Turn That Frown Upside Down

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The Black Tapes Podcast is an exploration of life, belief, faith, and, occasionally, the paranormal.

Do you believe in ghosts? This is the first question The Black Tapes (originally known as The Black Tapes Podcast), a fictional horror documentary-style podcast, asked its audience. Upon first listen, opening the episode with this question makes sense. Protagonist Alex Reagan, a public radio journalist, spends a large portion of the episode discussing Americans’ belief in ghosts and tagging along with paranormal researchers as they go ghost hunting. The episode is creepy and compelling, an absolutely stellar introduction to the series and, in my very biased opinion, among the best horror podcast episodes ever produced.

What’s interesting about the episode for people like me, who listened to The Black Tapes live and are now going back and re-listening, is, of course, the fact that the rest of the series has absolutely nothing to do with ghosts. The first episode of The Black Tapes is 41 minutes of misdirection, setting you up to believe that the series is going to be about ghosts or, at the very least, about all aspects of the paranormal. But as anyone who has listened to The Black Tapes will tell you, the podcast is about one thing: demons.

Or is it? When the series finale, “Into the Black,” aired in the fall of 2017, there was immediate blowback. Fans, many of whom had already been frustrated with the show for quite some time, were upset because the finale answered nothing and seemed to end on a very abrupt and discordant note for the characters. While I understood where they were coming from, I was not part of this disgruntled faction. For one thing, my expectations were so low going into the finale that, really, it would have been nearly impossible for me to not be pleasantly surprised. I knew long before the finale was released that there was no way that any major storylines could be resolved in a satisfying manner. However, I had also long suspected that The Black Tapes was never going to give us many direct answers. The show thrived, in part, on the uncertainty and doubt regarding the existence of the paranormal. Maybe a character’s daughter was being haunted by a demonic spirit, or maybe that character was just a fan of The Black Tapes and was trying to be featured on the podcast. Maybe Amalia was possessed by a demon, or maybe she was being distant because Alex was suffering from the effects of insomnia and behaving irrationally. Alex, along with the audience, can never be sure. The tension and anxiety caused by this uncertainty helped to give this show its atmosphere, and really gave its fans something to think about in regards to concepts such as the unreliable narrator. The Black Tapes, in other words, is the thinking person’s horror podcast.

While I wasn’t angry about the finale, I was certainly flabbergasted by it. Not by the lack of answers — as noted, I had been expecting that — but by the ending for the two main characters. Let’s back up for a moment, back to the first episode. While talking to various paranormal researchers, Alex keeps hearing the name Dr. Richard Strand. Strand is notorious in the field of paranormal investigation for the simple reason that he is a (admittedly very rude and obnoxious) skeptic. He’s a ghost hunter who doesn’t believe in ghosts. Alex calls Strand eleven times (not counting her calls to his editor and publisher) before he finally agrees to an interview. To make a long story short, she gets pulled into the world of his “black tapes,” or unsolved cases of the allegedly paranormal. They become a team: Strand the militant skeptic, Alex the technically skeptic but still fairly open-minded and impressionable journalist.

Anyone familiar with fandom can see what was coming from a mile away: shippers. I, a person of no shame, was one of them. I blissfully listened to the entire series with shipper headphones, finding charged moments in scenes which, to others, were merely exposition or otherwise unremarkable. I will argue that, as the series went on, there were moments that were more explicit or, at the very least, more open to interpretation. That said, I never in a million years expected Alex and Strand to actually end up together, especially once it was announced that the final season would be truncated and was coming somewhat unexpectedly.

I was wrong.

To be completely truthful, I suppose I have to say that we don’t know for certain whether or not they end up together in a romantic way. They’re either in Geneva getting lulled into a conspiracy trap, or they’re in [REDACTED], madly in love and hiding out from demon cults. Either way, though, there was an explicit acknowledgement of their romantic feelings for one another. Did it come out of nowhere? That’s a complicated question. For some, the answer is yes. They never once heard the least hint of a romance between Alex and Strand, and this was completely out of left field. I would argue, politely, that these people may need to work on critical thinking skills and interpretation. That said, even as a shipper, I do have to admit that for the characters to go from talking around it to just outright declaring it and agreeing to run away together was a bit unbelievable. I mean, I was still thrilled — again, no shame — but I had to admit that it was a little unexpected.

But then I started to read the thoughts of the few people who actually really enjoyed it. They brought up some good points. Points like, Richard Strand, who has spent his whole adult life dedicated to uncovering the truth, may be choosing instead to embrace the unknown in his life and the world as a whole in order to be with Alex. Or points like, the whole podcast was about apophenia, about the idea that we may be making connections where no connections exist. Of course there weren’t going to be any answers — the entire podcast was the final black tape. All of these and other thoughts on the finale brought me to the question I have already posited: Is The Black Tapes really just about demons?

