Christian Sloan, Demon, Ghosts, Lori Henry, Paul Bae and Terry Miles, Podcast Review, Podcasting, Scepticism, Seattle, Supernaturalism, Terry Miles, The Black Tapes, The X-Files, Twitter, Urban Legends
[The following contains spoilers.]
The Seattle podcastmakers Alex Reagan and Nic Silver (Lori Henry and Terry Miles) plan to make a series about people with “interesting lives, remarkable occupations and amazing stories.” They will never in fact move on from their first subject, Dr Richard Strand (Christian Sloan), a paranormal investigator from Chicago and the founder of the Strand Institute. The resultant podcast, The Black Tapes, takes its name from the Institute’s VHS library of unsolved cases. Reagan is favoured with access to these recordings and she soon believes that she can identify certain recurring trends amongst the footage. Strand, a perfect pineapple of postmodernity, accuses Reagan of imposing her own narrative on to disconnected phenomena. Yet as he is increasingly implicated in Reagan’s scoop, the doctor may well prove to be the central strand.
The Black Tapes is written by Paul Bae and Terry Miles. It began in 2015 and it was wrapped up last November after three seasons. There seems to be a consensus amongst reviewers that this canonical podcast is a failure and a mess, though what should detain us is the richness of the wreckage. The Black Tapes was always joyriding in somebody else’s vehicle, namely Chris Carter’s cult television series The X-Files (1993 –). The podcast’s platonic male and female pairing echoes that between The X-Files’ Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), but with some 180 degree gender flipping. So in The Black Tapes, it is the man who is the sceptic and who is doomed, like Scully, to be continually wrong, episode after episode. He can only keep science on its throne by ignoring all of the evidence, for he finds himself placed in an aberrant universe where it is rational to believe in demons.
Sometimes Strand sounds a bit like Indiana Jones, as he babbles away under his breath about Biblical arcana, but he also mixes these vocal patterns with the guttural emotionlessness of the Terminator. It is probably unfair to compare Dr Strand to Scully because she was ultimately open-minded whereas he is openly an intellectual charlatan. His Institute is offering a million dollars to anybody who can supply evidence of the paranormal. Going by the evidence of its own library, the Institute is surely set to make more millionaires than Silicon Valley. It turns out, however, that Strand doesn’t have a million dollars and that he has rather cleverly deferred judgement upon his accumulated piles of straightforward proof of the supernatural until the technology becomes available to “solve” them.
If nineties nostalgia had a capital city then it would be no doubt Seattle, the home of grunge and Sub Pop and Starbucks. The podcast’s soundtrack evokes this nostalgia both subtly and superbly, with its coffee-shop, singer-songwriting vibe and the nineties-sounding production of its chilled electronica. Nostalgia is nevertheless only an element of The Black Tapes rather than being the complete light source.
For a start, The Black Tapes submits a good-humoured pastiche of the acclaimed nonfiction podcast Serial. First released in 2014, Serial had investigated the 1999 murder of the Baltimore schoolgirl Hae Min Lee and despite taking over nine hours of airtime to unpack this story, it has since clocked up more than 80 million downloads. The Black Tapes painstakingly replicates Serial’s format and general texture; it practically steals its music; and Reagan seems to be consciously luxuriating in the confiding, sweetly stilted delivery of the podcast’s host Sarah Koenig. But when Reagon’s narration strays into dialogue, the effect is far less successful:
Strand: This codex was, we think, first created in around the fourth century by a Coptic monastic order.
[There is a distinct pause in which frisky electronic music continues to jig along in the background.]
Reagan: [perplexed] A monastic order?
Strand: Indeed, and they were purported to worship demons.
Reagan: [perplexed] Demons?
Strand: Yes, but hang on, oh dear, I’ve just trod in some dog shit.
Reagan: [perplexed] Dog shit?
Strand: Er… you know? Faecal material expelled from the anus of a dog?
Reagan: [perplexed] A dog?
Strand: Er… a four-legged mammal domesticated by humans?
Reagan: [perplexed] Humans?… Oh wait, haven’t I heard of that?
