The Black Tapes is a bi-weekly podcast from Pacific Northwest Stories and Minnow Beats Whale, and is hosted by Alex Reagan. The Black Tapes is a serialized docudrama about one journalist’s search for truth, her enigmatic subject’s mysterious past, and the literal and figurative ghosts that haunt them both.
How do you feel about paranormal activity or the Supernatural? Ghosts? Spirits? Demons?
Do you believe?
As someone who is mainly familiar with the fantasy end of the speculative fiction genre, horror is pretty new to me. For that matter, so are audio dramas. So when I heard about The Black Tapes, a hugely popular horror audio drama told through the same investigative journalism style as Serial and Limetown, I couldn’t wait to jump in.
To relate this to fantasy fans out there: The Black Tapes is to audio dramas what the Kingkiller Chronicle is to modern fantasy. It has instant name recognition in the audio drama world and most people feel rather strongly about it one way or another.
The Black Tapes follows reporter Alex Reagan as she investigates the enigmatic Dr. Richard Strand’s collection of unsolvable paranormal mysteries: the black tapes. Dr. Strand is a famous skeptic offering a $1 million dollar reward to anyone who can provide proof of the supernatural. He receives countless video tapes in the mail from hopeful millionaires, most of which he can easily disprove. The ones he cannot are the black tapes.
According to the show, The Black Tapes is an exploration of life, belief, faith, and occasionally the paranormal. It started as a Pacific Northwest Stories spinoff series featuring a weekly profile of interesting people and occupations. The first topic was meant to be a two-week episode on paranormal investigators—ghost hunters. After interviewing Dr. Strand, PWS decided to devote the entire season to the black tapes and Dr. Strand’s research. The main story is split between the actual investigation into the black tapes and the mysterious past of Dr. Strand, whose wife vanished five years ago.
The tapes themselves contain just about every classic horror element you can imagine: serial killers, urban legends, demonic possession and exorcisms, and more. The first handful of episodes appear to be unrelated cases, but as the series goes on it becomes apparent that everything is connected. One of the most interesting things about this connection is the emphasis on math and music. Sacred geometry, precise ratios, and unholy symphonies are all explored.
Oh, and I hope you can hold on to your skeptic’s hat for a while. While the presence of the supernatural is strongly implied, it’s entirely possible that Dr. Strand is right and that everything has a logical explanation. This approach keeps the immediacy of the horror elements at arm’s length. Things are frequently creepy, but I wouldn’t say that the story is every actually scary. But that might just be me.
The beating, bloody heart of the story is Dr. Richard Strange. Reagan slowly pulls back the layers of mystery surrounding his character, uncovering a dark and convoluted past. Unfortunately, we don’t get to see much depth to his character. He’s a fairly one-track individual, skeptical to a fault and never showing any emotion. Unless that emotion is mild anger. The few times Dr. Strand has a moment of relatable humanity, it’s between recording sessions and we only hear about after the fact.
The story is also very much plot driven. Rather than the “power creep” you might find in a fantasy novel—where the main character grows to incredible levels of power over time—The Black Tapes has “conspiracy creep.” Everything appears to be connected in spectacular ways and the stakes rise constantly. Sometimes this is done exceptionally well. There were several AHA! moments that were really freaking cool. Even better, they often involved real-world history, mythology, and math. Other times—and unfortunately this happened more often than not—it feels like the story is grasping for something sensational to shock the listeners rather than exploring the characters. As the show approaches its endgame, there are a few surprise developments that remind me of M. Knight Shyamalan—and not in his glory days.
That said, there is quite a lot to enjoy about The Black Tapes. The production value is great. I adored the intro theme song and the sound effects used throughout each episode complemented the story.
And the story is fantastic…up to a point. The series would have benefited heavily from wrapping things up in a single season. The plot and intrigue tended to spiral out of control with minimal change from the characters, but I was still enthralled for most of the first season.