Here’s a homemade video I made for There’s a Ghost in my Flat.
Youtube has messed up the already questionable quality of the footage, which is disappointing, but hopefully it comes across. View it at 480p, fullscreen if you can.
This video would’ve been impossible if I didn’t have help from my brother David and Rebecca. Without them, it would’ve consisted of a series of not-very-spooky clips. Not only did they assist with the filming, they came up with a lot of ideas that helped turn it into something resembling a narrative from my vague ideas.
As I’m sure anyone reading this knows, I love a good ghost story. Everyone’s scared of the dark, or at least more likely to be scared in the dark. It’s a primal thing. We can’t help it. I like how folk stories have been passed down over thousands of years playing on that. We can all relate to fear, and not in a superficial don’t-you-just-hate-it-when-you-make-a-cup-of-tea-and-there’s-no-milk-oh-my-god-that-happens-to-me-too way. It’s a given that you’re afraid of dark, unknown things, and ghost stories create experiences based on that. Given my lifelong fascination with the subject, There’s a Ghost in my Flat was a natural candidate for a homemade video on no budget. Although it’s a song about milling around your bedroom and not taking very good care of yourself, I couldn’t pass up the chance to make my very own creepy tale.
The biggest challenge, aside from no budget and very little filming experience, was to create an unnatural atmosphere without the use of sound. Scary movies are mostly the marriage of sound and visuals, and without heavy breathing, loud noises, moaning, silence or video static, it was pretty difficult to figure out ways to convey that something wasn’t quite right. With that in mind, it takes the form of a video log, in the vein of Paranormal Activity or Marble Hornets. Strange things happen around the flat, getting more and more bizarre, before I finally see the ghost in the hallway and try to escape. The door opens behind me and I leg it outside only to run into… myself! Doppelgangers are said to be an omen of your impending death, and yet here I am, writing this. Movie magic indeed.
The first scene, with the video blog format, was actually just a test shot to see if I could do that “reflections acts differently from subject” thing. I balanced my camera on a rickety tower of pizza boxes, books and Xbox games and mouthed to an old demo recording. If the lip synching seems a little off, that’s because it is: the version I recorded for the video was entirely new. The process of having two different sets of footage occupy the same shot is actually fairly straightforward, but it was fiddly learning how to do it.
Two forks, balanced on the very edge of a glass using a burnt toothpick. Reminds me of those useless old plastic eagles you could balance on your nose. Probably the most expensive shot in the video, because it cost me £1.50 for the toothpicks. Instead of waking up and finding this, I wanted to wake up and find a burning matchstick effigy, but I didn’t want to send the flat up in flames or ruin those nice countertops. I could’ve done it in the sink, but that would’ve been excessively lame.
Further forays into Bizarro World. Somewhat less impressive than the toothpicks, but at least it was cheaper. The idea wasn’t that the can standing on its end was in itself particularly unsettling, rather that finding these dotted around an empty flat was, like the scene in The Blair Witch Project where they find all those little twigs in the shape of a person.
It was going to be bloody handprints all over the wall, but my secret formula for fake blood wasn’t getting the desired results so instead it became a mess of blood with a slow reveal of a bathtub full of the stuff.
This was actually shot in Rebecca’s bathroom. I cleaned up the mess (mostly) but she almost had a fit when she saw the video. She likes things clean, see.
And so, the final sequence. I’m a huge fan of the sprawling tracking shots in Goodfellas and Children of Men, so I wanted to do my own amateur version. If there was a cut at any point, it wouldn’t be as impressive running into myself downstairs, because then I could’ve just turned the camera off and handed it to someone else. Therefore, it all had to be one take, set to a specific timing. It wasn’t easy, having just planned the shot prior to filming and having almost no experience, but thankfully I had David and Rebecca to help.
Above, you can see me talking to the camera. This was essential to establish that it was, in fact, me holding the camera. I picked the line “all I can hear is this moaning sound”, as if I’d been sitting in my room and started making an entry in my video journal when I heard this unearthly sound. The lights go off, and I see this friendly message painted on the window in blood:
I can’t help but read that in the voice of the haunted house in The Simpsons. It was going to be on the floor, but Rebecca sensibly suggested that I could walk into it and mess it up, or alternatively slip and break something. A bottle of water is knocked over, the tv comes on unexpectedly, I decide I’ve had enough and try to leave the flat when…
GHOST! WALKING TOWARDS ME! HOLY SHIT. Time to make an exit. It was important you didn’t get to see much of the ghost, but thanks to Youtube’s shitty compression, I suspect most people who’ve seen the video didn’t see the fucking thing at all. It was based on a famous picture of a phantom monk I remember from my childhood that I have dug up for your convenience here:
Of course, it’s meant to be seven feet tall, but I only know one person who’s seven feet tall and I don’t have his phone number.
The door opens behind me as I run out. What’s interesting about this shot is that David and Rebecca were convinced they could see the ghost in the doorway, even though I’d specifically told the person playing it to remain out of sight, as if the ghost was invisible in the light. That’s right, the other two people involved in the production’s minds were playing tricks on them, looking for scary things that weren’t there. That’s the power of ghost stories, for you.
