Sunday, October 11, 2020

Suspense: Ghost Hunt (1949).

In my last post, I raised a question about the nature of Found Footage.  I was curious to know whether it was possible to trace its roots as far back as the Golden Age of Old Time Radio?  I don't think it's the sort of question many people bother to ask themselves, even among fans of the sub-genre.  I could be wrong on that.  However my own experience is that you can't make yourself curious about something you don't even know exists.  For most audiences, the Found Footage film had its big debut with the release of the original Blair Witch, way back in 99.  Like everyone else, I had no reason to suspect the sub-genre was a lot older than it looked.  There's even a nice bit of irony involved with my case.  I get to be even more of a punchline because I'd already listened to the story under discussion here today.  This happened way back sometime at the start or early mid-point of the 90s.  It was either in 91 or sometime during or prior to 1994.  It was really my folks who introduced me to the charms of yesteryear.  They did it through buying a compilation of what used to known audio as cassette tapes.  These were like the CDs of the analog era, except all the content was recorded onto spools of physical tape, rather than digital MP3s.  Anyway, one of these collections was a number of maybe three to five cassettes, with each side containing a 30 minute episode from a show I'd never heard of before. 

It was called Suspense, and after some digging, I've discovered that this was the closest thing to the Really Big Show of ancient, Dramatic Radio.  What's interesting to note is that I'm not sure of any TV show or series of this era that has been able to achieve the same height.  It's possible that a series like Breaking Bad comes close, yet even here, I'm sort of forced to remain unsure about that.  This is an irony that gets doubled when you realize Alfred Hitchcock had a hand in bringing Suspense to life.  It's a genuine, forgotten achievement.  Anyway, on one of the tapes my parents bought for me, there was one episode titled Ghost Hunt.  I was, and still remain, a very avid fan of the Horror genre.  It's what got me interested in reading books to begin with.  The fact that it could sometimes appear on TV, the movies, and now on radio was something of an added bonus that continues to this day.  Perhaps that's not so shabby an accomplishment when you consider how old a lot of that stuff is. 


I settled in, listened to the Ghost Hunt episode, had a good time, the worlds turned on its axis, as it always does, and things went on.  The irony comes in when Blair Witch  arrived on the scene.  Like a lot of folks in the audience, I was one of the very gullible ones who got caught up in that film's marketing ploy.  It was played with such brilliant perfection that there might have been a time when I was perhaps in the vicinity, on the verge of coming somewhere near to wondering if it was all true.  We all make mistakes, as the advancing years seem determined to prove to us all in various ways.  Even as a fake, though, whatever you want to say about its quality, what can't be denied is the skill with which the filmmakers were able to pull off their gambit.  It's kind of a small marvel, in its own way.  The real punchline, however, is just this.  I never saw, but rather listened to a story with what has to be more or less the exact same premise as Blair Witch.  To top it all off, the radio play beat Sanchez and Myrick to the punch by about 49 or 50 whole years.  The whole joke is perfected by a final revelation, one which might be surprising for the way in which it re-orients the nature of the Found Footage sub-genre.  That means there's plenty to unpack and examine here.  However, let's start one thing at a time.

The Story.

And now, the news:

Local and state authorities are still searching for any sign of Mr. Richard Smith, of Los Angeles, California.  Mr. Smith vanished on the night of Oct. 31st.  His disappearance is somewhat notable for the simple reason that the missing Mr. Smith is more than just a face in the crowd.  He is, or was, the Disc Jockey for the Hot-n-Mellow-Hour, part of the late-night lineup of Radio WXP, here in the city.  There is nothing in Mr. Smith's history that stands out as remarkable, whether personal or professional.  The lifespan of a radio DJ is always something of a tightrope walk, at best.  Some of the workers in this trade are able to make an impact that leaves just the barest ripple before everything settles back to normal.  Others can find a way to leave the kind of impact that can grant them their own version of immortality.  Still others toil away in the shadows, theirs names and efforts lost to time.  What makes the case of Mr. Smith, known on the airwaves as "Smiley", so remarkable is that his going dark on everyone coincided with a recent upturn in his career.  There were rumblings in the industry that the local DJ could have been fast-tracked onto bigger things.  This is why the management of WXP (Mr. Smith seems to have no living relatives), as well as local authorities are anxious for any useful information that might be of help in their search for the missing radio personality.

The only piece of evidence anyone has been able to turn up comes in the form of what is purported to be an audio recording, which is supposed to be the last broadcast featuring Smith available anywhere.  This recording, however, is considered to be of dubious value by the police and law officials.  It is true that Mr. Smith's last known assignment for the station was to rendezvous with a Dr. Clarence Reed for the purposes of delivering a broadcast from the inside of a piece of local real estate which is rumored to have had a somewhat sketchy past.  Beyond this, however, everything remains up in the air.  The voice on the recording does indeed at leas sound like the missing Mr. Smith, however the nature of the events transcribed on the tape has left law enforcement convinced the whole thing is some sort of elaborate prank.  Nevertheless, the choice has been made to air this recording for our listeners, in the hopes that it may serve the community, and lead to any possible answers in what has to be one of the most puzzling disappearances in the history of Los Angeles.  As always, we, and your local law officials are thankful and grateful for any possible leads or information that anyone out there can provide at this time.


