The Black Tapes, Tanis, and Rabbits: Nerdy Research Porn Horror

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As soon as it realizes you’re querying about spooky podcasts The Black Tapes and Tanis, Google offers to autofill “is real,” but here’s a big, big spoiler: they aren’t. Pacific Northwest Stories, the radio show credited with spawning both The Black Tapes and its spinoff Tanis, never existed. But you could be forgiven for never questioning it; it’s effective fiction because it seems so real. Making PWNS a terrestrial radio show that spawned podcasts is  a stroke of brilliance. Of course there’s no immediate continuity; PWNS was on the radio radio, and this is the internet. And then they layered in another entity, a sister network called the Public Radio Alliance, the platform for The Black Tapes, Tanis, their brand-new podcast Rabbits, and a forthcoming Tanis spinoff. It’s certainly a dense enough web for a real-world  operation. With casts of characters presented as real people, the makers fold in current events, namedrop the living and the dead*, and tell weird stories within their own weird story, like footnotes cribbed from Aaron Mahnke’s popular Lore podcast. There’s even a website for The Black Tapes’ Strand Institute where you can send in paranormal cases to be considered by Dr. Strand. It’s an elaborate dramatic deception with strong shades of The Blair Witch Project,* one of several properties namechecked in the debut episode of Rabbits as an example of an ARG, or alternate reality game, a phenomenon that Rabbits alleges has spawned a worldwide conspiracy and the missing persons case at the podcast’s heart. But The Black Tapes and Tanis  offer a compelling alternate reality of their own, albeit not one that Rabbits can acknowledge because Rabbits is behind the same curtain.

 

Playing on expectations is an important tool in the world of The Black Tapes and Tanis. They give you what you expect to make you pliable for what you don’t. Aside from its creepy Decemberists’ flavor folk rock theme, The Black Tapes doesn’t telegraph “horror podcast,” or at least, not at first. It pretends to be an episode of This American Life that went looking for offbeat human interest stories and unwittingly waded into inhuman ones. As a spinoff, Tanis is a little less coy with its intentions, premised on rediscovering mystery in the digital age, but it, too, is superficially innocuous, at first seeming to be nothing more sinister than the podcast equivalent of a Reddit or Wikipedia-based afternoon on the internet. You don’t really expect the weirdness and the body count that’s to come, and that’s part of why it’s so addictive.

The brainchild of Terry Miles and Paul Bae, The Black Tapes Podcast begins with producer/presenter Alex Reagan, late of Pacific Northwest Stories, investigating the world of ghost hunters for a one-off piece, even accompanying a group to a haunted hospital where she and producer Nic Silver** witness supernatural phenomena firsthand. Her investigation ultimately leads to the bête noire of every single ghost hunter subject, famed skeptic Dr. Richard Strand of the Strand Institute, a man who has devoted his career to debunking claims of supernatural phenomena even to the extent that, like James Randi irl, he offers a million dollar cash prize to anyone who can bring him a case he can’t disprove. She has to chase him a bit, but finally Alex gets an interview with the ghostbuster buster, and from here, the podcast quickly morphs into a show devoted entirely to exploration of the Strand Institute’s “Black Tapes” – cases that Strand has not yet solved, the evidence for which he quaintly archives in a series of black VHS boxes. Their working relationship mostly consists of Alex being relentless, sneaky, and kind of credulous in the service of Journalism, while Strand disputes the authenticity of supernatural phenomena with the invincible smugness of Sherlock Holmes, meanwhile nursing a trove of his own deep, dark secrets, including the unexplained disappearance of his wife, his late antiquarian father’s career in the occult, and a childhood made of horror tropes.

