‘he loved to have the house to himself’: Edge of terror, the animations of Brian Coldrick

Posted by Dr David Annwn Jones on September 28, 2018 in Uncategorized tagged with

 

 

In the muggy days of British summer 2018, our family has frequently been leaving windows open all over the house. Recently, working alone upstairs, I heard a terrific bang echoing from the rooms below. I jumped, decided it must be a strong breeze, settled down and then uncharacteristically shivered again. Admittedly, I had an excuse for this reaction. I had been viewing the art-work and animations of Brian Coldrick. For in Coldrick’s images, the house is never at peace; there is something waiting or stirring in the shadows behind the subject who feels at home.
In his animation ‘he loved to have the house to himself’, we find ourselves within a shadowed oval setting, gazing down from a high ceiling point of view on a young boy reading an album, a few cards spread around the opened volume. The foreground is brightly-lit and the interior seems that of a wealthy home: the boy lies on a plush carpet with a ball, a tumbled toy train and a sprawled cat to his left. The triangle and pyramid shapes on the carpet lead our eyes forwards and backwards through the picture-space. The scene seems quintessentially tranquil and is rendered with symmetrical sharpness, the doorway to the stairs opened at upper centre and we gaze down the stairway to a gloomier landing. Returning to the upper floor: the left of the doorway, we see two, subtly disturbing masks hanging on the wall. To the left there’s a tenebrous painting, a stand with vase, toy car and old-fashioned phone. Above the door, three plates are suspended. Each pictured detail operates almost subliminally. The boy, lying on his chest, gazes at his book in the implied silence and contentedly moves one foot and then the other. The cat stares over its back at the boy or is it sensing something on the landing below? Its tail shifts uneasily. In contrast with the static pages in Coldrick’s book Behind you, one-shot horror stories, where the text appears in an ornamental pane on a page before the image, in all the still images and animations featured on the Bored Panda website, the italicised, lower-case text caption appears below the image. This has the effect that, in viewing this animation, our eye runs up-and-down from ‘he loved to have the house to himself’, our mind dwelling on each detail with all the expectant irony that habitual horror-viewers expect, that realities denoted by ‘loved’ and ‘house to himself’ will soon be dramatically disrupted.
As in the case of many of the subjects in Coldrick’s animated works which can be found here:

20+ One-Picture Horror Stories That We Do Not Recommend Reading Alone

and at:

