Kristen Zaza writes and narrates chilling bedtime stories

Today I’m with Kristen Zaza and we’re drinking coffee at Red Rocket Coffee. Kristen, Tell me about your podcast, On A Dark Cold Night.
It’s a narrated story podcast. Often ghost stories or other spooky themes.

On A Dark Cold Night, Toronto Podcast, Logo

How did it start?
I started it because I wanted to create the show that I wanted to listen to as a horror fan, but a very specific kind of horror fan. I didn’t listen to much audio drama before that. The podcasts I listened to were mostly comedy—or the closest thing I can think of is Hello From the Magic Tavern. It’s not an audio drama but I like the idea of a continuing story with characters that develop more every episode. That was the thing I was missing from comedy improv podcasts: that ongoing world. So yeah, I wanted to take what I loved about these other podcasts and apply it to something else that I love really deeply, which is Gothic horror, and see what happens! And, also, I have trouble sleeping, so I wanted to make it very relaxing.

It’s funny that you say that because—maybe I’m easily spooked, but—I was listening to it last night and it was keeping me up because the story was scary. It was Episode 9: Making Connections, the story about a widow trying to connect with her late husband’s ghost. Any time there’s knocking in a horror story, I lose my mind. Ghosts and knocking [shivers].
Oh yeah, there’s a lot of knocking in that one [laughs]. Me too! I put knocking in a few episodes because it scares me so much. I used to have recurring nightmares about unlocked doors and people on the other side. So, that’s a huge source of fear in the stories I write.

What’s the format of a typical episode?
The format is generally like this: there is a narrator and we learn more and more about her every episode. Then, she usually has a story about someone else that she’s encountered or heard of throughout her long life. And at the end, I do plugs. So that’s the basic format: check in with the narrator, she has a story, and then, of course, plugs with Kristen. Certain episodes dwell on the narrator and her story.

I love the narrator. That’s maybe my favourite part of the podcast. The stories are great, of course, but the narrator is really what drew me in from the first episode. I love uncovering a little more about her past bit by bit. It’s also interesting that she’s not human. I still don’t really know what she is.
It’s okay not to know. It’s funny—everyone just tells me she’s a vampire and I’m like, ”Hmm, is she?”

But, I just listened to an episode where she said she’s not a vampire!
[Laughs] Yeah, I felt that I should put that out there at that point. I mean, I will say that it’s not planned. Every week I write everything new. When you hear the new episode on Wednesday, I usually wrote it a day or two ago. Things change according to what I want to do or how I’m feeling. So, she has been evolving.

You play the narrator. Are there other voices? I think I remember some male voices in some episodes.
It’s all me. I just change the pitch. People think I got my boyfriend to sing on some episodes, but no, it’s me! I do every voice.

Kristen Zaza playing piano for her podcast, On A Dark Cold Night
Photo by Adnan Umer

I also want to talk about the music. Throughout the stories there’s sometimes singing with piano or guitar. Is that all you, too?
I do all the music. Yeah, it’s a lot of work. Part of it at the beginning was that I enjoy working by myself. I know that I can get things done if I’m the only one I’m waiting on. I am also a composer and a musician, so that’s why I think this podcast has changed things for me. It’s like—everything I love to do I can do on this one thing. I have self-produced shows before as an actor, but a podcast—you just need a microphone. And I can practice everything that I do without spending thousands of dollars to put on a show every month or something like that.
Oh, in case it’s of any interest—my cat puked on my piano a few months before I started the podcast. So, that’s why the beginning of the podcast is mostly guitar. And I’m not really a guitarist so I was like, “Well, I guess it’s time to learn a bit of guitar!”

When your cat pukes on your piano, I imagine it’s expensive to fix.
It’s an electric Yamaha upright, so it got right in the electric parts. We salvaged the lower octaves and the upper octaves, so that’s why all the music is either really high or really low [laughs]. And because it’s creepy. Fun fact!

