This story was originally submitted to this prompt. This is part 1 of a new series by me titled Just Keeping Tabs. Will I complete it? Who knows, but I love horror and I love meta-narratives so expect a few entries from me in the future.
Everybody has their genre. Some prefer comedies, others action movies, or dramas, or romance, for me it’s horror. Horror movies especially. I’ve seen everything under the sun. If there’s knifes, ghosts, or otherworldly horrors so impossible to describe that it drives the main characters insane by the end, or anything in between I’ve seen them all. But it’s also a curse: I’ve seen so many hopeless babysitters be slaughtered, so many vengeful spirits, and way too many Lovecraftian abominations on screen that by the time I reached my mid-thirties nothing gave me shivers anymore. Naturally, overtime I began looking into the more darker parts of the internet to satiate my cravings for the macabre. And to be honest… meh, I’ve seen worse, but a habit’s a habit and it’s hard to break. So when my friend Mike sent me a message last night to an unlisted YouTube video with the production quality of a high school student film and a rather lackluster subject matter that straight out ripped off Ringu I didn’t even think twice about it. I’ve seen one too many black and white videos featuring dark haired girls climbing out of wells. Hell, I was the dark haired girl climbing out of a well for a film project back in school. Not even the phone call from an unlisted number I received a few seconds after watching scared me. I presumed it was Mike and laughed it off. What I hadn’t expected was the FBI agent on my doorstep the next morning.
“Eleanor Layne Otero, we need to talk,” he said holding out his badge directly in front of my face. Perhaps he was trying to be intimidating but when a badge is that close to your face all you can see is double. He removed the badge and put it back into his coat pocket. I didn’t even get a chance to read the name on the badge.
“I’m sorry, what’s this about?” I asked, still groggy from the night before and coffee still brewing in the kitchen, my brain couldn’t process anything at the moment.
“This is of upmost importance. May I come in?”
“Uh, she whatever,” I nodded. He stepped in making sure to check his surroundings before entering as if he were being tailed. Quietly shutting the door behind him he watched out the crack until the entrance had been fully shut, then he spun around.
“What the hell were you watching last night?” He asked. The sternness of his voice now absent, in its place was that of scared man. Not something I’d expect out of a man of his tall and built stature. To be honest the juxtaposition threw me off.
“What?” I asked. Now my brain really ramped up its processing power to understand what was going on. In the background I heard the coffee maker drip away. The faster I got to that pot the better.
“The phone call. I got it shortly after you. Eleanor, just what the hell is going on?”
“What?” It was all I could muster to say. In the background I heard the last couple spurts of coffee as it filled the top of the pot. I needed it now more than ever.
“So you’ve been spying on me?” I asked the man, Agent Dale McLaughlin, as I got to know his name over coffee. Dale wasn’t much older than me, perhaps late thirties or early forties. His hair was red and curly, kept short to keep the curls at bay. Despite his tall frame and wide shoulders he appeared more like a teddy bear than a grizzly. Nothing about him spoke FBI to me other than his badge.
“Not spying, just keeping tabs,” Dale said taking a sip of coffee. In my confusion and half-awake mind I had accidentally handed him a mug depicting the artwork of my favorite horror manga artist. On it was a collage of spirals, a young two headed woman, gnarled beings emerging from caverns, and balloons made from decapitated heads. It was my favorite mug and I gave it to him. In the end I had to settle with a Montague Community College mug instead.
“But why? I haven’t done anything illegal.”
“We flag anybody who ventures too deep into the web.”
“Is that what this is about?” I groaned. “Look I’m a horror fan, if you’ve been spying on me like you’e said.”
“Spying, keeping tabs. Whatever. You’ll know that I need some scary shit in my life. And to be honest there’s nothing worthwhile in that part of the internet anyways. I deleted my TOR browser like last year because nothing there gave me the fix I was looking for.”
“So why are you still watching me?”
“There is no expiration on our surveillance. Plus I’ve seen the stuff you watch. It’s concerning.”