There is never any attempt to iron out Reagan’s wonky echoing, so that it comes to resemble a deliberate affectation rather than merely bad scripting. Perhaps the producers inexplicably enjoy the sound of it. Another bugbear is the ads, which I am in a mixed mind about. Whenever any given storyline is in danger of becoming too heady, we are suddenly plunged back into the mundane, with a strategic advert for socks or underpants to reset the realism. This does not wholly excuse the intrusiveness of the advertising: try picturing an X-Files episode being paused for an entire mortal minute while Scully kicks off her shoes to promote her Bombas Socks to Mulder. You sometimes wonder whether Reagan is only hunting for a demon in order to flog it the ubiquitous footwear.
The Black Tapes gets beyond nineties nostalgia by keeping an affectionate companionship with the 2006 movie The Da Vinci Code. Many of the cases that feature in The Black Tapes will be also familiar to you from today’s Reddit forums and YouTube clips. These scenarios include a Slenderman bogeyman, exorcism footage, anomalies picked up on baby monitors and hunting cameras, and “the UnSound,” which resembles a classic contemporary urban legend without somehow being one. Incidentally, the series’ interest in infrasonics in episode 205 would later prove topical when the American embassy in Cuba was struck by either a covert sonic attack or mass hysteria. Maybe the excitable diplomats are listeners of The Black Tapes.
So far, therefore, we have an interesting product, a what-if adaptation of The X-Files, were it made today by podcasters instead of television-makers and using source material from YouTube instead of from 1990s UFO magazines. The tone of The Black Tapes is ostensibly unoriginal and yet the modish format becomes an enchantment that makes everything tired appear refreshed again. Unfortunately, the weaknesses of The X-Files are preserved under the magical gloss. As with The X-Files, the story within The Black Tapes becomes so heavy and sprawling and complicated that you are unable to carry all of its tangled limbs along with you. This looseness licenses continuous possibilities but also a bagginess, a waywardness, a lack of discipline.
The Black Tapes often doesn’t know where it is going or what it would like to commit to. A storyline in which Reagan is plagued with sleep deprivation is built up over several episodes before abruptly subsiding. The drama here hits an invisible wall. The mystery surrounding Strand’s wife Coralee likewise dissipates, with no attempt at contriving an interview with her that might mitigate the stark absence of any payoff to her storyline. And then, in a finale that feels strangely unprepared rather than conclusive, the characters themselves abandon their story. You get the impression that The Black Tapes had by the end grown bored with itself rather than, as it had in the past, lost appetite in its slowly ripening storylines.
The characters in The Black Tapes are usually discussing footage or photographs that we are unable to see: proof that the listeners are ironically required to imagine and have faith in. This might be the show’s crowning irony, but The Black Tapes is equally hobbled by its contemplative format. Rarely can anything in the story occur live and when the podcast tries this, it quickly loses the realism that it has accrued from aping Serial.
For example, when Reagan and Silver discover the corpse of the housekeeper Maddie Franks, they air their immediate reaction on the podcast. And, unlike with the suicide footage that has derailed Logan Paul’s career, the podcasters are broadcasting from the death scene of an identified person. This does not become a huge social-media no-no, however, because there is no realistic depiction of social media to begin with. Most of the regular people who the podcasters meet in the course of their investigation follow The Black Tapes, but passively, rather like the viewers of the soap opera Invitation to Love in Twin Peaks. Further nostalgia is henceforth generated from the absence of the hyper-interactivity and hysterical over-critiquing that would land on a podcast such as The Black Tapes were it really made in 2015. If memory serves me correctly, I think that Twitter is mentioned only once in the series (the podcast’s intern is a fan). The story is otherwise truanting in a world of innocence and nostalgia, a world before Twitter got going.
The series’ inclination to review and reflect means that the action-packed, demon-busting finale that some listeners had wanted was always going to be ruled out. Reagan or Silver would need to be there from the start, to curate the recording, thereby cancelling the necessary suspense. A greater problem with The Black Tapes is that it is a fake documentary whereas The X-Files had been a true-hearted drama. A documentary format, with its detailed sifting of evidence and balancing of opinions, is best suited to more nuanced or ambiguous storytelling. In The Black Tapes, though, the supernatural is indisputably real. After a while, we know full well that the truth is out there and that nothing in this story is in any practical respect unsolved. The documentary format is soon reduced to a cumbersome form of camouflage, worn purely so that short-term realism will rub off on the drama. In the instance of The Black Tapes, therefore, the apparatus of the podcast comes to hold back the story rather than to tell it.