The Black Tapes & The Magnus Archives

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.


  1. illhousen says:

    I see there truly is an SMBC strip for everything.

    On the Black Tapes: to be fair, I think the format of “real podcast” does demand things being in the ballpark of plausible for it to work. To be unfair, what you describe sounds incredibly lame. I think there should be a sweet spot in the middle where the spooky events are plausible enough to allow for a possibility that they may truly happen and scare yourself with it, while being exciting enough that you won’t just shrug and go to sleep from boredom.

    And on related note, what are your thoughts on creepypasta as a format?

    1. Farla says:

      Part of the problem is that their idea of plausible is really nichely aimed at what people who believe in ghost hunter programs find plausible, even if it’s stuff that’s honestly pretty ridiculous – and then we have this supposed outsider journalist just happening to be on exactly the same wavelength.

      It wouldn’t be that hard for them to have more stuff that was super creepy but couldn’t be replicated, or stuff that doesn’t show up on tape but was directly experienced. Instead it’s obsessed with piddling proofs just like the boring real life ghost hunters, where they’re more interested in a tape hiccup because it’s physically there over a really awesome ghost story by someone who swears it happened and has no reason to lie.  There’s an evil crazy guy who says he can teleport, there’s some extremely circumstancial evidence he used this power to teleport to the other end of the mental asylum to talk to one other person instead of going on a killing spree or anything interesting, and the tape didn’t record during a time he maybe could’ve teleported so they can’t prove he didn’t, oooooooo.

      I really like the found footage aspect of creepypasta, where it’s taking advantage of how stories can get passed around without proper sourcing so that it ends up sounding indistinguishable from a real thing. And I like the very concept of horror stories surviving by being pasted back and forth with only the best persisting. It’s a really good way to make modern ghost stories. But I don’t like most creepypasta, especially as the pasta part disappeared thanks to wiki repositories and now it’s basically horror fanfic by people with even less understanding of how writing works.

  2. Jennifer says:
    The Magnus Archives is my favorite all-time podcast!  It ended the second season awesomely, and I am looking forward to the third.
  3. Matt says:
    Farla, have you seen the original Blair Witch project? Creepy pasta owes a great deal to it, as does all found footage genre stories. But it had, for its time, some of the problems your talking about but in reverse. A great deal of its appeal prior to its opening was it’s mythology, which was very much unambiguous ( The “Blair Witch” was a “real person” subjected to a bunch of accusations of luring kids to her house to draw their blood from pinpricks, she gets banished in winter, probably dies and is never heard from again, half the kids of the town (of about 100 people) vanish over the next year, the town is abandoned, resettled 40 years later, and a variety of tragedies happen every few decades) this is all presented as “fact” with supporting evidence.  (People who left the town sending letters to extended family about the events, records from the original town, newspapers) this is scary because it’s backed up by “historical evidence” and unambiguous. But as some time passed the people who made it tried to make it more attuned to horror fiction and added Lovecraftian elements to their sequels (the woods of the town are “evil” and superancient,) and maybe the woman who was the witch was never real at all. (they and, the Skeptics they created in later works forgetting all the records they made) It was in your face about it being real, and backed up with fake documents, newspapers, mythology, done by actual folklorists but they seemed to want to make it seem less real, without debunking all or parts of the stuff they wrote for its mythology, by saying, and adding  little tidbits that didn’t match up or ignored their original work “hey maybe it wasn’t”.
    1. Farla says:

      Oh hey never replied.

      I did see the original and not any of the rest, which I guess was a good idea.

      It’s interesting that everyone seems to think “this one place is just super evil” is the natural direction to go when it’s so often underwhelming. Why does one place have to have the evil slider continually moved up instead of, say, people being inspired by events in one place to investigate similar stories in another? You could easily do sequels by having the new batch of doomed hikers be in entirely new locations with entirely new lore each time.

  4. illhousen says:

    So, I’ve listened to most of the Magnus Archives, and I have to say, they do episodic stories better than the storyline. The individual stories are pretty good, though uneven sometimes, but the overarching narrative feels almost like a distraction. I think the format is to blame for this: the premise was rather obviously designed as a vehicle for telling short stories, so the transition to a longer format was rather awkward, with storyline bits tackled to the beginning and end of the episodes (aside from season finales).

    I also found Michael irritating rather than scary.

    Another (though relatively minor) flaw is that the writers are way too fond of ending the stories with a punny punchline, which often comes across as cheesy.

    Other than that, though, it’s a fun podcast. The stories are varied and interesting, the occasional connections between various statements are intriguing (except I would actually prefer less answers than the story gives, see above), and I like the main narrator’s voice.

    1. Farla says:

      Yeah, I think I even like the idea of the metaplot about powers, but…well, maybe in part it’s a matter of making sure everyone’s up to speed. Like, I listen to the episodes a dozen times over to be sure that “hunt”, “butchery” and “meat” have different keywords and focuses, and then some metaplot person just says straight up “oh yeah this is a power okay”.

      Michael reminds me a bit of the big finale Night Vale eps, where it’s all “and here’s this named character!!!” and everyone cheers, but they don’t really need to be there or have it be a big thing. There was probably a positive fan response so they figure more Michael time is good, but sometimes what makes a character enjoyable doesn’t scale up much.

      1. illhousen says:

        Yeah, the idea of the metaplot is fine. You could make a good story about warring cults of primordial gods whose bodies manifest as unnatural phenomena just fine. It just clashes with the promise of the Magnus Archives in my opinion.

        As for Michael, I liked him when he was only mentioned by various characters and was this off-screen ominous presence. Once he actually made an appearance, I felt only irritation. It’s hard to put down what exactly I dislike about him as a character, though.

        1. I come from the future to ask you what you think of Michael’s replacement.

          1. illhousen says:

            Alas, I’ve dropped the podcast at some point before what you’re talking about. Not because I didn’t like it, but because I’ve caught up and am actually terrible at keeping up with things rather than binging them. I should probably get back to it sometime now that it’s finished.

  5. The Magnus Archives recently ended.

    I don’t have much to say on the finale, but for the series as a whole, I really liked how it tied its concepts to real fears. Eldritch horror is almost always meaningless to me because it’s so far removed from reality that it doesn’t make me feel true fear; I know monsters aren’t real, so I’m not scared of even the most horrifying monster you can cook up. But in The Magnus Archives, the eldritch monstrosities aren’t eldritch at all; they are deeply familiar on a primal level, and that helps them get under the skin like no other horror can. The writer really understands what makes horror work.

    ETA: Additionally, I really liked how deeply it explored the motivation of the villains. Most eldritch cultists in horror are nonsensical caricatures — why do they want to bring an evil monstrosity into the world? Because! But the cultists of The Magnus Archives are fully realized people and interact with fear just as much as their victims. Many people have said that the real horror of The Magnus Archives is when you see what they see and that the fears start to appeal to you too. In particular, the ultimate villain being himself motivated by fear was, I thought, really powerful and a great way to bring it full circle. (His motivation rant in 160 made me squirm more than almost anything else in the series because I related to it just a bit too much.)

    1. illhousen says:

      I think the episodic nature helped here. The show couldn’t rely on grand revelations and cosmic terror because they had to be spaced out to last the runtime, so instead it had to consider how each story works as a standalone experience, which means more focus on personal struggles of the characters.

      Truth be told, I’m not terribly invested in the metaplot, but the individual stories are often very good.

      (And then, of course, the fandom takes the opposite approach: IDK if it’s just bad luck, but every fanfic of TMA I’ve stumbled across is all like, “So, let me tell you about those cosmic horrors this is all about”.)

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