Interview: Mark Ramsey on INSIDE JAWS, The Horror History Podcast That is Pure Bliss

If you haven’t listened to the Inside Series podcast, boy oh boy, do you have a treat in store for you! On a simple level, the podcast uses a combination of narration and audio dramatizations to tell the biographical stories behind the makings of the greatest horror movies of all time, while interweaving historical accounts of the real-life events that inspired the movies themselves. In the case of Inside Psycho, we hear the story behind Hitchcock’s creation of his magnum opus while also learning the grisly details of Ed Gein, the inspiration behind Norman Bates. Inside The Exorcist follows William Friedkin and Linda Blair’s pea-soup soaked journey of creating The Exorcist, while also recounting actual reports of demonic possession.

The latest and possibly greatest entry is Inside Jaws, which tells the epic story of Steven Spielberg’s disaster-riddled production of Jaws, coupled with the horrifying true stories of such famous shark attacks as The Twelve Days of Terror and The USS Indianapolis, where schools of sharks claimed the lives of countless American WWII soldiers after their ship was attacked by a Japanese torpedo in 1945 (ranked by The Smithsonian as the worst shark attack of all time).

What really makes this podcast sing is the audio design, which seamlessly merges all of these elements into a highly compelling and uniquely cinematic audio experience. The combination of music, sound effects and atmospheric foley, coupled with the depth of storytelling makes this series pure bliss for horror fans. Be careful listening to this one at the gym or while driving because there are jumpscares a-plenty, and they’re very effective.

The Inside Series is frankly unlike anything I’ve ever heard and has quickly become one of my favorite podcasts as well as a remarkable testament to the uncharted possibilities of audio. Mark Ramsey is the creative force behind the Inside Series and we recently caught up with him about Inside Jaws, the final episode of which airs today across all major podcast networks. If you are new to the series, you can now binge through all seven episodes you lucky ducks! Without further ado, here is Mark Ramsey.

Dread Central: Mark! How are you?

Mark Ramsey: I’m great!

DC: How did you come up with this concept of these very cinematic podcasts and what do you call them?

MR: Well, I call it a couple of things. I’ve called it an audio biopic, I’ve called it a movie without pictures, I’ve called it an audio graphic novel, which is one of my favorite names for it. It basically is a biopic – it just happens to not have pictures. But the reason why we have all the sound design is to create all those pictures in your mind in the absence of actual pictures. It’s almost entirely my voice because I didn’t want to do radio drama. One of the thoughts that I had years ago was that audio was underutilized … Radio has forgotten how to move people with sound. The reason we started this is because I felt one of the easiest things to do with audio that was not done, was to scare people. I don’t think anybody alive today remembers being scared by audio, unless it’s in the context of a movie. If you go back on YouTube you’ll find some old stuff from a guy named Arch Obeler who did an old series called Lights Out. He had some sense of this, but it’s a dead art, as far as I can tell.

DC: Wasn’t it Orson Welles who was doing War of the Worlds on the radio and everyone thought that there was an alien attack happening and there was literal panic in the streets?

MR: Yeah, a lot of people did, and that was very authentic and true-to-life because he was doing that whole documentary style which fooled people because it was in the form of newscast.  I’m a huge Orson Welles fan. More than anything that guy was a magician. What he was trying to do was dazzle you with magic moments. A lot of the podcasts that are out there right now, there’s a sense that it’s benign. There’s a sense that you’re safe. While the story will be compelling, it won’t necessarily make you laugh or make you cry or make you drive off the road, and that’s kind of what we were going for, as long as it fits the story. We’re not trying to manipulate people, but we are kind of trying to get every bit of worth out of this story that we can. In the case of Jaws, more than anything, I very specifically didn’t want this to come off as director’s commentary … I don’t care to give every last tidbit about the making of Jaws. I wanted Jaws to create a story you hadn’t heard before, about a subject that’s much bigger. In all of these cases (podcast seasons), you’ve got to have a story that’s larger than the obvious story. When I first wrote this, I really wanted to call it Becoming Spielberg, instead of Inside Jaws because I thought that’s really more what it is. Anybody who comes into it looking for it to be just about Jaws from beginning to end, needs to ask A: why the hell is it so long? And B: Why don’t I just watch The Shark is Still Working (a historical documentary about the making of Jaws)? I grew up with Steven Spielberg, everybody I know grew up with Steven Spielberg, but nobody’s really told this story. Parts of this were in the documentary, but I wanted something deeper, and also, I think that when he acknowledged his identity, that’s when he really became the guy he had the potential to be all along, and that to me is a larger message of the story. When you really decide to accept who you were all along, you can achieve all the great dreams you had for yourself that you didn’t even know you could achieve.

