For many Texans, getting into the Halloween spirit means revisiting spooky stories that have sent shivers down one’s spine since childhood – think the Boogeyman or Bloody Mary. Many of these stories have been passed on through generations, with origins ranging from ancient folk tales to more modern urban legends.
For Ayden Castellanos, stories like these are far more than the stuff of Halloween nightmares. They’re at the center of his podcast, “Susto,” inspired by stories Castellanos heard growing up in the Rio Grande Valley. “Susto” highlights spooky folk tales and legends particular to Latino and Hispanic culture, and in a sense preserves the stories for future generations.
It’s through the work of his podcast that Castellanos was recently named to the inaugural class of the Gotham Film & Media Institute’s Gotham/Variety Audio Honors, recognizing the next generation of storytellers.
Castellanos joined the Standard to talk about the honor, the various inspirations behind his podcast, and even share a spooky tale to help listeners get into the Halloween spirit. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: Congratulations on the recognition you’ve received. Tell us a little bit about what this meant being recently named to the inaugural class of the Gotham Film & Media Institute’s Gotham/Variety Audio Honors.
Ayden Castellanos: Yes, presented by Wondery. Thank you. Thank you for the congratulations. It means a lot. It’s kind of a validating feeling to be recognized by such powerhouses in the entertainment industry. And I’m very proud of my show, and I’m very proud of the work that I do with it. So to have it recognized by such official names, it’s a really nice feeling.
Yeah, I think they were focusing on the next generation of storytellers and they’re calling you out as one of them. That’s got to mean a lot. Tell us a little bit about the podcast and the origin story of it.
Yeah, so Susto started around 2019. My kind of like elevator pitch or the tagline is it’s the spooky podcast centered around the folklore of Latinx and Hispanic cultures. When I started the podcast very early on, the stories that I shared were stories that I grew up with. I remember sitting in elementary school being read a book called “Stories that Must Not Die,” and some of these are stories about La Llorona. You know, a lot of them were allegories or cautionary tales. And so that seed was planted very early on. And, you know, since then, I’ve grown up with an appreciation for the macabre and the paranormal. So, yeah, it just kind of always stuck with me.
And around 2019, like I said, when it started, I was looking for a very specific kind of podcast. I wanted it to sound a certain way. I wanted the stories to be told in a certain way, and I personally couldn’t find it at the time. I’m not going to take any credit and say that it’s 100% original, that there’s nothing like it. It’s a very rich genre. But again, I couldn’t find the format that I wanted, and so I decided, “well, just do it yourself.” And so that’s kind of how it started.
I think one of the exciting points about your podcast, and certainly one that we picked up on, is the fact that a lot of these stories you hear shared among people, certainly in the South Texas region, but more broadly across Texas. Tell us a little bit about how important that is to preserve and retell these stories.
Yeah, certainly. I love that you use the word “preserve,” because that’s something that I say often about Susto – it’s almost a form of cultural preservation, because when I talk about these stories in the context of my show or the outline for people who have not listened, I tell the story and then immediately after I try and dive into what the context is of the story: the origins of the story, how far in the world it has reached, and if there is any hidden meaning that hasn’t been either discovered or taken a more critical look at, if that makes any sense.
So yeah, I mean that word “preservation,” it means a lot because, like I said, I heard these stories growing up, and they were being told to me oftentimes from my peers, but also from our elders. Our tías and tíos, our parents or grandparents. And so then I think, “well, who told them those stories?” And it’s just this long line of these stories being passed down from generation to generation. And so I feel very proud to keep the culture alive in that sense. It’s very strange to connect on a level of fear and enjoy it. But I love it.
Just to be clear, you’re not just exploring some of these older stories. You cover some topics that go well beyond the supernatural, grounded in what some would consider real-life horror. I’m thinking of the “MS-13 Satanic History” episode – that was an episode that Gotham/Variety highlighted.
Yeah, definitely. It was a very interesting topic to explore. And there’s other based-in-reality topics that I’ve covered for sure. I’ve talked about cases of, I want to say the word is a “legit,” possession where people have either hurt or killed other people. And in their case, they say that the reason was because they were given a message from what they’re saying is the devil or they were possessed by a demon. And so something that I say on the show very often is I’m more scared of the living than I am of the dead. A lot of these stories are definitely based in reality and very real-life events. And they have this connection to the supernatural.
That’s an interesting observation about being more afraid of the living than the dead, and it makes sense on many levels. But I’m curious about why you think there seems to be such interest and persistent interest in some of these frightening tales. What is it that people are indulging in when they go down these sorts of narratives?