https://tapas.io/series/Behind-You

we identify with the boy and his lulled state. Particularly as children, most of us have basked in such luxury, the idleness of an afternoon left to one’s own devices and free of adult constraint. Almost imperceptibly at first, a tall figure: black body and hood, white expressionless face (mask?) gradually leans out from the right side of the landing below and then moves out of sight again. The effect is all the more devastating for its quiet, minimal movement and lack of further action. We can, of course, hold the computer page and re-view the image. In that sense the repeated effect is that of being locked into a cycle of dread and fear. This animation takes, by my timing, around 20 seconds but it feels much longer.
Coldrick’s pictures offer a rare beauty, foreboding and power and his panels ‘lightly animated’ as Joe Hill writes of them, hold an uncanny and unforgettable edge. Bombarded as we are in contemporary horror media with cutting-edge CGI effects, ballooning (sometimes bloated) narratives, multiple cuts and endings and almost continuous cues for shock, Coldrick has crystallised fear. He cleanses our over-stimulated horror palate and takes us back to basics and this artist’s basics are sophisticated and wily as well as keenly visceral.
Though there are hints in this work, of the ‘Golden Age’ of U.S. Horror comics starting in the 1950s, and hence insinuations of splatter gore somewhere offstage in the grimy wings of the action, these are always kept at arm’s length, just deferred or concealed. Mere insinuation makes the unseen more frightening. In writing of Coldrick’s book, Hill writes of the artist’s: ‘distillation […] an entire genre of fiction to its most fundamental form. He has refined and purified the entire genre of Horror to a single, vital idea: you need to keep looking behind you because you never know when you might catch somebody creeping up on you.’ That is true, as long as we understand that, in watching these images, ‘you’ means the pictured, unsuspecting victim as well as ourselves, an encouraged conflation of viewed subject and viewer. Our viewpoint, imbued as it is with imaginary exclusivity (we feel as if we are the only watcher) and intimacy, encourages us to empathise with each unsuspecting singular figure. The medium itself is intimate: 6.5 x 9.5 inches by my measurement on a PC and the static images around an inch smaller in the book. We imagine ourselves into these victims’ predicaments so readily. Coldrick selects his about-to-be-assailed victims with great care: the exhausted office worker in his pod, lonely children with their pets, the shopping-laden lady abroad in the neglected suburbs, the sleep-befuddled girl looking for a midnight snack and the one surviving brother in the ancestral home.
Moreover, as reader/viewer, we are placed primarily in the position of one, the only one, who should warn the victim yet the pantomime audience yell of “It’s behind you!” is impotent here: all we see is the threat appearing and the scene unavoidably repeating. Coldrick’s art rides the leading edge towards a tipping-point, an impending, quickly worsening crisis which hardly ever quite arrives. We never see the onset of the assault or the throes of the struggler, just the encroachment of the monstrous threat. In the few pictures where the inhuman onslaught has ensued, the subject has disappeared.
Of course, the animations also hold humour. It is the diegetic lighting of an opened fridge door which illuminates the scene in ‘hungry, so hungry. Starving. Up. In the middle of the night to find something to eat.’ One moment we are in darkness; the next, we see a girl opening the fridge, a terrifying, blank-faced ogre poised behind her. The caption seems to start in mid-flow, its single-word sentences capturing bleary sleepiness but also deepening the ambiguity over who is experiencing the hunger and that which will be eaten. There is also directional ambiguity. Does the cycle of animation move from lit lady to darkness or vice versa? Or do we start and end with darkness? Either way, the sudden illumination: a furtive insight in an isolated person’s fate, catches us every time.

A dark disorientation

Coldrick, whose production also includes editorial pieces, posters, book covers, character designs and portraits has commented on the development and refining of the Behind You pictures and animations:

I had wanted to do a continuing webcomic for a while, but I was worried I’d lose interest after starting a story I thought if each instalment was a snippet of a different tale I could start afresh each time. It also had the great side effect of leaving much of the story to be decided by the reader. It’s probably the main reason people enjoy the series.

This is surely one of the reasons we relate to his work so readily and another reason is that a reader can quickly move on to look at the other animations but later single out and revisit those images which disturb and amuse them most deeply. For, that one-shot, sure-fire terseness of his captions also instils a kind of Lovecraftian dread, an umbra of spreading and unnerving after-effect that will not let us be but prods relentlessly at the viewer’s mind and memory.

The artist’s sources are horror films, books, and internet stories such as ‘real life’ supernatural stories on Reddit and, especially Creepy Pastas, tales of the paranormal and horror microfiction on the internet. Yet Coldrick’s animations are subtler than microfiction: they often show more restraint and patience than many of the stories. Because his use of text is minimal and open-ended, the psychological associations evoked are also often more pluralistic and haunting than horror micro-texts: more is left to the imagination. He works originally with pencil to create characters and also uses Photoshop to create the close, revealing detail of his settings. Photoshop has helped him bring movement to the scenes in momentary animation and he has also been helped in this by the examples of GIF illustrators Rebecca Mock and Sachin Teng. Junji Ito’s and Emily Carroll’s horror comics remain influential and there are also glimpses of Edward Gorey and, elsewhere, Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez’s Locke and Key (2013-4), though the styles of his images, static and moving, are strongly and characteristically his own.

When it comes to Coldrick’s working process the order of creation can vary:

I almost always start with the image first but once or twice a phrase has popped into my head and I’ve worked back from there. Rather than a coherent story, the first step is usually one element. In the early days of the series it might have been a desire to draw a particular kind of creepy monster, but later on it’s been the setting. A kitchen at night illuminated by a fridge light, or an escalator on the Underground. Sometimes it can be something darker like the loneliness, doubts or anxieties that emerge once no one else is around.

