What would happen if Serial and Welcome to Night Vale had a podcast baby?
What would you do if I told you that it already existed?
You probably haven’t heard of Alex Reagan and Pacific Northwest Stories. You probably haven’t heard of Dr. Richard Strand or The Strand Institute either. But they’re the major players in what is one of the most compelling and well done podcasts I’ve heard since… well to be completely honest, since I first heard Welcome to Night Vale. But there’s one other reason why you’ve never heard of Dr. Strand and Alex: they aren’t real.
Let me back up: The Black Tapes is a podcast presented in an NPR-like fashion with a different story told every other week. The central conceit of the show is that Alex Reagan, a journalist with Pacific Northwest Stories (think This American Life), decides, along with her producer Nic, to start a spin-off show focused on strange and fascinating jobs that exist in the world. Their first exploration is into the world of real life ghost hunting. Alex goes off and joins a team of ghost hunters and learns just what it takes to be surrounded by the paranormal day in and day out.
But, of course, ghosts aren’t real. So says Dr. Richard Strand, a man who is pretty much a professional Mythbuster. And while episode 1 could easily be the end of Alex’s foray into the eerie industry (she mentions in fact that episode 2 was meant to focus on geocaching) she stays with it. The more she learns about Dr. Strand and his mission to debunk would-be-proof of the paranormal, the more she gets caught up in his world. Alex discovers a collection of black tapes (hey! that’s the title!) in Strand’s office that represent the handful of cases that he has been unable to fully disprove. And she decides to dig in and focus all of season 1 of her new podcast on these creepy tapes and the man who owns them.
Now again, I must reiterate, Alex Reagan and Dr. Strand? They aren’t real. Which brings us to the first of a multitude of reasons that you gotta listen to this show.
It’s hard to remember that it’s fiction
The Black Tapes is a scripted show, a docudrama if you will. There are actors and written lines of dialogue and made up incident cases and fictional indie metal bands. The presentation of the show, however, is so solid that it’s easy to forget that it’s all made up. Even with all the stuff about hauntings and demons, you forget that this isn’t real. The Black Tapes does such an excellent job mimicking Serial and its host Sarah Koenig that it’s really easy to hear Alex’s voice and forget you aren’t listening to an NPR piece. All of the real world information about the show is well curated and the names of any actors or writers are pretty difficult to find. I’m 100% convinced I’ve heard the voice actor playing Strand before but it is legitimately impossible to find proof about who is playing him. It’s maddening. But at the same time? Completely gratifying. It allows you to live inside the illusion for a little while longer and it’s great fun.
I’m a sucker for spooky things. I love scary movies and survival horror video games – there’s really nothing better than the adrenaline rush after a serious jump scare. However, in case you’re a bit of a scaredy cat and this all gives you pause, don’t fret. I am too. I love scary movies but can’t watch them alone. And with few exceptions I’ve never made it more than 20 minutes into a horror game without panicking and closing my laptop – I settle for watching YouTubers be brave instead. So while The Black Tapes is legitimately creepy and excels at sending chills down your spine at the best times, it shouldn’t be enough to give you full-on nightmares. However, between the ghost stories and the creepy music, it’s very easy to get wrapped up in the horror of it all. And then sometimes you can hear Alex get freaked out by what she’s seeing so you get freaked out via osmosis and it’s pretty visceral. Just… don’t listen in bed at night. I did that once. I’m not doing it again.
The Black Tapes is really good at taking classic horror stories and motifs and presenting them in new ways. The bulk of this is accomplished because Alex is telling the stories as she experiences them. What she’s seeing or hearing is very real to her, so it’s very real to you as the listener as well. The podcast had covered everything from exorcism and demonic possession to a Slender-like figure stalking a child to a mysterious sound that kills you within a year of hearing it. There’s even one about a ghost woman murdering people while wearing her face upside-down. No lie. Like some Joker level nonsense is going on in this town.
OK so this is going to be hard to explain without giving anything away, but bear with me. The Black Tapes starts out telling one story each episode – after all, we’re listening in as Alex goes through Dr. Strand’s tapes one by one. But by episode 6 or so there is a very real thread running beneath all of it. Maybe these isolated incidents of real life hauntings and possessions aren’t so isolated after all? The conspiracy of it all is so very X-Files and it’s awesome. There’s also a slow-burn investigation into Dr. Strand and the strange things that have happened in his life as well to help balance out the insane paranormal goings-on. All of this makes it very easy to binge listen to the show. It also makes it very hard to wait two weeks for a new episode, let me tell you.
How to listen
OK, so now that that’s all said and done – you really need to get out and listen to this show. It’s available on iTunes and Stitcher and all the other places cool podcast kids hang out these days. You can also stream the episodes on their website. Once you’re all caught up (there’s only 11 episodes out so far and they average 35 minutes in length so you will be caught up quickly) I’d suggest checking out the subreddit. There isn’t a huge amount of activity, but the conversations on there are AWESOME. Seriously, the little fandom that’s building for this show is very smart. There’s been an impressive amount of theorizing and evidence gathering going on over there.
The season 1 finale is due out next week so now is the perfect time to go subscribe and get in on The Black Tapes ground floor. I can pretty much guarantee you’ll want to join in the theorizing with the rest of us once all is said and done.
header image taken from The Black Tapes Podcast website. (x)