One of the things I admire most about The Black Tapes is its subtlety. This is going to seem like a backhanded compliment, but its brilliance really sneaks up on you. It’s like the Lt. Columbo of horror podcasts. When I started listening, admittedly not knowing much about it, I was struck by how clunky some of the acting was and almost gave up on it in the first episode. Alex was fine — stagey, but in a deliberate way that certainly read Eager Public Radio Journalist. The various witnesses and interviewees though sounded unrehearsed and, perhaps strangely, thus less authentic. Strand was the only really believable personality. Once prefatory matters are concluded, The Black Tapes promises nothing grander than a monster of the week type of show, which is great — I’m actually a big fan of monsters of the week. I find the pursuit of a huge, momentous arc, seemingly for its own sake, drags spiritual kin to The Black Tapes like Supernatural and Fringe into frustrating, muddled messes. And The Black Tapes, for all its seeming lack of polish, excels at one shot spookiness, unfolding tales of Slenderman-like shadow figures haunting little boys, sinister nannies, special Ouija boards designed specifically for contacting demons, and a bizarre folk festival in Washington that memorializes a gruesome local murder with the carnival image of a woman with an upside down face. But the episodic format and the underfunded public radio patina of the presentation masks the quiet, deliberate genius of an arc that unfurls almost invisibly in the background. There are a few story conveniences that beggar belief – how many copies of J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories do you have lying around? – and the medium forces a tell, don’t show dynamic that isn’t always ideal, but I appreciate the way The Black Tapes delivers immediate scares while faithfully walking the ley lines of a much bigger story.

Tanis, not to be confused with Tannis Braun, a parapsychologist and psychic who pops up a couple times in The Black Tapes and the makers swear is totally not connected to this show, guysparallels The Black Tapes but frustrates as simple an explanation. The podcast chronicles Nic Silver’s search for something nebulous referred to as Tanis, which could be a person, place, or thing, and pops up in esoterica, the Deep Web, and ancient myths. Here is a representative taste from the intro to Tanis from the first episode.

Nic: This interview was recorded for an episode of Pacific Northwest Stories from 1999, way back when we were on terrestrial radio, for a documentary exploring three mysterious places: the Bermuda Triangle, Easter Island, and Atlantis.

The producers decided against including Professor Adams’s interview in that show because they were unable to confirm the veracity of the content of that interview. Basically, they were unable to find any corroborating evidence to support his claims about Tanis.

​Carl: If you know where to look, Tanis has been there from the beginning. The Bronze Age, Ancient Greece, Rome, the Aztecs and the Mayans. There is mention of Tanis in the first compiled gospels that would eventually comprise what we now call the Bible. And it’s mentioned again in the Dead Sea Scrolls, although some of those sections have yet to be released for public study.

​Alex: So, Tanis is a city?

Carl: Sometimes, maybe. But, not that city.

Alex: I don’t understand.

Carl: It’s not an easy thing to understand. Tanis is something else. Deeper and more fluid. Some say Tanis is the location of the Garden of Eden. Others describe Tanis as God him or herself. It’s been called Gaia, or if you believe Robert de Boron and Joseph d’Arimanthie, Tanis is actually the holy grail. Sometimes Tanis is a place, sometimes it’s a concept. Sometimes it’s even a person. The ancient Egyptian city was named to honor Tanis the mythic legend, not the other way around.

Alex: Sometimes Tanis is … a person?

Carl: Or a god, or as one Egyptian High Priest was convinced, a cat.

Alex: So, nobody knows exactly what Tanis is?

Carl: I don’t believe you can say that.

Alex: Why not?

Carl: Because in every recorded mention concerning the myth of Tanis, there are common throughlines.

Alex: What kind of throughlines?

Carl: Well, for one, Tanis moves, and seems to migrate every 400 years or so. And it changes. It’s kind of hard to explain the many facets of this myth without serious study.

Alex: I’m starting to get that sense.

Carl: When it comes to Tanis, they say you always know it when you see it. Even if, by that point, it’s too late.

This is Nic’s show, and while Alex makes appearances, primarily she’s just there to jog the story along by questioning Nic and occasionally delivering dramatic readings of Tanis-related material.  Tanis, even more than The Black Tapes, is really research porn. With fewer tapes of exorcisms and spooky hotels to visit, a lot of Tanis progresses through research, primarily conversations between Nic and super hacker Meerkatnip, and if that sounds boring, consider finding yourself accidentally immersed in a midday binge of Law and Order or Criminal Minds or falling down a rabbit hole of Wikipedia links. That’s Tanis. It sprawls, no doubt, but it’s an addictive, enthralling sprawl, and like The Black Tapes, the arc behind the episodic probes of Tanis mentions and the trails of bodies and hollow-eyed children and cults in its wake culminates stealthily and surprises you when it springs.

