I found a cardboard box filled with old 8mm tapes in my parents' garage. I'm beginning to think the footage on them wasn't staged.
I recently acquired a box full of Hi-8 tapes. The story of how this damp cardboard stuffed with cheap black plastic ended up in my garage might warrant its own post, which I'll get to eventually. For now, I'll cover the basics. There are something like 60 tapes, all the same Hi-8 format that was popular with consumer camcorders in the 80s and 90s. Only a few of the tapes have any discernible labels. For example, one has a peeling white sticker along its side that reads, "Halloween with the Neighbors". Another has a half-ripped label that reads, in part "... on the piano".
However, the vast majority lack identifying features or provide any indication of what is on the tape (and some appear to be entirely empty). Naturally, my curiosity demanded that I watch each one, so I set out on the somewhat exhausting task of locating vintage electronics such that I could actually view and eventually digitize them. After a deep dive through AV forums and a stop at the Jonesboro Flea Market, I was up and running.
Below is my description of the first tape, with some commentary on its peculiarities.
Tape 1 - The Department Store
This was clearly made on a handheld camera. It opens with a shaky shot, the director quickly panning from his shoes up to the peeling beige exterior of a closed department store. It's night and the man filming is walking toward the store. In front of him, another man - dressed in a black hoodie and jeans - looks back.
"Hey Frank, keeping up?"
"I'm coming, Ted, you're not the one with the camera. I'm trying to keep it steady."
Frank pans upward, showing the faded shadow of a former store sign. The discoloration above the entrance spells out "Wilman's". Now, this is interesting. Wilman's was a chain local to the Jonesboro region. There were a half-dozen or so stores spread out among the tri-county area. It's the type of store your mom would take you to for "back to school" shopping. Which is to say, it was devoid of any personality and horrendously boring, its endless aisles strewn with functional clothing, jewelry, and kitchenware that is only memorable insofar that it was all so forgettable.
Unfortunately, I couldn't tell from the recording which of the Wilman's stores Ted and Frank were visiting, but I at least knew this was a tape produced locally. It's also obvious that the store was already long abandoned. Wilman's declared bankruptcy in the early 90s and closed all of its stores before the turn of the century.
When Ted catches up to his friend, Frank is already prying open one of the sliding doors. The camera zooms in on his fingers wrapped around the door's metal frame.
"See? I told ya, it wasn't locked. All we have to do is force it open and slip in."
Ted seems to be tittering with excitement. "You think there's actually still stuff in here? It won't be that interesting if it's totally stripped."
The doors begin to slide apart as Frank answers. "Totally. One of my friends worked here when it closed. She told me that it was totally - there wasn't money to move the inventory and no one wanted it."
Frank stumbles backward, surprised by the sudden give as the door snaps back. "Oh, shit!"
At this point, Ted switches the camera into night vision mode. Frank has a flashlight, which he turns on as they step into the vast store.
"Holy shit," Ted whispers, his breathing heavy behind the camera. "It looks like everything was left behind." He pans the camera around the threshold of the store, focusing for a moment on the jewelry counter, which still sparkles with sterling silver and plated white gold. Then he swings to the left, following the off-white walkway as it veers into the "Men's Business Casual" section. To the right, the cracked linoleum leads into the much larger "Women's" section.
They begin to slowly investigate the store, their slow, quiet footsteps echoing softly against the grime-covered tiles. There are leaflets and other detritus strewn about the aisles. A close look at one indicates advertising for a Black Friday sale, leading me to believe the shop closed during the holiday season.
"Whoa," Ted's awe-inspiring exhalations make up much of the rest of the noise during the few minutes of relative calm. Frank is the more jittery of the two, jogging well past Ted to cycle through racks of clothing or stare at the empty metal shelving where small appliances once were.
It's also Frank who notices something odd about a grouping of mannequins in the women's "Wear to Work" section. "Someone stripped the mannequins, eh?" He thumbs over his shoulder, directing Ted's (and the camera's) attention to the display of three peach-colored statues. Their slender limbs are still posed carefully - arms akimbo or one hand raised as if gesturing during a presentation - but they're entirely nude.
