bits and pieces, and make their brains do all the extra work. And that's what's scary--when you turn around and the spider has gone from the ceiling directly above your bed, you're like, "Oh, crap, where did the spider go?" And then your mind is racing. "Is it in my... Is it in the bed now? Is it on me? Is it in my shoe?" And I think with podcasts, you can really do that super well.

Nick Quah 07:14

What is your favorite spooky podcast?

Jeffrey Cranor 07:17

In terms of spooky, I go back over and over to the first season of The Black Tapes, and Tanis, to some extent. But what The Black Tapes was doing, for me, is right up my alley. There's something about the structure of The Black Tapes that allowed these actors to play characters, ostensibly in our real world, describing things with a level of calm that wasn't like a narrator of a story, or that didn't feel like horror; it felt like, "This is normal life, and this is happening, and we are doing our jobs as investigators." So when we start describing the upside-down face, that's really unnerving. Or we hear the sound of the unsound. We have these characters have their natural worries about what this means for them as actual people, but they're also investigating it as journalists and scientists. And I find that really interesting, as people are carrying into the world as intrepid saviors, right? Like, if I watch a war movie, I expect all of the military men in the war movie to be very good at their jobs, essentially, because then it puts it on me to feel like, "Holy crap, I would never be able to do this, this is terrifying, I'm so scared for him." And I think that that's the essence that I've always gotten from from Black Tapes. I learned a lot about how you can structure interesting horror in a podcast from them, even though we both are using... Both Night Vale and Black Tapes are using "Here's public radio telling creepy stories."

Nick Quah 08:54

Yeah.

Jeffrey Cranor 08:54

But theirs is different, right? It's not Night Vale. It's doing something structurally very different.

Nick Quah 09:00

What is your favorite horror movie?

Jeffrey Cranor 09:05

Man, I would say The Host, because it might be one that was instantly entering my Top 10, but I did find in watching The Host it didn't feel quite like a horror movie. It's a monster movie. But it's...

Nick Quah 09:16

Yeah.

Jeffrey Cranor 09:17

It's so much more things than that. I would also put Fire Walk With Me up there, just because... Probably it's a feeling of nostalgia, of my first moment of really seeing David Lynch. I'd never seen the TV show when I watched the movie. So I think I was triply horrified by that film. But in terms of like, actual "horror" horror... Man. That's so tough to say. I'm gonna... I might just go with Halloween. It's so beautifully structured. It has a ton of problems, and from 2020 eyes it just doesn't feel that scary. There's something fun about watching people make terrible decisions. And this movie is filled with--not quite Texas Chainsaw Massacre-level--but it is filled with teenagers who don't have any clue what to do correctly.

Nick Quah 10:03

Yeah.

Jeffrey Cranor 10:03

And... But it's so inventively shot, and every time I watch John Carpenter, I realize that I'm watching a truly independent artist, even though he has studio funding and he gets funding from people. But there's a crazy, independent spirit to everything he does. I always find something weirdly experimental in his films. And the opening scene of Halloween, which is done entirely from first-person point-of-view camera of a killer, is one of... Yeah, it's just one of the most compelling bits of footage I've ever watched in a horror film.

Nick Quah 10:40

What is the most scared you ever been in your life?

Jeffrey Cranor 10:43

Like, just in real life?

Nick Quah 10:44

Yeah.

Jeffrey Cranor 10:46

Wow. So, when I lived in Queens, back in 2007 or so, my wife and I lived in a very tiny little apartment in Queens, and on the second floor. We had just been having a conversation earlier in the evening about just the idea of home invaders, and how scary that is. And it was that night, at like three something in the morning, that Jillian woke me up to say, "There's somebody at the door." And our bed was right next to the bedroom door, which is right across from the front door. And I was like, "I don't hear it." And then suddenly, I heard scratching, and it was like clicking; it sounded like somebody trying to pick our lock.

Nick Quah 11:29

Oh, man.

Jeffrey Cranor 11:30

I got so petrified, and when I looked out the peephole, there was nobody there and I could see the doorknob turning.

Nick Quah 11:38

Oh, my God. [Laughter]

Jeffrey Cranor 11:39

And I was like... I was about to lose my mind. I was so scared, and I couldn't move because I'm like, "I don't want to make a noise." And so... And then the person started pounding on the door. And then when I looked back out, their face was right up against the peephole.

Nick Quah 11:57

Oh, my God.

