Make Everything Else Scare Again: through an earbud darkly

In 2014 Sarah Koenig and her producers from This American Life set the podcast world ablaze with their 12-part true crime podcast, Serial. The incredible popularity of that podcast demonstrated that serialized, multi-episode story podcasts might find a willing audience looking for long, heavily detailed stories. If they seemed to have the faintest whiff of reality to them, so much the better.

After the jump, horror for your earholes

Chris Hornbostel: the Black Tapes Podcast
The Black Tapes podcast cheerfully creates its own universe right from the outset, establishing itself within the fictitious existence of something called Pacific Northwest Stories, a clear nod to This American Life and NPR. We’re told by our host, Alex Reagan, that this season she’ll be interviewing people who have interesting, one-of-a-kind jobs. Their first story in that series will be with Dr. Richard Strand and his Strand Institute, who are paranormal investigation debunkers with a standing million dollar award for anyone who can present proof of the supernatural.

That’s the template that makes The Black Tapes the best of the bunch for similarly themed fictionalized horror podcasts. It constantly takes things that are either real or very familiar and tweaks them just enough to be able to put them in service of the story it wants to tell. Almost from the outset we recognize the familiar elements of what sounds like a slick NPR production. The Strand Institute’s bounty offering sounds just like the real life offering by James Randi. If you’re familiar with Randi’s work, I’m guessing like me you’ve always wondered if anyone has seriously attempted to collect.

The attempts to collect Strand’s reward derail Alex Reagan and her Pacific Northwest Stories team. She discovers plenty of cases that were debunked by Strand’s team, but then also chances into a shelf of black plastic VHS tape cases. Inside each are carefully stored bits of evidence like photos and recordings. We’re told those are black tapes, cases that Strand can’t debunk yet, but haven’t proven anything either. There’s a case with creepy shadow people who stalk a family in California. Another with a grunge band who stumbled into a mythic un-sound on the deep web. There’s a ouija board that’s special and unlike other mass produced versions. Sitting next to these mysteries that Reagan works with is the enigma of Dr. Strand himself, and the disappearance of his wife years ago.

The Black Tapes works best when it’s keeping things fairly simple in the first season. It draws a little too heavily from History Channel pseudo-documentaries on things like bi-location and the Codex Gigas, but again those elements of the familiar and real help to get us to suspend disbelief just enough for this podcast to do its thing. The show slightly derails itself by stumbling around in its own mythology as it goes along, occasionally confusing its own presented facts at times. It attempts to tie elements from all the black tapes investigations together in ways that don’t always work.

The other reservations I have for the Black Tapes are related to the format itself. There’s a ton of “Coming up on the next episode” stuff that gets to be pretty distracting later in the series; in fact, the entire podcast makes its episodic structure a little too apparent in some of the storytelling. The actress playing Alex Reagan is terrific, and nails the NPR/Sarah Koenig delivery style from Serial, but the other actors aren’t nearly as good. The guy playing Dr. Strand is pretty rough and later we meet a composer who might be the worst voice actor to ever appear on a podcast. Season one of the podcast carries an eerie effectiveness, while season two strays a bit from that winning formula and starts to run off the rails. Even with those caveats, if you listen only to season one of the Black Tapes, you’ll get a pretty rewarding experience. It’s a solid foray into a newish method of audio storytelling, a medium that holds intriguing possibilities.

Tom Chick: We’re Alive

One of the advantages of a radio play is the production values, which are far superior to anything you get in a multimillion dollar blockbuster summer tentpole movie. There’s no CG studio better than your brain. And there’s no creature design better than your own imagination. Which makes We’re Alive is the most impressive zombie apocalypse spectacle you’ll never see.

We’re Alive is a podcast that began in 2009 and ran for four years. Each episode is about 20 minutes (at least two of those minutes are Geiko ads). Each year’s season is about 30 episodes. A Kickstartered spin-off called We’re Alive: Lockdown just wrapped up a few months ago. Suffice to say, there’s a whole lotta We’re Alive available for your listening pleasure. I’m only just starting the second season, so I can’t say for sure how well or whether it all pays off. But I can say that as a story about a cast of characters trying to survive a zombie apocalypse, it’s already better than The Walking Dead.

We’re Alive avoids Walking Dead’s cloying Rick Grimes-centric Mary Sue-isms. It has a diverse cast and it takes full advantage of it. It spreads its time and storytelling generously instead of focusing on the usual heroic leader (who’s actually a bit of a dick). Characters like Saul and Dantu, who would normally take their place behind the usual heroes, are given time to really shine. Some of the voices might seem over-the-top; Ridley’s accent and Burt’s growl sound ridiculous at first. But they paint a vivid picture. And most importantly, the actors are very good, across the board. They have a natural grasp of dialogue and plenty of energy to put the action into the action scenes.

Since this is a radio play, characters frequently declaim what they’re seeing or what’s happening. “Look at all those zombies coming up behind us!” or “The door just gave way!” or “He’s being eaten!” We’re Alive sometimes resorts to voiceover, but the conceit is that the survivors have been instructed to keep a journal, so we’re presumably hearing the journal. But like reading subtitles in a foreign film, all this stuff feels natural after a while. The story and characters rise to the top and eventually, thinking back on We’re Alive, you might even forget that it was “only” a radio play.

We’re Alive was created by an animator and documentarian named Kc Weyland — yes, he spells his first name Kc — and an actor named Shane Salk. The show is recorded and edited in Weyland’s Southern California studio. Based on the first few episodes, you won’t be surprised that Weyland served in the Army. Weyland and Salk know how to balance character interaction, story reveals, and survival procedural. They know what we want from a zombie apocalypse and they’ve got the talent to deliver.

You can listen to We’re Alive the same way you’d listen to any podcast. It’s on iTunes and Stitcher.

Tomorrow: see you in the funny papers
Making October Scare Again starts here