It was broad daylight. I was hunched over a table in a crowded coffee shop, listening to a podcast several people on the interwebs had recommended to me while I gathered notes for a different essay (that’s a lie: I was wistful-shopping ModCloth). I liked the premise of the first episode, dove into the second prepared to be deliciously creeped out but not too bothered. I’m An Adult, after all; I survived The Exorcist with my bravery intact.
Halfway through, as a character described the shadowy, inhuman figure that inexplicably haunted them in photographs, a hand-to-God chill shuddered up my spine. In broad daylight. Surrounded by people.
Then I watched kitten videos for a while.
Hosted by plucky journalist Alex Reagan, the easiest way to describe the genre-bending The Black Tapes Podcast is as the creative love child of The X-Files and The Blair Witch Project. Alex, partnered with the enigmatic (I quote) scientist Dr. Richard Strand, investigates cases of unexplained paranormal phenomenon. Framed as a monster-of-the-week documentary with a ongoing storyline threading through each episode, it’s an affectionate satire of NPR’s This American Life and draws its style deliberately from the inescapable Serial. It also evokes the same sense as Orson Welles’s infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast — if you didn’t know better, you’d think it’s real.
Alex serves as the podcast’s Mulder-esque figure, young, eager, and open-minded, passionate to solve the mysteries and help the victims. On the opposite end we have our Scully in Dr. Strand, an avowed skeptic who’s made a career out of disproving any so-called supernatural occurrence that comes his way. The pair’s back-and-forth makes up the backbone of the podcast’s drama, and the tenuous balance they strike between healthy disagreement and growing respect is engaging without feeling redundant or stale. Thankfully, The Black Tapes doesn’t leave growth along the wayside in favor of scares — as Alex is drawn deeper into a mess of the unexplained, the things she’s seen take a toll. The once-bright reporter begins suffering from insomnia, making poor decisions, seeing things, hearing things, delusions that can’t be really there, right? By season two, her vigor and energy have been eroded away.
Strand is appropriately mysterious, arch, and cranky, but somehow charismatic; much like a Gothic romance hero. He, too, falls into a mental spiral, as he unravels from unwavering, level-headed cynic into an unkempt, half-wild conspiracy theorist obsessing over his wife’s unexplained disappearance decades prior. This is a character piece, first and foremost.
As I said, it’s scary. But what appeals to me most is how it presents its horror: quiet and understated. Without visuals, scenarios are communicated through sounds, music, descriptors. Most of us are familiar by now with Paranormal Activity’s story beats: an invisible entity malevolently stalks a household, and the children are the only ones who can see it. But a boy referencing his demonic “best friend” is a thousand times more terrifying when you’re left with just your imagination to accompany his childlike voice. Silences are unknown and resounding. Suggestion, implication, and suspense are the series’s bedrock and biggest strength, not sensationalism or gore, and that’s the kind of horror I’ve always fond most effective. No visuals are scarier than what your own mind can concoct.
But if you’re not a horror nerd, don’t turn away: it’s also fun. Characters make jokes! Strand is an awkward nerd who has a crush on Alex but is too emotionally constipated to express it! There are Santanic orchestras and medieval monasteries and creepy ancient mythology! It’s historically accurate, which is hella refreshing! The twists develop organically and surprise you!
Currently in its second season, The Black Tapes is for anyone who loves the genre, a spooky atmosphere, and engaging character drama. For me especially, who spent her teenage years wandering graveyards with friends and listening to EVPs on our computer, it’s a delight. One that nevertheless makes me turn on all the lights in my house and seize hold of my cat for security.
The best scares are the ones you can believe are true.
You can listen to The Black Tapes Podcast on iTunes, their website, or Stitcher.