Ted shuffles up close, zooming in with his camera to verify that the mannequins do not, in fact, have genitals. And though they have the humps of breasts, they lack nipples. "Not very detailed," he observes before shifting the lens to one's face. Its eyes have the black outline of mascara, its mouth the red luminescence of lipstick - the only pops of color of an otherwise disturbingly empty face.
"You know, I don't think you're supposed to pay this much attention to mannequins. They're meant to be background noise, right? Like paintings in a dentist's office. If you get up close and really check them out, they start to look pretty fucking creepy." Frank is pacing circles around the trio of former models while Ted comes in for a close-up.
His camera picks up something curious about the mannequins: there are no seams. Normally, a mannequin would have distinct lines in its body where the various limbs attach, but these appear to be singular objects. It's not clear if Ted notices this, but his camera closely inspects the filthy arms and legs.
"Why are they naked?" his voice is somewhat shaky. They went to the trouble of undressing them but not removing them?"
"Who knows?" Frank is shrugging, already walking way toward a particularly chaotic-looking holiday section. "Why is any of this stuff here? It just is. People were here, then gone."
The next few minutes are a bit of a mess. I imagine it's due to the age of the magnetic tape, which appears to be seriously degraded. This makes my task to digitize this material that much more important.
What I'm able to see, though, are some sudden cuts forward and a haze of static. The two men are investigating the holiday aisles, where they find a motley assortment of unloved ornaments and crushed tinsel.
Eventually, the tape settles down and there's a sound behind Ted. He whips around and we get a stark view of the long aisle. He's flanked by two tall sets of shelves, mostly empty save for a few decorative throw pillows. At the end of this aisle, nearly swallowed by the dark, is the outline of a mannequin. Only its leg is visible, the rest of its body off to the side behind the endcap.
"What the fuck? Frank, do you see -?"
But Frank's gone.
There's another noise. A skittering sound like beads rolling across tiles. Ted's breathing is very loud. There's an edge to it too, as though he knows something terrible is about to unfold. Slowly, the camera shifts from where Frank should have been at the east end of the aisle back to the west.
The mannequin is mere inches from Ted now, its arm outstretched but frozen.
He screams, runs, falls down, but quickly gets back up. The camera is so shaky that it's hard to discern what happens next but I can hear a dark bassy noise, almost like a growl.
There's a cut and then the camera shakes, showing a close-up of Ted's dirty jeans. Why he is still filming at this point, I can't say. Perhaps it's the disconnection obtainable by viewing the world through a lens. He is both there and not. An active and passive participant. Perhaps it's that he finds some comfort in having something literally holding his hand - these old camcorders had a strap so that you could wrap your hand around their bulky plastic shell. Or it could be the adrenaline has his brain laser-focused on the current predicament, such that he's barely even aware that he's still filming. Maybe it's all of these things.
Regardless, there he is filming from the inside of a dress rack. I can see the dated floral patterns still swaying gently from his entrance between them. There's the sound of plastic dragging against linoleum somewhere in the distance. Eventually, Ted's breathing slows.
He starts to lean forward, no doubt planning to push apart the dresses and peek out. But as he reaches for the hem of a scarlet dress, it moves.
The fabric snaps back and the piercing white fingers of a mannequin push inside his hiding place. The camera falls. I can't see the object or creature that the arm is attached to. All I can see is the fabric of Ted's jeans getting pulled across the frame. He shouts and screams as he's clearly dragged through the store.
"Help! Help! Help..."
His voice fades out and the screen goes blue.
I don't know what to make of this tape. It's very disturbing. It seems almost real, but that can't be the case, right? Surely it's some lost amateur film project. I'll need to ask my parents whether they know Ted or Frank when I speak to them next. Until then, I'm going to keep looking through these tapes to see if there's anything else that's interesting. I'll be sure to check in if I find anything intriguing.