(Originally posted August 25, 2018)
Genre: Horror, Mystery, Found Footage
Possible Triggers: Death, Body Horror, Isolation
Safe For Work: Somewhat – wear headphones
Content: Suitable for audiences over 13
Slight Spoilers Ahead
General: Archive 81 is the story of Dan, a young man doing work in a compound out in the woods, digitizing the recordings in Archive 81. Dan’s employer, the mysterious Mr. Davenport, insists on him wearing a recorder and recording himself at all times – while he works, while he relaxes, while he’s in the bathroom. He takes all timesvery seriously.
The show begins, innocently enough, with Dan and Mr. Davenport discuss Dan’s duties at the mysterious compound, and Dan establishing himself as a complete tech nerd. Mr. Davenport drops Dan off at the compound, and Dan settles in before getting to work.
The mystery presents itself almost immediately, as Dan dives into the archives (which are out of order, making sorting them even more difficult) and chooses a recording to start with.
Here we’re “introduced” to Melody Pendrass, who is surveying the Visser Towers Residential Block in early 1994. She finds her job hindered over and over by uncooperative and sometimes downright strange residents of the building, and is quickly dragged into the unnatural goings on of the Visser Towers, which include a mysterious cult, disappearing residents, a man who can’t be recorded, and a man who can’t see faces.
We end the first episode on Mark, a friend of Dan’s, explaining that Dan went missing after emailing him the recordings from his brief employment. Mark is desperate to find Dan, and has decided to share the recordings with the world, starting at the beginning.
The first season continues on from there, dragging Dan and the audience further into the mystery of Melody Pendrass and the Visser Towers. Dan’s continued time in isolation and his obsession with the mystery begin to unravel his mental state, to the point where he “adopts” a rat in the building as a friend, naming him Ratty, and his erratic behavior becomes a point of concern with Mark and his girlfriend, Tanya. Things get weirder when Dan discovers that the recordings are in fact being monitored, as Mr. Davenport calls him almost immediately after he shares a recording with Tanya to try and make her believe there’s something weird going on.
The mystery of the Visser Towers and the strange happenings is intriguing, and constantly leaves the audience wanting more. What’s going on in that building? What’s with Samuel and his cult-ish group? The end of every episode always leaves you wanting more.
Unfortunately, the mystery isn’t quite solved before we’re thrown into the bizarre world of season two, where Dan wakes up with a few body modifications, to put it lightly, and has to navigate this strange new universe he’s in – literally, as a matter of fact, as he’s been brought in to map the place, and is being held captive in a horrifyingly unique way. To put it shortly, the show takes a drastic turn from a normal person exploring a paranormal mystery to a normal person turned decidedly not normal, trapped in a mysterious, inhuman universe where things are so familiar but so different, and nothing is as it seems – and what it seems to be in the first place is already odd enough.
As a podcast, Archive 81 is limited in painting a picture for its audience, but it handles that limit well by using sound, or lack of sound, to make you extremely aware of the surroundings. Dan’s time spent in isolation is marked by silence in the background – no music, no noises at all except for his footsteps, the occasional squeak from Ratty, and of course, the rattling noise of him turning on the audio player to dive back into Melody’s increasingly horrifying adventures.
Melody’s recordings, meanwhile, are full of noise. When she’s out on the streets you hear cars and pedestrians and signs of life. Inside the Visser Towers, you hear her footsteps as she walks down the halls, describing every detail to the recording – and in turn to the audience. You hear her knocking on doors, the unfriendly mumbles from the residents who don’t want to talk to the outsiders, the shifts and twitches that come naturally to a human being (because no one can stand perfectly still for that long).
The voice acting also adds perfectly to the scenery. It’s easy to follow Dan’s descent into obsession throughout each episode – where he starts off as easy-going, a little perplexed, but curious, he quickly becomes entangled in the mystery, and his voice reflects that – it becomes faster, high-pitched, desperate. He needs someone to believe him. He needs to figure out this mystery. His journey is mirrored by Melody’s recordings; she too has fallen into the spiral of obsession, desperate to find out what’s going on at Visser Towers. While her recordings start off as professional, level-headed, and contained, it soon becomes obvious that she’s slipping as well – she’s angry, scared, sometimes bordering on hysterical.
Then there are other characters, such as Mr. Davenport, who maintain their same tone of voice no matter what the situation is. The cheery inflection in each word is disarming at best, and disturbing at worst, depending on the context. A cheery voice threatening you is almost worse than an angry one.
Without being able to see the faces of these characters, the tone of voice is important, and Archive 81 presents those voices well. It’s an enjoyable listen, if not somewhat jarring and unsettling at the sudden changes in atmosphere, but that’s what makes it fun.
Beginner Friendly?: Yes, but make sure you start with the first episode. It’s something to listen to in order.
LGBTQIA Friendly?: Includes a gay character, some questionably homophobic content but in context with the time period (the early 90s). It’s very brief, but can still cause some discomfort if you’re sensitive (full disclosure: I was).
Pay to Listen?: Nope. Donations are accepted via their Patreon, but not required in order to listen.
Length: 20-30 minutes
Overall: Archive 81 is an interesting and enjoyable listen throughout the first season, which keeps you on the edge of your seat wanting more, immersing you in the mystery. The second season veers off into the land of the absolutely bizarre, making it a little harder to follow, but overall enjoyable if you like off-the-wall horror. And what does season three hold? You’ll have to listen and find out for yourself