As promised at the start of this series, it comes to a close with a story inspired by my Uncanny Valley experience. Just like everything else in my life, it’s truth-based fiction.
by Todd Vinson
With both hands, the experimental psychologist picked up the 100-year-old camera and examined the black box brought by his client as part of today’s session.
The camera was half the size of a shoe box and nearly as light. The psychologist turned it at odd angles as if trying to pour out a century of spirits captured inside.
“It was my grandpa’s,” the client said. “My dad’s dad. He gave me the camera when I was fifteen and crazy about photography. The camera collected dust on my bedroom shelf for years. I loved the photographic history it represented, but to me it was little more than an obsolete relic from the early days of film photography.”
“It’s much more than that,” the psychologist corrected.
“After Grandpa died, I wanted to honor him by putting his old camera back in service. I got it out of storage and opened it for the first time. Instead of an empty camera ready to accept a new roll of 120 film, I found exposed film on the take-up spool. It had been there all along.”
“I developed the exposed film, and when it was dry I stretched the film strip across a light table. One of the images of my grandpa has haunted me ever since.”
“Wait. You mean you had the roll developed, right?”
“No I did it myself. I’ve had my own wet color darkroom since I was thirteen. Here’s my original print. That’s the same shadow or silhouette or figure that I see all the time.”
“So, this is your grandpa as a young man? No wonder you see him as a shadowy figure. He’s almost a silhouette in the photograph, yet I see some detail in the shape. Kind of creepy if you ask me.”
The psychologist placed the print on the camera and wrapped his arms around them as if accommodating a sleeping lap cat.
“Kind of creepy? Imagine waking up to that figure at the foot of your bed, or across from the breakfast table, or at every airport terminal, taxi and subway I’ve been to recently.”
“Whenever you see the vision, do you interact with him? It? Him?”
“Nope. Never enough time. He disappears as soon as I notice him. It’s a ‘he’ by the way, not an ‘it’. I mean the ‘it’ is him. It’s Grandpa.”
“You said last session that your grandfather had little formal education, yet he taught himself calculus. Smart man. Calculating man, no pun intended. Is it possible that he gave you the exposed film as a way to remember him, not the camera?”
“Maybe the camera wasn’t the gift. Maye it is just a black box keeping the real gift from escaping – I mean protecting the film from being ruined by the light.” At the risk of insulting your photographic intelligence, do you realize how controversial photography was when it was first introduced to the masses?”
“I’ve read about it, but it’s been a while.”
“The birth of photography introduced a disturbing realism that far surpassed the detail possible in paintings. Many people refused to pose for a photographic portrait. Some believed that the eyes in photographic images actually followed them. They believed that cameras captured the spirits of the subjects. In fact, some groups still believe that.
“Photography was perhaps the first mass introduction of a phenomenon called the uncanny valley. Photographs were shockingly realistic, yet each was at best a two-dimensional representation of our three-dimensional world.“
“My intelligence remains uninsulted. You’re quite the photographic historian. For an experimental psychologist, I mean.”
“I get around. Anyway, I’m glad you brought these things in for me today.”
The psychologist stood and carefully placed the camera and print on the table between the two men. “I think we should close this session with my theory: By leaving these personal items here, when you leave today, you should be more able to let go of the emotional link these objects represent. The result should be fewer visions of your grandfather. Eventually they will stop completely. At least that’s my theory.”
“I hope you’re right.”
“Your homework for the week: –”
“Yippee. My favorite part of the visit.”
“As I was saying, your homework is to experience something new, starting tonight. Find creative stimulation as soon as you leave my office. Go to a new gallery. Try new food and drink. Experience fresh sights and sounds.”
“I’m new to New Orleans. Everything’s fresh.”
“Then I want you to go to the fine art gallery at the corner of Chartres and Bienville in the French Quarter…”
“Spend a little money. Buy a new fine art book. Carry it around with you. Touch it. Feel the texture. Open the book, put your nose against the paper and smell the ink. Get lost in the images and the processes behind them.
