The greatest podcast listening experience I ever had happened after some early morning Twitter procrastinating. Instead of getting out of bed at a reasonable hour, I flipped through recent tweets, half-awake and looking for nothing in particular. A Twitter friend, which one I’ve long forgotten, rhapsodised about a show called The Black Tapes Podcast that had kept them up all night. With nothing better to do that day, I downloaded the first episode. Several hours later, after some uncharacteristically long walks and a lie-down in my room with my headphones plugged in and all the lights turned on, I had caught up with the first season and become utterly hooked on its mystery. I also didn’t sleep a wink that night.
Radio drama hasn’t entirely died out in the visual age but it has a fraction of the audiences it once enthralled, with outliers like BBC Radio’s The Archers still leading the way after many decades of popularity. Podcasting took its time evolving to fill that long-vacated gap, but it’s done so with incredible flair and creativity, with genre-bending pastiches like Welcome to Night Vale garnering major cult audiences. It’s proven to be a great medium for horror fans too, with its old-school storytelling style melding well with modern sensibilities and the constant shifts in the genre. This is where The Black Tapes Podcast finds its perfect niche.
Centred on the intrepid team at Pacific Northwest Stories, The Black Tapes centres on a This American Life style radio show hosted by Alex Reagan, wherein she reports on the enigmatic and extremely icy Dr. Richard Strand, a professional sceptic who works to debunk the unexplained mysteries of the world deemed to be the goings-on of the supernatural. The eponymous tapes are his yet-to-be-solved cases, which slowly begin to reveal themselves as more complex than mere trickery.
Serial changed the game with its new journalism take on the true crime genre - part cozy mystery, part interrogation of the justice system - but the team at The Black Tapes Podcast have taken the trappings of that now iconic NPR mould and combined it with the chills of The X-Files. The result is a genre mish-mash that’s just convincing enough to scare the ever-loving hell out of you. How can you not become engrossed when that public radio voice in your ear lulls you into a real sense of trust? Alex is peppy, perennially chipper and a little too invested in the possibility that demons may be trying to take over the world. The show is incredibly savvy in the way it plays with listeners’ willingness to invest in media personalities. Alex is exactly the kind of radio host who would have legions of loyal fans, and Dr. Strand, if he were a real figure, would expect to be the subject of many an uncomfortable tweet of love from young women with screeds of Tumblr fan-fiction. As the show progresses, real life intrudes and it becomes a little harder for a series of such popularity to conduct its business as usual.
And it can be pretty spot on. Even when the action gets very spooky - from demons and rockstars to cosmic geometry and upside-down faces - and the acting a little duff, there’s a pervading sense of realism throughout that has even the most ardent non-believers second guessing themselves when the tension increases. After a second season that wandered in the wilderness a tad too long, the sophomore slump all but inevitable after such a tightly conceived debut, the third season has brought back some of that urgency and given Alex a greater journalistic drive that makes for more compelling listening. There are less moments of fear that linger with you like the first season - the unsound will forever haunt me - but the mystery is at its most intriguing, melding everything from Pythagoras cults of philosophical geometry to historical Presidential assassinations to grand robbery from the Vatican vaults.
Audio horror has to deal with various challenges, the main one being the difficulty of talking about something scary and keeping it scary. Even the most petrifying monster can become rather benign when described in the public radio voice. Lay on the theatrics too much and it still fails. You have to take it seriously enough for the audience to believe it, not a wink or a nod in sight (or sound), and that’s one of The Black Tapes Podcast’s real strengths: This cast and crew totally buy the expanding, unnerving and admittedly convoluted mystery they’re selling. When Alex describes one of the many black tapes to the audience, its contents mundane until they’re suddenly not, we’re totally convinced by her shock and investment in what she’s seeing, and there’s something truly riveting about Alex’s Mulder-esque hopes that maybe there is something bigger out there, even if it will inevitably end up destroying us all.
With Halloween month in full swing, there’s no better time to enjoy The Black Tapes Podcast. Download it and make your commute a more unnerving experience (than usual). Podcast storytelling offers amazing chances to discover fresh series and emotional payoffs unique to the audio form. Why not do what I did and go on long walks alone in the woods while listening to the latest tale? You won’t regret it.
The Black Tapes Podcast is available on iTunes and whatever platform you get your podcasts from. Check out their website here.