spindizzy: (When you put it like THAT)
[personal profile] spindizzy posting in [community profile] ladybusiness
A banner for The Black Tapes with 'Do You Believe' written over tree silhouettes.

Black Tapes is a documentary podcast series sponsored by Pacific Northwest Stories that started off looking at interesting lives and... Kinda got stuck on their first topic; a paranormal researcher who doesn't believe in the paranormal. The series revolves around this researcher and his "black tapes", a collection of his unsolved cases.

... Or at least, that's in the in-universe explanation; in actuality it's a mockumentary-style horror podcast, following Alex Reagan, a journalist and podcast host, and Doctor Richard Strand, a paranormal researcher with his own institute that focuses on disproving what people claim to be paranormal phenomena, as they travel across America going over his Collection of Totally Unconnected Unsolved Cases. It's available to listen to on their website, and there are fan-made transcriptions available for those who prefer them.

I swear pretty much every podcast listener I know has recommended The Black Tapes to me at one point or another, and it's time for me to join the chorus.

So, the first thing to establish is always going to be how scary is this podcast? The answer is always going to be variable, but it does its best. The background music is good and usually appropriate, which means that it's usually on the right side of creepy! The voice acting is good, even if I'm not always sold on the writing. (We will Get To That.) I recognise a lot of the tropes they use -- there are urban legends, the obligatory Creepy Thing Stalking A Child, the ghosts and the demonic possessions and creepy cults you'd expect.

I think the novelty of it comes from the presentation; the documentary format they use works really well for what they're going for in series one, and I like the way they interviewed people tangentially connected to the events to get a more rounded version of the story and have Alex narrating events for the listener or interjecting with context and introductions -- it feels very much like a real documentary! It's impressive that they managed to maintain the degree of tension that they do considering that the premise of the show require that at least Alex and Nic (the show's producer) be okay because they're the ones theoretically editing the sodding podcast. They still managed to get me with the cliffhangers though!

I think it's really cool the way that where and when I listened affected how my experience, which isn't surprising, but the sheer degree of difference it made was huge, and so different from consuming horror in a different medium. I listened to a lot of episodes while on my way to and from work in the middle of summer, so it was unnerving but never got to full "I am scared to go to sleep" levels. But I accidentally ended up listening to an episode about an ominous machine while alone in a darkened library with the self-service machine rattling away, which was an experience I probably wouldn't get while consuming horror in any other medium. And I was looking out of the kitchen window into the dark as I did the washing up one night with a segment on a ghost standing silently outside someone's window and staring in and had to turn the damn thing off.1 So it obviously varies by your preferences, but I think it's more effectively creepy than say, Archive 81 or what I've heard of The Magnus Archives.

I think that what made series one work so well was the interplay between Alex, Nic, and Strand! I need a horror series to have a few characters for me to be invested in and judge the scale of weirdness by,2 and The Black Tapes build the relationships well! Alex and Nic have what sounds like a strong professional friendship (Teamwork! ♥) Alex and Strand have a sort of messy, slow-building friendship that keeps going really well and backsliding and leaving me livetweeting angrily about the whole mess.

I am here for the conflict of interests in Strand and Alex's friendship, even while I'm shrieking for them to stop that. It's not just the obligatory conflict between "diehard sceptic" and "open to the idea of the supernatural", although that is part of it.4 It's Alex's need for the show to be entertaining and to investigate things sometimes leads to her forget that this is Strand's life! Strand wanting Alex to help him investigate things and have neither her nor her work impact on the rest of his life leads to disrespect of Alex as a professional!5 And neither of those are okay, but they're fascinating to hear people work out?

... Nic is the Only Sane Man, and I think his attitude to this weirdness is really refreshing.

On the flip side, I found the structuring of the series to be uneven. The first series was probably better as a horror series than the second, which became more of a mystery series than anything else, but it was incredibly frustrating. Every episode seemed like the first half of a two-parter: "Here is the set-up, here is the main point of conflict... And that's a wrap! End the episode!" It's the story equivalent of putting the magician's assistant in the box of swords and never opening the door again! You're skipping the most interesting part of the trick! I've heard from other people that this technique worked for them; I believe it was [personal profile] kaytaylorrea who mentioned that it felt more like real life, where you don't always get to know the full story, but it just wasn't for me. It's pretty much the redeeming feature of series two for me; it was flawed and it wandered away from the documentary format, but at least it concluded some of its storylines.