Steven Spielberg on set of the film ‘Jaws’, 1975. (Photo by Universal/Getty Images)

DC: And that’s the essence of the classic hero’s journey in the Joseph Campbell sense.

MR: I think so, in this case. Each of these three podcast seasons has a different theme. For the Hitchcock one, it was the idea that you create this amazing thing, and then you’re forever unable to recreate it … Then in The Exorcist, it’s more a cautionary tale. It’s the story of a guy who’s so successful at a young age and he can’t duplicate it, unlike Hitchcock who was mature by the time he had Psycho’s success. Then finally he comes to realize, even if this wasn’t what he dreamed of, this is what was his and he has to figure out a way to accept it … The other thing about the original Jaws is that it had such a mix of elements that I really tried to capture in this. It was funny, it was scary, it was heartfelt, sincere, and charming, all at the same time, and I wanted to try and bring all of those elements into this as a proper tribute. Inside Jaws is really a love letter to Steven Spielberg, and a way of saying “thank you” for my youth.

DC: How did the Inside series come about originally?

MR: Interestingly, Jaws is the one that I wanted to do first.  I’m on the board of the Broadcast Film Credits Association. A&E was inviting some digital content, so I had this idea… A&E runs this little show called Bates Motel, so what if I did Psycho instead of Jaws? So, I did a pilot of Inside Psycho. It’s funny because A&E said, “We’re interested in everything except for audio.” Then I gave them the teaser that I’d done for Inside Psycho and they said, “We love this!” Unfortunately, they weren’t prepared to fund it for various reasons so that’s when I went and pitched Wondery.

DC: One of the things that really fascinated me in listening to the Inside Series, from Inside Psycho to Inside the Exorcist and now Jaws, is how much you’re able to do with audio.  For one thing, the jump scares are so effective. I’ve found myself jumping on the damn subway! You also have talked about how you and your sound designer would use silence in a very interesting way. Can you get into how you’re able to use silence as a tool for anticipation and for building fear?

MR: I’m glad you asked about that. That took some work early on, because my sound designer, who is literally the best in the world, hadn’t done any of this, although he had worked in video games and stuff before. But his day job is in the radio space, and in radio, dead air is a bad thing. The first conversation we had about Psycho was me saying, “Let this audience breathe.” And I know that doesn’t work for everybody, but I always thought, just let the silence tell the story. And I’m getting this from movies. Just like in Jaws, it’s not seeing the shark that makes the shark scary, and not hearing the sound that makes the sound scary – that anticipation.

DC: Could you talk about the research process and what it takes to put a season together?

MR:  It begins with having a sense that there’s a story there, which is why we’re not looking at something like Halloween. I just don’t know that there’s enough there to interest me and to interest an audience. I could be wrong, by the way! And something like The Shining – Kubrick was such an asshole. He worked his people to death, and I don’t know if that’s a story I want to tell. So, there’s got to be a personal connection … With the Spielberg story, you realize, here’s a geeky kid in Phoenix who pulls out a play, and he blossoms into something else. Who in the geek community can’t relate to that? So that’s why I knew that one would work from the beginning. I’d rather do that than Nightmare on Elm Street. So in terms of the work, it begins with having the story.

DC: So how did you go down this path? Were you always a huge horror fan? Where did this passion come from?