Jeffrey Cranor 11:58

And I like... I wanted to scream and I couldn't; even if I tried, I don't know if I could have. And I just kind of like, stood there, and Jillian was like, "What? Who is it? What is happening?" And it's like, mouthing, "I don't know." And then I heard yelling from the hallway, and then I got more scared. And then when I looked out, I just kind of kept an eye, and then I saw the guy back away. And I saw him looking up the stairs in the hallway, and I realized the yelling was coming from our upstairs neighbor, who was telling his drunk friend, "I'm on the third floor, *******!” [Laughter]

Nick Quah 12:33

Oh, man!

Jeffrey Cranor 12:34

And I was like, "Oh, my God." That is that close relationship between you and horror right there. [Laughter] "Thank God."

Nick Quah 12:39

Oh, man. Jeffrey, thank you so much for taking time to talk to me.

Jeffrey Cranor 12:43

Oh, thank you, Nick. This was great.

Nick Quah 12:51

After the break: we asked some podcast creators to talk about how they make their shows sound extra spooky. I got to say, the universe has already given us enough tricks this year. So this week, how about some podcast treats? Hey, how's that for some Halloween-themed narration? We reached out to a couple of podcast makers and ask them to talk us through some of the process involved in giving the show that spooky flavor. We'll start off with Jeffrey Nils Gardner and Eleanor Hyde, executive producers of Unwell: A Midwestern Gothic Mystery.

Jeffrey Nils Gardner 13:40

So, Unwell: A Midwestern Gothic Mystery is the story of a young woman, Lily Harper, who moves to Mt. Absalom, a small town in rural Ohio, to take care of her ailing mother Dot. She moves into the town's boarding house, which is run by her mother, and there she finds ghosts, conspiracies, and a new family in the house, and the town's strange assortment of residents.

Eleanor Hyde 14:08

How do you make a scary or eerie moment in a podcast? So much of telling any story is about telling the audience what to pay attention to and what not to pay attention to. And in a gothic story like ours, what is scary, or eerie, or weird is often a thing that is just at the edge of attention. So it's sort of like seeing something moving in the corner of your vision, and when you turn there's nothing there. Or you hear a noise, but you can't place what it is or what it's doing there, but it's clear that it's important.

Jeffrey Nils Gardner 14:48

In Season One, Episode Six, our characters are exploring the basement of the boarding house during a really bad storm. We're able to use the impermanence of audio to create a really frightening space, letting the dimensions and distances in the room slowly change, and letting those reverbs give your brain different information than the characters are delivering through their dialogue, or through the information you took in earlier in the scene. So it's this strange thing where you suddenly can't trust the responses that your ears are giving you.

Rudy (Joshua K. Harris) 15:38

Lily?

Abbie (Kathleen Hoil) 15:39

Lily!

Lily (Shariba Rivers) 15:40

[From very far away] Guys!

Abbie (Kathleen Hoil) 15:40

Where’d she--?

Rudy (Joshua K. Harris) 15:42

Shh. Listen.

Lily (Shariba Rivers) 15:43

[From very far away] Guys, where are you?

Rudy (Joshua K. Harris) 15:45

Over here! [To Abbie] We're getting further away.

Abbie (Kathleen Hoil) 15:47

That makes no sense. We've been heading towards her voice.

Rudy (Joshua K. Harris) 15:50

You know what else doesn’t make sense, is to keep doing the one thing that we’ve proven doesn’t work. Science, right? You don’t keep pushing the same defunct hypothesis.

Abbie (Kathleen Hoil) 15:59

Alright, fine. We head in the opposite direction. For thirty seconds. And if that doesn’t work, we try something else. [Footsteps resume] Lily? Twenty-nine, twenty-eight...

Lily (Shariba Rivers) 16:10

[From slightly less far away] Can you hear me?

Rudy (Joshua K. Harris) 16:11

Yeah! [To Abbie] Does she sound closer?

Abbie (Kathleen Hoil) 16:13

We were facing her, I know we were facing her.

Rudy (Joshua K. Harris) 16:16

Who cares? It’s working. Lily!

Jeffrey Nils Gardner 16:18

This was inspired by a number of things. I mean, obviously, it owes a great deal of DNA to The House of Leaves, an incredible novel that does the same thing, kind of, with the written word. You know, there's also an interesting way in which it was, in some ways, inspired by some time I spent in an anechoic chamber at Northwestern University. An anechoic chamber is a room that is isolated and insulated, in this case by roughly 10 feet of acoustic foam on every side, in a floating room that had been decoupled to prevent external noise and reverberations from the elevators in the building, and things like that. A really strange thing about being in a room like that, with absolutely no echoes, is that there is so much spatial awareness that is lost, I found myself unable to sometimes tell where someone was speaking from if I wasn't looking right at them because I wasn't able to get all of the extra information that our brains get from sound bouncing off the walls. And so we tried to play with a kind of similar thing with that. By changing the aural dimensions of the room, we could really destabilize the listener and create a kind of cool effect.