It is in evoking those lonely moments of sudden disorientation and slippage in perception, those ‘out-of-mind’ moments which we all experience which Coldrick’s art excels. As he states, darkness and illumination of different types play an important role in his work. It is notable that a flickering or uncertain light source as in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners (1996) and the spirit-sensitive radiance in the Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982) is a prime means of drama in his work. I’m also reminded of the twitchy light in the semi-static, repeated scenes in some contemporary gaming design such as Hideo Kojima and Guillermo del Toro’s P.T. (Playable Teaser) (2014). At times Coldrick’s darkness itself becomes animated.
In the animation ‘wasn’t this where I came in ? how do you get out of this place ?’, a young man is stalled between blocs of light and shadow in an concrete structure of some kind. A chain strung across the corridor bears a sign ‘Exit Closed’. Behind him, a dark head looks down on him from an upper window but then slips downwards. Then, in the dark section of the tunnel behind him, the figure steps out into the gloom of the corridor but begins to tilt and swirl, growing vast octopus-like arms, its enormous, globing head passing into the shadows to the right, absorbed into the wall and presumably waiting for the man who must re-trace his steps.

Gothic links: lanterns and film

Of course, Coldrick’s work hits a Gothic nerve. The animated picture is a basic and venerable Gothic trope. In Horace Walpole’s formative The Castle of Otranto (1764), the villainous Manfred, seeking revenge, tries to force himself on Princess Isabella and, soon after, the portrait of Ricardo, Manfred’s grandfather, begins to move, utters a sigh and descends from its frame, making the young man cry out in fear.

Peepshows and magic lantern shows had provided images exhibiting some basic movement and slight changes for at least a century by the time of Walpole’s book. The slipping slides of magic lantern shows where one plate of glass featuring a hidden, painted detail is moved behind another so that, for example, a monster suddenly appears à la Fuseli’s ‘Nightmare’, crouched on a dreamer’s chest. These lantern slides could serve as part of an extended narrative or appear as one-off, singular shocks in a series of varied amusements.
In response to my comment that as well as anticipating his work also reminded me of nineteenth century magic lanterns and other media, the artist wrote:

I do love the early repeating moving images of the magic lantern and the zoetrope.
I was definitely trying to channel that a bit with the rough oval fade on all of them.