MR: I think I’ve always been a horror fan. I was a monster kid when I was a kid. I remember going to see Halloween in 1978; it was just otherworldly. When you see the group reaction to an experience like that, you say, ‘this is really powerful stuff!’ As a kid, I would watch the late-night horror movies, I would do the haunted house in the basement, and even now today, my house on Halloween is decked out.  Kids come and they’re terrified because we’ve got the big Michael Meyers and we’ve got the ghosts and the goblins and the lights and the animatronics and everything. I’ve always loved the genre but I’ve also been a fan of movies in general. I remember when I was a kid, my dad would take me to see movies.  When I saw Pit and the Pendulum for the very first time, the Corman version, at the end when Barbara Steel was locked in the iron maiden and the camera zooms in on her eyes, I was just trembling. I was falling to pieces, and my dad turned to me and said, “It’s only a movie.”

DC: I remember you mentioning that audio is scarier than visuals. Could you elaborate?

MR: Well it’s the old moviemaker trick of showing the horror movie but with no sound, and it’s not scary at all. But when they show it with the sound, that’s what makes it scary. Look at the way in which so many creatures have a kind of sound audio signature, like The Grudge you know it’s coming before it’s there because of its audio signature. That’s the magic of sound. The problem is that CGI can make anything.  If Jaws were made today, there’s no question that it would be ruined. And the other thing with CGI is, it’s so clean. Every movement is perfect. It’s art directed. Real life is not art directed. Real life is fractured and messy. That’s why the shark in Jaws works so well. It’s because you don’t know when you’ll ever see it, and if you do, for how long. And that’s probably how it would be in real life.

DC: I know you’re very protective of not revealing what the next season is going to be, so I would never ask, but could you talk about some of the other movies that you entertained doing a season on and then decided against it? You mentioned Halloween, The Shining, and Nightmare on Elm Street. Were there any other ones that you strongly considered?

MR: I’ll never say never. All I know is that I don’t want to go backwards. I’m never going to do Bride of Frankenstein, I’m never going to do Hammer (as much as I love Hammer), because once you go to Jaws, you can’t go niche. You have to go big or not at all. That’s why there’s not going to be a Hellraiser, there’s not going to be a House of Wax.  You just have to go to stuff that appeals to more people because it’s too much work for a niche.  When we did Exorcist, I knew that Jaws was going to be next. We started with Psycho because of the A&E thing. Then I thought, how could we top Psycho? How can we scare people better than that? And the answer was The Exorcist. Then we asked, how can we scare people better than The Exorcist? and the conclusion was that we can’t. I don’t think we could do a better job at scaring people. So that’s when we shifted gears to Jaws.

DC: Are there any either favorite movie books, documentaries or resources from your research that us horror nerds should get?

MR: I enjoyed the Spielberg documentary primarily because he’s such a closed book. It’s rare for him to be that open, so that was something special. In terms of books, I did enjoy Robello’s book The Making of Psycho and Carl Gottlieb’s book, The Jaws Log.

DC: I’ve got to check those out!

MR: And by the way, episode eight is an interview with Carl.

DC: Was there ever anything that you wanted to do on any of the seasons that was too extreme?  Anything you didn’t end up putting in because it was too intense?

MR: I don’t think so. You’ve got a decapitated kid in Jaws … That’s also the beauty of audio. You’re never guilty of showing anything because you don’t show anything, so you can literally do anything. One of the famous Arch Obeler sound effects was the sound of a body being turned inside out. It was an incredibly simple sound effect, it was like a rubber glove being removed from a hand. But it freaked people out. And we’re talking in the forties, he was turning bodies inside out! So, if you can do that in the forties, you can do anything today. Quite frankly, the only thing we pulled back a little bit was some of the puking. For whatever reason, we have a lot of puking and suicides in this series. I said to Jeff, “we seem to do puking and suicides really well.” So, there were a couple cases where I made a reference to puking but he didn’t do the sound effect.

