Earbuds, Imagination and Immersion: Looking Forward to New Kinds of Terror in New Kinds of Horror

Posted by Danielle Hancock on May 13, 2015 in Uncategorized tagged with , , , , , ,

There is one last thing that I’d like to say about horror podcasting. Horror-podcasts – those short, creepy little audio-narratives that engulf most of my free time – are often described along the lines of “movies for your ears”. I disagree. I think that horror podcasting potentializes a very different horror experience to cinematic forms. Have you ever wondered, after a scary film, if you’re as safe in your home as you thought? Have you ever flicked on all the lights, peered through the window, checked the cupboards, just to make sure? In lone horror listening, that uncertainty is not necessarily the horror-aftermath but part of the whole experience. To finish off then, we’ll look now at the lone horror listener, and the ways in which new audio-technologies are enabling a uniquely cloying, immersive and nerve-wracking horror experience.

The immersive horror experience lies in the seemingly un-mediated horror experience. From folk-tale to movie-screen storytellers have sought to ‘transport’ audiences, to engage us so deeply that mediatory presence is lost; we will dwell, momentarily, in the story-world.  Yet mediation is difficult to circumnavigate, especially concerning screen-media. Whilst cinema and TV screens have grown in colour, size and picture detail, very little about their basic form has altered. Moving pictures still play out against a limited screen-space and the traditional pose of audience VS media remains. The screen represents a barrier of physical separation between viewer and viewed: a parameter which re-inserts itself in its flatness, immobility and its delineated edging. Cinematic horror is encased in the screen.

Wireless headphones allow truly internalised sound.

Wireless headphones allow truly internalised sound.

Sound-media is different, and especially since the birth of iPod, the most lightweight, autonomous and unobtrusive audio-device, but also in the evolution of personal headphones. As over-ear headphones have developed to more corporeally merged earbuds, we have become much closer to the sounds we hear. Inserted within our bodies, earbuds cultivate the sensation of internal sound ‘materialising’ not from environmental airwaves but rather immediately, intimately within our ears: a stranger’s voice within our mind. In development are wireless earbuds which transmit sound directly through the body. Increasingly we gain an illusion of unmediated listening, sound realised within our bodies, travelling with us. The podcast voice is within us, yet beyond our control. Like dreamers, we cannot mediate its tone, or anticipate what it will say next. We synthesise with our media as our imaginations are directed by an internalised force, a force over which we hold little power.

Such ‘powerlessness’, combined with the sense of acoustic internalisation, offer a very different experience to cinematic horror. In cinema viewers can physically disengage from the text in more terrifying moments. People grab and hide behind cushions, friends, popcorn tubs; faces are averted; eyes covered or shut tight. It’s not about ending the horror experience but tempering it. Whilst retaining the pleasure of being (and acting) scared, viewers remind themselves of their audience rather than participant status in the horror story; through re-accessing ‘real’ surroundings and fellow watchers, the screen’s containment of the horror is re-asserted. They see that nobody lurks behind the sofa and that all is well. Ipod horror negates this tethered stretch from the horror realm to our own, cultivating a full and continued engagement. Our ears are lidless, always open, and plugged with earbud sound they are at their most vulnerable; covering our ears is fruitless. Regardless of our discomfort, in podcast horror the sounds keep playing and the voices keep speaking, filling our mind with image, story, sensation and place. Only stopping play brings relief, but with it a castrated rather than cathartic horror experience.

Moreover, when we turn away from the horror screen we still hear the story, we still follow the narrative. Audio-horror is purely located in our one sensory engagement. Often lasting between ten and twenty minutes, stories move rapidly and constantly ahead with each word and sound; to miss a moment is to risk losing the plot. We need to concentrate, maybe even close our eyes to better focus. We must live every second within the audio-horror story – and of course, whilst we ‘live’ so attentively within the dream-like audio horror world, we ‘exeunt’ our own. Attentive earbud horror-listening procures a true physical vulnerability as our ears, our ‘guard-dogs’ in sleep and darkness, are blockaded. The lonely night-time horror-listener, eyes shut, acoustically and imaginatively absorbed in their podcast, exists in a tied tension – threatened by the horror-world and uncertain of their own. This is horror-podcasting at its most terrifying, a new world of intensity, uncertainty, and immersion distinct and evolved from the cinematic realm.

Samantha illustrating the vulnerability of the immersed listener

Samantha illustrating the vulnerability of the immersed listener

There is a scene in House of the Devil (2009) which I’d like to leave you with. Samantha, a young, pretty student, is ‘babysitting’ an invalid in a secluded mansion; believing herself alone, and frustrated at her own jitters, she grabs her Walkman, dons her headphones and pumps the volume up. Samantha dances wildly, eyes closed, and in that moment she is isolated. We hear nothing but her music; Samantha shoots pool, slams doors, stamps on the stairs and all we hear are her tunes. Until she opens the door to the basement, and peers into the gloom – the music volume dips as if in acquiescence to the yawning emptiness down below. It’s a small reminder that the house has its own sounds, sounds which Samantha cannot access, and we see then her vulnerability in hearing only her music. I think of her everytime that I get the shivers listening alone, through headphones, at night. And I was not so surprised when I discovered that Larry Fessenden, audio-horror enthusiast and creator of horror podcast Tales from Beyond the Pale was the film’s producer. Thanks to people like Larry, unique kinds of terror are emerging in podcast horror, terrors dependant not only on what we hear but how we hear it, and where we hear it, and whether we can be sure we’re really alone.

 

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