Saturday, July 29, 2006

Freaky Friday

It was an ordinary Friday evening. It began innocently enough.

My wife was out in the kitchen, making her dinner. I was reading a magazine story in the bedroom.

End of the week. Relaxing. Nice.

Little did we know what the next few hours had in store for us.

The story, in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, was about the recent influx into America of quiet, slow-moving ghost movies from East Asia. The story itself wasn’t scary, merely informational and comprehensive in the manner of trend pieces written well after the trend has been recognized and popularized by millions the world over. But it reminded me of the Japanese spooks I’ve been watching more of lately, delving into this phenomenon known as “J-horror” (though some of its signal directors hail from China or Thailand). Some of the movies have been better than others, but the genre’s fundamental tropes remain intriguing to me: it appears in these early investigative stages that Asian horror and I are on roughly the same wavelength.

But last things first.

We were watching, along about 10:30 EST, a show on the Travel Channel called “Most Haunted.” It comes from the UK, and we’ve seen it several times before. Frankly it’s on the ripe side -- ripe as cheese is ripe. It doesn’t pretend to great scientific rigor, or even a convincing skepticism. Rather, it situates its crew of regulars (host, psychic, historian, camera crew, a few assistants) in an ancient castle or baronial mansion somewhere in the sceptered isle and leads the viewer on a touristy circuit of well-dusted rooms and velvet-roped-off antiquities. Each place has its ghost story, some legend pert and polished from years of being told, embellished, and retold by frustrated actors wearing beefeater costumes or Victorian bustles. Bluntly put, “Most Haunted” is for the tourists, and not for anyone who is interested in catching sight of something unaccountable. (You need “Ghost Hunters” on Sci-Fi for that.)

In the UK, “most haunted” must be synonymous with “least active.” Nothing happens on this show. Nothing, anyway, that can’t be explained by nature or human presence. A floorboard creaks. Yes. That happens, even in non-haunted domiciles. There’s a tap at the window. That also happens. Shadows. A flashlight fails. The rest is merely whooshing shock music, psychic Derek Acorah’s vaudeville trances, the occasional thrashing camera move, and some very overactive imaginations.

The main attraction of “Most Haunted,” at least for jaded postmodern hipsters like us, is not the ghost but the host. The host is Yvette Fielding, and Yvette Fielding is a woman on the edge. Either she is overacting strenuously -- admittedly a possibility, given her publicized background as a sitcom star and hostess of such BBC-TV faves as “What’s Up Doc?” and “Karaoke Challenge” -- or she is desperately neurotic. Never, in life or on the tube, have I seen anyone so susceptible to the influence of spooky stories or a dark room. Literally true: the instant the lights are switched off and the pea-green night-vision video comes on, Yvette turns into a quivering mass of inconsolable fear. Whether sitting in a chair waiting for a ghostly squeak or tiptoeing through a haunted boiler room, she spends every instant on the verge of explosive hysterics. If the cameraman moves, she gasps. (“Oh my God -- tell me it was you that just moved.”) If she bumps into a wall, she screams. (“Oh my God -- tell me that was the wall I just bumped into.”) If she hears a sound, she has a seizure. (“Oh my God -- tell me that was you that just belched.”)

Yvette had such a bad time in tonight’s location (a spirit-ridden brewery) that she abandoned her post, vowing tearfully that she wouldn’t enter that basement again. (Not essential anyway, since most of the show had been shot by that point.) We were beginning to wonder, watching Yvette’s lip quiver and her eyes melt like a puppy’s as it enters the euthanasia room, whether it was strictly ethical for the show’s producers to continue to place this unstable woman in such psychologically traumatic situations. But later I checked the website and found that “Most Haunted” is produced by the company Yvette founded with her husband.

She’s crazy, all right. Crazy like an executive producer.

Most of us have an inner heckler, and Yvette brought out ours tonight. But in some measure we may have been trying to laugh off our own, quite recent meetings with the unaccountable.

My wife had just told me about an eerie experience she’d had last Tuesday, while working at home. She was alone but for our cat. The apartment, she said, was silent: no stereo, radio, television, or other conduit of sound was active. The windows were closed against the heat wave that's been wilting our fair metropolis for more than a week now. So she was at her desk, absorbed by work, when she heard, she said, the sound of a human voice coming from the direction of the kitchen.

This apartment is a decent size by the New Yorker’s standards, but tiny by anyone else’s. Meaning that the kitchen is maybe 20 feet away from where our desks are. That’s close enough to remove much of the ambiguity around any perceived sound. Close enough, in other words, so that you know the sound didn’t seep through a brick wall, or several layers of floorboard and insulation.

My wife noted the sound and reflexively looked back toward the kitchen. Nothing there. She was vaguely unnerved. But soon enough she was back into her work.

It happened again.

This time she stopped and looked hard at the kitchen. I can picture my wife in my mind, staring over her shoulder. Waiting to hear the voice again. The same way I would. Or you, or anyone would. The way we all probably have, those times we’ve heard voices where no voices ought to have been heard.