 Assembling the Main Ingredients.

In the strictest sense, there is nothing really all that new about the story, either in its basic setup, or execution.  At this late date, the Found Footage genre has worked itself up into a state where even the most average viewer can kind of start to map out the patterns that make up the building blocks for this kind of story.  It is also just possible to chart out a lot of the potential directions in which they can go.  The basic setup usually features one or more of the following elements.  Among the essentials, there's always got to be a main lead.  This protagonist is often marked out by a combination of character traits.  The main character of a Found Footage story is interesting for the thematic purposes they might be implied to serve.  They're usually a mixed brew of motivations and drives.  On the one hand, there can be a sense of likeable naivete to the main lead in this type of story.  There can be the sense of a general lack of experience or world-wise knowledge to Mockumentary protagonist.  They will often display a dual fascination for both their way with the camera, and whatever happens to be their chosen forbidden subject.

At the same time, there can also be negative aspects to the character.  Some of them tend to come across as cold and withholding.  There can sometimes be the sense that such individuals are cut off in some fundamental way from their surroundings, and their constant handling of the camera acts as a wall they have chosen to place between others and themselves.  A good example of this latter portrayal can be found in George Romero's Diary of the Dead, where the main lead stays obsessed from start to finish with trying to find the correct type of footage that will validate his worldview.  It's a portrayal that the film remains uneasy with from start to finish, and I think one of the things it does mostly well is to serve or act as a commentary on these types of characters.  The Found Footage protagonist seems to have evolved over the years into a figure that symbolizes a lot of our current misgivings of contemporary technology.  It's a trend that's discernible more less right from that start in Blair Witch.  If Heather's reliance on the camera as "all I have left" is the continuous character note for the main lead in these types of stories, then its the addiction to the camera that seems to function as a main cautionary tale.

 It's almost kind of a surprise to learn that no one has thought to consider just how much the theme of paranoia surrounding our modern technology acts as constant background note to pretty much all of the films in this particular sub-genre.  Perhaps its an aspect that goes further than the Mockumentary itself, and has its roots way back in the advent of the machine as an aspect of modern life.  Looked at from that angle, perhaps it makes sense to see a Found Footage movie, at least in part, as sharing a slot under the banner of another familiar generic sub-section, the Techno-Horror film.  These are the examples, according to Stephen King, "of the horror film with a technological subtext...sometimes referred to as the "nature run amok" sort of horror picture...In all of them, it is mankind and mankind's technology which must bear the blame; "You have brought it all on yourselves," they will say (Danse Macabre, 163)".  It think the best example of this type of flick (or at least one that still maintains a set base of public awareness in the current audience) would have to be the original 1984 Terminator.  That whole picture serves as perhaps the best summation of the nightmare scenario of the machine turning on its makers.

The Found Footage story, in contrast, seems to operate on a smaller scale, one that is both circumscribed, and personal.  Technology might be a part of the evil in these films, however it never seems to be the one to have the final say.  This is because at the heart of most of these stories is the clash or conflict between the values of modern life (as symbolized by the constant presence of the camera, which just keeps right on recording all the gory details to the bitter end) and a far older framework whose horrors owe much to the world of folklore and ancient myth, as well as the tropes of spectral Gothic fiction.  This sort of means that another ingredient in the Mockumentary is what might be called "The Overthrow of the Modern".  In this type of story, tech is never given much of a chance to become the main villain.  It can't even run amok very far before it is overpowered by forces that don't have to rely on automation to do their job.  They seem to display a greater sense of cunning than the modern hunter/gatherers who become their prey.  It's the classic setup of old versus new, with a heavy emphasis on the new being fundamentally unequipped to deal with the old.  

A lot of the main reason for that is because of the presence of a final element in this particular cauldron of storytelling.  One of the perennial attributes of the main lead in the Mockumentary sub-genre has been the often shared character trait known as hubris.  It's a plot element that exists outside the field of Horror, and is as near as old as the proverbial hills.  Perhaps this makes its presence in films like Witch or Troll Hunter another example of the old encroaching on the new.  Whatever the case, the basic facts remain the same.  It's this sense of hubris that acts as the main motivating factor, and drives the protagonist further into the danger zone until there is no turning back.  The reason for that is because this sense of invulnerability is the main weakness that the character often chooses not to acknowledge until it is too late.  The best example of this trope still remains the final confession near the end of Witch.  It's this very weakness that leaves the character an easy prey for all the supernatural forces populating the story.  The horrors are given all the fuel they need to drive the protagonist over the edge.  

The irony is how all of these attributes of the Mockumentary sort of give it away at the same time.  Once you look past the surface charms or deficiencies of the format, all the viewer is left with is a lot of old tropes straight out of the Horror novelist's playbook.  It sort of lets the cat out of the bag by admitting that for all the technical wizardry that can done with the camera in this setup, what it all comes down to in the end is a bunch of tropes straight out of central Horror casting.  All you have to do is remove the mask from the Found Footage protagonist and underneath all you will find find waiting for the there is the same character that has populated countless short stories and books written in the Gothic mode since time out of mind.

The Hunter Becomes the Haunted.

