This one is going to discuss ‘conspiracy thinking’ a little bit because of the nature of the work. I’ll put this up front: get your shots, trust good Science, put your faith in things that make sense and are supported by evidence. Conspiracy theories rely on your inability to disprove a negative: this isn’t compelling evidence for literally anything. Interrogate authority figures – but do so in the context of reality. Local58 is a work of satirical fiction.
When I was a kid, I don’t think there was anything that terrified me more than the thought of a ‘False Authority’ figure. Take a look at this Calvin and Hobbes strip that messed me up for years. Seriously.
Bill Watterson didn’t mean to inspire cosmic dread, but the damage had been done: I was doomed to be a weird, paranoid kid.
Now, when I say ‘False Authority’ I don’t mean someone who doesn’t deserve the power they’re given – although there are certainly loads of great examples of those. Life is full of real-world monsters who talk their way into positions of influence of all kinds: those are the boring kind of evil we’re trained to recognize on sight and spend our lives trying to avoid. When I say ‘false’, I mean someone or something – already installed in a position of trust – who turns out not to be as they seem. It’s a freaky sentence even in writing, even now! Corruption I can deal with, bad guys I can handle, aliens – whatever. But the thought of something with a hidden agenda, whose essence is essentially unknowable to me, still gives me goosebumps as an adult.
I hate it, it freaks me out. It’s why X-Files got me so bad as a kid.
Honestly even the X-Files episode of Reboot was a bit too much. Maybe for anyone.
That sense of perpetual mystery is the root of Cosmic Dread. It’s what H.P. Lovecraft weaponized to such incredible effect back when he was writing his extremely, extremely racist books in the early 1900’s: there’s a powerful human instinct to flee in terror from anything wholly alien to us, anything that might be a threat in a way we don’t readily understand. It’s why the (amazing) transformations in The Thing are so much worse than the actual violence: it’s the lack of knowledge that gnaws at you, the total surprise. The uncanny valley is real, deep and terrifying.
So that’s the ‘falsehood’ half of my childhood fear sorted. Back to that other idea: ‘Authority’.
Authority, as a concept, is the core of storytelling. In whatever form, authority is the reason we trust or believe someone: it’s the difference between something we hear, blow off, and laugh about, and a story that gets under our skin and roots around, maybe even one that impacts our behavior down the road. Authority is a scary word, but what I’m referring to is the set of structures that give us reason to prioritize someone’s voice in the first place. Why do we listen to a beekeeper’s advice on gathering pollen? Well, it’s their authority in regards to beekeeping, there’s expertise there. Why should we listen to anyone’s advice on anything, ever? Same idea – we presume authority based on their position and experience in comparison to our own. Authority is incredibly important in Horror because it’s how the story fools the audience into letting their guard down. It’s the same principle as suspension of disbelief: on some level, the audience needs to trust the story enough to let it do its job.
In Calvin’s case, he trusts his parents because they’re his parents, and kid vs. parents is about as elemental as the concept of authority gets. Calvin’s folks aren’t aliens. But if they secretly were, how would he ever know? After all, there’s no disproving a negative. He’d trust them all the same, and that’s where the fear sneaks in.
Make sense so far? Okay: so what about instead of Calvin’s parents, we were talking about the Government? Or what about the evening news?
There are assumptions we make just based on the general shape of our interactions with these elements of our lives – that elected officials exist to represent us, and the evening news serves as a neutral-ish source of information so folks can stay informed. The more boring these two remain, the better.
But what if something intervened – what if these sources of information could no longer be trusted? What if there were nothing on the other side of the teleprompter? Or worse, what if whatever is there isn’t recognizably human?
How would we disprove the negative and dispel the fear?
If this seems like an eerily familiar set of talking points, it isn’t by accident. The combination of perceived falsehood and authority isn’t just the root of Cosmic Dread – it’s where Conspiracy Theories are born, too. The worst forms of conspiracy thought prey on this exact form of fear and distrust, the one that plagued me so badly as a kid. They hinge on logical fallacies to produce fear.
As I’m sure I don’t have to explain, recent events have brought this sort of thinking amongst adults to light in the worst kinds of ways.
