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Horror

For found footage horror fans, Zachary Donohue’s 2013 feature debut The Den is often regarded as one of the scariest films in the subgenre and a pioneer of the screen life storytelling format. Using various computer- and app-based interactions to follow a graduate student being targeted by a vicious killer after witnessing a murder online, the film masterfully explores paranoia, surveillance, and the darkest sides of the Internet. For genre fans wanting to dive deeper into these still timely themes, Donohue has now returned with Pocket FM’s “Uncomfortably Numb,a serialized audio thriller sure scratch the itch for fans clamoring for more Den-like chills.

Narrated by Robert Fleet (“I think he did an impeccable job!” Donohue gushes), “Uncomfortably Numb” is an audio series that aims to provide a riveting cinematic experience for the ears, with its mixture of gripping narration, attentive sound design, and chilling score. With six episodes currently available, the story follows Cody, an internet content moderator, who believes he has witnessed a crime being committed against someone he knows while on the job.

This time around, Donohue has a particularly authentic perspective to bring his protagonist’s story. “Since [making The Den], I’ve worked for various social media companies. I was actually a content moderator for Snapchat […] and another app,” Donohue states. “It’s very weird to be able to peer into all these people’s different lives at once. And I think that’s where we’re at now with this like… mass grouping of content out there. I think that’s more of what ‘Uncomfortably Numb’ is trying to dig deeper into–this network of all this interconnectedness.”

Writer/director Zachary Donohue

With the rate at which the web continues to impact how we communicate, build communities, and share content with others, Donohue also recognizes how the dark sides of the internet have similarly evolved in recent years. “The Internet has kind of changed where it’s like, yes, there’s still the fear of the anonymous person, but I think it’s like… morphed into something even bigger and more insidious. It used to be just like, you’re talking to one creep, right? And now there are these places where like… all these creeps are. And they’re not even trying to hide, you know?! [laughs] So I think that network, that dark network, is more of what I’ve been interested in exploring.”

Despite the exclusive nature of the novel Pocket FM platform and the unique format of the story itself, Donohue is excited to be exploring a different way of telling a genre story. “A lot of people that will be drawn to the [Pocket FM] app might notice that there isn’t a lot of genre stuff there at the moment, but this is the first. And you know, being the first of anything usually comes with a lot of risks, cause right now it’s a trial show. What I’m hoping to do, if I can keep building the story out, is take what is like a traditional kind of Hitchcockian setup of ‘person sees a terrible thing happen on the Internet’ and from there just go weirder and wilder.”

Given the trial nature of the series so far, Donohue hopes where the story currently leaves off will keep listeners wanting more so that he can fully explore the story’s characters and deeper mystery. “Right now I’ve given the setup. That’s what these first six chapters are. […] From here I just want to get darker, with more character intrigue, more paranoia, and more conspiracy. Just really build out the world.”

“I love audiobooks and I love podcasts, and I love that this is kind of a hybrid experience,” Donohue adds. “I like that idea that what we’re doing here… it kind of gives a more cinematic listening experience so it really feels like you’re in the world while you’re listening to it.” Given the limited budget for the series, Donohue was also able to contribute creatively in another way. “The music is actually a lot of mine. […] I was just like, you know what, I’m just going to get on GarageBand and make the music because I wanted to give it that David Fincher-y, like… Atticus Ross/Trent Reznor-y kind of vibe. But, you know… the lo-fi, poor man’s version of that [laughs].”

It wasn’t long before we got back to the topic of The Den, especially given the threads that tonally and narratively carry through into “Uncomfortably Numb.” Donohue still remembers the making of the film fondly (“It was one of the best experiences because I made it with all my friends.”) and acknowledges the whispers from its fans about potential directions for a sequel. “For the years since I made The Den, I have been wanting to do a sequel to it. I’ve had a lot of different ideas, and I only really wanted to do a sequel if it felt super fresh enough and wasn’t just the exact same movie,” he explains. “I basically wanted to take a lot of the different ideas that I’ve had for Den sequels and kind of make an amalgamation with [‘Uncomfortably Numb’]. It’s not necessarily, you know, Den 2. It’s more of a spiritual sequel.”

Though Donohue’s statement may suggest that a proper sequel to The Den is now off the table, fans need not worry. “I do have a Den sequel I want to do,” he exclusively confirms. “What I’ve been thinking of lately is a Den […] requel where I think it would follow a little bit more of what the screen life movies are doing where we’re using all the apps, cause now we know that you can do that! And like, put in a lot of easter eggs of The Den for the people that are fans of that, but follow a similar story structure and update it for the modern times.”

While acknowledging that the film is still relatively unknown, Donohue expressed ideas for how he would cater to both fans of the original and potential new fans. He states, “The joke title is Den 2: Into the Den-verse. [laughs] But also just calling it, like, Dens… I think for the people that know, they could be like, ‘Oh shit, this is a Den sequel!’ And for those who don’t know, it’s just kind of a creepy, enigmatic title that could still be interesting.”

Still from Zachary Donohue's 2013 film The Den

When asked if the sequel would maintain the found footage/screen life approach, Donohue referenced franchises that have pivoted tonally or stylistically with their sequels (see: Alien/Aliens or, more recently, Happy Death Day/Happy Death Day 2U). While Donohue views The Den as a more straightforward horror film with elements from the “woman-in-peril” subgenre, he states, “I think [with the sequel] I’d like to do a paranoid thriller–a real conspiracy thriller, with elements of horror. Not have it be just a straightforward horror movie.”

Though fans may have to wait a bit longer for The Den‘s sequel, Donohue has been enjoying fully leaning into his creative process through a number of outlets. “I’m kind of really digging deep back to like when you’re in college and you have those wild, experimental ideas, but I’m trying to merge that with all that I’ve learned so hopefully there’s a polish to it,” Donohue states with excitement. “If I can’t, at this moment in time, get another movie off the ground, I’m going to just make anything in any other medium and, you know, try to just get people excited about that.”

Donohue has recently been hard at work across media writing scripts for “some very cool horror producers,” exploring the world of creepypastas, and readying his next project, a 10-episode YouTube series titled “The Unknowable” that he has written and directed for Jackalope Productions. “It’s basically like La Jetee (1962) meets ‘Stranger Things’ by way of David Lynch. It’s going to be really weird and creepy and I can’t wait for people to see this. […] I think ‘The Unknowable’ has a lot of my weirder instincts that I haven’t been able to do in the scripts that I’ve done.”

While you await his forthcoming projects, you can check out the first six chapters of Zachary Donohue’s “Uncomfortably Numb” for free by downloading the Pocket FM app here and searching for the series in the “Trial Audio Stories” section. You can also check out a brief clip of a chapter below!

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