So how do all of the ingredients described above apply when they are given fictional flesh and blood in a play like Ghost Hunt?  For starters, in the strictest sense, its not like we haven't seen any of this before.  Modern listeners approaching this radio play in a post-Blair Witch world might lodge a number of complaints.  It's nothing new.  Why is it so low key?  I'll swear I've seen these characters before, etc.  If that's the case, then to each and everyone of these charges, I reply, so what?  What difference does it make if someone uncovered this particular fossil before anyone else?  If that's what happened, then doesn't it make guys like executive producer William M. Spier and Game Show personality Ralph Edwards a pair of semi-collaborative pioneers?  Considering how old this broadcast is, dating way back before Sanchez and Myrick probably even had parents, I'd say the pioneer perspective is the proper frame of mind to view the whole thing in.  To try and make the claim that it's a tired repeat of tropes some other guys did doesn't make as much sense when you consider that the Suspense play was around far longer than the Witch of Burkittsville.

Besides the question of historical precedent, there's a sort of added bonus thrown into all this for a lucky handful of OTR fans.  Some of us were able to grow up with plays like Ghost Hunt long before Elly Kedward and her amusing brood made their mark upon the scene.  The whole compilation of historical facts tends toward just one direction.  It was artists like Spier, Edwards, and Orson Welles who are responsible for setting the mold of the Found Footage genre, rather than a lot of the more familiar names out there.  This means that the later projects are the copies, and not the originals.  Put this all together, and what you get is a story that follows a familiar pattern.  This in itself, however, is no proof, one way or the other, of the specific quality of the story itself.  In order to find out what that is, you have to pay as close attention as possible to the text in front of you.

In the case of Ghost Hunt, if it really is a story that follows a familiar format, then I suppose the main question should be whether or not it does a good job of filling in all steps needed to make it work.  I think the answer can begin to be found by taking a close look at the play's main character.  The modern audience has never met a guy like "Smiley" Smith, and yet he's also someone you've kind of seen before.  When we first hear him, Smith comes off as something of a living cliche.  His on-the-air spiel is modeled after a type that was more prevalent for the Big Band Jazz Age in which the story is set.  It's a spell-binder's technique that tries to mix in a sense of the homespun and avuncular with the idea of being a total party animal.  I can't say I know how that approach would have sounded to a 1940s audience.  All I know is our first glimpse of the main character leaves us with the sense of someone who is in way very shallow, or superficial.  We might also be tempted to ask if his antics come off as unsuccessful from a professional standpoint.  However, I do wonder if maybe that's the point.  The DJ's used car salesman routine could sound forced because we pick up that we're not hearing the real person, but rather just the mask, or public persona he chooses to hide behind.  This idea of the mask is something we might have cause to come back to as we examine how things turn out.

Right now, the important point is that Smith likes to keep himself busy.  He always has plans spinning, and often these plans take the form of some sort of prank.  He fancies himself a practical joker.  Tonight, however, he's decided to make a change of pace.  He's going to hunt for ghosts!  His latest idea for a gag takes him to a country chateau situated among the hills of Malibu beach.  It's earned a local reputation as "The Deathtrap".  Immediately, we're in familiar territory.  Like any good chillers of its kind, the writers do a decent enough job of establishing what Stephen King refers to as a "provenance (Danse Macabre, 284)".  We have the rich man who builds a house for his bride, followed by her death, then his.  After that, the next few unlucky souls to own the house meet up with similar fates.  Of course, there's the curious note of how all the victims met their fates at the bottom of the crags and rocks on the cliff below.  It was probably fairly standard stuff even by 1949.  

The key here is how well the trope is told.  Considering the fact that I was able to go along with it, and take the whole thing in style, I'd have to say that kudos goes to scriptwriter Walter Newman.  He not only sells the old trope, but does so with a level of skill that is more considerable than it looks on the surface.  Remember, each episode of Suspense ran to just about the 30 minute mark.  There were special occasions when the runtime was stretched into a full hour format, however these were always framed as deliberate exceptions, usually whenever the show-runners thought an episode was high quality enough to warrant such a special treatment.  Newman was stuck with the regular series time slot.  That meant he had to find the right words that would take up no more than their allotted time within the overall story and go no further.  If the setup was either under-described or over-written, then there could have been a good chance the entire episode would have been scrapped.  The fact that is wasn't means Newman was able to locate just the right mean needed for his "provenance" to work.  As it exists, the audience is given a capsule summary of events that is able to plant the merest seed of unease at the back of the listener's mind.  Nothing graphic happens, in the strictest sense, yet the very nature of the words is what gives us our first sense of discomfort.

From there, the rest of the cast of characters, and their dynamics with each other are laid out.  The nature of Smith's personality is given its second layer of dimension here.  This becomes apparent during his interactions with the story's second main lead, Dr. Clarence Reed, the psychic investigator who accompanies the DJ into the house.  The writing is at pains to make a clear compare and contrast between the two figures.  It does this by providing a brief outline of Reed's character that acts as a polar opposite to Smith.  It would have been easy to treat this type as a figure of fun.  The woods are full of paranormal enthusiasts who are revealed to be little more than amateurs biting off more than they can chew.  Instead, Newman makes the wise choice of letting Reed by the Van Helsing of the play.  He's given a stature that places him alongside the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and Oliver Lodge.  In addition, it is revealed that he was gassed in the First World War.  It's a character note that establishes two things.  The first is the unspoken declaration that Reed is something of a patriot and a hero (a trait of which he maintains an admirable modesty).  The second is that he always outclasses Smith to the point where he helps the audience get a better sense of the radio personality.


