I’m an avid podcast fan, but I’m pretty fucking picky about which podcasts I let in my earholes these days. After I hit critical mass on wrestling podcasts from Stone Cold Steve Austin, Jim Ross, Chris Jericho, Roddy Piper and Ric Flair I learned two things: All wrestlers have the same stories (and tell them often), and the greatest stories are only about 5% true.
I ended my addiction to wrestling podcasts after far too many drunken rants from Stone Cold as he sat around his ranch bullshitting with his ranch hand about absolutely nothing, and I had to cut the Ten Minute Podcast’s life support off when it became Will Sasso’s Parade of Annoying Characters, but I still clung to a fine selection of less-insane podcasts that were mostly NPR productions and the incomparable Welcome to Night Vale. Since coming out to Ohio, I’ve pretty much been surviving on Night Vale, This American Life, Radiolab, and Serial.
In a conversation with my brotha-from-anotha-motha-and-fatha I was forced to accept TANIS into my life. I was assured it was a mystery, and that he couldn’t say anything about it until I heard it for myself. A few minutes of casual Internet searching turned up a number of sites promoting TANIS as an absolutely true mystery and a number claiming it mixed fact with fiction, but not much in the way of actually calling it out as total fiction.
Lucky you; I’m here to do just that.
TANIS comes at you from Pacific Northwest Stories and Minnow Beats Whale, who also produce The Black Tapes – but I’m not interested in that one right now. If ever. Found-footage (or audio) horror annoys me.
The premise of TANIS is that the world is so connected now that there’s nothing you can’t find in a few minutes on the Internet, and they wanted to “find” a true mystery to make a podcast about. So they found the “myth of Tanis”, somehow, without finding anything about this “myth” on said Internet.
It’s worth noting that the TANIS podcast website itself doesn’t actually call this a documentary. They market it as a docudrama, openly, but that doesn’t seem to sink in with some of the people listening. The production is straight forward, and well done, with narrator/host Nic Silver laying out the week-by-week results of his investigation in a style clearly cribbed from Serial. In fact, if we really want to get down to it, Nic Silver and his delivery style might even have hints of Cecil Palmer of Welcome to Night Vale fame.
The idea is that there’s this myth of something, somewhere, or someone called TANIS. TANIS is… everything, and nothing at all. It’s a word at the beginning of the podcast, and the host doesn’t have any idea what it really is or what he’s looking for. Some of the offered explanations are that TANIS is a place that moves around from time to time, or maybe it’s Hell, or maybe it’s Atlantis, or maybe it’s a person, or a state of being, or, or or…
The point is, TANIS could be anything because the myth of TANIS is being crafted by the podcast itself.
Now, I will note here that there is a historical Tanis. It’s a city in Egypt. It’s a place you can go today, assuming you have archaeological permits and aren’t murdered by roving packs of ISIS supporters. Historical Tanis sits northeast of Cairo in the Nile Delta and was the capital of the 21st and 22nd dynasties of Egypt from about 1069 BCE to 720 BCE before it was abandoned to the shifting course of the Nile and the usual changes in the balance of power that go with any three-hundred year reign in the ancient world.
So, abandoned, Tanis became buried in silt and considered “lost” to the world at large. It was known to have existed from numerous sources, but no one quite remembered where it was. In fact, there’s a long history of people stumbling across other abandoned cities and proclaiming them to be Tanis until 1936 when Pierre Montet finally uncovered it after more than a decade of digging.
So that’s the real Tanis; a city that is lost and “found” several times. Its location always shifting according to whoever claims to discover it.
As it so happens, that’s also a theme with TANIS-the-podcast. The ephemeral concept of what TANIS is to the host includes one certainty: TANIS moves around and its location forgotten even by those who’ve been there.
This parallel might be the only real connection between an actual Tanis and the TANIS of the podcast. Everything else is nonsense. Fiction crafted not for the sake of uncovering a mystery, but establishing a myth.
As the podcast plays out, I find it hard to believe anyone would actually believe this patchwork quilt of fringe whackado could possibly be grounded in reality. Hard, but not impossible.
Remember, I’m a longtime fan of Art Bell. I’ve heard everything the most hardcore crazies believe in. Every conspiracy about secret societies, aliens, demons, angels, lost super-cultures, mystical powers, and more such shit than I can even list here has passed through my earholes thanks to Art’s parade of lunatics. If people will believe that shit, it’s not too much a stretch they can believe the increasingly complex tale the TANIS spins.