Her gaze must have been withering in its focus, enough to deter even an envoy from beyond. The voice didn’t come again.

I quizzed her. What did the voice sound like? A man’s voice, I guess. What was it saying? You couldn’t make it out. How long did it talk -- was it a long sentence with several words like this one? Or short like this? More like the first one. An actual sentence.

I was a little creeped out,
my wife said. She’s a psychologist by training and profession. A scientist by nature, a rationalist by lineage. She isn’t creeped out that easily.

So that was another tile in our freaky Friday mosaic. Asian horror film article; voice in the kitchen; “Most Haunted” gimcrackery.

But the weirdest part of the evening came in between the first and the second.

I went to the kitchen to make a snack, leaving my wife in the bedroom, watching “The Soup” on the E! Channel (more jaded postmodern hipsterism for us). The cat came out behind me, wanting, as usual, to be fed first. I rushed around testily, wanting to get back into “The Soup” before the commercial break ended.

Quite suddenly, there came the sound of a music box from several feet away. No music box had played in our living room for years, if indeed ever. It was startling. Very crisp and loud for a music box, as if it were not only fresh from the craftsman’s workshop, but large enough to chime and vibrate like the tiniest of carillons.

My first thought was, do I recognize that song? Had the tiny wind-up mechanism that plays “Imagine" -- given me as a gift by my wife years ago -- somehow migrated from the back room to the living room? No, that wasn’t it: I’d never heard this song before.

My second thought, Asian ghost movies in my mind, was: this is like a scene in a scary movie. Music box music from nowhere. Twilight tinklings from the other side. Followed by -- what?

I tried to determine the source. Perched at the end of our fireplace mantle was, and is now, a small tin toy that my mother had sent me some time back: a fairground carousel. Could it be that? But it seemed that was merely a spinning toy; I certainly didn’t remember it having a music box built in. But that had to be it. My wife must have wound it, or cranked it, or whatever, some time earlier, and now it was playing in a sort of delayed response. A half-baked explanation at best, but sometimes the truth is half-baked: dull, doughy, unsatisfying, unexciting.

The music box, or carousel toy or whatever it was, completed its tune. I finished constructing my snack and hurried back to “The Soup.” My wife was laughing wildly at something and I was frantic to see what.

After the show, I went back to the living room and examined the tin carousel. Indeed, there was no music box component to it, merely a lever one pulled back and released, whereupon the carousel would spin rapidly, sending its riders flying out at near-perpendicularity to the centrifugal center. Ah! -- but nestled behind the carousel was something that had been there for years, long enough for its presence to have gone unremembered at first: a black wooden box, painted Japanese-style with brightly colored birds and drooping willows, containing inner compartments for the storage of jewelry. It was my wife’s, inherited from her mother, and long unused except as incidental decoration to the fireplace.

I opened wide the maw of the box. There, sure enough, in its bottom corner beneath a lift-out container, was something that looked like a stippled steel roll -- as in a music box. And on the underside of the larger box was a small handle for turning -- as with a music box. All came clear to me: my wife had, for some reason, earlier opened this jewelry box for the first time in years. She’d cranked the steel roll. Maybe it had played for her, maybe it hadn’t. But evidently it had come to unexpected life some time later, during my snack preparation. And that was the source of the music I’d heard.

Still not quite fully baked, this revised explanation, but nearer to fullness than before.

I cranked the handle and took the box to the bedroom to present to my wife. As a peculiarly rusty, dispirited tune clanged forth, I told her what had happened earlier: the sudden springing into play of an unidentifiable music box tune. It must have been this! I said; I’d forgotten all about this. It is a music box, after all, and it was in the exact area I heard the music coming from.

Her eyebrows went up, then down. She assured me she hadn’t touched the box in years, and in any case hadn’t felt compelled to twist its musical crank since childhood. How did it simply begin playing by itself? Out of nowhere, utterly crankless? I assured her in turn that I had heard a music box and that it had to have been this one -- even though I now realized what a thick coat of dust the box bore, indicating its long neglect by human hands, and was troubled by the utter dissimilarity of its damp and joyless donging to the clear, ringing tones I’d been startled by earlier.

No. This had to be the source of that mysterious music. Didn’t it?

The box thudded dustily in my hand.

My wife and I stared at each other. She said it was really, really weird. I said something to the effect that maybe her mother -- a physicist and the single most intractably rational person I’ve ever met -- could explain the whole thing sensibly, with perfect scientific satisfaction to all.

Then my wife told me for the first time about the voice she believed she’d heard in the kitchen a few days ago. I remembered those Asian ghosts, blurry and blinking on staircases and at the ends of hallways, here this instant, gone the next. And before long we were laughing at Yvette Fielding’s quivering lip and credulous openness to every hypothetical spook in the universe.

It seems the obvious answer to the music box conundrum: the box did, somehow, begin playing by itself, by some natural or preternatural incidence of spontaneous energy, and I just happened to be there to hear the result.

Hmm. Wish I could buy that. But I remain -- to invert the standard disclaimer -- skeptical of the rational.

Just another freaky Friday.