This info is dolled out with a very clever skill as we listen to Smith interview Reed about his background and credentials.  Reed tells Smith (and the audience) that his lungs were gassed during that conflict.  All that "Smiley" can say on the matter amounts just "Uh-huh" and "Yup".  It's a series of what looks like and can be read as just a number of throwaway lines.  Perhaps they are, to an extent, at least.  However, I think it makes sense to call them very skillful, for all that.  It's another example of Newman's ability for creative compression.  He shows how sometimes a multitude of character notes can be boiled down into as little as just four to five lines of dialogue.  What they tell us is a further detail of the scope of Reed's own skills, as well as his sense of courage.  The character has just had an extra layer of depth added to him.  Smith, in contrast, seems to be almost unaware that the good doctor is even right there in front of him.  His replies are brief, curt, and to the point.  They also tells us a few things about our host.  

Throughout the first interview, one that takes place just outside, in front of the house, Smith holds forth as the master of ceremonies.  It's obvious enough that he has at least some kind of an awareness of the situation, though it doesn't seem to go very far.  He knows he has a "house with a history" on his hands.  He's surrounded by other adults, one of whom is something of an expert, and shows greater signs of maturity than him.  That last note is sort of the whole point of course.  It all comes down to how the main lead sees everything around him.  I think that's an important point to note, because as the episode plays out, the writing ultimately leaves us with just Smith's to guide us through the majority of the story.  At the start, it's implied that all he can see is a combination of publicity and maybe a few dollars signs here and there.  There's no way he can treat the"Deathtrap", or Reed, as something serious.


That in itself is a trope as old as the hills.  This particular neck of the woods are filled with foolhardy souls who can never take the possibility of the supernatural on its own terms.  What makes this example stand out is the way Smith compounds his arrogance.  It isn't enough that the main character won't heed all the warning signs of a quintessential Bad Place, it's also implied that he can't even bring himself to believe in the world of the living, or the people who inhabit it.  This comes out in Smith's interactions with the other characters.  He tries to keep things light, yet even when he's all smiles, there's the lingering sense of an edge of tension to the proceedings.  His laughter may sound just a bit too loud, his spirits perhaps too boisterous to be convincing.  More than that is the way he treats Dr. Reed.  This is where Newman's artistry might be at its finest, as he delineates Smith's nature by having him bounce off Reed as a character.  In doing so, the audience is able to intuit that, deep down, the main lead doesn't like or see Reed as a character all that much.  One would think, even if Smith can't take his beliefs seriously, he can at least extend some regards to the implied admirable qualities of the doctor's life and accomplishments.  Smith can't even manage to care about such concepts as patriotism, however.  The protagonist is, in short, an almost perfect narcissist.

The result is a neat, and more or less flawless construction of character, that just gets more important as the audience gets further into the heart of the story.  Once inside the house, the two cast members split up after a brief bit of conferring.  Reed takes the nominal lead here just a bit, announcing that he intends to explore the upper floors of the house on his own for a bit.  Smith, meanwhile is to remain downstairs, while Reed will relay his findings through walkies-talkie.  There's a further nice bit of character development on Reed's part here.  It really sounds like his decision to explore the house on his own is in part motivated by his knowledge of who he is dealing with when it comes to Smith.  He's like the schoolteacher trying to put an errant child in his place.  At the same time, its one of those decisions, the one where even the biggest dullard in the audience knows that splitting up is the worst thing anyone can do in a Horror story, aside from getting involved in the first place, perhaps.  It also leaves us alone in a room in a haunted house, with just Smith for company.  Now we have arrived at the real center of the play.

I have said that the main character is a narcissist.  It's a description and a character note that was chosen very deliberately.  The reason for that is because the idea isn't an original one with me.  It can be found in discussions by several other writers and critics talking about the Gothic genre.  In particular, I think it helps to turn to the words of at least two other writers besides Stephen King.  They are John G. Parks, and Irving Malin.  It is Malin, out of all the three, who I think can help shine the just the right light on the nature of Ghost Hunt's protagonist.  Malin is a big help in this when we turn to consider his theory of Gothic narcissism.  It's a topic he writes about at length in his 1962 study The New American Gothic.  Harry T. Moore explains it well enough in that book's preface, "As Mr. Malin points out, the newer Gothic writers are closely related to Poe...yet they are in the mainstream of American literature.  To them, "the psyche is more important than society," and usually they write about a microcosm: a Southern town, a city house, an army camp in peacetime, or Central Park...The true Gothic," according to Malin, "is essentially and continuously subjective, presenting reality as a distorting mirror.  In the past, as Mr. Malin points out, the older American Gothic projected its narcissism powerfully, "but new American Gothic uses heroes who cannot even proclaim their narcissism in strong ways."  As Mr. Malin shows in his chapter on "Self Love", the narcissism of these characters drives them so deeply into their private worlds that they become totally isolated (viii)".

