The Farmhouse at Winch Hill
We have returned many times. The last time I set foot in there was for the filming of ‘A Kind of Dance’ a collaborative film/music piece that Stokes and I worked on for the now defunct Dislocation festival. The farmhouse at Winch Hill was somewhere we used to ride to when we were younger, exploring the out buildings and the collapsing rooms and fittings of a house that seemed to have always existed. Our younger selves populated such places, or at the very least we were drawn towards them. I distinctly remember making a map (an obsession that has not left me) when I was a kid that detailed all the ‘haunted’ spaces I’d visited – the Ice House at Putteridge Bury where Dad owned an old Victorian greenhouse, the ‘haunted house’ at Cockernoe, which was redeveloped as some sort of fortress property with gates and cameras and such, the airplane graveyard (which I assume was where the airport dumped old stock), the pump house, the chalk pits and the aforementioned farmhouse at Winch Hill, though at the time I did not know it was called this. ‘Haunted’ is obviously a loaded term, but here I think I am looking on it in terms of Freud’s notion of unheimlich, which I believe literally translates at unhomely. These places were haunted by the people that once occupied them. The fear I experienced when visiting these places, simultaneously a positive and negative emotion, came from the fact that people were supposed to be there, and weren’t; instead we were there, bumbling about, intruding on their space without permission. When I revisited for the film, this concern remained, though it was lessened because of my awareness of this. What stood in place of childhood imaginings was a haunting that came from my own past, like I was trespassing on my own childhood experiences, awakening impossible beings by trying to unravel the oddness I had felt when I first discovered the place.
We got older and for a brief period between leaving University and returning, we explored new sites – the most prominent in my mind being the site of the High Town Sports and Arts Centre. We wandered about the disused structures at 1am, stumbling across not-finished walls, and nervously pacing in to darkened corridors. Again, the fear was perpetuated by the fact that the space should have been occupied, and that we were walking on other peoples interests and intentions. The space is now used for the Luton Beer Festival. Afterwards, we’d sit on the wall near the Stopsley Bypass roundabout and pop-philosophize on the places we had been and the things we partially remembered.
The area surrounding where I grew up, and indeed many other places across the country, attracts hauntings. These tend to fall in to the broad category of local legends, or urban myths. For examples, my local area contained; a former gallows site where someone unearthed a skull filled with bone dice, a hill where a black dog manifests itself, an Anglo-Saxon castle where the last true English king was allegedly murdered and a gully where the devil kept court. We visited these places during the making of the film. None of them have the same sort of resonance that the locations from the old map had.
Steele and Laing
‘Little movement took place within the high-rise. As Laing often reminded himself, almost everything that could happen has already taken place. He left the kitchen and squeezed himself in to the narrow niche between the front door and the barricade. He place his right ear to the sounding panel of the wooden door. From the minute reverberations he could tell instantly if a marauder was moving through the abandoned apartments nearby. During the brief period each afternoon when he and Steele emerged from their apartments – a token remembrance of that time when people had actually left the building – they would take turns standing with their hands pressed against the metal walls of an elevator shaft, feeling the vibrations transmitted to their bodies, picking up a sudden movement fifteen floors above or below. Crouched on the staircase with their fingers on the metal rails, they listened to the secret murmurs of the building, the distant spasms of violence that communicated themselves like bursts of radiation from another universe…’
The Housebound Spirit
Between the release of his first album and that of his second, John Burton was mugged outside his London studio. The result of this was a series of crippling panic attacks that left him unable to leave the confines of his home, effectively making him a prisoner there*. Burton dealt with his agoraphobia by composing this album over a 3 year period. The album is made entirely of samples from around the house(s), but unlike the rather prosaic ‘Around the House’ by Matthew Herbert, the sounds are not immediately identifiable, but rather act as a plethoric community of sound, contributing to a wider, richer tapestry for 15 tracks. No 4/4 here. Just the creepiness of unidentifiable objects reacting in their environment – one we’re intimately acquainted with but know nothing of. This transmogrification of mental illness in to song is delicate, considered, heartbreaking in way, but with it, a finality that proves redemptive.
