The Magnus Archives are the audio recordings of various testimonies given to a paranormal research institute, featuring all sorts of random spookiness that slowly weaves together into an overarching narrative. The Black Tapes are that, if you like your narrators to be incompetent idiots who can’t do basic research and your paranormal to stick slavishly to the supposedly plausible pseudoscience of people who think ghosts are real and also boring as fuck.
Believe it or not, I really wanted to like the Black Tapes. A lot of effort went into making it seem like a nonfiction podcast, even to the point of inventing a previous paranormal radio broadcast it’s supposedly the successor to, and I really love that sort of cleverness. Unfortunately, even more effort went into not violating any of the supernatural community’s “rules” about how paranormal things work and what counts as paranormal, so we have breathless episodes about a spoooooky video where a tiny speck that is maybe a body falls past a wall and then when the camera goes over to look down…THERE’S NO TINY BLACK SPECK BODY WHERE DID IT GO?!?! Now, to talk for twenty minutes about sacred geometry, because “magic angles make spooky shit happen” isn’t good enough.
The most I can say is that it’s pretty up-front about how disappointing it’ll be. First episode has the narrator going on a ghost hunting trip where she goes on about how super spooky it is and how they were super convinced by flashlights going on and off, because, like, nobody was touching them!!! Because ghosts can’t do anything more interesting! And the facts lights blinked is ironclad proof of ghosts or something, as there is absolutely no way to send some sort of, I don’t know, invisible signal, like a “radio” “wave” or something, to make something happen without touching it. Seriously, it isn’t like the journalist examined the flashlights to verify they were regular flashlights. Not even the bare minimum of making sure the object was a real object. Then a big deal is made of the resident self-important skeptic man explaining how there’s a well-known trick that would work with flashlights even if you checked they weren’t tampered with through the magic of a google search that our supposed actual journalist never thought to do. The rest of the episodes keep going with that. Journalist is credulous idiot incapable of five seconds of google. Self-important skeptic man explains what google could’ve told us. Sometimes we shake things up a bit by having some other “expert” talk down to us about really simple concepts. Sometimes, spoopy thing happens that does not perfectly fit known ghosthunter tricks, but it’s still exactly as underwhelming as flashlight flickering. I mean, yes, I didn’t know how flashlight flickering worked until this explained it – but that’s because I never gave enough of a fuck to even bother finding the debunking, I just used logic to guess it makes no sense ghosts can only affect flashlights in the first place. You can apply that same time-saving heuristic to pretty much everything ghost-hunters do without a problem.
My guess is its target audience is people who already like/believe “real” paranormal things, so it’s trying to stick to the level of things people find plausible and also working hard at trying not to insult them for what they already fell for. The tagline is “Do you believe?” and so they’re all on the level of stuff that could be actual modern paranormal stories, and, as someone who doesn’t believe in any of that, I want more out of my fiction than a bunch of inconclusive, smudges, “I just felt an energy”, and oh-noes-the-videotape-cut-out. It’s basically fanfic of modern paranormal stuff, and the only thing modern paranormal stuff has going for it is the possibility it’s real. Also, cannot overemphasize what complete idiots everyone involved is.
The most this one has to offer is some of the concepts are a bit spooky, but everyone involved is so annoying and spends half the time talking in circles to each other, so it’s actually worse than an actual real paranormal stories podcast where they’d presumably just tell you the spooky stories and then shut up.
In contrast, the Magnus Archives have stuff fucking happen! There’s deaths, there’s transformations, there’s freakish nightmare otherworlds. The first episode opens with the introduction of the archivist, who’s just taken over the job. He spends a while bitching about what a disaster the place is and snarking at his peers and putting down his workers, hitting that nice spot of fun-to-listen-to asshole, then starts reading about some other guy who had a weird experience and came to them to write it down. Afterward, he then insults the testimony as drunken bullshit even as he recounts the research they did into it and how it pulled up corroborating evidence, establishing the sky-high bar being held for the paranormal in this. This will be a recurring theme, or running joke, depending on your viewpoint (I particularly liked the first spider episode for this), but it also serves to nicely underline how very serious it must be when episodes end with his final thoughts being instead “oh fuck, oh fuck, I thought that thing was over with” for things that the institute has already encountered prior to the series beginning…and then, as we get further in, for things that they personally have run into before.
For the most part it’s very disconnected, with a couple recurring threads and echos, and I much prefer that aspect to the occasional points where there’s something specific and intentional going on. I’m fine with random spooky stories, honestly.
What I like best about this one is how it plays with the unreliable narrator thing. The archivist in the frame for each story sounds very no-nonsense, but that just means he’s good at sounding objective, and the stories themselves, while presented as told by people who doing their best to put down everything they can, are just their version of events and can be misremembered or involve deliberate misrepresentation (and sometimes you can’t even tell which). And each one, no matter how implausible, mundane, or outright ancient, is followed by the archivist talking about attempts to verify details and the trouble they run into doing so, which gives us both a few solid pieces of objective fact and new viewpoints from the archivist and sometimes the researchers who dug the stuff up.