It helps to bear in mind that Ghost Hunt was written and broadcast way back in 1949, a full 13 years before Malin set his thoughts down on paper.  It's a real mistake to assume that Malin had any knowledge of a radio broadcast that was probably old even by his time.  Nonetheless, there is a sense in which the descriptions Malin and Moore give about the nature of the modern Gothic character serves as a very useful summary of the personality and plight of the hapless Mr. Smith.  Like any dyed-in-the-wool narcissist, he tries to find ways of ingratiating himself into social circles.  He does this through a highly developed trademark wit.  The problem is it's all not really in the service of genuine social interaction.  Instead, it's all about imposing his will, or asserting some measure of control over whatever situation he happens to find himself in.  This is the mindset from which he approaches the story's main setting.  His ostensible goal is to use the "Deathtrap" as a publicity stunt.  However, at the same time, there is the lingering sense that Smith sees the house as some kind of obstacle to be shown up, and thereby mastered.  It's a subjective goal that meets its match in a confrontation with an external environment that is able to turn right around and pummel the main character's problems right back at him.

This is where it helps to understand how the archetype of the haunted house performs its nominal role in most ghost stories.  It's revealing because of the potential relation it can have to the concept of narcissism.  It consists in understanding the ingredients that go together to create what might be called the classic haunted house setup.  Once again, this concept is not original with me.  It comes from Stephen King, who in turn borrows it from John G. Parks.  Parks, by the way, got all of this from Irving Malin, and so it goes, all the way up the Chain of Being.  Parks was talking about another novel when he assembled all the essential elements, however this does not seem to be a real problem.  As King observes, "what (Parks) says...is equally applicable to a whole slew of American ghost and horror stories, including several of my own.  Here is Malin's "list of ingredients" for the modern gothic, as explained by Parks...First, a microcosm serves as the arena where universal forces collide (296-7)".  "In the case of" Ghost Hunt, to paraphrase King, the "Deathtrap" "serves as this microcosm (297, sic)".

"Second, the gothic house functions as an image of authoritarianism, of imprisonment, or of "confining narcissism."  By narcissism, Park and Malin seem to mean a growing obsession with one's own problems; a turning inward instead of a growing outward.  The new American gothic provides a closed loop of character, and in what might be termed a psychological pathetic fallacy, the physical surroundings often mimic the inward-turning of the characters themselves (297)".  Such is this case, I'd argue, of the unfortunate Mr Smith, and what happens to him on his ill-fated publicity stunt.  We've been shown the wall the main character sets in front of himself and the rest of the world in the plays opening scenes.  From the moment he crosses the threshold into the house is when we begin to witness what happens to the wall, or metaphorical suit of armor, and how it effects the protagonist as it begin to crumble apart, one bit at a time.  

He starts out with his same, shallow, "Smiley" self.  It isn't until he is left alone downstairs, all by himself, that the first real note of unease creeps in.  We begin to see a fidgety side to his personality.  He has a hard time keeping still, and there's a sense that the DJ lives in a near constant state of agitation which his on-air persona uses to both mask and channel on occasion.  The second, and perhaps the most important thing we learn is just this, the character doesn't like long, protracted moments of silence, or being alone.  This appears to be the main weakness which drives the plot.  From here on out it's a familiar trope, but a pretty good one, as we in the audience are left to watch the slow unraveling of a narcissistic mind.  


First, Smith's dog, one that he brought along for company, breaks from its leash and runs off into the night.  From there, Smith's attempts at maintaining levity for the listening audience reach ever increasing levels of desperation as the atmosphere or genus loci of the house begins to do its work.  The moments of humor grow less in short order, as Smith instead finds that the train of his thought keeps turning back toward what is revealed as a pretty empty life.  He never had many friends growing up.  His early years of struggle were lonely, and it's still something of a private shame.  He tries to not admit the old dark mansion is getting to him, and fails.  As he says, "That's the thing about this place, it wears you down".  Any more information would just spoil the ending.  What I can say is that I'm left wondering if this episode might be an unintentional influence on Shirley Jackson's Haunting of Hill House.  I have no way of proving that.  It's just one of those interesting question that perhaps are able to leave a bit of interesting food for thought.

Conclusion.

I opened up this article with the suggestion that this episode of Suspense might form a link in the chain of unsung and forgotten pioneers in the Found Footage genre.  It's a claim that's pretty easy to make in the case of Ghost Hunt.  For one thing, it's not enough that the story's basic setup is very similar to a whole slew of Paranormal Reality TV shows that seemed to flood the market a few years back, it also kind of helps that there is a segment in the script where the audience is given the rare privilege of seeing (or hearing as the case may be) the actual footage being found at some point in the narrative.  In fact, a good way to describe listening to this radio show is that its almost like seeing a lot of familiar points on the map being sketched out for the first time.  I gave a list of the by now familiar tropes associated with the sub-genre, so there should be no real need to rehash it all at this late date.  Instead, what needs to be mentioned is something that came as even a bit of a surprise even to me.  