Exclusive behind-the-scenes tidbits!
So, you’ve always been into scary stories, but you said you’re a specific type of horror fan. Let’s talk about what kind of horror you like.
The best story I have to represent this is: There’s a documentary about haunted house attractions on Netflix. These haunted houses people put up around the states where the goal is to out-do each other in terms of the gore and the shock value. I was watching this and it made me kind of upset, because they’re doing these horrible things to people just to scare them—like, putting bugs in their mouth. It’s very gross and bloody. And that’s the moment I thought, “This is not the horror I like. This is not my horror.” Slashers aren’t my thing. I suppose I like a more Gothic horror. For me it’s about the loneliness in horror. The thing that appeals to me about Dracula or the Wolfman or Frankenstein—the classics—is that they’re these monsters who are very sympathetic. Even if they’re horrible, we still feel such a connection to them.

I can really see that in your characters. I don’t want to spoil which episode it is, but I really loved one of your stories where a character becomes close friends with a boy who ends up being a—what do I call it? A demon? Some kind of creature.
Yeah, most of them are “creatures” I would say. If I can avoid putting a label on the monsters, I will, because as soon as you say “demon”, it brings up a religious association. There are episodes later where I use that word, but I hesitate to use words like that because of the connotations they have. But, yeah, the point is they’re just monsters from somewhere else. I did like that episode a lot—that was a sad one.

We touched on it earlier, but tell me what scares you the most.
Yeah, like I said, knocking on the door. I used to have these recurring nightmares. I was home alone a lot when I was a teenager or even younger. So I would have these dreams about going downstairs and seeing that the front door was slightly open. And it’s very specific. I would go to shut it and I would feel someone push back. Even now, my boyfriend makes fun of me because I have to check five times that the door is locked before I go to bed.

I’m freaked out just thinking about it.
Let’s move on. Which podcasts do you listen to?
The Adventure Zone, Hello from the Magic Tavern, Spontaneanation. Anything with Paul F. Tompkins. My taste in podcasts is comedic, which is strange, I guess, given what my podcast is. When I have trouble sleeping, it’s either that my thoughts are drowning everything out or it’s that recurring theme I keep coming back to—loneliness. If I feel alone, I can’t sleep. So, listening to something really raucous like an improv comedy podcast makes me feel very calm.

I do the exact same thing. I like to fall asleep to people yelling improv bits in my ear. But, I usually turn it down so much that their voices are muffled. I think it’s soothing for me because when I was little, my parents would put me to bed but the rest of my family would still be up, talking in the living room, carrying on with their lives. And it was somehow comforting to hear them there on the other side of the door while I was cozy in bed. So now I just fall asleep to muffled podcast voices and it soothes me in a similar way.
I never thought of that, but I think that’s absolutely true. I had that experience too—knowing that there were other people outside my door. It’s like—you know that the world is still going on. But, when you’re alone and everything’s just quiet, you feel like everything has stopped. That’s one thing I try to write about—that feeling when night comes and it’s like a different world. That’s scary to me.

I totally get that.
You’re one of the founders of The Howland Company. Tell me about that.
Yeah! Actually, we’re coming up on our fifth anniversary soon. We’re a Toronto-based theatre company. We just had a show in April, Punk Rock, that was nominated for a DORA Award, so that’s really exciting. I co-founded the company with 11 other artists. And it’s great. We’ve really found a great little theatre family in each other.

The Howland Company, Toronto, Canada theatre company

Alright, let’s move on to my unrelated questions.
When was the last time you couldn’t stop laughing?
I’ve been really obsessed with Coco lately, the Pixar movie. I love it so much. I’ve been telling everyone they have to watch it.

I haven’t seen it yet.
Oh my god, you have to watch it! It’s my new favourite movie. So, there’s a part where they’re watching a variety show of people playing music. It’s anything from rock n’ roll to a mariachi band. And at some point there are three nuns playing accordion and no one in the audience is enjoying it except for this one guy who’s loving it and doing a dance. And I love that guy so much. I laughed for like half an hour about it. It’s stupid but just the idea of this one guy loving this terrible act—sometimes I feel like that guy.

If I say close your eyes and go to your happy place, where do you go?
Any place that’s like an ancient—maybe not ancient, but very old—structure. I love haunted mansions in films. It’s dusty and it has leaves and cobwebs in it. Like, an abandoned old house. I love certain movies only because they have that. The rest of the movie could be terrible, but if there’s a beautiful, old, decrepit house—that’s my favourite thing.

