The Black Tapes is a scripted podcast, following the exploits of journalist Alex Reagan as she talks with and researches the exploits of Dr. Richard Strand, an avid paranormal researcher and skeptic, on the handful of cases he has yet to debunk. The information on these cases are held in a series of black VHS cases, hence the podcast title, The Black Tapes.
Despite the series' ominous title, the show is not a traditional horror fiction podcast. While it does have its eerier moments, the show is more about the lives of investigators and their subjects, and how the strange events surrounding them—whether you believe them to be paranormal or not—affect those involved.
This work contains examples of:
- Adult Fear:
- In the first two episodes Alex looks into the case of Robert Torres, who has video evidence suggesting a shadowy apparition followed him throughout his life. After interviewing him, Alex and Strand find out that it's seemingly been passed onto his son.
- Season two's first and second episodes involve supernatural happenings surrounding young children. And in the second episode it seems like the family housekeeper—whom the family has known for years—was in on it, and performed dark rituals involving the child. She also kills herself as soon as this is discovered.
- It seems that the Order of the Cenophus has a lot of people doing this to kids.
- Agent Mulder: The podcast host, Alex Reagan, is like this, as a counterpart to Richard Strand's Agent Scully role. While she slips into instances of Agent Scully at times, thanks to Strand's explanations, she's definitely more open to the idea of the supernatural, and lampshades their dynamic when she has to fly solo for a while.
- Agent Scully: Doctor Richard Strand. Doctor Strand always provides a logical explanation for the contents of the Black Tapes and anything else that appears supernatural within the show, even when he's not able to provide proof aside from a hand-wave explanation. Alex calls him out on it in episode two.You know, you're actually bordering on condescension at this point.
- Alternative Character Interpretation: Invoked in universe on the Charlesworth ghost from episode 104. Most people assume that the ghost is Catherine Williams because the original founder of the Festival of the Upside Down Face said so, and because it makes sense logically; Catherine wants everyone to know of the tragedy she suffered. In universe, the alternate interpretation is that the ghost is actually the killer Sarah Benning (not just her ghost, but actually her), who cut off Catherine's face and stitched it onto her own, but upside down. She goes around terrorizing the descendants of the original group of Catherine's friends. Only the native Charlesworth citizens agree with this interpretation.
- Ancient Conspiracy: The Order of the Cenophus.
- Apocalyptic Log: The E. Hausdorff tape found in episode #208.
- The reveal at the end of the season 2 finale retroactively turns the entire podcast series up to that point into this.
- Arc Symbol: A pentagram consisting of a star within two concentric circles becomes a common theme that appears to make the Black Tapes appear to be related, and not unrelated cases.
- A second one becomes even more prominent: a circle containing a line above two smaller lines that are side by side resembling an upside down face.
- Beethoven Was an Alien Spy: A psychic in episode seven claims that Lenin had the same power as him, bilocation, which was responsible for the reports of Lenin working at his desk when he was supposed to be on his deathbed.
- Season 3 speculates that U.S. president James A. Garfield was a member of a demon-summoning cult who was planning to destroy the world and that his assassin was an ex-member of the same cult trying to stop him.
- Somehow, church leader John Calvin apparently still walks the Earth in demonic form under the alias of the Helvetian.
- Big Bad: While it's unclear exactly what is going on, it's clear that something big is coming, and a lot of it is connected to the Shadow Man who's been haunting the Torres family who may or may not also be the Archdemon responsible for killing anyone who's heard the Unsound. And also Pazuzu.
- By the end of season 3 it seems that this entity is just one of a potential army of such creatures and that the human antagonist Thomas Warren is the one responsible for summoning them.
- Belligerent Sexual Tension: There are traces of this between Richard and Alex. She is very interested when Richard reveals he is pouring through research with a female colleague. Possibly between Alex and Nic. She is upset when Nic gets back together with Amalia without telling her.
- Brown Note:
- Episode three, the episode about the eponymous Unsound. It's said to be the sound of an Archdemon beckoning the listener to invite it into their world. Anyone who listens to it is supposed to die within a year.
- Episode nine introduces the idea that music and math can be used to understand the universe and bring a person closer to God. It also introduces the Mysterium, a symphony composed by a man who felt that he could use his music to become God. If played, the Mysterium would wipe out humanity and replace us with a race of shadows emerging from the shadows.
- In season two we get to hear a supposed cure to the Unsound.
- Corrupt Church: Strand feels this way about the Catholic Church. He believes that they stage and record elaborate exorcisms in the hopes that the videos will "leak" and convince people to start following them.