In places, Coldrick seems explicitly to play with such associations. In she believed, if lit at the stroke of midnight, the lantern would illuminate those whose bodies were buried in the old cemetery, one of the more extensive, multivalent and prolonged animations, we see a girl amongst tomb statuary in the foreground of a graveyard switch on a flickering globe lamp atop a grave obelisk. The lamp gleams and its radiance seems to flash across headstones, at least nine phantoms rising up from statues and tombs behind the woman. The ghosts have raised arms as if recoiling from the light. In the upper right of the oval fade, against the pink and grey sky (with an almost engraved quality), a skull dripping slime, gore or ectoplasm seems to be attempting to manifest in mid-air. There is a flashing, flickering effect and the top part of a skeleton: skull and ribs, shown wrapped in a monstrous growth or encapsulating arms. The insinuation seems to be that the ghosts are not recoiling from the girl’s light but rather from some monstrous presence hidden amongst them. (The last section of animation is beguilingly difficult to bring to focus. In the static version of this image, the tentacles and bony fingers which grip the half-skeleton and the spines spreading out from it are much clearer.) We might also mention Coldrick’s she knew it would work -she did not know what it would make it visible in this regard where, again, a sophisticated lamp-structure is enabling a monster to appear. By self-relexive association, one might wonder whether the artist wishes to explore those energies which the visual resources of an animated GIF might make visible.
In terms of the history of magic lanterns, to adapt Coldrick’s title: ‘the lantern’ which ‘would illuminate those whose bodies were buried’ seems similar to the concealed Argand lamp which was rolled forwards in Philipsthal and E.-G. Robertson’s Phantasmagoria shows, back-projecting scenes of ghosts and skeletons raised from coffins and graveyards on a white cambric screen. Both lantern showmen asked their members of their audiences to bring pictures of their deceased loved ones along to the attraction so that their ghosts could be raised. Friedrich Schiller’s lanternist novel The Ghost Seer (1797-9) helped to place magic lanterns at the centre of late eighteenth century cultural life.
The artist also mentions zoetropes, those devices like drums with slits which displayed a sequence of images of progressive motion. Once the drum was turned rapidly, one could see, through the slits, the illusion of horses, or boats or witches on broomsticks in repetitive motion. This reminds us that, as the nineteenth century developed, a host of optical devices including zoetropes (1866), thaumatropes, ombres Chinoises, catoptric mirrors, flip-books or kineograph (1868) and dioramas or transparencies were available. Indeed the artist references the last medium in answer to my question to him about he first decided to animate his pictures:
To answer your question, I think the idea of animating them was around from very early on, possibly when I started the very first ones. My initial idea was to aim for the very subtle and very easy to animate. A flickering candle perhaps. Of course, once I decided to try it, I couldn’t resist going further from the very first attempt. I think once or twice I’ve gone too far and tried to create a full narrative showing the victim disappear or even including a close up. The series works best when I stick to each piece as a diorama caught in a still or short looping moment.
It’s interesting that such ideas of animation occurred fairy early in the production of these drawings as if such movement was somehow intrinsic to the image. The cited subtlety is additionally characteristic to Coldrick’s art. The diorama originally used different sources of light gradually opened up to illuminate, juxtapose and then replace a scene painted on one side of a screen with an alternative one painted on the other. Each of the pre-cinematic media mentioned created an effect of repeated, sometimes gradual change or movement. Another medium, the Phénakisticope, (1833) introduced the stroboscopic principle. A strong light, an angled mirror and a participant concealed beneath the stage could produce the spectacle entitled ‘Pepper’s Ghost’ where a phantom seemed to walk among living actors. A toymaker called Walker was able to produce a miniature version of the illusion for children.
Coldrick’s animations certainly might remind us of pre-cinematic media, but on another level, they seem to return us to some of the earliest silent films where movement was minimal yet even a film like Alfred Clark’s The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (1895), the first production to use special effects, features the whole cast of actors surging in action. The first large-scale animation film, Émile Cohl’s Fantasmagorie (1908), for similar reasons, could not be more different from Coldrick’s ‘living drawings’ where most of the picture space remains static.
Though they perhaps share more thematically with modern short horror animated films like David Romero’s Midnight Snack (2017) and Axeman Cartoons’ Shift (2017), their predominant silence, restraint and potential for repetition mark them out as a very different medium. There are, additionally, a proliferation of modern silent horror films including, Erica Elizabeth Ravenwood’s Psych – A Modern Silent Horror – art film (2013) but, as in the case of many previous silent films, they feature accompanying music. The search for the most abbreviated of horror films continues, many brief examples featuring a quick succession of cartoon stills as in a slideshow. Coldrick’s ominously-themed GIFs stubbornly insist on their intractable limits; their beauty and power derive in part from their refusal of explanations or extended narrative. They stir into vivid temporary life and exist on the border between animated drawings and strictly-circumscribed film animations. They share the qualities of the internet ‘real life’ stories which the artist admires in that, as he writes: ‘These barely function as narratives, they are basically scary scenarios.’

Returning forms and the new

Recently, there has also been a renewed interest in other Victorian art-forms which sought to create pictures which moved by other means. Ib Penick and Wally Hunt, with their well-designed books for Random House, helped to renew the popularity of the pop-up book medium in the 1960s and 1970s. Edward Gorey seems to have been a graphic artist who longed to bring his macabre creations to life and move beyond the two dimensions of the page. Penick also created the mobile motifs of arch-Gothic parody for Gorey’s pop-up book, The Dwindling Party (1982), where the MacFizzet family visiting Hickyacket Hall get picked off one-by-one by a series of monsters. Movement is by way of unobtrusive tabs to be pulled and volvelles, (card rotational wheels) to be hand-turned, the action again, as in the case of Coldrick’s animated GIFs, being limited and repeatable. Gorey’s The Tunnel Calamity (1984) manifests a clever formal pun. It is both a ‘tunnel’ book with cut-out frames in accordion format for a peepshow effect, which embodies a story of a haunted tunnel and, simultaneously, a manipulable perspective theatre.