Becca De La Rosa 17:54

I'm Becca De La Rosa.

Mabel Martin 17:56

I am Mabel Martin.

Becca De La Rosa 17:58

And together we run the horror, speculative, surreal podcast Mabel. We describe our show as a podcast about ghosts, family secrets, strange houses and missed connections. We also like to say that it's about the overthrowing of every oppressive hierarchy.

Mabel Martin 18:16

Yeah, Mabel is a women's horror story before anything else, and I think that's because women in particular have a very innate understanding of horror, as beings whose bodies in some way are always being culturally and intellectually dissected and discussed, and in some way made to be separate from ourselves. So I think for me, what I set out to do was try and create a context in which I could articulate that. I think it's going pretty well so far.

Becca De La Rosa 18:56

I think so too. [Laughter]

Mabel Martin 18:58

We both really like to use a lot of deconstructed sounds, so you'll notice a lot of glitching in the soundscape. There's a lot of things just made slightly wrong. There's a lot of sound effects that have been slightly had their pitch altered. And things that sound wrong in a way that you can't really define, I think, is the epitome of a sense of dread that you can't really escape from. To me, the idea of an inescapable house has always been very interesting. And probably, in the mind of the cultural consciousness, I think one of the stickiest points of horror.

Mabel (Mabel Martin) 19:46

The house would fold itself up and let me carry it in my pocket if I asked that of it. All I ever need do is call. But it might not let me do the opposite. It might not give me the chance to keep my word. I... I don’t... Anna... [Static growing louder] Anna... I... I don’t think I’ve left the house after all, Anna. I think I’m still inside it... [Phone message beep]

Becca De La Rosa 20:31

I think that bit works, especially because we had established the house as its own being, its own entity, its own perspective, and so there, again, is an inexplicability of, "What does this fundamentally non-human, but built by human hands, thing want? What does it want of me? What does it think? Where does it eat? Where does it sleep?”

Mabel Martin 20:54

What makes something scary? I think, for myself, what makes something scary is--how do I say this? Something, fundamentally, growing where it shouldn't, or something fundamentally being where it shouldn't, or something thinking where it shouldn't, or something eating where it shouldn't. So a sense of "out-of-place-ness," I think I would distill that as. That's what makes something scary, which I guess you would also say that is back to the inexplicable. And I think ever since we crawled out of our caves, you know, as people, we've all been afraid of the dark.

Jeff Emtman 21:47

I'm Jeff Emtman. I am the host of an independent podcast called Here Be Monsters. It's kind of based on this theory that I've had, and I continue to pursue. And the theory is that most things that we're afraid of come from things we don't understand. Most things that we're afraid of come from the unknown, right? And the metaphor that I use is it's kind of like, you know how, like, on those old nautical maps, they would have these monsters off in the ocean, these sea monsters that would devour your ship. And they'd be they'd be drawn in there, around the areas that we didn't fully understand of how the ocean worked. You know, it probably comes from this like, place of like, "Where'd Tim go?" And it's like, "Oh, Tim went out on a ship a couple months ago and never came back." It's like, "Oh, I wonder what happened." And it's like, "Oh, I don't know, maybe a squid got him, or maybe a sea monster..." The Kraken got Tim. And it's like, well, I mean, in reality, probably shouldn't have built his boat out of toothpicks, or bread, or whatever he did. But instead, sometimes it's easier to imagine that there's evil out there, lurking, that devoured your friend. Because I think that my eeriness sensor is a little bit miscalibrated, I actually don't find that many sounds eerie--I just find them interesting, more often than not. In Here Be Monsters, one sound that I often like to mix in, whenever I get the opportunity to, is the sound of bird calls, right? And so it's like, yeah, that might be songbirds at times, but a lot of my identity, as a young adult, was formed around being in spaces where there were seabirds present. [Sounds of waves and seabirds] A couple of times when I've put sounds like that into episodes, I've gotten feedback from listeners, that this is a weird sound to be into. Because some people, it turns out, find those sounds to be really creepy. And I was wondering, so there must have been some thing that I missed, some memo that I missed as to why this sound that I love is hated by some people, right? And I remembered, oh, there's that movie Hitchcock's The Birds, which is all about being terrorized by birds. And I know that that like movie affects some people. I think my mom saw it, and she's kind of afraid of crows, you know? And it made me wonder, which came first? Did the fear come first? Or did The Birds come first and then stoke the fear? Which then got people to watch the movie, which then got people afraid of birds, which got people so-and-so... It's like which is first? The fear of The Birds, or the crow, or the egg, you know? The chicken or the... The chicken or the egg, or the crow or the egg, right? In conclusion, I'm going to propose something. Let's call it an eeriness compromise. If you hear something, and you think something's creepy, I want you to not discount it, right? Like horror, and fear, and disgust are not emotions that are necessarily, like, the opposite of beauty. These are all parts of the human condition, which is a much more complicated and strange mélange than these false dichotomies that we often set up, because not everything that is scary is bad and evil. I think it's likely an illusion. Monsters only really exist in the eye of the beholder. And if you listen to something eerie, just--for me--just leave open the possibility that that eeriness can also make you feel warm and loved.