- Chekhov's Gun:
- The Archdemon mentioned in episode three and "sacred geometry" (essentially Satanic numerology) from episode six, and the shadow man from the first two episodes all come back in episode seven. They're all somehow connected to the disappearance of Sebastian Torres, who went missing for a time but was found during the second half of the episode.
- The concept of an upside-down face from episode #4 pops up again in episodes #11 & #12, in a a number of ancient cave paintings. Additionally, the cult to which Sebastian Torres' kidnapper belonged had several members who escaped the police and were last seen heading in the direction of the same river Sarah Benning's body was pulled from. This escape happened the same year the Festival of the Upside Down Face began.
- Cloudcuckoolander's Minder: Alex is developing into a mild version of this for Dr. Strand, after the revelation that his wife may be alive pushes him to become obsessive and somewhat reckless. Notably, both Nick and Ruby call her when he start acting erratically, and she insists on him getting food and rest.
- Critical Research Failure: One ghost hunter In-Universe notably claims to have run into Lovecraftian entities. Remembering the hunter's reaction to any skepticism of ghost hunting, Alex kindly doesn't point out that H. P. Lovecraft wrote fiction.
- Demonic Possession: The subject of the episode "The Devil You Know," which includes a Hollywood Exorcism, complete with a priest arguing that psychology is wrong about medical issues being to blame.
- Enfant Terrible: Episode six involves a boy who confessed to stabbing his parents to death in their sleep when he was eleven.
- Executive Meddling: In-universe, during Season 2 the producers decide they should re-brand the podcast back into being about interesting professions after Alex and Nic find a woman she interviewed dead from a grisly suicide. However, they're not any more enthusiastic about this than Alex and Nic are—they're just worried about Alex, and in the end they're easily convinced to keep the podcast as-is.
- Foregone Conclusion: The podcast starts off as a look into various interesting professions, with Strand being a notable name in the ghost hunting community who won't return Alex's calls. Strand's message returning Alex's calls is part of the introductory music, and it becomes obvious there won't be any other professions profiled once Alex finds out about the titular black tapes.
- Freudian Excuse: It's implied that Strand's behavior and skepticism may stem from the mysterious disappearance of his wife.
- Friend on the Force: Tannis Brawn, a self-proclaimed psychic detective and primary subject of episode seven, has his claims of being able to use his powers to find missing people officially backed up by quite a few different police departments around the country.
- Glasgow Grin: The Helvetian.
- Humanoid Abomination: Numerous entities appear that qualify, but special mention goes to the Helvetian, whose appearance and actions are pure nightmare fuel.
- Last Episode, New Character: The Helvetian - a memorable and potentially supernatural new villain - only appears in the small handful of episodes that comprise the third season: the series' end up until this point.
- Magitek: The exorcism machine. Maybe.
- Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: A common conflict that surrounds the Black Tapes, and one that Alex directly experiences as she is conflicted between Strand's explanations and others' genuine testimony.
- Perhaps the most compelling instance in the series occurs with Strand's own possible psychic powers and how they led to the discovery of a missing child's body. Strand's friend claims that Strand led them directly to the body's location following a vivid dream. Strand admits the dream happened, but chalks it up to his obsession with the case and how he had been making a list of the most probable places in the area where someone might dispose of a body. He claims they only found the body after systematically checking several of these other areas first. Both sides of the story are told in such a way that either man could be choosing to remember events in a way that best suits his own belief system.
- Missing Mom: Coralee Strand, Richard Strand's wife and Charlie Strand's mother, who mysteriously disappeared when Richard Strand briefly left her alone in their vehicle.
- Monster of the Week:
- How the format of most episodes are structured. Strand introduces Alex to one of the Black Tapes, Alex (and sometimes Strand) interviews people related to the incident and has them describe their experiences, Alex gets surprised and relays her knowledge to Strand, and Strand hand-waves the black tapes with a logical, real-world explanation but leaving the tape unsolved, ultimately creating more questions than answers.
- The show drifts away from the formula in the second season. Alex continues to investigate a specific mystery each week, but it's generally related to the Myth Arc, and Strand has a bit of a breakdown after discovering his wife might still be alive and mostly gives up his Agent Scully responsibilities in favor of his own, increasingly reckless investigations.
- Nice Job Breaking It, Hero!: The second season ends on the reveal that the Axis Mundi, the place where The Mysterium had to be played to usher in the apocalypse is not Mount Ararat, as originally suspected, but the Pacific Northwest Stories studio, and that they have been playing The Mysterium on the show via the Unsound and the other audio files they thought had been coming from Keith Dabic.
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: Strand's basic description - a skeptic debunking alleged supernatural phenomena and offering a reward if one turns out to be real - sounds awfully similar to skeptic James Randi.