The relationship between The Black Tapes and Tanis reminds me of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys – same universe, shared characters, and much of the same substance with different gendered wallpaper. There’s no explicit labeling for the girls versus for the boys with The Black Tapes and Tanis, but with so many similarities between them – monsters of the week merging beautifully into some deft story arc planning, big corporation-buoyed secret societies and conspiracies, all roads eventually leading through Russia, and stories that eventually swallow their storytellers whole – it’s interesting that the one presented by a woman traffics in a Gothic, supernatural flavor, and the one presented by a dude stays (relatively) grounded with laptop sleuthing and back issues of weird fiction magazines. Alex and Nic both suffer significant effects from their respective podcast investigations, but it’s Alex who becomes more unhinged, even though Nic is the one transported by a cabin in the woods-shaped TARDIS. Nic does a fair amount of pushing back against Alex in the second season of The Black Tapes, too, and while the stories aren’t truly contemporaneous, it’s hard to imagine Nic policing Alex’s journalistic ethics while he’s slipping Meerkatnip untold bitcoin to dig up whatever she can with intrusions that I’m sure are far from perfectly legal. Both characters have their own skeptical Scully foil whose expertise far outclasses their own – Alex with Dr. Strand, Nic with Meerkatnip —  but Alex is a Gothic heroine and Nic is a bit more of a Marty Stu, with plot-convenient competence and probably more ladykilling than your average book nerd/computer nerd/podcast producer/host. It encourages me that the host of Rabbits, Carly Parker, is so far something else entirely, without a foil or a partner in her investigation into the disappearance of her best friend Yumiko. One episode in, it’s hard to know much except that she is exceedingly methodical and, while she surely harbors great depths of loyalty and love for her missing friend, her manner is a carapace of professional reserve. She reminds me of Suzanne Vega performing “Tom’s Diner.”

Something I’m not sure whether I really hope for, but inevitably dwell on, is whether the stories, each with its own grand cosmic implications, must eventually cross and blend and become one. There is at least one playful Easter egg beyond the Tanis/Tannis confusion I’m aware of, “Where is Tanis” in Morse code at the end of a Black Tapes bonus episode. With the conclusion of its second season, which to me is like a Brundlefly mash of the end of When a Stranger Calls, Ringu, and the premise of The 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo, The Black Tapes might have issues credibly staying in its lane. So, too, Tanis. With Nic going out of space and time in his own bizarre quest, it’s harder to imagine him blithely mixing Black Tapes episodes and unspooling the research porn that will send Alex off to interview another bilocating killer. And then Rabbits, which seems aimed at deconstructing the very mechanic the Pacific Northwest Stories/Public Radio Alliance universe spins on, starts with a global conspiracy on an unthinkable scale. Where do you go from there? I don’t know, but I bet Nic and Meerkatnip and Carly are looking it up in the Deep Web as I type.

Tanis  is currently airing its third season. The Black Tapes is on hiatus following its second season wrapping up in August 2016. Rabbits began in February 2017. You can find them wherever you listen to podcasts and also here and here and here, and you should probably start from the beginning with The Black Tapes’ first season. I also recommend Thomas Galvin’s recaps of The Black Tapes, because, hey, they’re funny because they’re true.

The transcript from Tanis used above was taken from this site: http://tanistranscripts.weebly.com/

* Tanis’ inclusion of the mystery surrounding the death of Elisa Lam was controversial enough that her name was eventually bleeped out of “Episode 103: The Girl in the High Tower,” although the details of her story remain. Later episodes of Tanis used proper noun bleeps and fake names to heighten the general air of mystery, with the ending disclaimer, “For legal and safety reasons, we’ve elected to change some names, and leave others out entirely. We don’t do this very often, but we’re not willing to compromise people’s safety for any reason.”

** Terry Miles’, um, “cousin” according to the Tanis website, who sounds an awful lot like Terry Miles and whose blurry photograph looks an awful lot like Terry Miles.

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The book cipher Angela uses to communicate when she needs to mysteriously disappear is the first edition of Hsu and Chan: Too Much Adventure. Apart from being one of her favorite comics, Salinger, Shakespeare, and the Bible just don’t have enough video game references for her purposes.

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