DC: Apparently, the sound of puking can actually induce puking in a lot of people so, it’s probably for the best. You’d have listeners puking in their cars, and all over the subway…

MR: You know, I’m waiting for that headline because I want to see ‘Inside Jaws Induces Puking’ – I want to see that headline!

DC: That’s awesome! Did you have a favorite season?

MR: I’d have to pick this one. Not only because it’s most recent, but because it is the most full-bodied of all the three. It is the one that just has all the notes in it, it has the degree of charm. This is the only one, I think, that will make people cry.

DC: Yeah, I got teary during the grandfather Fievel part.

MR: Yeah, it’s got the Spielberg finish. So, I think for that reason, it’s just got more depth. When was the last time anybody teared up at a podcast? I don’t know.

DC: I can’t think of one.

MR: It’s not manipulative, either. It’s genuine, it’s authentic, it fits, it’s right, it works … Also, I think it’s patently personal and relatable. Anybody who makes anything, anybody who innovates anything, anybody who tries anything, anybody who creates anything – a songwriter, an author, a filmmaker, a podcast maker, anybody who tries to make anything will see themselves in this story.

DC: I particularly enjoyed the hero’s journey at the end of Inside Jaws, it was so beautifully done because it was actually like three hero journeys in one; Spielberg’s, his grandfather’s and then George Lucas’! So, it was like a trifecta of hero’s journeys and of course Hitchcock makes a cameo appearance once again, which is really fun.

MR: You probably didn’t notice this, you have to pay close attention, but we have a very interesting Easter egg in all three of these.

DC: Yes, I’ve heard about this! Can you summarize it?

MR: There’s a restaurant in the Inside Psycho podcast where Hitchcock and Bruce Dern are having lunch. Bruce Dern begs Hitchcock to meet Spielberg because Spielberg had always wanted to meet him, and Hitchcock basically said he was too ashamed to meet him, because this was just when Family Plot was coming out in the halo of Jaws, and there was just no comparison. So, Hitchcock at this point in his career was ashamed and he had just got back from doing the voiceover work on the Jaws ride at Universal. So, he said: “I couldn’t even shake his hand.” So that’s going on, and then in Inside the Exorcist, it turns out that in my little crazy world, Friedkin was having lunch with Orson Welles in the exact same restaurant at the exact same time.

DC: Did you come to realize that all those people were there that day at the same time or was there some documentation of all of this?

MR: No. Another thing that’s important to know about the series is that it’s not documentary, it’s docudrama. So, there’s a lot of this which is designed like a movie and a television show to tell a larger truth without being literally true. So, for example, Bruce Dern and Alfred Hitchcock really did have lunch, and Bruce Dern really did say that Spielberg would like to meet him and Hitchcock did say no, and the whole ‘I couldn’t meet him, I couldn’t even shake his hand,’ all of that is true. Everything else is not. Friedkin was not there at that time. I don’t know if Friedkin ever had lunch with Orson Welles but if you listen to Inside the Exorcist, you’ll hear that scene between them as an important part because Welles is basically warning Friedkin of the perils of early success, and Friedkin is destined to live out those perils. As far as the Spielberg thing, I just thought, well, wouldn’t it be natural to have a scene where Spielberg is expecting to meet Hitchcock and then it gets scrunched at the last moment but then has this classic Spielberg twist where all these young kids start swarming him … and Spielberg gets appreciation, just not the kind that he had expected. It just seemed to be like this cinematic alchemy of coincidence that you know isn’t true, but it just rings so true and that to me is what was so much fun about this.

DC: I really can’t wait for the next season. Any idea when it’s going to come out?

MR: You’re killing me!

DC: I just finished Inside Jaws, man, I’m ready to go!

MR: I literally don’t know, all I know is that it’s very humbling to finish a project like this, knowing that it works as well as it does.  All these series are about all the frustrations that you have, that I have, that we all have – they’re all printed across these series, they’re just put into the worlds of Friedkin, Spielberg and Hitchcock.

DC: Right. They’re all very universal stories. Big bravo to you for pulling off an incredible third act!

MR: Thanks! 

Inside Jaws is available for download on all major podcast apps.



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