The Black Tapes opens on PNWS correspondent Alex Reagan as she walks the streets of Seattle with a microphone. She’s asking people if they believe in ghosts. Alex herself is chipper, quick and earnest – but the replies she receives are the mixture of breathless enthusiasm and total skepticism that you’d expect. Not everyone believes in ghosts, and the ones that do, believe hard. One exchange is particularly revealing:
“Do you believe in ghosts?”
“Well, I was in the tower of London, once, and I could-I could feel Anne Boleyn – her ghost or her spirit or whatever it was. I could feel it all around me!”
“How do you know it was Anne Boleyn?”
“Because.. I was in the Tower of London?”
This believer experienced something at the Tower of London, to be sure – but what? Why assume it was Anne Boleyn, when countless others died at the foot of that tower, too? This sort of confirmation bias isn’t uncommon amongst believers in the paranormal, and Alex picks up on it immediately. There’s something missing in the story, but it doesn’t mean people are lying when they say they’ve seen ghosts. There’s more to it than that, some nugget of truth at the heart of all these experiences.
If ghosts and demons aren’t real, why have people been seeing them for centuries?
Alex sets off to find out.
Her first stops are at the office of a Paranormal Researcher, the Paranormal Research department of Pennsylvania State University, and the host of the ghost-hunter reality-show Demon Hunters. At every turn, she faces the same combination of skepticism and breathless enthusiasm she found out on the street – but there’s something else, too. A name keeps coming up: Dr. Richard Strand, an infamously stubborn skeptic and pariah to ghost hunters everywhere. Since 1998, his Strand Institute has been offering a million-dollar reward for anyone who can conclusively provide proof of paranormal activity.
So far, no one has come to claim. Not for lack of trying.
Alex Reagan knows who she has to track down – but Dr. Strand may as well be a ghost himself, for how aggressively he avoids her inquiries. She finally makes contact, but has no idea how deep the rabbit hole will go – especially once she discovers the collection of case-files that even Dr. Strand can’t definitely disprove.
These, of course, are The Black Tapes.
I’m not here to say whether ghosts are real or not – where’s the fun in that? The Black Tapes takes the form of a serial crime podcast, with Alex digging up clues, chasing down leads and conducting disarmingly revealing interviews with a wide-variety of experiencers of paranormal phenomena in real-world locations. In one episode she might visit New Mexico to investigate a cave-painting, and in another the decommissioned Riverview Hospital right here in Vancouver. One harrowing scene takes place right inside the lobby of the Hotel Vancouver itself – with everything captured on a voice-recorder in her jacket pocket. Everything happens in real-time in The Black Tapes, and Alex never knows how an investigation will go until it’s underway.
At the center of everything is Dr. Strand himself, a man significantly more mysterious and confounding than many of the ghost-stories he keeps locked in his files. The Black Tapes won’t necessarily give you a straight answer about ghosts, but you will uncover truths about Strand and his Black Tapes, and those are plenty nail-biting on their own.
I mean they ought to be – they’re all fake.
Pacific North West Stories (PNWS) is a podcast network, and Alex Reagan is one of its many fictional correspondents. Everyone she interviews is an actor, and everything she encounters is an immaculately and lovingly crafted illusion – right down to the shocking witness testimony and the hidden-microphone docudrama. It’s a radio play, and a damn good one, with a production team of over 50 actors and researchers working behind the scenes. The entire show is the work of Terry Miles and Paul Bae, who pass writing duties back and forth even as they ruthlessly insist that everything in the show is real.
Their dedication shows in every episode, from Alex’s vocal tics to the way her in-universe ‘Black Tapes’ show loves to call into its own, real-world production offices for advice. While Alex is likeable, she isn’t a perfect journalist, and the pressures of her job weigh heavy on her shoulders. At one point she even gets herself pulled off the air for defying journalistic ethics – only to return a couple weeks later after her suspension. The Black Tapes podcast blurs the line between reality and fiction at every possible juncture, until you can’t remember which details are real-world true and which are not. Alex is your anchor to the show – not the fictional podcast-in-a-podcast itself – and that means when she steps outside the show with a pocket-mic, you’re along for the ride. When she goes rogue, so do you.
Everything is so well-researched, and so precisely situated, that it quickly doesn’t matter that it isn’t strictly real. And the scariest thing about The Black Tapes, and the thing that makes it such a compulsive listen, is that everything is.
Dr. Richard Strand and Alex Reagan might be played by actors, but the urban legends and ghost-stories you’ll explore are all drawn from real-world events. Topics like Ouija Boards, mysterious figures in the back of historical paintings, demonic possessions and poltergeists aren’t just fodder for the horror podcast – they’re obsessively researched real-world phenomena that the show approaches with an air of awe and respect. The Black Tapes won’t just describe diabolus in musica – they’ll play it. And when someone says they’ve discovered a demonic tri-tone buried in an audio recording, you better be prepared to hear it through your own headphones.
The show does its homework at every turn, and it pays off in scares that feel connected to the real world – because they are. When it starts to feel like they’re writing urban-legend fanfiction, you’ve reached the best parts of the show.
At its best, The Black Tapes feels like a particularly morbid Wikipedia session hosted by an irrepressibly curious youtube-journalist. Alex never gives up, and she never stops asking questions – even after things get very, very scary. Somehow, she keeps her sense of humour through it all.
If you’re ready to indulge your spookiest impulses and dig into a charming podcast that feels too real to be fiction, I can’t recommend The Black Tapes enough. It’s some of the most engrossing storytelling I’ve heard in an audio-only medium and it’s free – dig in now and you might be done by Hallowe’en.
Just remember to pay close attention.