“It’s not like I’d hurt anybody. I’m no aspiring serial killer. I’m a film teacher at a community college who happens to be into some unconventional horror.”
“You can say that again,” he said taking another sip. “But that doesn’t matter right now. I don’t know what the hell you watched last night but it’s haunting me.”
“Well good for you. I wish I could go to bed scared again.”
“It’s not like that.”
“What do you mean?”
“You got the phone call right?”
“Yeah. I thought it was Mike just fucking with me. He likes to do that.”
“Yeah, no. I got it too. Have you watched anything since?”
Dale looked at the TV in the living room. Standing up he approached it, mug still in hand. “May I?” He asked.
Dale picked up the remote and turned on the TV. He navigated to YouTube and opened the app. Video recommendations filled the screen mostly reviews of horror films, behind the scenes of classics, and video essays each with their own opinion on what makes something “truly horrifying.” The usual. Dale made no comment. He probably wasn’t surprised at the content the way other men I’d brought back with me were. After all, he’s watched me watch them all. Dale hit play on the first video, a video titled “The Secret Demons of John Carpenter.” The video opened. Instead of a YouTube talking head, or clips from The Thing or Prince of Darkness being shown set to eerie atmospheric music with a narrator speaking in a solum voice as I’d expect to see, we were greeted with something different. On the screen was a black and white video depicting the same paper mache looking well from the video last night. The camera stayed fixated upon the crude object with occasional flickering of white frames from time to time. Exactly the same as that video. Not long did the strange long dark haired girl start climbing out. As we watched the video I couldn’t get past the fact of how much of a cheap knock off of Ringu the whole thing looked. It was almost like they wanted it to look bad.
As the mysterious girl climbed out of the well the whole facade shook as if it were made of cardboard. The lighting was too bright to make out any details. You could see her looking off screen from time to time as if she were looking for cue from an unseen director. A student film made in homage to a classic horror film. I’ve seen them all. Every few years I’d seen a group of students recreate this scene and show it off in class and I’d seen much better ones than this. But seeing this video again made it feel awfully familiar.
Dale exited the video and scrolled to the next. A video titled “Death & Despair in Film.” Again the same thing happened. A crude recreation of that famous scene. He let it play for a moment before exiting YouTube entirely and opening up Netflix.
“Oh, I don’t have Netflix.” I said. The app opened up to a login screen.
“I’ve watched you watch movies on Netflix.”
“Yeah, until last month.”
“Why’d you cancel it?”
“I didn’t. Freaking Netflix HQ discovered that I was using my brother’s account and they pulled it from me. I’m too cheap to pay for another subscription service. Plus the stuff on there was only okay. Wait, shouldn’t you know this? Are you slacking off at work?” I smiled.
“It’s not that,” he said.
“What is it then?”
“It’s that I uh. I really don’t like the stuff you’re into.”
I grinned. “Are you telling me that you’re a scaredy cat?”
“It’s not that. I just don’t like blood and guts and pointless death and ghosts.”
“Oh my god,” I chuckled. “Are you telling me that the FBI assigned you. A man who hates horror to spy on me? Dude, I think that your coworkers are fucking with you. How long have you been watching me?”
“I don’t know. Like a year and a half. I haven’t gotten any good sleep since then because I have a nightmare like every other night. My wife thinks I need to see a sleep therapist.”
“Well I’m sorry for any nightmares I have caused,” I said still chuckling.
“It’s not funny,” he said. “Do you have Hulu?”
“That I do.”
He opened the app again and clicked on the first show that popped up, The Bear. A show that it feels like everybody and their mother is watching right now and I just never cared to watch it. The video opened and after the initial buffering screen we were greeted with the same crude video of the cardboard well and amateur actress crawling out of it. On Hulu.
Dale turned to me and looked me in the eyes. “They’re all like that. Every single video.”
Behind him the actress stumbled out of the well looking off camera for her next cue and for the first time in years I felt a shiver of fear creep down my spine.