Horror is a genre of paradoxes. Contradiction creates dissonance and breeds in our minds dark possibilities. We know horror media to be fictional and yet in the deep dark nights after watching a particularly affecting scary movie or reading a disturbing passage in a novel, the possibility of the imaginary becoming real can terrify us. It is this balance between the world of story and the world we live in that we see the versatility of all genre, but horror teases us like other modes of fiction rarely can. While fantasy and science fiction offer us wishful escape, horror presents us with a more exciting reality that we would rather not see come to pass.
I admit, there are a million different possible fictional worlds I would chose to live in before I even entertained the thought of cenobites being real, but there is a thrill in horror that presents itself as fact, Blair Witch or House of Leaves style. The key to enjoying horror intellectually is through critical distance so you can see the allegory, but the thrill of it comes in the visceral experience of a darker possible reality. And that’s why I’m in love with The Black Tapes Podcast.
The Black Tapes Podcast is a paranormal investigator procedural presented as an investigative public radio series. A direct parody of NPR’s Serial, Black Tapes uses the long form radio journalism format to frame modern horror stories as if they were real. Eight episodes exist so far, with 12 having been announced for the show’s first season, and they cover topics ranging from a Babadook-esque shadow person, to a back woods abduction, to a sound that is actually a portal to Hell.
The podcast centers on a central pair of characters that fit the paranormal investigator duo archetype, albeit with a twist. Alex Reagan is a radio journalist who is well known for her work on Pacific Northwest Stories (the show’s equivalent to This American Life), and serves the voice of possibility. She is accompanied by Dr. Richard Strand of The Strand Institute, the prototypical skeptic. The twist on the format is interesting, as Strand, who is the expert in the paranormal, is also the show’s most devout skeptic. Reagan, meanwhile, is in the role normally reserved for the Scullies of the world, but has a Mulder-esque ‘anything might be possible’ attitude.
Outstanding production quality and loving attention to detail make The Black Tapes a pleasure to listen to, but the real key to its success is in its tone. The show doesn’t shy away from parodying Serial, with musical cues and structural flourishes clearly inspired from its NPR inspiration. Clear references to Serial are made throughout the show, offering a wink to veteran podcast listeners. This tongue in cheek referencing of a real life media sensation gives humour and distance to the proceedings.
Despite it’s self-reflexive nature, however, The Black Tapes never gives up its disguise, a stoicism that provides an air of the uncanny. The show’s website even keeps a straight face billing the program as non-fiction and its cast as real people (and some of whom I think might even be performing with their real names, further blurring the boundary between reality and horror). This gives the whole thing a Blair Witch effect, making suspension of disbelief natural. When listening I often wonder if I could play this show for my parents (who haven’t heard Serial), tell them it was real, and have them believe me.
The combination of parody and dogged realism works to great effect, producing humour one moment and legitimate scare-chills the next. The Black Tapes Podcasts gives listeners a unique experience balanced between the fantasies we sometimes wish was reality and the safe distance of clever laughter that we hide behind when we can’t take anymore screaming.