Archive 81 is a horror ensemble notable for lack of conformity
These podcasts are free of the constraints normally associated with cinema or television
These podcasts are the last punk rock medium in which creators are – if they are wily enough – able to do anything they want.
Over the course of a three-hour hike, I listened to every single episode of the first season of Archive 81. It is a collage-form horror story that has three layered narratives, easily identifiable on top of one another.
The primary story is about Dan, who has been hired as an archivist to record his findings on a set of tapes that deal with a mysterious building in New York. The second is Melody, who exists within these tapes, and interviews the residents of the XYZ building in the mid 1990s. It’s a place where people go missing, never to be remembered, where drug dealers and club kids homebrew strange substances, where people confide in Melody that the faces of the people they know disappear.
It sounds a lot like a regular high rise in a big city, but each interview Melody conducts is like a little episode of The X-Files. The last layer is Mark, who we only hear from at the end of each episode and who informs us that Dan, his best friend, has gone missing, has sent him these tapes, and he needs to find him. Three layers of storytelling all pasted over each other gives this podcast a really great, spiralling feeling and evokes wonderful horror at times.
As the series progresses, Dan begins to lose his grip on reality. His archiving has taken over his life and Melody’s ever escalating story has taken control over him in a way that feels almost otherworldly. And this is where I began to get really invested, but also quite disappointed.
With the exception of Melody, the female characters in this podcast are largely treated with a disdain that seems to come from absolutely nowhere. As Dan withdraws further and further into himself, his girlfriend calls to check up on him but he is icy and cruel to her in a way that makes him a vastly less sympathetic protagonist.
During his conversations with Melody, Mark expresses an almost shocking and unfounded distaste for her. It sounds like two men complaining about women for minutes at a time, which is incredibly jarring. In this medium, anything is possible – podcasts give us the freedom to create worlds of sound that can take a listener deep into other worlds, they can make us afraid and make us laugh.
Free from the constraints of cinema or television, in many ways they are the last punk rock medium, in which creators are – if they are wily enough – able to do anything they want without interference from any existing establishment.
Horror podcasts like Alice Isn’t Dead, or The Black Tapes – or even stranger ones that live in the same realm, like Within The Wires or Welcome To Night Vale – make efforts to sidestep the misogynistic tropes that have for so long governed this genre of storytelling and invoked considered representations of people who aren’t just straight dudes.
Melody is a queer woman, refreshing to discover, but made the weird anti-woman sentiment of the male conversations seem even more off-key.
I listened to the entire thing, and it wasn’t really like anything else I’ve listened to this year. There are elements of the horror, post-modern storytelling and terrific sound design that were very effective. But if we are given a medium in which anything is possible, women don’t need to be the butt of the joke. One good woman character isn’t enough, especially if your male characters are eye rolling at the others.