The footage was altered here to stutter on my hand. This is because upon repeated viewings, I realised the viewer might believe I’d simply ran down the stairs and turned the camera to face me because you don’t see me come into shot. Of course, it doesn’t explain the hat and coat, but since I’m only onscreen for a couple of seconds it’d probably escape their notice. The stutter would hopefully go a little way to communicating that I’d ran into myself waiting outside. It actually ended up being quite advantageous, because it’s a more interesting way to end the video than fading out, and also gives off the impression that the camera was shut off under suspicious circumstances.
I had a blast with this little project, and I’d love to do it again with a lot more effort and time. The video journal format means it’s suited to the lo-fi look and shoddy camerawork, but for another video it would require a lot more thought to make it aesthetically pleasing. I learned a lot, not least of all that it’s terrifically hard to communicate a narrative through visuals alone. I mean, I knew that already, but I’ve internalised it now that I’ve attempted to do it.
Now, I’m not going to go into excruciating detail about how and when it was done. Obviously it’s not me holding the camera at the end, so I’ll leave it up to the viewer to figure out exactly when it changed hands, and how I got out of the flat without being seen on camera. The best mysteries are left unexplained.
That’s what good ghost stories are about, after all.
1. Guthrie’s Guillotine…
2. There’s a Ghost in my Flat
3. Straight Up, No Challenge
4. … Quacks and Nostrums
Well, this was unexpected. I’d been working on “Straight Up, No Challenge” for a while, pouring time into an individual song when I should’ve been concentrating on larger projects, as is my wont. The closer I got to finishing it, the more I realised I’d like to get it out there instead of sitting on it until I’d gotten a lot of other stuff out of the way, so I removed “There’s a Ghost in my Flat” from another upcoming EP, wrote two new songs and there you have it. Guthrie’s Guillotine.
I like this. Truth be told, I’m more fond of Thanks for Playing because it had a stronger theme and I believe the songs were a little more polished, but this has a quality of its own, I think. The overarching theme is of Charles Claude Guthrie, pretentiously dubbed by myself as The Forgotten Prometheus, being represented as a Dr. Frankenstein figure. The work he did is almost unbelievable, but you can’t deny its spookiness.
Guthrie’s Guillotine… is played by a calliope, an instrument named for the epic muse of poetry and absurdly inconvenient to record. Thank god for modelled instruments. The organ that comes in halfway through was entitled “Antichrist Organ”, and had that Transylvanian feel I was looking for. I tried to stop myself from putting thunder and rain in there, but it was too obvious to resist. The melody at the end floated into my head while walking down Hillhead Street towards a philosophy tutorial a couple of years back. I made sure no-one was around, pressed record on my phone and hummed the tune. If you like it, I can take no credit for it – my subconscious will do what it wants, and occasionally indulging it requires no effort on my part.
There’s a Ghost in my Flat is fairly straightforward. It’s one of a small group of songs I’ve written the melody for just by singing it while I play the chords. It’s my understanding that this is how most people write songs, but I just can’t do it. Everything I write by singing is boring. I have to use a guitar, piano or digital sequencer to write what I think are interesting melodies. I think I find it easier when I can ‘see’ the notes. I don’t know if this is a good thing.
I also despise writing lyrics, because I hate pretending my emotions and experiences are important/interesting. I have to have a specific idea of what a song’s going to be about and a good lyrical hook before I bother. That being said, I’m quietly proud of the simple wordplay of “there’s a ghost in my flat, I’ve seen him flitting between the kitchen and the bathroom, with a vacant stare and messed up hair, he looks like he’s just seen a person.”
Straight Up No Challenge is an exercise in “how would a straightforward acoustic song sound if I made one slight change to each phrase”. I compose songs in a certain way, and as soon as I become aware of how much I’m relying on one method, I try to change it up. I don’t know if I always succeed. The title’s a reference to Straight No Chaser by Thelonius Monk, and that creepy guy from Louis Theroux who would reply to everything with “no challenge”. At 18, Craig and I thought this was fucking hilarious. The song’s about time, experience, how you’re just a smorgasbord of assembled incidents and was inspired by watching people take old-timey photographs with iPhones. Plus, it has three layered lead guitar parts. Wanktastic.
… Quacks and Nostrums was me trying to make an ambient piece, because I hear people making this shit on their laptops all the time and I think christ, it’s not difficult to have three or four chorused synths playing long notes with a ton of reverb on it. I got bored after about five minutes and composed a faux-hip-hop beat to spice things up. I found a public domain video on the dangers of alternative medicine from 1959 (to tie into the Guthrie mad scientist angle), chopped and lined it up and bingo bango, Reinhardt Django, there’s a closing track.
So that’s the story of Guthrie’s Guillotine. The cover is a public domain family photograph from 1907 featuring a strange kid with two dogs. Couldn’t have been happier to find something that fit into what I was doing so well. Enjoy.