I feel like there’s so many answers for that. I think on a base level, there’s a good number of people – definitely listeners of the show – that just enjoy the feeling of being scared, whether it’s the adrenaline rush that comes with it or thinking, “I can’t wait to share this with someone and see their reaction.” For me, it’s like giving a gift. I love giving presents because, selfishly, I love to see people’s reactions. So it’s almost that same sense of like, “I can’t wait to share this with someone and see what they think of it.”
Another thing that I talk about on the show is, historically, there typically is a resurgence of interest in the paranormal and macabre when we are experiencing, as a society, troubling events. And so very recently, especially with the COVID pandemic and you know, just in general, I feel like we have access now to more information than we ever have before. It’s in the palm of our hands. We quite literally carry computers with us everywhere we go. And so it’s almost as if that is the seed or the doorway of, you know … Like I said, there’s very real things that are happening that are frightening. And so maybe people want to take take a left turn and listen to or talk about this unexplainable event or a mystery or something that may or not be true.
Are you a true believer in the paranormal, or where do you stand on some of these spooky things?
I truly am. I try to approach it with as much logic and reason as possible. So while I do believe if something is explainable, then it’s explainable. You know, some houses are old and they settle. Some pipes need to be replaced and they make noise. Sometimes there is a person in an abandoned space that you might not know is there. And so I think that there are answers to some of these things. But I am a believer, and I do think that that some of it is real.
Where do you hope to take the podcast from here? You’re already getting so much attention; you’ve been doing this since 2019, so you’ve got quite the track record that you’ve built up. What’s next for you?
That is a good question. I just hope that people keep enjoying it. I hope to keep sharing it with as many people as possible and to replicate that late-night feeling of sharing these stories and being scared and having to run to your room in a dark hallway because of what you just heard. But honestly, I don’t know what’s next. Like I said, I’m just excited to keep sharing it and getting more people listening.
Castellanos shares a personal experience with the paranormal
The main personal experience that sticks out with me is I remember going to a family barbecue. I was really young, maybe in like junior high. And at the very end of the barbecue, the only people that were left were the hosts, my aunt and uncle, my parents and myself. And I had cousins that did live there, but they were out at the time, and it was already late at night. So my aunt was telling my parents about how she worried for her sons because they were out late and she was concerned for their safety. And my mother tried to comfort her and tell her, “Well, you know, you’ve raised them well; you’ve tried to teach them as much as you can. They’ll stay out of trouble; I’m sure if they need, they’ll find a driver if they’re partying.” And my aunt said, “no, no, I’m not worried about that. I know that they’ll make smart decisions. I’m worried about what’s going to happen when they come home.”
So we were all just kind of confused, and my parents asked her, “What does that mean?” And she said, “Well, we’ve been experiencing some things lately.” And she starts telling us how she sees shadows when she’s standing in the kitchen and she’s looking out into the backyard from the kitchen window – just walking around. And that she hears noises that she can’t trace the origin from. She says that it happens usually before they get home or right after. And so she’s more concerned about if there is some sort of entity that’s hanging around the home that wants to harm them because they’re getting home at a certain hour in the night.
So we’re all just listening to her, and the way the kitchen is laid out, if you can imagine, it’s just a square room. At one end of it is the door to their backyard, and then there’s a long kitchen table in front of it. And then at the opposite end is the entrance to the rest of the house. I was sitting at the table on the chair that was directly across from the table that was facing the back door. And as they’re talking and telling us more about these things that they can’t explain in the house, the door starts to rattle. And we all just kind of freeze and we look at each other and my uncle says, “It’s just them. They’re here, they’re home now.” So he gets up and swings open the door and there’s nobody there.
This is one of the first really big unexplained instances I’ve ever had in my life. There were little things here and there, but that one was undeniable. There was other people around that saw it. And so my uncle just shut the door and he says it was a dog or something. And so we continue talking. And again, the door starts to rattle. But it’s violent this time. The door handle is rattling, and the door is shaking back and forth as if someone’s trying to open it. But it’s locked. So again, he gets up. Throws the door open. Nothing.
And at this point, he doesn’t know what to say. We’re all just silent. And he says “No, it’s got to be a dog or an animal.” He said “Look, the dog is here,” and he calls the dog over. But that’s the thing, he had to call the dog over. It wasn’t there already. So he says “It’s just the dog. It’s fine.” So he closes the door. The dog was laying down at the entryway outside. He closes the door, leaves the dog outside, and he tries to make his way back to the table. And as he’s about to take his seat, we hear a bang on the door, and we hear the dog whimpering and running off. And I think at that point they just weren’t interested in opening the door anymore to find out what it may have been. I certainly was not interested. I was hiding behind a three-liter bottle of soda left over from the barbecue. I don’t think I ever returned to their house after that.