June 2015 Cinematic Meeting: Numbers Stations
￼Aromatic Accompaniment: Midnight Berry by Chesapeake Bay Candle.
The theme this month was numbers stations. Surprisingly, I was the only member of the Society present for the meeting who knew what number stations were. To those who don’t know, a numbers station is a radio station that plays only a cryptic stream of numbers and letters (Lost made use of a number station). In some cases they may also play snippets of tunes, foghorns, or other oddities. Before you go out in your car looking for one of these, know that these aren’t typically AM/FM broadcasts. Instead, you would need a shortwave radio to pick them up.
Numbers stations make for good horror inspiration because of their mysterious nature. Who wouldn’t find this at least a tiny bit unsettling? Numbers stations are frightening because they are obviously a deliberate product of human action—they have purpose—but they have no context; they just are. The abruptness of something that is deliberate so unexplained clashes with our expectations of cause and effect. A numbers station is an effect without a cause, and human beings find that disturbing.
The logical reaction to the sinister appearance of an effect with no apparent cause is to locate (or make up) a cause to go with it. Radio broadcasts that feature intelligible speech (even if the speech itself is indecipherable) are clearly of human origin, and so the obvious questions to ask are who and why. Our video shorts for this meeting both seek to answer that question.
The first video of the evening is called “Numbers Stations: what on earth is this noise? – Truthloader Investigates.” This video does a pretty good job of explaining what a numbers station is, and it includes audio from several notable examples. What I liked about this video is that it was mostly factual with a bit of speculation.
The second video of the evening is called “Stuff they don’t want you to know: Numbers Stations.” As you might guess from the title, this one skips the factual stuff completely (despite the format for “Stuff they don’t want you to know” beginning with a section titled “here are the facts”) and jumps straight into the crazy. Conspiracy theories abound, and I don’t recommend that anyone take this or any other video in the series seriously, but it’s certainly something fun to watch that effectively bridges the gap between the cold hard facts (numbers stations are secretive, but it turns out that they aren’t terribly mysterious after all) and whimsy. For that reason, I used it as a thematic lead in to our feature film to get everyone in the mood to get spooked.
I had been saving this film for several months, as it is one of only a handful of films I’ve watched in my adult life that genuinely scared the crap out of me. The first time I watched Banshee Chapter I watched it alone, late at night, with the lights off, and by minute six I desperately wanted my front door to be locked (hell, I desperately wanted to look down at my table and find my nine sitting next to my drink), but was physically unable to glance at my front door because I was pretty sure I already knew what I’d see. By minute eight I needed it to not be true enough that I looked anyway: unlocked, just like I’d expected. My nine wasn’t on my table, either. I’m not kidding when I say that this film terrified me.
Here is the film’s official blurb: “Journalist Anne Roland explores the disturbing links behind her friend’s sudden disappearance, an ominous government research chemical, and a disturbing radio broadcast of unknown origin.”
As far as blurbs for horror movies go, this one is succinct and unusually accurate, so there’s little I need to add as a plot summary.
One important thing to note is that the official trailer does not do a good job of showcasing what makes the film scary; I actually recommend that you not watch the trailer, even after you’ve seen the entire film. I certainly wish I hadn’t watched the trailer just now when writing this article—it seriously detracts from the memory of the excellent original viewing experience.
There were several things about this film that I liked. The first was the braided nature of the final product. In addition to the main narrative following Anne’s investigation, Banshee Chapter is interspersed with (and opens with) documentary footage relating to MK Ultra. Yes, MK Ultra was a real thing. Yes, the CIA gave hallucinogenic chemicals to American citizens without their knowledge. Yes, they lied about it. The inclusion of this documentary footage, some of which is pulled from the CSPAN archives, is a brilliant move on Blair Jackson’s part.
At the top layer, it sets the imaginary tone for the film, and preps the audience for conspiracy mode. It helps to enhance the “this is based on a true story” effect. Just below the top layer, the genuine nature of the documentary films used is obvious to the viewer—everything from the clothing styles to the film grain screams “this is real footage,” which enhances the superficial effect (nobody likes being able to tell that the “real” footage is fake), but also gives the viewer his first tinge of realization that the “real” footage may in fact be real footage. That sets the viewer down a second simultaneous line of horror below the main one in which he cannot so easily create the layer of abstraction that normally protects him from a horrifying cinematic experience—he can’t quite make himself believe that it’s all make believe any longer. This undercurrent of truth is built throughout the film, and culminates with a speech given by Bill Clinton himself apologizing for the MK Ultra experiments.
The second braid woven into the main narrative is footage of experiments in the mysterious “Chamber 5” of an unspecified government installation, presumably part of the MK Ultra experiments. And the footage of these experiments is creepy. Not all of it is given in chronological order, bouncing the viewer back and forth between the two poles of mystery and already knowing how the experiment is going to end.