Name dropping starts right away in the first episode where rocket scientist and Thelemite (as in the Ordo Templi Orientis; Aleister Crowley’s cult) is given as the impetus for this whole investigation thanks to a rambling short story about finding TANIS that essentially sets up the whole premise of the show finding a myth everyone else has forgotten.
Parsons is a favorite of the conspiracy crowd and often blamed for introducing evil pagan names and rites into NASA missions for various Illuminati-themed conspiracies about space and the “truth” of our space program’s findings and goals.
It doesn’t stop with Parsons though. In just the first three episodes we also hear Crowley himself trotted out for having drawn a picture of a being he called LAM and the show accepts in the Ancient Aliens explanation as a drawing of an alien (Crowley did not define it as an alien, but a spiritual entity), Charles Fort (for whom the word “Fortean” was coined to describe any weird mystery or happening) writes a cryptic letter that seems to point toward a search for TANIS, a crazy basement-dwelling hoarder has a mountain of audio tapes and an amateur radio and conspiracy fixation (an obvious Bell nod, as Bell is an avid HAM operator), numbers stations, a sinister “Tesla Nova Corporation” that locks employees away from the rest of the world, an archaeologist who specializes in “new energy” (because, “new” and “archeology” are words that are totally synonymous), a cabin that’s bigger on the inside than out and teleports around, and of course: mysterious forces following the host around erasing evidence of TANIS almost as soon as he finds it.
The shadowy stalkers delete the bare scraps of digital information our intrepid reporter’s scrappy hacker sidekick/employee (who only works for bitcoins) manages to find in a version of the “Deep Web” only seen in movies and seems to exist solely to post innocuous and cryptic messages (unlike the real Darknet, which deals in illicit goods and services, human trafficking, and everything your mother thought the kosher Internet was going to do to you in 1995) almost seconds after she digs them out. Tapes are erased. Mountains of tapes disappear. The Internet is sanitized against anyone finding anything about TANIS: except the podcast that’s all about finding TANIS, and the city of Tanis in Egypt.
It’s a clever tale, for sure. The producers (whoever they REALLY are) manage to blend their creation into a vast conspiracy culture that explains quite nicely why there’s no actual information on this myth available. It’s not that it was never there until created as a work of fiction for a podcast- it was destroyed by a shadowy cabal!
The overload of fringe nutballery has a purpose, though, and it’s one that I do applaud the writers for instead of simply shaking my head in disbelief. They’ve learned this technique from the fringe itself, applied it to their own (made up) story, and bent the names and scant facts in such a way as to make the whole pattern seem just too encompassing not to be real.
By spitballing everything fringe under the sun into one story, slapping a “mystery!” label on it, and delivering it in a very straight forward manner with the occasional hint of serious harm or consequences for the investigators themselves, the guys and gals at Pacific Northwest Stories have effectively emulated, and spoofed, the entire fringe movement in one beautiful stroke.
Radio programs like Art Bell’s Midnight in the Desert, Coast to Coast AM, a metric shitload of podcasts on the Dark Matter Radio Network, and TV shows like… well, everything on the History Channel these days that isn’t about manly men challenging nature with chainsaws and heavy machinery all work on the same premise: pile all the bullshit together and draw in everyone who believes in just one part of it so they’ll believe in all of it.
It’s pretty much what’s kept Ancient Aliens on the air for NINE FUCKING YEARS; that and college kids who like to drink whenever Giorgio Tsoukalos says “it was aliens!”.
They’re just fucking with you, the PNWS gang. They’re telling a good bit of fiction, spinning it as though it could be real, AND trolling every fringe “theorist” and believer who stumbles across the podcast and buys into it. It’s really quite an exceptional bit of work.
Sure, I could just listen to it as a story and try really hard to believe like so many of the other commentators out there, but I prefer to listen to it for what it really is: a microcosmic spoof of a culture of idiocy currently gripping America (and voting for Trump) with a quality of writing about six steps above the actual conspiracy theorist bullshit.
These guys do their research, but it’s not research into whether TANIS is real or what it is. It’s research into how to carefully pile a lot of bullshit in one place and get people to eat it up.
Well done, PNWS crew, but next time don’t tell us there’s something the Internet doesn’t know. That’s just silly.