The Retelling of Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come To You, My Lad!
Over Christmas the BBC reprised their tradition of a festive ghost story, this year retelling ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad!’ by M.R.James (rechristened here as Whistle and I’ll Come To You). From what I’ve seen in the press, it was badly received, and several people I know who have watched it were not impressed. Aside from what was an appalling choice of ending (indebted, undoubtedly, to Nakata’s Ringu), I quite liked it.
There was a interesting shift in perspective – in Miller’s ’68 version, Parkin is the one with dementia, where as in this retelling it is Hurt’s wife, who he has left in some sort of respite care whilst touring the coast (Devon replacing the Suffolk of the original), visiting his ‘old haunts’ – that I felt worked nicely considering the themes the film explored. The critics seemed to dwell on the fact that instead of a whistle, Parkin/Hurt unearthed a ring, pondering how long it had waited in the ground to be discovered. The whistle wasn’t missing, it just manifested itself in a different way, much the same as the dementia of Parkin’s wife. Towards the end of the film, Parkin is pursued across the beach by the white figure, a being brought in to existence by the removal of the ring. In an attempt to escape, he runs between two rocky protrusions (probably a ‘stack’ like Durdle Door will eventually become) which act as natural megaliths, lightning conductors to Parkin’s primal terror. Between these rocks, the wind rushes, rising from a whisper on the approach to a terrifying whistle as if forcing him through in to another realm. This dislocation was hinted at earlier in the film, when Parkin calls his wife in the care home – he speaks to her, she listens but doesn’t respond, except to fiddle with her ring and scratch her gown. It is as if he is transmitting from another world, a beyond place where his communications are simply sounds formed in his mouth signifying little but an attempt to reach back, to return, even though that is impossible.
The film is one where sound and space is incredibly important. Silence fills much of the space, both on the windswept beach where Parkin sits alone looking out to sea, and in the empty hotel where the inevitable attack takes place. It is punctuated by brief dialogue that veers from pleasantries between Parkin and the hotel owner to the scrapping of fingers on the floorboards of his room or the movement of the bust he eventually locks in the cupboard. Once the bust is gone, its head no longer turning at random when we’re not looking, the vacant space it has left is even more troubling.
The uncanny aspect, the unheimlich, is here too, the camera lingering on the standard trappings of everyday domesticity, rendered horrific by the unknown force; keys, doors, beds, cupboard, cups, tables, chairs. When the attack begins, Parkin attempts to force the presence out by using his pillow to block the space at the bottom of his door. From the point at which he returns to bed, the sound builds gradually, running from left to right, bass slowly rising as Parkin stares at the pillow. When the music reaches its crescendo, the pillow is pulled from under the door, and becomes part of the attack, the familiar and the unfamiliar fused in that second. The fear comes from realizing that the unknown has always been the known. Later, in the care home, Parkin’s wife’s chair is empty. The film closes with Hurt’s voice thrown across the stereo spectrum, muffled and reversed as if trapped inside the head of his vanished wife.
The Denizens of Farrar
Around September time, a new group of students moved in to the house nextdoor to mine. There followed four days of pretty tawdry drum and bass based shenanigans. During those days, or rather nights, Zoe slept on whilst I slunk about the house in darkness, my ear cupped to the walls to try and work out where the sound was coming from (downstairs front bedroom, which is separated from our house by an alley, therefore making the pinpointing somewhat of a challenge). Voyeuristically, I found myself becoming increasingly – and covertly – involved in the comings and goings of the house, who was in when, why certain people wandered to the end of the yard at 3am, who the various visitors were – I’d essentially unwittingly fallen in to The New York Trilogy. Every noise they made felt like an attack on my property, every door slam echoing through the walls was a signal that someone had broken in to the kitchen and alike**. On my way to work on the fourth day, by which point I had moved from ‘these people are the scum of the earth’ through to ‘they are probably just letting off steam before term starts’ – I’d obviously crumbled at this stage through fatigue and the sad reality that Zoe found the whole incident a trivial as it should have been – I met Beth, my nextdoor-but-one neighbour. She had been suffering the unending bass thrum worse than I had as her house directly joined theirs. After a good old fashioned bitching session (very mature of us, me a PhD student and her a lecturer) we formed a sort of disgruntled alliance, and jointly decided to fight back. My initial plan was to record and measure the noise they were producing, and then use it to keep them awake when they eventually turned in after dawn. This fell through pretty quickly, and instead we just went round one night and told them to shut the fuck up***. The end result was that the neighbours have been, for the most part, silent, except for the occasional Friday night 4am stumble-home which invariably wakes me up. However, that brief spell of paranoia hasn’t left me, despite the cessation of the noise.