In a later season one episode, “Cabin Fever,” Strand introduces the idea of misdirection while discussing psychics: “That’s the gift of the charlatan, they ease you into a sense of trust, take your eyes off the manipulation. It’s what magicians call misdirection.” For anyone familiar with Strand’s character, this is a line filled to the brim with irony. Strand lies a lot, sometimes blatantly and sometimes not so blatantly. He evades questions and manipulates Alex, who inexplicably trusts him from the beginning. In my recent re-listen, however (my first full re-listen since the series ended), I realized that Strand wasn’t the only one trying to misdirect the audience. I don’t necessarily mean other characters though, of course, Alex is the classic unreliable narrator. Rather, the narrative itself seems set up to purposely misdirect — to take your attention away from what is really going on.

The first episode of the series is about ghosts, despite the fact that the rest of the series is not. Because the audience comes out of the first episode expecting the series to be about ghosts or the paranormal as a whole, it takes them longer to make connections and realize what’s actually going on (namely, a demon conspiracy). Plenty of misdirection happens in-universe, too: the myth surrounding the Unsound is meant to distract from Percival Black releasing Scriabin’s “Mysterium,” for example. But the biggest misdirection in The Black Tapes is, perhaps, the demons and apocalyptic cult that distract the audience from what the show is really about. This misdirection is so successful, in fact, that it works despite Alex telling us what the show is about at the beginning of every episode of season one: life, belief, faith, and — only occasionally, mind you — the paranormal.

“Remember how all this started?” Alex’s producer asks her in season two. “A million dollar prize, a ghost hunter who doesn’t believe in ghosts, a few unsolved paranormal mysteries.” Her producer is right, of course — this all started with Strand. Had Alex’s eleven phone calls not prevailed, The Black Tapes wouldn’t exist. About those eleven phone calls — it’s a bit much, don’t you think? Sure, interviewing a paranormal investigator who doesn’t believe in the paranormal for a podcast episode about paranormal investigators would be interesting, but eleven phone calls’ worth of interesting? What about all those moments I swooned over in season one? Alex describing Strand as good-looking in the first episode despite not really describing anyone else that way. Strand awkwardly asking Alex if she enjoyed her walk in the forest with Tannis Braun. Their playful (I would argue flirtatious) banter when Strand offers to show Alex a video of an alleged exorcism. At the time, I would have considered myself lucky if those moments had been written to be ambiguous in tone but, as it was, I mostly thought that any romantic moments were completely unintentional on the writers’ part. When moments like these continued to pop up in season two, I, and many other shippers, felt that the writers were simply throwing us a bone. Very few people, I think, actually thought that they would end up together (though, to be fair, many people probably thought this because they assumed one or both of them was going to die).

Even those who never saw anything romantic between the two characters (and believe me, many never did) would happily admit that Alex’s relationship with Strand was the show’s biggest strength. Their relationship, and the ways their relationship affects each of them individually, runs throughout every episode, even if they don’t necessarily exchange a lot of dialogue. Could the show have survived without either one of them? Maybe, but it most certainly would not have been the same show. The Black Tapes, at its core, was always a show about them. It was about their lives, and their beliefs, and their faith, and how all of those things were affected when confronted by the mysteries they were experiencing.

People, of course, tend to get caught up in the flashy things like demonic possession and international satanic cults. Magicians base their livelihood on the certainty that people get distracted, that misdirection works. In the case of The Black Tapes, they would be right. Spooky man Simon says it all in the final episode: “By now you probably believe you’ve figured out a lot of the mystery. Of the Order of the Cenophus, Thomas Warren, of Dr. Strand. But it’s not what you think. It’s all appearances, it’s all smoke…it’s not what you think it is. The truth is never that simple, never that straightforward…I know you’ve probably guessed it by now, but it’s Strand. It’s always been Strand.” Spooky Simon is talking to Alex, but he’s talking to us, too. We’ve all been distracted, all this time. We thought The Black Tapes was about one thing — demons, mostly — but it’s not. It’s about Strand or, more specifically, about Alex and Strand. Even Strand points out earlier in the final season that he and Alex are at the center of “this” together. He means at the center of the conspiracy web, but we can also take it to mean at the center of the podcast — it’s about them. It has always been about them. We could argue for days about whether or not the ending was well-executed but, as someone who just listened to the podcast all together, the whole way through: it does make sense. It is right. The podcast was about Alex and Strand, so the ending needed to be about them, too. In that respect, the ending absolutely delivered.

One last thought. The series finale isn’t quite the end. As I mentioned earlier, The Black Tapes ended somewhat abruptly due to real world issues. According to one of the show’s creators, the ending was written to be purposefully open-ended so that, in the event that the podcast was able to resume production, they could still make it work. With that idea in mind, about four months after the finale, a short clip was released that seemed to imply that what happened in the final episode was, once again, misdirection — presumably to lead the scary cult members following their every move astray. At this point, the show resuming production seems unlikely, so I personally don’t really include this little snippet as part of the show’s canon. That said, it is entirely possible that the series finale was, like the very first episode, a full episode of misdirection. In which case, everything I wrote above may just be a chronic case of apophenia.

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