Earlier this month, I took my dog for a walk on Mount Tabor. It has an off-leash dog park that’s so large, you can walk for five minutes without seeing anyone. That’s not typically the case, but when there’s crummy weather, it certainly can be. And it just so happened to be raining that day.
So Rosie and I had the park to ourselves, which I quickly realized wasn’t as cool as I thought it was. I had the bright idea of bringing my headphones so I could listen to an episode of my new favorite podcast: The Black Tapes. The show describes itself as 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.” That day I was listening to episode 105, “The Devil You Know.” The synopsis reads:
If you believe in the existence of the devil in any way, then you might want to avoid this episode as Alex and Dr. Strand lift the veil on the Church’s most disturbing exorcism.
So that’s how I found myself, walking hesitantly through the mud, glancing over my shoulder every few steps. If there was anyone else in the park that day, I only caught glimpses of them through the trees, and all while The Black Tapes whispered the backward screams of a little girl into my ears. At one point, my dog actually froze and stared into the woods.
Remember that scene in The Thing where the Alaskan malamute first encounters the alien?
I can’t really critique this show without talking about the park that day. Everything I was feeling—the nerves, the fear of isolation, jumping each time a twig cracked—it perfectly highlights The Black Tapes’ greatest strength: mobile atmosphere. Unlike scary movies, where you leave your experience in the theatre or living room, BTP aims to entertain you out in the real world. I’ve never been as spooked on a public bus as I was during episode 103: “The Unsound,” in which our host explores a secret frequency that can kill its listener within one year. Ridiculous? Yes. Did I skip over the part where they played the “unsound” for the first time because I’m superstitious?
You damn right.
And while the show isn’t without its flaws, it’s these moments, where they have you second-guessing your own beliefs, that really make it compelling storytelling. And that’s not the only thing that makes BTP worth listening to.
Here are six more reasons you should crack into The Black Tapes Podcast this weekend:
1. It’s The X-Files
Black Tapes is hosted by a character named Alex Reagan who, in the inaugural episode, sets out to record a show about “interesting people.” In the pilot, she meets Dr. Richard Strand, a man dedicated to debunking claims of paranormal activity. And it turns out, the doc is quite good at what he does. Alex is surprised to learn how many people are trying to fake ghost stories (and the interesting ways in which they do it). It isn’t until the end of the episode that Alex discovers Dr. Strand has a secret of his own. His institute possesses several black tapes (audio/video), which represent a handful of “incidents” that he has yet to logically debunk. Basically, they’re a career blemish. Thus, Alex decides to change the goal of her podcast and spends the rest of the series exploring these black tape incidents.
So what we’ve got here is a gender-swapped Mulder and Scully from The X-Files, and it works really well. Alex is ever optimistic and finds her beliefs being challenged the further down the rabbit hole she goes, much Like Fox Mulder. Keeping her grounded is Richard Strand. No matter how weird things get, Strand always swoops in at the last second to offer a logical explanation for what happened. This leaves the listener teetering somewhere between belief and disbelief, which was exactly the purpose of Scully on The X-Files. She was Mulder’s counterbalance. Her ability to explain away his crackpot theories is exactly why there were so many seasons of that show. For every step forward, there was one step back. Progress without commitment.
(My personal favorite moment was when Strand debunked the flashlight technique, which is an actual deception that some “ghost hunters” call upon in order to “communicate” with ghosts.)
2. It’s Also Serial
What made Serial so popular was its ability to tease information about the Adnan Syed murder case episode by episode. Simultaneously, the show was sprinting to keep up with itself because it was airing in real time. User information (calls, letters, emails) was actually influencing the direction of the host’s investigation, which means episodes were changing on the fly. It was like reality TV but for the podcast generation. BTP enlists the same format, billing the show as something that was happening “as you’re listening.” The impact is obviously less since it’s a fictional series. But the commitment and attention to detail are impressive.
3. It’s Fictional, But Not Fictional
Molly Osberg of Motherboard.vice.com put it perfectly: the world in which The Black Tapes take place isn’t so much an alternate reality as one that hovers comfortably adjacent to ours.
That is to say, the show is a work of fiction, but it pulls from real life myths, true accounts, paranormal investigation techniques, and ways to debunk frauds. Fans of the paranormal will pick up on several cult favorites, such as the strange-face-in-the-mirror phenomenon, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Ouija boards, and elements of satanic mythology.
This is another huge selling point for the show. The blend of reality and fiction is, by and large, seamless. In a matter of episodes, my sense of security was wavering. Remember that time you were driving down the road in the middle of the night, and you knew there wasn’t someone lurking in your back seat? But you had to look in the rearview mirror anyways, just to be sure? That’s the essence of The Black Tapes Podcast. It feeds you just enough to second-guess yourself.
4. Production Value
While this wavers occasionally throughout the show, the production value of BTP is great. This isn’t your best friend’s podcast—it wasn’t recorded at a dining room table with Apple AirPods. The sound effects are well placed and used with restraint. The music does a good job dictating atmosphere and only once in a great while breaks the listener’s concentration.
5. Breaking the 4th Wall
I won’t dive into this too much because I don’t want to ruin the surprise. But occasionally, the show gives its listeners…puzzles.
6. Three Seasons Available Now!
Listen, I know some of you are thinking to yourselves, wow, this dude is wayyy behind!
And I am. The first episode of BTP aired on May 25, 2015, and the last on November 7, 2017.
Still, that doesn’t mean everyone’s heard of it by now, does it? Maybe I can still reach a few sheltered souls?
Also, I should make one thing clear: I’ve only listened to about 3/4 of the first season. When I find something I like, everything in my body says, “BINGE IT NOW, BABY!” But show hole is a real condition, y’all, and I fear it. So I’ve been taking it slow. And it’s been great.
So What Doesn’t Work?
Of course, nothing in life is perfect, and BTP is no exception. I hate to admit it, but when I first started listening, I described it to a friend as a “mediocre podcast with flashes of brilliance.” Obviously, it has grown on me. But it’s worth acknowledging my struggle, and that struggle is this: the acting is…not always the best. To be clear, it’s definitely not the worst. You can go for minutes on end without being pulled from the moment. But occasionally, a line of dialogue will land that sounds just like that: a line of dialogue. This is most evident with Richard Strand, the titular skeptic. He is a highly educated individual and a man of science. So everything he says is peppered with data and facts, and it’s backed by an almost encyclopedic knowledge of all things paranormal. It’s not that people don’t talk like this, I suppose some do. But when a line isn’t delivered effortlessly, it’s almost as if you can hear the script in his hands. You get extracted from the moment, and all of a sudden, you’re in the sound booth, watching an actor read from a piece of paper.
Opposite this problem is the protagonist’s habit of repeating everything that’s said as if in a constant state of near-disbelief. It goes like this:
“They found the body, except it wasn’t a body. It was a refrigerator.” “It was a refrigerator?!”
Or, “The family believed their daughter had been possessed by a cantaloupe.” “A cantaloupe?”
Or, “The vampire was only six years old.” “Six years old?”
Well, you get the idea. It happens a lot.
Neither of these things was bad enough that I considered dumping the podcast, but they did stick out a lot at first. I should say that after about three episodes, a shift started happening in my brain. The acting became less problematic, more endearing. It grew on me. It was almost like there was something familiar and familial about it.
Somehow, it actually made me love the show more.
“Wait—it made you love the show more?!”
It did. It made me love the show more.
Check out all three seasons of The Black Tapes Podcast now.