Marc Sollinger 25:13

Hi there, my name is Marc Sollinger. I'm a radio producer, I'm a writer, and a director.

Dan Powell 25:19

Hi, my name is Dan Powell. I'm an audio engineer, sound designer, and composer.

Marc Sollinger 25:22

Together we run Dead Signals, which is...

Dan Powell 25:25

...An audio drama production company dedicated to telling sound-rich, and at times spooky, fiction stories.

Marc Sollinger 25:30

The show that we're best known for producing is called Archive 81. It's a weird fiction cosmic horror podcast with found-footage elements.

Dan Powell 25:38

One question we get asked a lot is what makes something feel scary or terrifying in the context of a podcast?

Marc Sollinger 25:43

From the writing side, you don't want to over-describe something. Podcasting is a medium where it pays to give the audience enough space to imagine what the monster, what the terrifying situation, is. Their imagination is always going to be more horrifying than what you've put down on the piece of paper, or the Google doc, or whatever.

Dan Powell 26:02

That's pretty much what I'd say from my end, as well. Yeah, less is more. Letting the sound be more impressionistic and suggestive, rather than totally on the nose, is a better way to evoke a sense of dread. So how do you do that on a technical level?

Marc Sollinger 26:15

Well, podcast horror needs to be audio-specific. There's a reason that a lot of good audio drama is found footage or a fake podcast. And it's not just because, you know, we're aping Serial, it's because it plays well in the audio medium. You want the creepy object to be, you know, a tape, rather than a painting because, okay, you can describe a painting, but you can play a tape.

Dan Powell 26:39

Right. So like, for example, if you were to have a strained conversation between two characters. [Audio distortion] It might make more sense for the interaction to be a phone call; maybe an anxious phone call, where the battery's too low and everything's breaking up. Because that's a familiar situation we all know. And it's one that only exists within the domain of audio.

Marc Sollinger 26:54

Dan? Dan, you're breaking up, I can't hear you.

Dan Powell 26:58

Somebody help me! [Audio distortion ends] Probably one of my favorite examples of this, that we've done, is a guided museum tour from Season One of Archive 81.

Marc Sollinger 27:07

So essentially, it's just a British man reading off a bunch of creepy museum exhibits, which sounds like it would work better in text. Sounds like, "Hey, wait, why is this creepy?" But it's creepy because the audience gets to do most of the work. They get to fill in the stories behind these little descriptions

Gregory (Robert Blythe) 27:29

Object 411K. Walrus tusk carving of an unknown deity...

Dan Powell 27:35

Soundwise, this was a situation where the subtlety really paid off. I tried to focus on using subtle distortion and modulation to draw attention to particularly ominous moments in the script. And rhythmically, the way the tape edits jump in and out also set the mood.

Gregory (Robert Blythe) 27:48

[Abrupt tape edit] Object Unknown. We have been unable to catalogue this particular piece. Gazing upon it directly is... difficult. [Buzzing, distortion] It might be advisable not to linger in this particular corner of the exit. [Harsh tape edit]

Dan Powell 28:05

I actually used a sound library sourced from old, decaying newsreels. So what you're hearing is the literal sound of analog data loss and degradation. Anyway, we hope you've enjoyed hearing about some of the ways we make our podcasts creepy.

Nick Quah 28:21

Thanks to Marc Sollinger and Dan Powell of Archive 81, Jeffrey Nils Gardner and Eleanor Hyde of Unwell, Becca De La Rosa and Mabel Martin of Mabel, and Jeff Emtman of Here Be Monsters. Be sure to subscribe to these shows. Servant of Pod is written and hosted by me, Nick Quah. You can check out more episodes at laist.com/servantofpod. The show is produced by Andrea Asuaje, Jessica Alpert, and John Perotti at Rococo Punch. Web design by Andy Cheatwood and the digital and marketing teams at Southern California Public Radio. Logo and branding by Leo G. Thanks to the team at LAist Studios, including Kristen Hayford, Taylor Coffman, Kristen Muller, and Leo G. Servant of Pod is a production of LAist Studios.

This program is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.