I’m not one for horror.
Correction: I’m not one for modern-horror. I’ve found that most modern horror, especially in film, ends up being nothing more than an onslaught of gratuitous slaughter and gore, followed by a few jump-scares. That’s not scary, just startling and gross. No, if I want horror, I want my heart to build to a slow, but steady climb from uneasy skip to terrified gallop; I want the hairs to stand up on the back of my neck; I want to feel the need to keep some kind of light on at night. I want tension, I want atmosphere and mood; I want to constantly question what’s going on and what’s going to happen; I want to hold my breath on the verge of tears, afraid to uncoil my tight body from its braced position.
In other words: terrify me, don’t startle me. After all, the definition I put to horror is a story that elicits a negative emotional reaction from viewers by playing on the audience’s primal fears.
This is why most modern-day horror just does not do it for me, and why I’m not the person you want to try to pitch those kinds of stories to; they’re just not going to interest me. But in 2016, I made a serious exception to this rule. Someone who knows my tastes very well, recommended I listen to a podcast entitled The Black Tapes.
It’s put out by Pacific Northwest Stories, and is a Serial-style podcast that examines Dr. Richard Strand of the Strand Institute and his infamous “black tapes”: potentially paranormal events that he cannot (yet) explain with science. You see, Strand is a ghost hunter who doesn’t believe in ghosts — so much so, that he offers a cool $1,000,000 reward to anyone who can provide him with irrefutable evidence of the paranormal. Despite his collection of black tapes, he has not yet found anything or anyone upon which to bestow that chunk of change.
The Black Tapes’ host and chief reporter, Alex Reagan, began the investigation into the “black tapes” and the Strand Institute as a kind of paranormal human interest piece, but it’s spun so far beyond that. It’s about the ghosts, real and fictional, that haunt us all when we dig through our own lives and the lives of others. It also involves demon-worship, sacred geometry, bi-locating mental institution patients, a creepy monastery in Glushka, and the search for Strand’s long-missing wife.
Except, of course, it’s not real.
The show will try very hard to convince you otherwise and, I’ll be honest, when I first started listening, I spent the first couple of episodes wondering if this was, in fact, an actual docudrama series — you can go online to the Strand Institute website, follow the hosts and subject on Twitter, and it’s very clear that so much effort has gone into maintaining the illusion of the reality of the world of The Black Tapes. And that’s really what makes the horror — and, believe you me, it gets really creepy, really fast — of this show so damn brilliant.
I’m reminded of Orson Welles’ iconic broadcast of The War of the Worlds in 1938. Adapted from the novel by H.G. Wells, his anthology series for The Mercury Theatre on Air was presented as a series of simulated news bulletins, which suggested that an actual alien invasion by Martians was currently in progress. It was so believable that it has now become infamous for allegedly causing mass panic across the US — the theory is that a lot of the radio audience tuned into Welles’ production during a different program’s musical interlude and, thus, didn’t get to hear the warning that Welles’ broadcast was a drama. Throw into that the tensions and anxieties in the lead-up to WWII, and the effect of The War of the Worlds makes a great deal of sense. You can listen to it on YouTube, and I’ll speak for myself in saying: if I’d turned into that without warning back in 1938, I might’ve actually believed it too.
Hell, I might’ve believed it even now for a moment, though the advent of social media would have certainly destroyed Welles’ illusion in the blink of an eye. And the fact that The Black Tapes is able to exist in a strange demimonde of half-reality, almost in spite of modern-day technology, is a testament to how it’s absolutely doing true horror, and doing it right.
In my attempts to consume anything from the horror genre, the best stories that stand out are the ones that did one of two things. The first was that, visually, they revealed very little. Take Ridley Scott’s hit film, Alien — it’s not a science-fiction film, it’s a horror film that happens to be set in space. And the best part of it is that we never get a well-lit, dead-on shot of the fully-grown eponymous character. The Alien itself is always in shadow, and we’re shown only glimpses of its anatomy, oftentimes in close-ups, in order to maintain an air of mystery to it. Scott’s reasoning for this was actually quite simple: Ridley Scott wanted to dispel any notion of a man in a rubber suit and, thus, filmed the Alien in varying close-up angles of its “ghastly profile,” very rarely capturing it in its entirety. Essentially, he knew that if the audience saw the full alien, the illusion of the terror, the part of our imagination that conjures up those things that horrify us, would vanish. We’d see a guy in an alien suit, and the terror would dissipate.
The dissipation of terror obviously being something that defeats the very purpose of horror.
The Black Tapes does this not only because of the benefit of not needing to show anything at all, but in using sound to create atmosphere. Oftentimes we’re listening to Reagan’s discoveries, and it’s only after something’s occurred that she’ll explain what just happened. Even then, it’s a distant, journalist-style description with few adjectives — those are left for the audience to fill in themselves. It is for the audience to use their own imagination, conjuring up their own personal brand of horror with but the few details listed in the podcast. And when Reagan does describe with more flair, there are segments left in where she speaks with her producing partner, Nic Silver, to go over whether or not she’s gone too far from remaining objective in the story; there’s even conversations that revolve around her journalistic integrity.
And that brings me to my second element I’ve noticed from horror I enjoy: it’s grounded in just enough plausibility and reality — just enough fact, even — to feel real. Like I said earlier: it took me about an episode and a half to realize that this was, in fact, a fiction podcast. Even today, in this world of instant (and constant) connections, where we can look up things as fast as our fingers can type them or our digital assistants can search them — even then, I briefly believed that this was a nonfiction podcast. And it was thanks to things like those conversations on journalistic integrity, because these are tiny details that don’t have to be addressed, and most fiction stories likely wouldn’t. But that The Black Tapes does, adds to the false reality it has constructed, helping it remain in that strange aforementioned demimonde.
It calls to mind Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus. Perhaps one of the best works of horror fiction, Shelley’s novel perfectly examined the relationship between mankind and emerging technologies — by looking at one man’s quest to push the boundaries of science beyond what was thought capable. The novel starts that way and quickly spirals out into something different and greater. But it works best because the characters go about their lives in a way that is familiar, even when we in the 21st-century aren’t quite doing things 19th-century style anymore. Victor Frankenstein’s desires for knowledge, for pushing the boundaries of the known, are wholly relatable, and the process by which he goes about his experiments are, were it not for the fact it produces a supernatural result, plausible to a degree.
There is a strange reality to Shelley’s novel which, again, is why I think it remains one of the best works of horror fiction, and certainly one that continues to remain universal, despite having now spent almost 200 years in print.
I can’t relate to 19th century England, but I can’t really relate to what’s going on in the Pacific Northwest either. What I can relate to is ambition, questioning one’s own integrity, a sense of curiosity and wonder, and above all: I can relate the fear that these people all experience in the face of something near-inexplicable and genuinely terrifying.
The only question left is: do you believe?