I used to be a heavy sleeper. It would take some effort for me to get out of bed in the morning, which partially explains my reluctance to leave the house and wander to University when my work, and my desk, are readily available in the next room. Now though I am awake at even the smallest of sounds, and cannot get out of bed because of exhaustion. My hearing, which I feel has always been good****, is now super attuned. I listen to music on a level approaching inaudibility, and when lying in bed with my ear to the pillow I can hear the extractor fans and light switches of the houses either side of me and the sound of my own fridge. It also means that any slight bump or ping I hear my brain, even whilst I’m asleep, interprets and converts it in to the primal fear of the unknown assailant eg. sabre tooth tiger. I wake up, heart racing and rush to the window to see if someone has thrown a brick through the window. More often than not, it is the cat trying to get in the locked cat flap. That, or one of the students in the adjoining house talking quietly or coughing in their sleep. Fucking ridiculous. I am in no way attempting to ally my current ill-founded concerns with the sort of experience Burton went through, but I am curious to know what triggered the problem; I am, for the most part, a rational person, and in situations where anxiety is an inappropriate response, I tend to identify this, or reason the issue through. In this case, it has been impossible, as if a dormant but instinctive awareness waited until I was 27 to emerge in as full blown trauma.
Any way, the ultimate effect of this, aside from often leaving me overly concerned for no discernable reason, is that I am going to attempt to make some music based on the internal vibrations of the house, the sounds that pass in to my ear by moving through the walls and floors, the pipe work and window panes. Contact mics at the ready!
Winter at The Overlook
‘The light was behind him, and he could see his own shadow clearly cast on the wall opposite. Also the shadow of the bearded man in Number 11 on the left, who passed to and fro in shirtsleeves once or twice, and was seen first brushing his hair, and later on in a nightgown. Also the shadow of the occupant of Number 13 on the right. This might be more interesting. Number 13 was, like himself, leaning on his elbows on the window-sill looking out into the street. He seemed to be a tall thin man – or was it by any chance a woman? – at least, it was someone who covered his or her head with some kind of drapery before going to bed, and, he thought, must be possessed of a red lamp-shade – and the lamp must be flickering very much. There was a distinct playing up and down of a dull red light on the opposite wall. He craned out a little to see if he could make any more of the figure, but beyond a fold of some light, perhaps white, material on the window-sill he could see nothing. Now came a distant step in the street, and its approach seemed to recall Number 13 to a sense of his exposed position, for very swiftly and suddenly he swept aside from the window, and his red light went out.’
* ‘there’ in this case is slightly ambiguous. He moved house 3 times during the recording of the album, and credits its production to E. Dulwich 2000-1, The Tree House, Archway 2002 & London Fields 2002-3
** This is compounded by the fact that my other neighbour is genuinely worse. She is in her 60s and looks after her two screaming grandkids, who presumably scream because they’ve watched their nan doing it for so long. She is accompanied by a fat balding mess of a man that is her son, who I recently discovered is in fact the same age as me despite looking like he’s in his 40s. He smokes weed in the garden whilst ‘watching the kids’ and listens to pretty run-of-the-mill 90s techno in his done-up Peugot.
*** This is partially true. Beth suggested we go in all nice and polite, and tell them to turn it down…when it comes to it, she starts out with ‘You’ve made my life a living hell’…
**** When walking along a street, I can tell if someone has a TV on and which room it might be in…well…front or back; I can also tell when my phone has finished charging because I can hear the frequency change in the adapter