How to Spook Your Listener

by Bonnie Swift on 3/1/2012

  

Haunted. I felt haunted when I first listened to Scott Carrier’s, The Test [15 min] on This American Life, in 2001. Now, more than ten years later, this story is still etched in my memory like few stories are. It’s a story about Carrier driving through the Utah countryside, in search of people with schizophrenia. He has been hired by the state for the summer to administer a standardized test that will assess their psychological well being. In the process of conducting these interviews, he sounds the depths of consciousness, only to discover further depths. Eek.

Like a series of paintings hung on the pristine white walls of a gallery, this story utilizes empty space to its advantage. Carrier hasn’t introduced any field recordings, interviews, or sound effects other than a very sparing dash of music. It’s mostly his voice, and his voice is slow, flat, restrained, and downright spooky. His sentences are punctuated by a guitar or xylophone, in a very narrow register of sound that heightens the sense of the void that Carrier is navigating. Every word reverberates.

Eerie also that Carrier begins to question his own sanity as the story unfolds. He engages us on a level of intimacy rare among even the closest of friends. His wife and children have recently left, he is angry, depressed, worries a lot, feels like he’s ‘faking it,’ and he cries ‘like a three year-old’ when he gets home one afternoon. He makes himself vulnerable to us, and we find ourselves caring deeply for him.

The relationship between his own memoir and the interviews he’s conducting with his often-less-than-sane clientele start to intertwine, to build on one another. In this way, Carrier brings us straight into the den of madness. But then he does something very unusual: he allows us to feel lost, and then he decides to not bring us back, to leave us without a resolution. It makes us want to rewind and listen to it again, in hopes of finding some peace the second time around. But there is none, and that’s partly why it’s so eerie. This non-ending makes us question whether there actually is something at the bottom of those reverberating depths.

The Test
Produced in 2001 by Scott Carrier for This American Life, episode 181
15 minutes

 

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