And oh my sweet summer children, when I say series two is flawed, I do not say that lightly. I said that one of the key parts of the show was the relationships? Series two suffers a lot for choosing to have Alex and Strand part ways for a lot of it, and their relationship turning actively fractious for part of it gutted me in ways I didn't expect. (... Listening to the early episodes of series one after the finale of series two hurt a little, I'm not gonna lie.) And it tried to take on the costs of "reporter willing to do anything for a story" trope in Alex gradually compromising on her own values and professional ethics as it went on. Like, Alex is established in the very first episode as being willing to stretch the boundaries of honesty and her ethics, but the way that series two handled it was bullshit. (Except for Nic; you did good Nic.) The reasoning behind it was ridiculous, like the writers needed a way to force Alex into the role they wanted for her and couldn't think of a more believable way of doing it, even though the opportunities were right there. (Without spoilers: by the middle of series two, Alex needed a better therapist and a long conversation with a police force about a secondary character, and if she got either of those it is never mentioned.) It was frustrating and nearly enough to make me give up on the entire thing, but I really needed to know the resolutions of some of the stories.

(I can't get over how Strand's backstory KEEPS GETTING WORSE and MORE CONVOLUTED the longer the series goes on. Like, I'd ask "HOW MUCH WORSE CAN THIS GET" but I have read a lot of tragic backstories in my time, I KNOW how much worse it can get. But it does mean that the scenes where he's a happy human being destroy me emotionally, so I GUESS that makes up for it.)

Before we wrap up! There are two things that really interest me in my own reactions to The Black Tapes, one as a writer of fanfic and one as a consumer of media. As a fanfic writer, this is a challenge to write fic of, just because of the format of the show -- there's no physicality, no body language, no way to describe the ticks and habits you get for characters in other mediums because you don't know what they are. You have to either make it up whole-cloth (and risk alienating readers who have a different mental image to you) or follow the show's format and just go for the transcript style of fic. And if you're going the transcript route, you have to be confident in your ability to replicate the characters' voices and convey a scene with the canon-typical level of description. ... Guys, this is such a good technical challenge! I'm excited about it!

(Q: Susan, are you really talking about your fic-writing feelings in the middle of a theoretically professional critique?
A: I think the fan experience and the potential fan experience affects my enjoyment of media as I consume it! The potential for fanfic affects my level of investment and the level of attention I am going to pay to small details like how a character talks, which means I'm more likely to notice things to talk about in a review, so... Yes! I think this is perfectly reasonable thing to discuss in a critique.

The other thing is that I consider myself to have a certain degree of genre savvy, and for once I feel like this is actively working against me. I'm so used to horror stories where the sceptic is wrong, and having the narrative prove this one way or the other, even if the characters never find out, even if it's only in the stinger after Old Man Henderson's been demasked and taken away yelling about those meddling kids. As of the series two finale, The Black Tapes has yet to come down on one side or the other, officially -- the non-supernatural explanations are about as plausible as the supernatural ones, for given definitions of plausible! But because of my expectations, because of my experience with other horror stories... I genuinely got caught up, as Alex did, and forgot that the premise of the show was that there is no such thing as the paranormal! It wasn't until I was talking with [personal profile] renay about a minor character who was tormenting Alex by reading out ways to summon demons and she reminded me that the character was talking about things that weren't real that I realised that had happened! I... Genuinely feel like the "is the supernatural real or not in the story's universe?" is one of the tensions of the show, but I appreciate that it might not feel like that for anyone else.

I think the best summary of my feelings is this: I keep going "Eh, this was flawed and I wasn't that invested because the second series wasn't that great!" And then I remember that series three isn't out yet and I am reduced to angry velociraptor shrieking. If that isn't a recommendation I don't know what is.

1: I'm going to be honest, that was the single creepiest point in the podcast for me, because everything else that followed had the benefit of not being that, so I'm not a good person to judge it! Wooo for things hitting on your super niche worst fear!
2: See also: Petshop of Horrors, Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service, Ikigami. All ostensibly anthology horror series where the actual horror happens to random people who might never appear again, but there is a few recurring characters who are responsible for or investigating the aftermath of events!
3: Q: Susan, did you swear at a podcast on the bus again? A: YOU CAN PROVE NOTHING.
4: IS THIS TROPE AS GENDERED AS IT FEELS, I genuinely don't know, I'm so used to the die-hard sceptic getting horribly murdered before the halfway point of a film or being Scully that I'm not sure.
5: *takes off Professionalism hat* I swear [personal profile] renay told me that Alex and Strand kiss, I SWEAR, and this is the grossest betrayal of memory I've had!


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