It has to do with a discovery that may shift how the Found Footage story ought to be viewed or considered, at least to an extant.  The starting premise was that certain Old Time Radio shows could reveal glimpses of an under-documented past history for the Horror Mockumentary.  My greatest hope in that regard was that I might be able to unearth enough proof that this particular narrative format was older than just the Gen X level of media on display way back in 1999.  What I wasn't expecting was to uncover proof that the Found Footage story has its roots, not in the relatively new medium of film, or even dramatic broadcast radio.  Instead, the greatest surprise lying in wait was the discovery that this particular type of story began life more as a literary practice.  That's the information that will fall into anyone's lap if they just take a moment to peruse over the following words.  "Ghost Hunt" was adapted for Suspense by Walter Newman from an original story by the renowned ghost story writer Herbert Russell Wakefield (web)".

It's a statement that jumps out at you, and can knock you for a loop if you aren't expecting it.  The real impact, as hinted at above, is that it forces Found Footage fans to consider what it means if the genre's origins are not essentially cinematic, and instead come from a literary origin.  For me, at least, the implications couldn't be any more clear.  The existence of the short story has, for better or worse, opened up an avenue in which the literary critic can find a voice in the conversation.  This means that it can be possible to judge a work of the sub-genre as some would a print text.  In the case of Ghost Hunt, a good place to start is with the writer who created a seminal story in this particular branch office.  Herbert Russell (H.R.) Wakefield seems to have been one of the last few practitioners of what might now be called the Victorian Ghost story.  These are types where the horrors are often present, yet they prefer to show their work in less garish ways than the likes of George Romero, or Wes Craven.  Perhaps the author who best defines this form of writing is Montague Rhodes (M.R.) James.

The basic situation for a lot of his stories centers around differing yet similar academics and antiquarians who go exploring among various "quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore", and often wind up stumbling across more than they can chew.  The horrors in James's stories seem to serve as cautionary warnings.  There are boundary lines, James seems to be saying, across which mere mortals are never meant to set foot.  Wakefield appears to be writing very much in the same vein as James.  I suppose the best way to demonstrate the particular nature of this type of story is to note its dissimilarities from the more familiar Lovecraftian style that a lot of Horror fans are more familiar with.  The simple fact is it appears to be a style that Wakefield and James are just never quite able to arrive at.  They are more content with an atmosphere of dread that doesn't quite go as far as the writer from Providence.  A lot of things go bump in all the types of night contained in their stories, yet just because that happens, it doesn't mean its all over or anything like that.  I wonder if this places Wakefield's work in a peculiar place at the moment.  On the one hand, the nature of his writings clearly mark it out as a work of Horror in the classic ghost story setting.  There's very little else it can be, really.  Because of that, I'm left asking how receptive a modern audience used to having buckets of blood thrown in their faces will respond to it?


Maybe the question itself is just another form of overthinking the problem.  However it wouldn't surprise me to learn that audiences raised on a steady diet of Freddy and Jason knock-offs would find the experience of an actual work of literate Horror to be perhaps just a bit off-putting.  It's something that speaks in a quieter voice than the one's they are normally used to.  It doesn't shout at the audience, at least not that much.  Instead, it tries to entice with half-heard whispers from the dark corners of the house.  That very approach is one of the oldest, and most reliable of genre approaches, yet it's also one that hasn't been used as much as it can, or perhaps should be of late.  It wouldn't surprise me at all to learn that a splatter-punk fan newly arrived at this particular avenue would find the whole experience disorienting on some level.  In such a case, if the ability to tap into the particular vibe or chord that Wakefield is playing with doesn't exist in the mind of an audience member, that person really doesn't have much choice except to admit that the whole thing just doesn't work all that well, at least not for him.

Even if that's the case, however, I'm afraid it doesn't keep the story itself from either existing, or doing its job.  It's all a simple question of Horror told from a different frame of reference.  Just because it is old tells us nothing of its quality.  In order to find that out, you have to learn to listen to what kind of story the author is telling.  In the case of Ghost Hunt, I think two things are going on.  The original Wakefield story is good enough on its own.  However, I also won't be shocked to discover, for instance, that some guy who either reads a copy of the original short story, or else listens to an audio version of it, might find himself inclining just a bit more toward the Suspense adaptation.  I don't really think this is the same as calling the source material bad.  Wakefield's text has all the necessary amounts of dread the story requires to work.  It's just that all the expansions Newman was able to bring to the table are such that they act and perform much like actual necessities.  I find myself thinking, yeah, this should have been added to the original text, it would have helped flesh things out a bit more.  

In other words, what we've got with both the text and its radio version is roughly the same process that played out with Kipling's The Man Who Would Be King.  We have an author uncovering an archetype buried in the ground.  He is able to uncover bits and pieces of the skeleton, however he can't quite manage to get the whole fossil out of the ground, so he's forced to leave the work as it is.  Then, if there's any luck or good karma left lying around, some other artist with enough talent will come around, see the fossil remains, and realize all that needs to be done to get the rest up out of the ground.  I think that's the favor Newman was sort of able to grant Wakefield's story.  I also don't think this is a turn of events that should surprise most audiences all that much.  I've seen it happen more than once before.  The most memorable example I can recall is when a hired hand for a PBS anthology program was able to help put the necessary finishing touches on the ending of Mark Twain's Huck Finn.  If Wakefield was able to uncover the skeleton, Newman was the guy who found a way to put all the flesh back on the bones.

