Session 2: The Devil You Know
Turn out the lights and what do you see
Even in the apparent safety of our own homes we imagine monsters. We look for meaning in the shadows. We peek round corners and pull back doors to check what’s behind them. And all the while, what we desperately fear is that the outside world has managed to creep past our defences.
So take a look around you now. Are you sitting in your living room? Maybe there is a large armchair with its back to you. Probably you can imagine turning it round with a growing dread to find someone sitting there. Or maybe that plant in the corner when you look at it from the side, looks like someone crouching, trying not to be seen. Or are you perhaps in your bedroom? The dressing gown hanging from your door looks like someone standing and staring from the shadows. Maybe the door to your ensuite is only slightly ajar, and that slight flicker in the mirror for a moment fools you into blind panic that someone is hiding in there waiting for you to fall asleep. Or maybe you’re just looking out a window. Onto a carpark or a driveway. Maybe that’s your car parked out front. And if you look close enough you might just think you see someone looking at you from your backseat before they duck down and lie in wait.
This is Scary Stories.
Take a seat and let me tell you about this thing that happened to a friend of a friend of a friend.
It may have started as early as the 80s. But certainly by the 90s a brutal gang initiation swept the United States. It has since spread through South America and across the pond to Europe. And along with its trail of destruction has come a slew of police warnings. It begins at night. A gang member and the initiate drive around in the dark with their lights off. Enough to attract attention from other drivers, the gang member and their prospective partner in crime wait for the inevitable moment when another car flashes them to signal they need to turn their lights on. This becomes their target and they follow them. No, actually they don’t follow them, they stalk them, hunt them. As the final initiation, the initiate kills their prey, that poor motorist who was simply trying to do their civic duty.
This urban legend has caused considerable panic throughout the decades. It was once claimed that this was the hallmark of an Initiation Weekend for the California based Bloods gang. Its latest iteration claims this is the preferred method of initiation by London Street Gangs with the MET Police cast in the role of having supposedly issued a public alert.
They haven’t of course because no such initiation exists. But why has it continued to be so persistent? Perhaps it is because we believe it could be true. The reason why we buy this hook, line and sinker — even the unusual police warnings — is because in this era of constant news and aggressive tactics to get circulation, we are inundated with stories that are not terribly far from this one. Violent gangs that stalk and coerce our youth into induction and wreak havoc on the surrounding community seem to roll as a continuous soundbite on the news. World leaders and police chiefs across the globe point to youth crime as an epidemic in our inner cities.
Take the looming threat of MS13. A violent gang to be sure but many people were unaware of them until a couple of years ago. And most likely because they had almost nothing to fear from them and certainly less so of their surrounding communities. But with our news feeds filled up with headlines that sensationalise the worst atrocities in our society, its an easy jump to be fearful of how such gangs may touch our own lives.
But this legend is not a particularly recent one. It has been around since at least the early 1980s, before our fears of MS13, before a 24 hour news cycle, before click baiting was even a thing. At that point it was the Hell’s Angels who were thought to involve their initiates in this bloody ritual. Since then it has moved to whatever gang has been feared the most. So yes, this speaks to our fear of perceived threats of gangs but for it to have held onto our imaginations through decades and continual rebirths it must also speak to something much much deeper. It must activate that sinister bent to our imagination and our deep suspicions of these large urban metropolis’ in which we find ourselves.
Yes, there is a much deeper reason we find such urban legends so disquieting. They speak to a more deep rooted fear of strangers. Of people around us that we do not know and so cannot predict. Perhaps in this urban legend it is presented as part of gang culture but the truth is it is actually speaking to the randomness of the violence. The idea that it could happen to any of us no matter the company we keep. It speaks to the idea that no matter who we choose to spend our time with we must interact with people we don’t know on a daily basis and those other people in shops, on the street and in other cars could be anyone. It offers up a simple truth, that the interactions we make every day potentially put us in harms way. It is all about what you don’t know about that other person driving the car that you flash to turn on their lights.
Folklore is the pre-cursor to urban legends and often warns us about the sinister stranger. Red Riding Hood alerts young women to the dangers of conversing with men they do not know. The pedlar has become a frequent mainstay of folklore as someone who is unknown to a community and whose intentions are therefore suspect or whose presence at the very least is often foreboding. Even in the real world outside of stories and fairytales folklore taught our past counterparts to be fearful of outsiders. It was the outsider, the person who never quite fit in or no-one ever really knew who was accused of vampirism, lycanthropy or witchcraft. And take a moment and think about what you have been taught from your youngest days. There is safety in numbers. You are safer in bigger groups. And strangers equal danger. But what happens when the entirety of that bigger group we are meant to feel safe in is comprised wholly of strangers? If safety in numbers really is a rule then our modern lives should give us the perfect blanket of security after all cities are ever expanding with the chatter of people. But that rule only works when you know all the people in that number.
Perhaps that advice all rang true at one point. Before big bustling cities sliced into pieces with cheese wire roads, before motorways with never-ending streams of traffic, before new build estates sardined families into roads upon roads of houses. We used to live in small rural communities, and even as cities started to expand and people were brought into its smog filled embrace, we lived in enclaves getting to know our neighbours, our streets, our communities. If something was amiss — it would surely be noticed. But then humans began travelling from place to place with work or with family. Instead of owning houses, people began renting on short term contracts, and huge apartment complexes sprang up and now you might have hundreds of neighbours and neither the time nor inclination to get to know any of them.
And the final result of all of this is that everyone becomes the folkloric pedlar. The outsider, the stranger, the person of whom we should be suspicious. And that whole safety in numbers routine takes a sinister turn where the danger might be those very people with whom you are seeking refuge. Because would any of us ever know now before it was too late if there was a wolf among the flock of sheep?