- No Such Thing as Bad Publicity:
- In-Universe. Geoff Went, the leader of a band called Hastur Rising openly admits to using Faux Symbolism and satanic imagery in order to get attention during an interview in episode three.Went: They'll see what they want to see. We're just trying to put on a show. It's entertainment for f—BLEEP.
Interviewer: So that was a real cat you killed on stage?
Went: Killing cats is illegal and subject to prosecution in the state of Washington.
Interviewer: So is that a no?
Went: What do you think?
Interviewer: I don't know, that's why I'm asking. You don't think that using satanic images and symbols on your album covers might be encouraging people to view your band through that lens?
Went: I'm just glad that people are looking at the album covers.
- Dr. Strand disagrees, feeling that the attention to his background is overshadowing his efforts to educate people about the paranormal. However, his publisher wants to send Alex a fruit basket.
- In-Universe. Geoff Went, the leader of a band called Hastur Rising openly admits to using Faux Symbolism and satanic imagery in order to get attention during an interview in episode three.
- Psychic Powers:
- Episode seven is about Tannis Brawn, a successful psychic detective.
- The idea of bilocation (ability to appear in two places at the same time) is also explored to varying degrees among several characters.
- Public Domain Artifact: The Codex Gigas figures into the plot at one point.
- Quote Mine: The second season opens with Strand accusing Alex of misrepresenting him in this way, citing her leaving out revisions he made to an initial statement or omitting everything he said to try and explain the Simon Reese case. Alex justifies her decisions as judgement calls made to keep views balanced and leaving out instances of Strand being too didactic by either leaving too much room for coincidence or having "logical explanations" she felt were just as far-fetched as any paranormal theory would be.
- Running Gag: In the first season, most interviewees don't seem to understand what a podcast is.
- Sealed Evil in a Can: After the Anasazi people repelled the shadow invasion they erected a set of totems to keep the portal closed. By the end of season 2, all of these totems are destroyed.
- Shout-Out: The title of Episode 110, "Her Satanic Monastery's Request", references the Rolling Stones' album Their Satanic Majesties Request.
- Episode 103 "The Unsound" profiles the leader of a heavy metal band called Hastur Rising. Naturally, as per his band's namesake he creates and disseminates a work of art that will supernaturally affect anyone who is exposed to it.
- Episode 106 "The Devil's Door" deals with a deeply disturbed mental institution patient who is alleged to kill through supernatural means. His name is Simon.
- Take That!/Affectionate Parody: Episode 204 opens with Alex interviewing a geocacher, which is swiftly revealed to be part of a possible pilot for a new show. It strongly resembles more factual podcasts like Surprisingly Awesome or Reply All or Radiolab, except Alex's heart clearly isn't in it.
- Tempting Fate: Episode three focuses on Geoff Went, the lead singer in a band that likes to use satanic imagery on album covers and stage fake animal sacrifices at their concerts. Went admits that he's just trying to be an entertainer—in an interview recorded not too long before his violent suicide.
- The Fourth Wall Will Not Protect You:
- They warn you in advance so you can skip it, but you get to hear the Unsound at one point. Anyone known to have listened to it has died within a year's time.
- Later on they bring a book belonging to the Order of the Cenophus to a translator, who says that it contains instructions on how to summon demons. Some of the methods include saying the demon's name out loud, others simply require that you think about their name to summon them.
- The Unsolved Mystery: The Black Tapes themselves, at least when they're first introduced.
- Trauma-Induced Amnesia: Episode six is about a boy named Simon, who was suspected of his parents' murder, but for a time could not recall what happened exactly, but was able to admit that he saw the murder happen. Medical experts assumed that this was the case.
- Truth in Television: One thing that is regularly brought up is that if someone can prove events of the supernatural to Doctor Strand, then he owes them a million dollars. The reason he hasn't paid up yet is because the burden of proof is on the people making the claims, and even though he has yet to disprove the contents of the Black Tapes, there is also no concrete proof that they are supernatural. This is actually based off of a real prize offered by James Randi Educational Foundation.
- Screw This, I'm Out of Here!: In episode seven, when Tannis visits the cabin the once-missing Sebastian Torres was found in, he examines the writing found on the walls. He then says something is with them and promptly leaves the building. Strand then says that the thing Tannis was afraid of was a demon.
- Well-Intentioned Extremist: All signs point to the Order of the Cenophus being very dangerous and having machinations on ending the world. Simon Reese claims that his mother worked for them and used him and other children at the daycare he worked at to further their plans, and that he killed his parents to stop them.
- Whole Plot Reference: The format of the show is rather blatantly modeled after Serial, right down to having similar transitional music.