THE BLACK TAPES is a mystery/horror podcast which began in May of this year, and thus far consists of 11 episodes. The story follows podcaster/reporter Alex Reagan as she investigates the eponymous “black tapes” with the aid of the enigmatic paranormal investigator, Dr Strand, who assists her, provides the cases, and allows them to be broadcast with the aim of improving science literacy in the field of paranormal investigation. Each episode deals with a single case, a larger story arc forming over a number of episodes. Cases range from dealing with mysterious sounds, teleporting juvenile delinquents, terrifying maths, unusual ouija boards and a creepy imaginary friend. It is also one of the best works of audio fiction I have ever heard.
In addition to doing some interesting things with meta-fiction, which are slightly too complex to write about in a simple review (the podcast is both a real podcast and a fictional podcast, which is a spin-off of an entirely fictional podcast which receives production credits at the beginning and end of every episodes as well as fanmail from both real and fictional fans) it is also delightfully creepy and has some of the best sound design in a podcast I have ever heard. This is very much a show to listen to, but not immediately before bed.
By far the strongest element of the podcast is its strong theme of ambiguity, with Dr Strand taking the role of the sceptic, and Alex Reagan taking the role of the enthusiastic reporter eager to find out the truth, no matter what it is. While being far from a true believer, she often occupies that role when faced with the unyielding scepticism of Dr Strand, and her desire for a story often puts her in the position of making assumptions just because it makes more sense as a story, which is then presented to the listener as the fictional/real podcast. Dr Strand’s stance on the paranormal, while more firm, is also a major source of ambiguity, as one of the major story threads connecting the episodes is Alex’s ongoing investigation into Dr Strand’s past. The ‘black tape’ cases themselves are also presented ambiguously, with a natural explanation always being possible, although believing the paranormal explanation makes for a better story; another major theme running throughout.
Although the show goes to great lengths not to confirm the paranormal explanations, this continuous ambiguity in no way makes the events of the show less creepy or less believable, in fact it makes them more so. In this way the show taps into one of the few truths of the horror genre; that the unknown is far more scary than the known, and the monster is always scarier before you see it. By refusing to even acknowledge if the monster is real, the show creates a unique kind of tension and sense of unease, which continues to linger even after you stop listening.
In a market where the only other major horror(ish) podcast is Welcome to Night Vale, The Black Tapes is very much a welcome offering. Of course, this means that the easiest comparison will be to Night Vale. While both shows address horror, they are in almost all other respects totally different. The Black Tapes is inspired by The X Files, The Exorcist, the podcast This American Life and in particular the spin-off series Serial and creates tension by never really allowing the listener to know what is happening. Night Vale, in contrast, is inspired by local radio and the works of H.P. Lovecraft, has a far more surrealist and light-hearted tone and creates tension by allowing the audience to know exactly what is happening, but by having those things be bizarre, surreal, impossible and inexplicable. Both are excellent shows, but occupy very different spaces in terms of objectives, influences, tone and story.
Of course The Black Tapes is not without its flaws; for example, the reason we are told that Dr Strand participates in the investigations at all is to improve science literacy through the podcast. However, that doesn’t really happen. Scientific methodology is almost never discussed, apart from a brief discussion about the burden of proof in the first episode, and the scientific explanations given are never actually demonstrated to be the case, instead are merely briefly listed. While this is entirely understandable, as the show is a horror podcast, not a science show, the result is that it feels as though the show’s sole sceptic doesn’t believe his own scepticism.
The show also suffers from a problem that a lot of audio dramas suffer from, especially those with low budgets, in that it can become difficult to tell characters apart, as we have no visual way to distinguish them. While most of the time this isn’t an issue (the main cast all have distinct voices) many of the characters involved in the plot never speak. Instead we are told about their existence and what they do/have done by Reagan during the course of her investigation and as a result these characters who we never hear can blur together on occasion. From time to time the dialogue can be a touch clunky, which despite causing the occasional cringe isn’t a major distraction and happens rarely.
Minor issues aside I thoroughly recommend The Black Tapes for any horror or mystery fan, even those who don’t often listen to audio dramas. Well worth a download at the reasonable price of 100% free, you can find it on iTunes, Podbay, Sticher or on the shows website, at http://theblacktapespodcast.com/blog