It’s one o’clock in the morning and I’m lying wide awake in bed, staring at the ceiling and to apprehensive to fall asleep. My iPhone and headphones lie on the nightstand next to my bed. My head is filled with images of tall shadow men, the ghost of a dead girl with an upside down face and a low frequency melody that spells the demise of anyone unfortunate enough to hear it. Are these the visuals from the latest horror movies we’ve been sent for review? Not at all. All the above and more stem from the spine tingling docudrama podcast THE BLACK TAPES (site).
Staged as a hybrid of “Serial meets Lovecraft”, The Black Tapes Podcast tells the unfolding narrative of journalist Alex Regan as she profiles Dr. Richard Strand. Through his institute, he has spent his life as a sort of anti-Ghostbuster by debunking hundreds of cases of supposed paranormal activity. While profiling Strand for her podcast about persons with off the beaten path careers, Regan stumbles upon a shelf that contains a number of videocassettes that contain information on cases Strand has not been able to disprove…yet. Regan decides to make Strand and his unsolved mysteries the sole subject of her podcast. For her. it’s an opportunity to dive into fascinating subject matter while Strand gains access a massive audience to preach the absence of the paranormal world to.
Except it’s not that simple. As Regan digs into each tape, none of them can be easily dismissed as a hoax, fraud or case of mental illness. Nor can they be rationalized as phenomenon of the natural order of the world. As Regan keeps investigating new cases, it becomes increasingly possible that these standalone cases are all part of one intricate plot that could trigger the apocalypse.
Regan’s probing into Strand himself is equally as fascinating. Resolute in his belief that there’s nothing in our world except what our senses tell us is real, Strand is quick to dismiss Alex anytime it looks like she may have stumbled upon proof of the supernatural. Strand comes across as a polarizing and often infuriating character that condescends to Alex and in turn, her listeners. Yet as the black tapes unfold, you’re left to question if that stoic demeanor is a much needed cover for his own fears. As the second season begins, Strand begins to unravel. His explanations, rational at first, become increasingly more stubborn and based on speculation that contradict the evidence in front of him. Meanwhile Strand’s own past, in particular the disappearance of his wife into thin air almost twenty years ago start to bleed into the main story.
One of the things that make The Black Tapes Podcast so wonderfully unsettling is the slow unspooling of each case as they begin to blend into one another. The cases, based on existing examples of mythology, urban legend and familiar ghost stories draw from a number of chilling horror tropes, including the figure of a tall “shadow man” that follows a family for generations, exorcisms and a recording that spells the death of anyone unfortunate enough to play it back. The format is what makes The Black Tapes unique. The audio format means everything plays out in the space between the listener’s ears. This allows you to create any sort of image you want for what your hearing, and is often the case with horror, what you can imagine is tenfold scarier than what your eyes can see.
Series producers and co-creators Paul Bae and Terry Miles also manage to capture the tone that made Serial such a smash success. When you listen to The Black Tapes you hear all the hallmarks of that quirky, NPR show, from the musical interludes, to snippets of recorded banter between the show’s host Alex Regan and her producer Nic Silver. Regan even sounds like a younger Sarah Koenig, and for a moment I pondered just how long she must have practiced say “I don’t know” in order to deliver it with the Serial host’s exact cadence. The dramatic moments are heightened by the tonally perfect music choices, which add a layer of chills on top of things.
After an extended absence after the fourth episode of the second season, the show returns tomorrow, May 10th. Now would be a great opportunity to catch up on the show. The Black Tapes marks the perfect pairing of the traditional ghost story with the added enhancements of modern technology.