This image is from the trailer for “Archive 81,” distributed by Netflix.

Occult rituals. Haunted VHS tapes. Séances and demons. I thought I’d seen every adaptation of this creepy horror show imaginable. I had not. Based on a podcast of the same name, “Archive 81” is where “Black Mirror” meets “Dark” meets “The Blair Witch Project,” while still managing to bring its own originality. 

The show follows Dan Turner (Mamoudou Athie, “The Circle”), a seemingly reserved archivist in New York City, who’s tasked by the enigmatic (and suspiciously rich) Virgil Davenport (Martin Donovan, “Tenet”) to restore a series of VHS tapes pulled from the Visser apartment complex that mysteriously burned down in 1994. Dan soon realizes that these tapes are the property of Melody Pendras (Dina Shihabi, “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan”), a graduate student with a haunted past who was conducting an oral history of the residents of the Visser at the time of the fire. As is the case in any good horror thriller, these tapes contain much more than what meets the eye.

The first thing that jumps off of the screen in this eight-episode season is the brilliant casting. Much of horror is reacting rather than simply acting — something Athie and Shihabi do excellently. Dina Shihabi perfectly captures the essence of the eager student who makes a disturbing discovery time and time again, while Athie’s spiral into frenzy is believable, even given the subject of the series. Every single “What the fuck?” was well-timed and appropriate.

Horror series that dabble in the supernatural tend to make the mistake of throwing every piece of information at the viewer at once. This results in a disconnected experience where the viewer is more concerned with figuring out what’s going on rather than caring about the fates of the characters — something I believe plagued the last season of Netflix’s “Dark.” “Archive 81” neatly sidesteps this issue by allowing the plot to unfold in two different plot lines and mediums simultaneously. While Dan is uncovering the mystery of what happened to the Visser and Melody through the digitized versions of the tapes, we also follow Melody herself on her journey in 1994. As a result, the viewer can watch not only each of the protagonists’ individual discoveries, but also their backgrounds and traumatic histories. To this point, show creator Rebecca Sonnenshine does a riveting job of alternating back and forth between grainy VHS footage and scenes that capture the action in real-time, both in 1994 and the present day.

If you like playing detective while watching a show, “Archive 81” is for you. From signs and symbols that seem to crop up everywhere throughout scenes (“that looks suspiciously like …”) to cryptic dialogue passed around from character to character (“wait, where have I heard that before?”), these eight episodes will bring you to the edge of your seat. This show does a stellar job of laying down the cards one-by-one without showing the whole hand, resulting in several stomach-dropping “Holy shit!” moments and, most notably for me and my friend, one very loud, “SHE’S GOING TO SACRIFICE HER!” 

“Archive 81” is truly a success in every sense of the word. It’s no wonder the show landed at number one on Netflix’s U.S. top ten list: The characters maintain their individuality even as the tumultuous supernatural world is explored, the plot is revealed tastefully with fleshed out, believable intricacies and viewers take an active role in the watching experience, something that I look forward to in a potential second season. You should be warned, however: Bingeing the season will result in extremely poor sleep. 

Daily Arts Contributor Swara Ramaswamy can be reached at