Figures in the Night…Passing

It’s dark outside, possibly raining. Bette Davis is alone in a big house, sitting in a large, wing-back chair so she can’t see or hear anything behind her. She looks up from time to time, as though she hears a strange sound, then goes back to her reading. Is that a thump upstairs? Did something move in the pantry?

She goes back to her reading. It’s a good book. It’s by Stephen King.

Because it’s Bette Davis, we know something bad is going to happen.

Then, of course, the power goes out. In the ensuing silence, we hear the scrape of a match. Bette has lit a candle. It lights her face, but the rest of the screen behind her remains in darkness.

But we know, now. Something else is in the house. The house is, of course, Stephen King’s mind – something none of us would like to live in. Stephen King’s mind, directed by Alfred Hitchcock. So it has become Bette Davis’s mind. And now, because we are reading this book, it is our mind.

We set the candle on the table beside our chair and go back to reading. We’ve all seen the movie, we know we should get up and run out of the house, but we don’t. We want to see how the book ends.

The music speeds up. We jump to our feet. Now we are running, but not out of the house: we’re running from room to room. We can’t find a door. There is no exteriority; everything that happens is inside: inside the house, inside our mind, inside our fear. The candle flickers, threatens to go out. We see curtains billowing in the wind – did we leave a window open? A mirror flashes at the end of a hall. Is it our candle we see in it? Are we the figure in the mirror? Isn’t a hall supposed to have doors?

Then the music slows down again. We sigh with relief. We’ve convinced ourselves that our fears are all in our mind. Of course they are. There is no one else in the house. We go back to our chair, and pick up the book.

Then something ominous begins to build up again. This time there is the sound of scurrying. Scratching. There is the buzzing of insects. Violins crescendo, there are cymbals, even a gong. We know now that someone or something has entered the house, is waiting for us. We feel weak, faint. We go into the kitchen and pour a glass of water. We hear voices, lots of voices, a village of voices. Insubstantial faces cluster around us, figures in the night, shouting at us, telling us to get out of the house, now!

The music is our attempt to control our fear. To organize it. We live in a continual state of controlled panic. We hear what is already in our minds. Our fear is preconceived, ready-made for us. Emancipation Day is about one man’s fear during the 1940s. In the novel, Jack lived this dread, this fear, every day. As a black man passing for white, he was always waiting for someone to come up behind him, put a hand on his shoulder, tell him, You don’t belong here. You can’t live in this neighbourhood, or work in this job, or sit in this theatre. You have to get out of this house. Now.

And yet, no one came. Jack never leaves his house.

There is the sound of distant sirens. Glass shatters. The window, the mirror in the hall. These are ways out. But we stay where we are. The music isn’t over.

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