Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Things that Go Bump in the Daytime: The Spooky Fun of Ghost Videos


Some people consume amateur porn on line. I am a sucker for amateur fright night videos.

I only properly discovered YouTube a couple of years ago. It wasn’t till then that I fully understood the power of the internet to effortlessly dispose of time. Here you’ll find every pleasant television memory, every edgy advertisement that didn’t get aired on TV, every pop song that held special meaning and that you had previously thought could only be called up from your own internal hard drive, every possible interview featuring your favourite celebrity and every single amateur video, however lacking in basic intellectual or artistic merit, ever uploaded by Josephine or Joe Average.

The amateur ghost vids are a genre unto themselves. The first question we lovers of the paranormal are supposed to ask ourselves is: ‘Is it real?’ This question is often unintentionally answered in the negative by the makers themselves: the urge to go overboard is just too tempting. The orbs are pleasantly spooky (orbs are surely the ecotoplasm of the twenty-first century), but then the light of the bathroom turns on by itself, followed soon after by the faucet doing the same. Sleeper ‘wakes up’ to investigate. I didn’t come down in the last shower, along with the restless spirits of the dead.

Other times, as in the imaginatively titled Ghost Children in Our Basement Caught on Tape, the video looks genuine at first. These ghost kiddies slowly move toy cars around, rock chairs, gently throw a doll to the ground and then turn the tele on. They seem slightly sedated, and one commenter notes that she would much rather have these polite ghost children than her own brats who would probably trash the joint. The greenish tinge of the infrared light adds to the understated air of authenticity.

But this impression is soon spoilt by onscreen messages like ‘subscribe for more ghost children videos’. Would someone who was genuinely under assault by a poltergeist have the emotional fortitude to create a YouTube channel with 112 videos? And once you start reading the comments, which pick the video apart, you lose the forlorn hope that, despite your misgivings, perhaps this really  is a genuine depiction.

While the majority of these videos reveal themselves to be fake, for would-be believers like me it is the liminal area between the likelihood of fakery and the dim hope of authenticity that makes these tapes so compelling. Perhaps that’s why the comments calling out the fakes are sometimes so vitriolic. We’d rather remain uncertain than know for sure that someone's trying to pull our collective leg.

This one, which is obviously faked if you look carefully, shows a speeded-up version of the reason a couple supposedly argue about whether he makes the bed every day after she leaves for work. Delightful shivers up my spine before the trick became obvious.

And here is a ghost that does the vacuumming. I wish I had this type of ghost.

I found this one very creepy at first, not because it couldn’t be doctored – anything can be doctored – but because imaginatively this seems unlikely. If you were going to create a ghostly effect, would you do it like this? But then too many commenters declared that this was a speck of dust moving over the lens, and I reluctantly conceded they were probably right.

Even if the trick isn’t obvious, a sure warning sign of fakery in the majority of examples is that so much of the poltergeist action takes place squarely in the vision of the time lapse camera that the makers supposedly leave on for hours at a time.

Sometimes there is a dog involved, barking anxiously and staring at something the video maker can’t see. The makers always seem compelled to ask their dogs over and over again ‘What is it, Fluffy?’ (or Sid or whoever), perhaps expecting their dog to be shocked into speech by the drama of the moment: ‘Dog speaks for the first time after being asked “What is it?” twenty times during poltergeist episode’.

Dog See's [sic] a Ghost! is a good example of the ghost-and-dog subgenre. Featuring  a creepy attic ghost, it attracted no accusations of fakery, and the dog is genuinely terrified. If the authenticity of these videos should be judged purely by the comments, this one could be authentic (she says hopefully).

What scared me most in this video, though, was the terrible use of apostrophes and unnecessary commas. ‘See’s’? What’s that about? Can a verb possess something? Perhaps the apostrophe indicates that the verb is itself possessed by the ghost of bad punctuation.

The videos recorded on security cameras  seem by their very nature to be more authentic because of  the low pixel rate and the fact that they're often in black and white. What do readers think of this one, which is set in a video store? The person putting the videos away seems genuinely startled, but perhaps he’s just a good actor?

But in the final analysis, for genuine lovers of thrillers it doesn’t matter whether these are real or not, any more than it matters whether the people in amateur porn movies are really into each other. Because this is really a replica of an existing genre – the thriller that apes reality, pioneered by the brilliant Blair Witch Project, and carried further in the Paranormal Activity series – the first of which was pretty good, with the quality dwindling further with each sequel. We knew Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity weren’t real but it was the similitude that made them scary, not a mistaken belief that one was watching a doco.

The same goes for these amateur videos. When they don’t overreach themselves and you avoid reading the comments, they provide great cheap thrills. It’s the carefully timed depiction of boring domestic reality, with its combination of natural and technogical sounds, followed by sudden, inexplicable events at unpredictable intervals that produces the delightful eeriness. And of course the overly serious intertitles, which are usually white text on a black background, feature lots of full stops and are often accompanied by nothing but an ominous silence.

A decent supernatural thriller comes out only once every couple of years, so I am chronically thriller deprived. Amateur fright videos fill the gap in the meantime.

Ghost videos and the uncanny
Wikipedia tells us that the state known as the uncanny was first identified by Ernst Jentsch in his 1906 essay, ‘On the psychology of the uncanny’. According to Jentsch, the uncanny is the result of ‘intellectual uncertainty’; it is always ‘something one does not know one’s way about in’. He goes on to say:
... one of the most successful devices for easily creating uncanny effects is to leave the reader in uncertainty whether a particular figure in the story is a human being or an automaton and to do it in such a way that his attention is not focused directly upon his uncertainty, so that he may not be led to go into the matter and clear it up immediately.
This explains why splatter porn is horrifying but not thrilling, and why its consumers require increasing amounts of gore to get their kicks. Good supernatural thrillers play on this uncertainty rather than revealing the source of the fear, or at least putting off the revelation until late in the day.

Freud goes further, arguing that the uncanny is basically about taboos like sex and death. Because these taboos are traditionally not dealt with directly, we end up projecting all our ‘stuff’ onto them; the uncanny thus reminds us of our own repressed desires. It doesn’t bust the taboos, though – it plays on them. A decent thriller uses all this psychic possibility while not spoiling the effect by exposing the taboo. Thus ghosts should be either invisible or indistinguishable from humans, and gore should be kept to a minimum.

But for someone with anxiety there is another dimension. Anxiety means a constant fear of chimeras – the next social event, the next work assignment, and even stretches of time ranging from the next five minutes to the future itself. Watching a scary video is a way of controlling the way one is exposed to fear of the unknown, enabling the viewer to mediate their fear in a safe environment.

But as well as immediate fears, perhaps the uncanny also helps us mediate those unnamed fears that supercapitalism and the threat of climate change cultivate in the most balanced personalities. Given the Russian roulette we are playing with finance, people and environment, the future is terrifying. Much safer to be terrified by chimeras that we know probably aren’t real.

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