Darkfield Radio’s Visitors, an audio ghost story in which the set is your own home, leaves Robert Reid hungry for more
UK-based company Darkfield Radio specialises in immersive audio works that are intended to be experienced in complete darkness inside a shipping container. Obviously, that’s not a particularly COVID-friendly environment and – with swathes of the world still under lockdown – their newest work, Visitors, applies the same storytelling and soundscape techniques to an at-home experience.
The creators, David Rosenberg and Glen Neath, stage a fully realised binaural world inside the listener’s house to tell a 20-minute ghost story that places two audience members at the centre of the experience. The work bears an obvious debt to the early-2000s work of companies like Blast Theory and Rotozaza, although it lacks their edge, presenting instead a more accessible, family-friendly vibe.
Visitors tells the story of two lost souls, spirits who are wandering the earth looking for a way to experience the physicality of existence once more. They are a young couple, Jean (Greer Dale-Foulkes) and Alex (Sonya Seva), who hover around us as disembodied voices, aching to be together again and ready to take over any bodies to do so.
The experience is designed for two people at a time. We’re instructed to sit at exact distances from each other in a darkened room with a working door. We have things everywhere in our house – stacks of books, papers, cables, and the low light from the lamp and TV. I wonder if we’ll have to move around a lot for this – I’m gonna trip on something, I know it.
As the last few minutes’ waiting to start tick by, there’s little to do but watch the countdown, the same way we might stare at a darkened stage waiting for the lights to go down or the curtain to go up. Then there is static as our headphones come to life, followed by hearing tests to get volume right and to make sure we’ve got the headphones on the right way around, to ensure the best and most convincing aural experience.
Once the story begins the static gives way to a subtle soundscape of clicks and distant knocking. We hear people moving around the house and gradually two sweet, sad voices come closer. “I’m so confused,” they tell each other, “I’m hungry.”
Two young women introduce themselves to us as Jean and Alex. They try to give voice to their presence, their fear, their desire. In their confusion they sweep around us, assessing us, wondering who would make the best Jean and who the best Alex. At the same time they give us a little insight into what it is, for them, to be dead. “When a person dies,” they think, “the pain disappears. The fear should disappear too.” The voices are similar, so it’s a little difficult to tell them apart.
One voice comes closest to my hearing. This is Alex, hovering close to my head, whispering about her connection to me. Jean is whispering over by the other chair. I can just hear her, but can’t make out what she’s saying. We’re both given instructions and play along, puppets for the visitors
I’m directed to leave the room and dutifully step out into the hallway. The lights on the back of our wireless router are blue and green and they give a satisfyingly eerie X-Files vibe to everything around me in the dark. I can just make out the shapes of the hallway.
I’m still facing the door, wondering if my partner will be directed to open it suddenly at some point. There’s a click as the old locking mechanism settles into place which suddenly feels filled with significance. The real event, simple and meaningless, that recurs in my subconscious awareness every day, is now pregnant with the story of these visitors in my house.
Alex is telling me to stay here with my back to the door as I hear movement from the other room. The voice of Jean is giving my partner instructions. It sounds very busy in there. “Help me,” Jean entreats, while Alex here is telling me not to move. In fact, she wants me to close my eyes. Not a chance.
The door makes a noise as if it’s opening behind me, but it’s just the recording. My heart still races a little harder, even though I know everything I’m experiencing is auditory and nothing more. The sounds of disturbance from the other room are louder now. Jean is calling help again while Alex tells me she can reach out and touch my face. She tells me she’s going to. I hold my breath. I don’t know how they could make it happen – haptics in the phone maybe, a buzzing where my phone is, in my hand, in the pocket by my heart.
Of course, nothing occurs. The visitors can’t make contact. They’re disappointed. They come together again and share their failure once more to make contact or to take over our bodies. They drift away, bemoaning their hunger, and I’m left standing in the hall in the dark wondering what happened in the other room.
It’s a neat experience. Neat as in “tidy” – it wraps up well, it’s self-contained and clear, and it works. It’s evocative, turning the rooms around you into newly charged places of liminality. Like all good immersive rexperiences, it writes a narrative over the familiar, turning it briefly into the uncanny.
There are none of the jump scares or spooky moments that you might expect a haunting story – a tale of attempted possession by the restless dead – to have. It’s more a wistful and sad experience, with a dark undertone. There’s a hidden savageness here that hints at the potential violence of this encounter. The two ghost girls – unable to touch, unable to feel, longing only for the most basic of human experiences of life – are an apt metaphor for those of us who have been locked down under curfew for more than a hundred days now. If only they could make contact, it seems, they’d be more than happy to take control.
At around 20 minutes, it doesn’t allow for more storytelling or engagement, which feels like a shame. A lot more could be done with this format: the ghost tour at home, two partners in the same experience performing for and watching each other at the same time.
As deft as the production is, the experience feels truncated, like only getting to see the overture. It’s such a rich form with so much potential. I want to see the full opera.
Visitors, written by Glen Neath, directed by David Rosenberg and Glen Neath. Performed by Sonya Seva and Greer Dale-Foulkes. Produced by Amy Johnson and Nathan Alexander. Presented by Darkfield Radio and Realscape Productions. Online at Darkfield Radio.