The result is one of the more satisfying hybrids I've ever run across.  What we have is an Old Dark House plot told in the style of a Found Footage story.  Everything that you would expect is in its place, and yet it is told with enough skill that I can't say its something I mind, or can call bad in any way.  This is not the type of story where it is necessary for the audience to identify with the character in order for the story to do its work.  It may sound like a surprising narrative strategy, yet it's been done countless times before, and it even exists outside the field of Horror literature.  The irony is the best example of this strategy comes from a film that many could consider horrific, in that it is Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver.  The main lead of that film is not someone the audience is invited to cheer for.  Instead, we are simply meant to observe Travis Bickle as he runs his life into the ground.  The events of the narrative may inspire a sense of pity or cathartic pathos, however in terms of aesthetic reactions, it can't do more than that.  Once the viewer has passed that point, it's up to analysis to complete the task.  It's probably going too far to claim that an imaginative figure like "Smiley" Smith is in the same league as someone like Travis, though perhaps it isn't too out of bounds to claim that his narrative arc does provide a certain amount of thematic overlap.  Both stories, after all, are about lost souls forced to confront themselves.

More than anything else, the greatest surprise was to learn that Found Footage films have their origins in the written word.  It means, like I said, that a door has been left open for a more literary take on a popular sub-genre.  My hope is that it can allow the usual approaches to such films to expand and widen its horizons, even if just by one single addition.  I find that approaching stories like this from a literary perspective does a great deal to enhance the experience of these narratives.  It forces the reader to consider all the ideas that might be boiling under any given work of art from avenues they might not be aware of.  Granted that it can't make a bad work of fiction into a good one, it can still help us figure out why all the best stories continue to hold a power over differing and distinct generations of audiences, as well as the reasons for why the bad ones continue to fail.  It's from this outlook that I'm willing to say that Ghost Hunt gets an easy recommendation from me.  I think we're pretty darn lucky to have a spectral thriller like this floating around.  It's one of those stories that are kind of unique in that they are simple on the surface, and yet contain a multitude of information that helps to prop the whole display up.  Anyone who wishes to know a great deal more about the history, origins, and nature of the Found Footage Horror story can do a lot worse than start here.

6 comments:

  1. (1) You can get the whole Suspense series on the cheap at OTRCat. Most of that stuff is all available for free in various places, but I like OTRCat. They bundle things nicely and have other bells and whistles and album/show notes, etc.

    (2) I have only ever listened to a handful of Suspense episodes, although I can relate to you very much in one regard: it was hearing one of them (an adaptation of Guy de Maupassant's "The Necklace") as a child that probably made me receptive to all OTR-lore and content for the rest (so far) of my life.

    (3) Have you ever looked through Dunning's Encyclopedia of OTR? I've got it on the shelf but it's not as complete as I'd like. (I actually prefer OTRCat for info; they've got more of it. But such is the advantage of internet-bandwidth over physical pages, at least as far as housing large amounts of info.)

    (4) Interesting to see a single episode of the show examined like this. I'd think "War of the Worlds" would be a more obvious precedent, but at the same time it's been examined so exhaustively that focusing on something like "Ghost Hunt" as an exemplifier of the found footage/ fauxmentary genre has some appeal.

    (5) nice post!

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    1. (1) I think I might have heard of OTRCat at some point in my browsing history. However, the one I've been most familiar with is a company known as Radio Spirits. Like OTR, they sell all the major radio drama players and shows from those eras. I also recall they had those little booklets with lots of info on shows and episodes.

      I think the best item I ever got from them was a collection titled "The 60 Greatest Old-Time Radio Shows from Science Fiction Selected by Ray Bradbury". It's a mouthful, yet the final product has been something of a prized treasure item for me ever since. Bradbury proved he had good taste when it came to the golden oldies. I think I got the best Sci-Fi education I've ever had through that CD case!

      (2) I think Jim Henson might have been a contributor to my interest in the format. I once saw one of his shows, where he spoofed the old Orson Welles superhero the Shadow. When my Dad learned about that, the next thing I know, I have a collection of copies of the original radio program. That's got to be the first time I'd ever heard of Welles.

      (3) I have an old, battered copy of Dunning's book still lying around here, somewhere. It's probably under a heap-stack of books in a back closet. He was pretty informative all the same. I may reach a point where it's necessary to either look for it, or order another copy one day.

      (4) I already have done a technical oriented look at Welles "Panic Broadcast", for what it's worth. Both of these episodes, however, were very much surprises that kind of snuck up on me. The realization was slow in coming, yet I think what got the ball rolling was looking over that "Savageland" mockumentary I covered a few months back.

      Apparently it was so impressive that it just got my mind turning over the question of whether older examples of this stuff existed. It's a bit more than gratifying to discover that it's a literary trope, originally. I'm now wondering what other texts out there do the same thing. I think "Dracula" might be a good overlooked candidate for this sub-genre.

      (5) Now if only this stuff could pay the bills.

      ChrisC

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  2. I just accidentally refreshed the page and lost all my comments, dadgum it.

    Let me try again.