The suspicious stranger is a classic among horror movie tropes. Rutger Hauer’s mysterious Hitcher is truly terrifying. Dan Ackroyd’s overly friendly stranger in The Twilight Zone appears only to want to show you, somewhat haplessly, something really scary. And Mark Duplass more recently in Creep walks the tightrope between evoking sympathy and deep disquiet for his odd character. And altogether they play on this idea of having to interact closely, almost intimately with a stranger, even having to rely on them and having no real idea of who they are. How are we to understand the behaviour of others when they are completely unknown quantities? Maybe that slightly intense extended eye contact or that overly friendly demeanour or that habit of oversharing is something to be wary of or maybe it’s simply indicative of a lonely person trying to make a genuine connection. How are we to truly know?
Apparently the whole idea behind Duplass’ character in Creep arose from the various creepy interactions both Duplass and his co-writer Patrick Brice experienced on craigslist. These interactions are so numerous they could well have their own sub-genre of urban legends. Type in craigslist and creepy into any search engine and you will be inundated with disturbing listings. Many of these are targeted at soliciting women into some version of a friends with benefits package in exchange for reduced board — this is creepy enough. But dig further and you will find tales of satanic rituals, strange fetishes, fake ads designed to lure a stranger to unwittingly become someone’s best friend or someone’s murder victim. Some of these are real, many are just embellished forms of urban legends but they all seem to be telling us one universal truth. Strangers still equal danger. And unfortunately we are surrounded by them.
So whats our solution to this? We try and keep to ourselves, we analyse and minimise those risky interactions. The communities of yore now transform into communities of one as we walk through our day. We tell ourselves comforting stories like we would never use craigslist, we arrange to meet all online acquaintances in public and at all times we will have our phone on us to call for help. We give ourselves plans and exit strategies. And where do they all lead to? Not to the police but to our own personal sanctuaries where we can curl back up by ourselves in the comfort of our own company. If you’re walking back late at night, you’ll ready yourself for the point at which you might need to make that dash to your own front door. Keys at the ready to get in and shut it as fast as you can. Or perhaps you’re leaving to work early in the dark winter mornings or returning home in the dark early evenings. You need to get to your car in the underground carpark. You descend the stairs. Your shoes clack across the cement. Your car is there but wait: What was that in the shadows? You glance back towards your car. With every step your mind focusses on the safety that lies within. But with strangers everywhere are our homes and our cars really as safe as we think?
A woman left her house late at night and jumped into her car. She had an early morning appointment and wanted to grab some food for the following evening and top up her gas. So she made her way to the local supermarket. As she got out her car, she noticed how quiet and dark it was at this time of night. She wrapped her coat more tightly around herself and hurriedly walked into the store. She grabbed the few bits she needed and paid.
As she walked back across the dark carpark, she saw a man glance her way from the other side of the parking lot. She took hold of her keys and quickened her pace. He seemed to be watching her now so the woman felt a surge of relief as she got in her car locked her doors and sped away past the man as he raised his arms and seemed to shout something after her. The gas station was not much further but the woman was now on a much higher alert as she got out to fill up her car. Its likely she was counting down the steps she had to take to get back to her home. To feel that rush of warmth as her car neared the drive and she was back on home turf. She paid at the pump and got back into her car. And she relaxed into her seat as she started the engine for her home stretch.
At that point the station attendant banged on her windscreen, slightly out of breath. She rolled down her window and asked him what was the matter. He replied that her card had been declined, and she needed to come inside to pay with cash. The woman was irate. She wanted to get home and she was positive that she had seen the whole transaction go through. Besides she had no cash. The man leant down to her and said in a low voice that it was in her best interests to accompany him inside.
Alarm bells rang. The store was empty and the doors were always locked at this time. She asked him to put the transaction through again at the pump. It was fine, she would just pay again with her card. At this point the attendant opened her door and took her arm forcefully. Madam, he reiterated, your card was declined. I cannot put it through the pump again. We will have to go inside and phone the bank and they can clear this whole thing up. The man was intense and insistent. The flickering sickly fluorescent bulb made the empty store look menacing. She looked pleadingly at him as he led her away. He tried to soften his approach, he told her not to worry. Everything would soon be ok. If this was meant to comfort her it had the opposite effect. This change of tone was even more unnerving. His sudden switch, and his attempts to reassure her made her question his intentions even more sharply. She began looking for her escape routes.
As the attendant led the woman inside he quickly turned around and locked the door behind them. Her heart was racing desperate for a way out. But as the attendant turned round to speak, she saw his face was now ashen. Madam, he said your card is fine. But we need to call the police now, there is a man hiding in your backseat with a knife …
This is probably one of the most famous and common urban legends there is. But it stays frightening because it plays on those interactions which each of us take daily. Interactions where we make presumptions about where we are safe and presumptions about with whom we are safe. Interactions with strangers that we must take but we must rely on our instincts to read them closely. And what if we misread the entirety of the situation and end up trusting the wrong person?
So instead, perhaps, the safest thing to do if we ever find ourselves in a situation with a stranger approaching us as we get back into our car, is to make a quick check of that backseat and then drive away as fast as we can.
Scary stories is a biweekly podcast written, narrated and produced by me, Verity Clayton.
This episode features music by Chad Crouch you can check out his work at soundofpicture.com, Dutilleul who can be found on bandcamp and soundcloud, and Blue Dot Sessions who can be found at sessions.blue. A full track listing can be found at the episode page.
The Episode artwork is by Grace Duncan, she can be found on instagram @graceduncanart
You can find that and more at the website scarystoriespodcast.podbean.com
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And as always, it can be a dark world out there so please take care.