If you had an evil twin, how could I tell you apart?
She might straighten her hair more. I think she would be more concerned about looking polished all the time. Also, I am always concerned about putting other people at ease, but I think she wouldn’t care if you’re comfortable.

Would you say the narrator is your evil twin?
Yes! I would say that. I put a lot of myself in her. I think we all have this side of ourselves that we don’t want other people to know about. I guess, for me it’s this sort of pride and—superiority is not the right word, but that’s something I don’t like in other people and I hate when that feeling comes up in me. But, I like to take that and put that into the narrator. Like I said, I always want to make myself smaller to make other people comfortable. I guess that builds up some repressed feelings so those things go into the narrator—she’s powerful, magnificent. Words I would never use to apply to myself. Of course, we all want to go around calling ourselves magnificent—

And we should!
We should [laughs]. And I guess my point is that my evil twin—my narrator—is okay with thinking that about herself. She walks through the world knowing that she can destroy anything she wants.

I love that.
If you could compete on a reality TV show, which one would you choose?
Hmmm, I’m really enjoying Nailed It! on Netflix and I think that would be really fun. Not to get too philosophical, but I was just talking to someone recently about failure and how the great thing about my podcast is I have to do it every week. That’s the challenge for myself—to do it every week. Some weeks I’m like, “Is this one any good? I’ve been kind of rushed. I don’t even know.” But, it’s not an option to not do it. You have to be okay with failure. And I think that’s where a lot of good work comes from. From giving yourself the permission to fail. So, Nailed It! would be really fun!

If you could wade through a pool of something that isn’t water, what would you choose?

I’m not a scientist, but I think you might die…
Hmmm. Well, if I’m on my way out anyway, then maybe that would be a nice way to go [laughs]
Okay, maybe just—if you could clone my cat a million times…

That’s so funny. That’s what Sean and Eli said in my last interview. But they realized that would be too dangerous for the cats. So they decided to go with spectral kittens.
I mean, if we’re in a world of possibilities where science doesn’t apply, then I would just want to wade through the feeling of my cat’s fur. He’s just so soft. He was a stray and now he’s a big doofus who lives a cushy life and his fur is the softest.

If you had one question for me, what would it be?
Are you going to watch Coco?

[Laughs] Yes! I will watch it this weekend!
Ok, but really—if you could be doing anything, what would you do? The world is your oyster.

I want to be in Greece on the beach all day. Without the dangers of skin cancer. If we’re in a world where science doesn’t apply, then yeah, I want to be on the beach all day. And I want to have a dog. Or two. Listening to podcasts and watching TV on some kind of huge data plan since there’s no WiFi on remote beaches.
Cool. Yeah, I’ve been thinking lately that finding the one thing you want to do for the rest of your life is a weird concept. I’m just interested in finding out from other people—the things they need to do survive vs. the things they want to do with their lives. Because that’s been turned on its head for me and, I think, for most people of our generation.

What would you do if you could do anything?
I would live in a cottage in Norway and be a poet. Like, just send poems out into the world, but never have to deal with people. And then be upset about it and write poetry about that [laughs].

A brooding poet in Norway. That’s so great.
Well, we’ll end on that! Anything you want to plug?
My theatre company, The Howland Company, has a show coming up in the fall called The Wolves. It’s this awesome play about a teenage girls’ soccer team. It’s really good. It’s going to be at Crow’s Theatre. I’m not performing in it, but a bunch of other awesome actors are!

Oh, I’ll be doing an appearance on this Irish podcast called Walter Kane’s Broken Pieces.

I show up as a guest on a few other Toronto podcasts as well. There’s the Royal Canadian Movie (RCM) Podcast. There’s also The Pitch-Off Project. That’s really funny. And Bil Antoniou, a good friend of mine, has a show called My Criterions that I was a guest on a few times and he has another show called BGM: Bad Gay Movies/Bitchy Gay Men.

Great! Thank you so much, Kristen!

You can find out all about Kristen and her podcast, On A Dark Cold Night on her website.
 Facebook: On A Dark Cold Night
Twitter: @ADarkColdNight
Instagram: @DarkColdNightPodcast

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