As the podcasting phenomenon Serial announced the subject matter for their much awaited second season, the creative storytelling potential of the medium is at an all time high, as are listener expectations. The more boundaries are broken, the more off the beaten track you have to go to keep people interested.
The Black Tapes Podcast offers that sweet and wholly addictive combination of Serial and The X Files that should send listeners into a frenzy. The show, while fictional, offers a documentary style insight into the world of paranormal investigations through the eyes of an intrepid radio producer and the skeptical ghost expert she covers.
Alex Reagan, a radio producer, sets out to interview a group of paranormal experts for a planned podcast on people with interesting jobs. After a spooky encounter at a seance in a credit union (it makes sense in the episode), she then interviews Dr Richard Strand, a controversial figure in the paranormal world: A ghost hunter who doesn’t believe in ghosts. His belief is that all supposed hauntings, demons, ghosts and other such incidents can be debunked, and he has a $1m reward for the first person to prove otherwise. What he also has is a row of black VHS tapes in his office that contain recordings of that which he can’t yet explain. The ‘yet’ is very important to him.
While The Black Tapes Podcast explores the various eerie goings on Sr Strand has not fully debunked, from demonic recordings to a Slenderman style apparition, it’s more concerned with the people these incidents effect. To the people whose lives are irrevocably damaged by that which cannot be explained, it doesn’t necessarily matter whether they’re paranormal or not. Fear shapes us in ways that can’t easily be dismissed or derided.
This is something Alex understands and seeks to explore through an empathetic, if ambitious lens (she’s very open about wanting to be the new Ira Glass and how the success of the show helps her). She acts as the Mulder to Richard’s Scully, albeit if Scully were a stoic know-it-all devoid of any human understanding. The pair both benefit from their professional arrangement, and punctuate the lighter moments with fandom friendly flirting. Of course, it’s not as simple as that. The good Dr Strand has secrets, and Alex, for the greater journalistic good, is eager to uncover them.
As well as being a highly professional production deliberately evocative of similar NPR shows in its use of pithy insights and music choices, The Black Tapes Podcast is also scary as hell. There are no jump scares here; this is pure atmosphere, akin to old fashioned spooky stories around the campfire. Over the first 4 episodes, I hit the pause button at least twice in order to close an open door or make a cup of tea while blasting Daft Punk, just to stay safe. Admittedly, I’m a big honking chicken and always have been, but the podcast remains addictively creepy. You may hit pause more than once but rest assured you will keep listening until the end.