“Afterwards, walk west on Chartres to The Green Spirit. It’s one of the oldest places in the French Quarter. Tell the best bartender in NOLA that I said to take good care of you. Her name is Jamie. Have an adventure. Then come back next week and tell me about it.”
“My psycho-book, as you put it, has a working title. It’s called, ‘An interactive study of neural pathway generation of familiar visual stimuli using noninvasive cognitive recognition triggering algorithms.’”
“Don’t print many copies,” the client said. He zipped his jacket and shook hands with the psychologist.
“Like maybe one,” he added. “Please don’t give your book as gifts to family and friends. They will need therapy afterwards.”
“You’re right. It won’t sell well. It doesn’t need to. My goal is to become published. Besides, once I sell the one copy of my book to myself, I will re-title it as, Ghost Trigger Hauntings, and advertise it as a supernatural science fiction thriller. I will be rich!”
“That was a joke,” the psychologist said. He forced an awkward grin.
Now that’s creepy, the client thought. He opened the door and stepped out into the hallway. He stuck his head back in.
“Maybe it will strike me as funny later. In the future. Far in the future. Hey, have you ever heard this one: Two experimental psychologists walk into a bar –”
“Have a good night,” the psychologist interrupted. “See you next week.” He pushed on the door.
“You too,“ the client said to the closing door.
Finally alone, the psychologist tapped his cell phone a few times. He addressed a new text to one of his network contacts.
“Prepare to entertain until I arrive,” he typed and tapped send.
“How will I know him/her,” Madam Jamie replied.
“He will be the dork carrying a fine art book.”
“Consider him entertained,” Jamie replied. A few seconds later, she sent, “Absinthe with wormwood?”
“What else!,” the psychologist answered.
“And my payment?”
“Same as always. Be there soon to settle up. You won’t recognize me at first. But that’s how you’ll know it’s me.”
“You’re so weird,” she sent.
“Been this way for at least 150 years.”
“I know. ;)”
The psychologist put away his phone and selected a long dark grey coat from the coat rack. He slid his arms through the sleeves and adjusted the collar. From the top of the coat rack, he took down a fedora and placed it on his head.
He glanced down at the photograph, then tipped the fedora back just a bit. He slipped his hands in the coat pockets and stared at the image on top of the black box camera. Not exactly as impressively creepy as good ol’ Grandpa, but we’re getting there, he thought. It’s all about the suggestion.
The psychologist exited his office. Two minutes later, he returned. “I’d forget my head if it hadn’t been reattached several times,” he said out loud to no one. He yanked the old camera from underneath the photograph, stuffed it under one arm and slammed his office door on the way out.
Somewhere along the walk to the French Quarter, the psychologist slid open the metal clips holding the two main sections of the black box camera together. He separated the camera into two parts and began shaking and waving both pieces in the cool New Orleans air.
He began to repeatedly bang the parts of the century-old camera together over his head, as if leading a parade. The clangs echoed in the dark New Orleans streets but no one seemed to see the psychologist’s behavior as strange. When convinced that the camera was truly empty, he tossed what was left of the old camera into a street trash can.
Does that count as two points or four, he wondered to himself.
Almost instantly, he sensed a growing following. He was relieved that they all seemed glad to be free, because it had been a violent release from camera captivity. Quite a large gathering, he thought. Grandpa, your camera was very busy over the years.
As the psychologist walked, he detected a single scent spirit the among the spirit-visitors. The scent spirit spun around the psychologist, and occasionally threaded itself through his nostrils. Eventually, the scent trailed a few feet behind, as obedient scent-spirits tend to do.
“Old Spice,” the psychologist yelled into the night. “Perfect!“
. . .
“Welcome to The Green Spirit! What will it be?”
“Surprise me,” he said, placing a new fine art book on the edge of the bar.
“I’m Jamie,” she said. “Ready for an adventure?”
– The end –
(Dedicated to the memory of my grandfather, Harry Vinson. May you always haunt me.)