Title: The Madness That Lurks Within
Artist: Scott Lawlor & Rebekkah Hilgraves
Release Date: 2014 April 18
Genre: Ambient / Horror
License: CC BY-NC-ND
Label: Aural Films
I’ve been given an early Halloween present this year in the form of The Madness That Lurks Within. This is an audio interpretation of a story known as The Russian Sleep Experiment which was published on CreepyPasta (warning: this does link to the story itself, so if you want to enjoy the recording you might want to read it later), and is known to exist online since at least 2010 (vai Snopes).
Note: This review contains some graphic descriptions of the recording, and graphic quotations from the original story. This is not for anyone who is squeamish. You have been warned.
The Madness That Lurks Within
These days with all the scam emails that people receive with their poor grammar, shoddy word choices, and generally unbelievable concepts it’s nice to be reminded that at some point there were pieces being written that were masterful in their presentation. There are pieces like The Russian Sleep Experiment that are well written, well structured with just the right amount of detail to make them sound plausible. And, to be honest, the details are chosen so well that some of them will make you cringe at the image that you get from the writing, for example:
There were chunks of meat from the dead test subject’s thighs and chest stuffed into the drain in the center of the chamber, blocking the drain and allowing 4 inches of water to accumulate on the floor. Precisely how much of the water on the floor was actually blood was never determined.
Now, believe it or not, it gets more creepy than this. Shockingly creepy. But notice the detail about the blood mixed into the water. At once this sentence accepts as fact that there is blood there, but also makes it a point that no one bothered to measure it, which is interesting. This story is supposed to be based on a scientific experiment, so noting that such information is missing would appear to be important.
Now this attention to detail sets up a particularly interesting challenge for interpreting the piece in a different media. In most cases this piece would likely have been read like a story, or possibly produced like a radio play with sound effects, voice actors, etc. In this setting, we have a musician and a vocalist. So, it takes a bit of re-thinking in terms of how to handle this work.
So how did they do? Simply put: magnificent.
Rebekkah Hillgraves reading is that of an authoritative narrator, with injections of characterizations where it adds a touch of further authenticity to the story. She conveys the narrative in a manner that will have you spellbound, and sitting on the edge of your chair. You will get chills or cringe as all the gory details slowly unravel before your ears.
Scott Lawlor’s soundtrack is nothing short of a cinematic masterpiece. He builds textures and tones in a way that sets the mood of the piece. He weaves this magic in a manner that matches the narrative reading by Rebekkah Hillgraves flawlessly. And, to add another dimension to the piece, the narrative is supplemented with sound effects that make the whole thing even more creepy, if you can imagine that. For example, when we reach this portion of the narrative:
After nine days the first of them started screaming. He ran the length of the chamber repeatedly yelling at the top of his lungs for 3 hours straight, he continued attempting to scream but was only able to produce occasional squeaks.
We hear the subjects screams, but not just his screams — we hear them panning from side to side as if he was running through the chamber. There are a lot of effects like this, and I don’t want to give away any of the surprises. But, I will say this, the choices made for sound effects are not only effective, they are not egregious. For example, there is a passage that mentions pages being ripped from a book, and thankfully we don’t hear that.
The overall effect literally had my skin crawling. There were parts of the story I normally would have found disturbing, but in the capable hands of Lawlor and Hillgraves it becomes downright scary. They manage to provoke such as strong reaction from me that I wanted to turn the piece off, but like a car accident or other horrifying event I found myself unable to. I needed to know what was going to happen next.
So, I have a love / hate relationship with horror novels and movies. Frequently I have a problem suspending my disbelief during such movies. Although, when it does work, it can be a fun experience.
This work was not only one of those times where I had no problems suspending my disbelief, but I fell into the narrative hook, line and sinker. It didn’t even occur to me that this might not have been a real experiment until after I had listened to the whole piece and wanted to find out more about the experiment (in all honesty, I was looking for a WikiPedia reference to the experiment to use as part of this review).
Had I come to read this piece on CreepyPasta, I would have realized it was a story. But, with the authority that Rebekkah Hillgraves gives to the narrative, I could only think it was real. Scott Lawlor’s soundscape and effects seemed to me to server the role that we normally think of as adaptation, and in this case it was an adaptation of a true story. And yet it isn’t. That’s how good this telling of this story is. The need to suspend your disbelief is extremely low as the narrative is solid, and the narrator immediately commands authority.
Just a brilliant job. This is definitely going to be a major Halloween piece for me.