Spoiler alert: this footage isn’t real—but it’s almost good enough that it could have been. The vintage film quality isn’t quite duplicated well enough to be original 60’s footage, but the rest of the movie does a good enough job that the viewer needs expend no effort at all to remain in a state of belief (the ethos of the real documentary footage moves this from the category of suspended disbelief into straight belief).
Crucially, none of this extra footage is given as “found” footage; with the exception of the documentary Anne’s friend was working on before he disappeared, it is given to us without comment or narrative frame of any kind—it’s simply part of the movie. This choice by the director was the right one. Not only is found footage tired at this point, but Banshee Chapter is the kind of film that works better without a frame. A frame would distance the viewer from the carefully crafted sensation that this is about as close to truth as fiction can be, and it would inject difficulties of camera point of view (in essence, someone inside the story has to be holding the camera). Banshee Chapter in fact hangs a lampshade on the fact that it subverts the found footage trope by including bits and pieces of found—and even finding—footage (you’ll know it when you see it; I’m so glad they didn’t have basements where I grew up) throughout the movie in ways that make sense to the plot, rather than having the entire movie being a frame narrative like most instances of found footage.
In this way, the extra footage of MK Ultra real-world documentaries and the “real” footage of the MK Ultra experiments in Chamber 5 function both as metacommentary of the main narrative and its themes and as tools to set the correct atmosphere and gradually reveal the backstory that goes with the main narrative, before everything gradually converges by the end. Banshee Chapter was Blair Erickson’s directorial debut, and I look forward to seeing if he maintains his unique structural style in the future.
Other than its structure, what makes Banshee Chapter such a good film is that it typically puts the Scary Thing in the midground rather than the foreground. This cinematographical choice comprises far more than avoiding jump scares queued by music from a waterphone—disturbing things discovered by flashlight are revealed naturally, often out of center frame, as they would actually be experienced by the characters, rather than artificially brought to the foreground by a traditional jump scare.
In addition to jump scares just being awful (startled is not the same thing as scared), this naturalistic approach further undermines that abstraction the viewer builds to distance himself from what he is seeing, which helps get past a rational appreciation for the spooky in order to tap into the truly primal. Interestingly, the movie avoids dramatically ironic scares, as there aren’t ever things in the background out of focus or around a corner that the characters cannot see that the audience can. This increases the audience identification, and breaks down that protective distance even further.
Good acting, especially on the part of Ted Levine, sets this movie apart from other forgettable films. Levine’s character, Thomas Blackburn, is critical for maintaining both the pace and atmosphere of the film. Levine’s excellent control of the role provides levity without diminishing the horror, and he brings to the role an unexpected voice of wisdom that provides context to an otherwise unimaginably horrible set of circumstances. His character is quite versatile, a washed out drunk one minute and surprisingly well-read and thoughtful the next. It’s not hard to see the man Blackburn might have been without the drugs and booze, and Levine deserves all the credit for that.
Katia Winter does an excellent job of bringing journalist Anne Roland to life. Unlike so many weak female characterizations, Winter’s portrayal of an aggressive young journalist is first rate, and never once seems hokey. She is inquisitive when she thinks she’s found a lead, skeptical when the evidence seems questionable, polite when she first meets someone, but not afraid to ask them extremely pointed questions out of the blue. She comes off exactly like a young reporter with the confidence that her subjects might not expect, yet sometimes she underestimates them as well, leading to a very tense glass of whiskey in the case of Blackburn.
The interplay and relationship between Blackburn and Roland also elevates the movie, as Blackburn develops some protective feelings toward her that seem very genuine. Overall, the characters just seem smart–they are three-dimensional rather than flat, and they grow in realistic ways during the course of the film, making them believable, relatable, and enjoyable to watch, which is something very few horror movies manage to pull off.
Lastly, Banshee Chapter has an outstanding soundtrack, and Levine makes excellent use of his sound design to unnerve the audience with subtle tugs of authenticity. They used some recordings of actual numbers stations by way of The Conet Project, which is worth checking out. But, what seals the deal is the use of the song “The Girl in the Window” by Mark Lenover throughout the movie and for the ending credits. Played at the end, specifically against one final clip of “real” MK Ultra footage from Chamber 5, this song complicates and deepens the emotional effect of the movie, and I was absolutely floored by the effect.
Content References from the June 2015 Cinematic Meeting (in the order they were run)
Truthloader. “Numbers Stations: what on earth is this noise? – Truthloader Investigates.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 18 Jan. 2013. Web. 25 Jun. 2015. Convenience Link: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ToC2QjoFluI>
HowStuffWorks. “Stuff They Don’t Want You to Know – Number Stations.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 17 Jan. 2012. Web. 25 Jun. 2015. Convenience Link: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ea_Bw4aYQck>
Banshee Chapter. Dir. Blair Erickson. XLrator Media, 2013. Film. IMDB Link: <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2011276/?ref_=nv_sr_1>