There are other modern forms in which images of Horror ‘Changing Portraits’, sometimes called ‘Halloween Portraits’, usually lenticular prints involving adapted Victorian portraits or staged modern versions of these, have become very popular over the last decade. Since the 1950s, small, lenticular children’s ‘flicker pictures’ or ‘wiggle’ scenes have been given as free gifts in packets of sweets or cereals. These were usually flat images that seemed to change with a slight suggestion of three-dimensional depth. Since 2003 artist Edward Allen of Haunted Memories has been producing a range of portraits based on antique photographic imagery, where seemingly vintage Victorian and Edwardian photographs suddenly decay or change into skeletal images swagged with cobwebs. The effect is as old as the magic lantern slip-slides showing similar transformations, but it remains impressively chilling. Dark Imaginings supply a similar range of lenticular works, with titles such as ‘Niles’, ‘The Nurse’, ‘The Newlydeads’ and ‘Granny Pearl’, each with their own fictional backstory in verse.

A wide range of CGI, virtual reality, laser projections, hologrammic images and laser-etched glass cube holograms have also developed over recent years, some with horror, Halloween and Gothic applications. Italian animator Rino Stefano Tagliafierro has produced a wide range of internet films where the subjects depicted in famous paintings seem to shift and flex. Other sophisticated animated films have also emerged on the internet, showing changing portraits, where an attractive subject in the full bloom of youth transforms by slow or fast stages into a bony skeletal or an aggressive zombie suddenly lurching towards the viewer. These images have begun to proliferate, another current example being ‘Master Gracey Changing Portrait’. Often the attention paid to painterly finish and other detail is remarkable.

Yet one has to remain aware of critical distinctions and, though one might be tempted to place Coldrick’s animations within an emerging field of explorations of light animation and repeatable, minimal movement, it is too early to gain the kind of overview of media that such a judgement demands. It is enough to write that his Behind-You GIFs in their ‘rough oval fades’ are unique, refreshing and timely interventions in contemporary visual scenes. The artist has written of his desire to convey ‘Amusing weirdness and genuine creepiness’ yet his beautiful, elegant, disturbing and tantalising creations already go far beyond this. We can best evoke some of the power conveyed by describing our own favourites amongst his dark GIFs.

In the animation, ‘he had never seen any of the locals use the bridge, but tonight he found it unlocked and couldn’t resist crossing it’, we are in a city of ancient-looking tall tenements, bricked-up windows and narrow streets. The one door or shop-sign visible (source of any human agency or help) is illegible. We gaze past a stone wall on the left with a huge monastic statue occupying its niche and across an old, curving footbridge. On the far side of the bridge from the viewer, a small figure pauses before a wrought iron gate with its pillars and large lantern. The locked bridge to a sequestered, perhaps disused, estate of some kind is a particularly evocative image. All kinds of Gothic associations with ecclesiastical cruelty and infernal necromancy as in Matthew Lewis The Monk (1796) are possible. The figure is that of a vulnerable-looking young boy and the only other observer apart from ourselves is small, black cat who looks at him from our side of the bridge. We wonder whether a glimpse of the cat has persuaded the boy to cross the bridge. As the boy opens the iron gate, two large doors in the underside of the bridge below him open and a huge dark figure is seen to emerge from the water cascading round it. Fairytales of Three Billy-goats Gruff and malign trolls hiding under bridges are evoked. The scene rewards re-watching, particularly with reference to the disturbing symmetry of the iron gate opening with the huge doors opening synchronously below. Coldrick’s animations splendidly open such doors inside our heads and in the darkness around and within us.
David Annwn

Notes
I’d like to thank Brian Coldrick very much for our correspondence and kind answers to my questions.
Artist’s Interview: Brian Coldrick,
Artist Interview – Brian Coldrick

Behind you patreon: patreon.com/behindyou
Behind You tumblr page: thehairsonthebackofyourneck.tumblr.com
Freya Drohan, ‘Irish illustrator’s one-picture horror stories will give you shivers’
https://www.irishcentral.com/brian-coldrick-behind-you

Joe Hill, Introduction, Brian Coldrick, Behind You: One-Shot Horror Stories, IDW publishing, San Diego, 2017
Artist’s web-site: http://briancoldrick.com/

Tiny URL for this post: http://tinyurl.com/y7txz5b5