Easily Explained: The Black Tapes
Last year we saw Podcasts coming into the mainstream in a very serious way. Welcome to Nightvale became one of the most popular and critically acclaimed pieces of new media available and it seemed to spark of a revival of radio dramas and scripted entertainment. Hot on its heels we got the true crime podcast Serial, where a reporter painstakingly investigated a man in jail for the murder of his girlfriend at a rate of about one minor fact per episode. Where Nightvale was popular out on the fringe, Serial appealed to Middle-America and the mainstream. Serial is the reason that shows like “Making a Murderer” were put into production.
At the crossing point of these two podcasts we find The Black Tapes. It has all of the dry investigative reporting of Serial with all of the juicy weirdness of Nightvale, although its subject matter and its treatment of the material are vastly different. The Black Tapes podcast has a framing story of a reporter attempting to do exactly the same as Serial before her but where Serial pursued a crime The Black Tapes got derailed into following a parapsychological researcher named Richard Strand who is vehemently intent on disproving the existence of the supernatural despite the constantly mounting evidence and his own personal involvement in inexplicable events in the past. This conflict is made flesh in the form of the titular Black Tapes, VHS cases that hold all of the evidence on cases that he considers to be unsolvable with current technology. Not unsolvable, just outside of his reach at present. Each week the podcast follows Dr Strand along on either a fresh investigation or back to revisit the victims of one of those unsolvable cases.
As time goes by the story of Dr Strand, the institute that he founded to investigate the supernatural and his mysteriously missing wife unfolds. Peppered with hints about his family's involvement in the trade of supernatural artefacts and a specific demon that seems to be quite fixated on both Strand and all those around him. Elements of the story range from the vaguely spooky to the genuinely chilling but it is always strongest in its ambiguity. The podcast exists within the fictional world that the stories take place in and both fans and enemies of Strand influence events through contact with the podcast. The most frightening episode to date revolved around a woman who's child appeared to be haunted in a manner similar to a character encountered early on in the shows run only for more evidence to surface that implied she was simply an obsessive fan of the show with a bizarre case of Münchhausen by proxy.
Coming to the The Black Tapes as a horror fan I find it to be a little bit tepid in places but if you are not well read in that particular unpleasant area then there are plentiful scares. Because of the way that the story is written, peppered with non-sequiturs and red herrings, there is a sense of realism to many of the strange events that would feel familiar to fans of real life para-psychological research and ghost stories. If the script and acting felt just a little less “scripted” then the found footage aspect of the story could have come to the fore and The Black Tapes would have been amazing rather than just good. The Black Tapes also suffer from a slight case of the Chris Carter effect, where every answer just creates twice as many questions, it helps the story get its hooks into you and it keeps you listening long past the point that you should probably have gone to bed but it doesn't make for the most satisfying story arc.