That intersection of distrust and dread is also exactly where Local58 lives.
Remember Kris Straub? He came up last year for Candle Cove, a pioneer in the field of authored Creepypasta, and Broodhollow, the cutest/creepiest webcomic you’ll ever hope to read. With Candle Cove he proved himself a master at planting the seed of an idea in his reader and allowing it to slowly grow into something horrible.
In that story, the ‘something-horrible’ was the false memory of a non-existent children’s show about, um, a skin-eating skeleton. The payload of that extremely short story you can read right here is delivered through its format: the agonizingly-accurate fake forum conversation between a bunch of traumatized adults slowly half-remembering a shared trauma. Those characters have authority because they’re realistic, we relate to them. They look like us when we’re trying to figure stuff out on Reddit or arguing on Twitter over the best Digimon season (3: Tamers). We trust them (even though we shouldn’t) because they feel real in their little speech tics and the natural flow of their dialogue. The story has layers of misdirection, each pointing a different way – towards the realism of the interaction, and the fiction of the story itself. This is how Straub messes with us as readers and he’s very, very good at it.
It’s fake, of course, but it doesn’t feel fake. Ages later I still think about Candle Cove as if it were a real conversation I read online, because I’ve read so many others like it. Even knowing the punchline, the joke hits the same every time.
Local58- which I’ve been avoiding mentioning on purpose! – does the same for local-access late night television. When you were a kid, did you ever sit by the television super late at night, long after there was anything on, just watching the shopping channel or whatever? This will ring especially true for kids from Washington, where I can keenly remember seeing this exact kind of programming in the middle of the night on public-access. There’s a washed-out, empty quality to those canned late-night shows that’s difficult to put your finger on. There’s no character to them, they just hum by in a kind of drone.
Straub takes that emptiness and fills it with formless, inexplicable menace.
The result is an experience that blends reality and fiction to produce a kind of waking nightmare.
He does it by perfectly recreating end-of-day programming using assets from free-use online repositories. Almost nothing about Local58 is original per se, it comes from sound and video banks, lightly twisted into form. Oftentimes by the time things go wrong – and they go wrong fast – he’s lulled you into a sense of security that perfectly mimics the brain-off, fuzzy boredom of sitting in front of late-night tv as a kid. In most episodes, he achieves this effect in under a minute. In 2021 we’d call it something like ‘Perfect Vaporwave Homage”. In 2015 when the series began, I think they just referred to it as ‘Fucking Unsettling” and left it at that. When the falsehoods start showing up and snowballing into cosmic dread, they’re doing it on a platform of authority established by how perfectly Straub mimics his source material in the first place. Candle Cove and Local58 are playing the exact same game in two different arenas.
There’s so much more I’d love to say about the way that Local58 uses imperative language and the guise of Government authority to push the audience around, but I think it might ruin the fun. It does things with the illusion of authority that I’m not sure I’ve ever seen done this well, this quickly. Maybe the best thing you can do for yourself is hold tight and watch it through – I promise there’s no explicit violence, no language, no conventional jump-scares (well, maybe one), no grand punch-line twist. No sadistic shock ending. It’s just six condensed episodes preying on my exact fears from when I was a kid: of something innocuous, something I trust, revealing itself to not only be malicious, but malicious in a way that fundamentally defies understanding.
At the end of the day, I guess the only difference is that Candle Cove takes about 10 minutes to read, and that you can watch all of Local58 end to end in less than 20 minutes right here and right now. Headphones and nerves of steel recommended. Kris takes his foley work seriously.
Season one, which is about 10 minutes long:
And two, ten minutes more:
No wonder it inspired an entire generation of indie YouTube horror.
One last thing, to cap off the stories of me as a weird kid:
There’s an old trick I learned when I was small, that the secret to detecting a one-way mirror was to hold my finger up to the glass and see if the reflections touch.
It had something to do with the double-pane glass on a true reflecting mirror.
I have no idea if it’s true, but for about a decade I held my finger up to every mirror I could find, just to make sure there wasn’t anything behind it, looking back.
Sometimes I still do.
This has been day 1 of 31 for The Long Hallowe’en 2021!
Phew, see you tomorrow night!