    (1) I don't think I knew that Hitchcock had a role in "Suspense." If so, I forgot about it. That's be worth tracking down!

    (2) I watched one of the Friday the 13th movies, "Jason Takes Manhattan," last night. It's got a character in it who walks around filming everything with a camcorder (1989-style!). The movie occasionally shows the way he is seeing things, but only briefly, and rarely to any sort of real narrative purpose. So it's not like it's any sort of early example of found footage or anything like that. Even so, the character behaves similarly to the protagonists of "Blair Witch" and "Diary of the Dead" in that he never puts that camera down, even when he really ought to do so and run away. This sort of thing seems unrealistic, but I am going to go out on a limb and say that to a lot of filmmakers, it makes all the sense in the world. To some extent, that lens is how they see the world; or how they prefer to. It's really kind of an interesting idea.

    (3) "The Found Footage story, in contrast, seems to operate on a smaller scale, one that is both circumscribed, and personal. Technology might be a part of the evil in these films, however it never seems to be the one to have the final say." -- I'd argue that the examples of these movies that I've seen end up using technology as a means of revealing truth. Something to do with that notion that the camera doesn't lie. A camera does what one makes it do, of course; but it's (again) interesting that this is the apparent implication. Not sure how that relates to a radio show, of course, but I'm sure it does, somehow.

    (4) "Because of that, I'm left asking how receptive a modern audience used to having buckets of blood thrown in their faces will respond to it?" -- Mostly with disinterest, I'd think. But maybe not; podcasts are such a pervasive force in the culture right now that there might well be a growing new generation of people who are becoming primed and ready for this sort of thing. Whether they'll be receptive to something this old, now, that's another matter. It always is!

    (5) "However it wouldn't surprise me to learn that audiences raised on a steady diet of Freddy and Jason knock-offs would find the experience of an actual work of literate Horror to be perhaps just a bit off-putting." -- On average, absolutely. Here's the thing, though; that's been true for a long, long time. Most people who go to the movies (and I'm referring to going to a theatre, although newer ways of consuming films is probably open to the same considerations to some degree) do so just to get out of the house for a while. This is especially true of the demographic that is arguably the target audience for most horror: middle-schoolers and high-schoolers. They largely just want to go someplace, hang out with their friends, and make noise while either pretending to be scared by the movie or pretending not to be. Against that, no genre has much power. Ah, but __% of them actually will pay attention, and those are the ones who might grow up to care about things like this. Only a percentage of that percentage will do so, of course, but I think that's the same as it ever was.

    (6) I'll have to check out "Ghost Hunt," it sounds cool.

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  3. (1) The Hitch connection came as a pleasant surprise to me to. In a way, it kind of is like foreshadowing. It may just be possible to trace a line from that broadcast all the way to his later TV show. It's a seed that gets planted and blooms at a later date.

    (2) You know, it just occurs to me there is one other film in which this aspect takes front and center: "Natural Born Killers". There's also a reason why it didn't occur to me until just now. Hearing about a film, and its reputation, are different from actually watching it. Apparently I'm a special kind of stupid in that regard.

    (3) True, yet I think the nature of its limitations is one of the truths that get revealed. In fact, I'm reminded of another Found Flick called "REC". It's central premise is very old school, and I suppose its the best example of what I mean when I say that a lot of the outcomes of this type of story are the overpowering of the new by the old. Maybe it's another pointer to a trope being older than the story in which it features. There've been countless writings where the modern collapses under various weights.

    (4) All I know is I sure hope these older broadcasts get a pick up in popularity. It's sort of the main reason posts like this exists. It's been real gratifying to see such a huge response to the first post I ever did on the topic.

    (5) I'm going to be generous and say the exact percentage is somewhere in the 5% range. The one possible upshot is that, while this percentage will never be in the mass levels of popularity, however perhaps it doesn't have to be in order to make sure that great works of art survives. No one knows who wrote "Beowulf", yet that thing still has some measure of reader awareness. Maybe the big takeaway is that all art and its enthusiasms have always been a fringe affair. Still doesn't hurt to try and make a case for all the best stuff.

    ChrisC

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  4. I listened to this last night with the lights off. Pretty cool! Some effective creepy moments in there, for sure. I'm glad to have heard it; if this one episode was a decent example, then "Suspense" was a high-quality program.

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    1. I think it's safe to say the show had more than its share of fair moments, yes. Here's the real challenge, listen to a story known as "The House in Cypress Canyon" under the same conditions as "Ghost Hunt".

      There's an interesting bit of trivia involved with that one. One of the actors in it is Hans Conreid. If the name has something like a familiar ring to it, then here's a memory jogger: "Blast you Peter Pan!". Figured it out yet? He pretty much is one of the few actors to have immortalized the role of Captain Hook (the only other who comes close is Dustin Hoffman). I have a theory about him and "Cypress". He plays a lead-in character, yet I'll swear he has one more in the play. Which one I refuse to say. Let's just put it this way, the more familiar you are with Conreid's distinctive, bellowing voice, the more enjoyment you'll get out of his second role, even if, in the strictest sense, he doesn't say anything. Believe it or not, that's a compliment. I can't think of any other performance of his where Conreid was able to send so much chills down the spine. Truly one of the great unsung character actors.

      ChrisC

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