In autumn 2003, my first year studying at Cambridge University, a rumour began circulating about a VHS tape that was causing students to go insane. Nobody knew who had first found the tape, or where they had found it, but the stories started in October, when a history student allegedly stopped talking altogether after watching it. Her roommate claims that she came into the dorm room one evening to find her sitting on her bed pointing at the VHS player, her eyes wide and her lips stretched into an unnatural smile. When the girl didn’t respond to her even after half an hour, the roommate was sufficiently unnerved to call the police. The history student had apparently suffered intense mental trauma, and had lost her ability to speak.
Following this incident, the tape was passed around among students. I never actually knew the history student or the roommate who found the tape. Actually I never heard of the incident reported in any official newspapers. But I have a feeling the tape was real. I heard the stories, and I knew other people who had watched it. Some of it, at least.
Those who watched it always gave the same description of what was on it. The tape contained a video that was about an hour long. The footage would begin inside a dimly-lit room, perhaps a cellar. It showed a man sitting on a wooden chair in the centre of the room, facing away from the camera so that you could only see his back and the back of his head, which was covered by a hood. He appeared to be wearing dark robes, like a priest, and looked thin and frail. A mirror was placed against the wall he was facing, and angled so that his face could be seen in the video. It was an old man’s face, perhaps around seventy years old, and it wore a coldly serious expression.
Quite a few people turned it off at this point. They claimed it already made them feel uneasy. The recording was monochromatic, grainy, and appeared to be old, judging by the style of the mirror and chair, the dark stone walls of the room, and the fact that the lighting was flickering – as if the room were lit by candles. Some people said it looked like it was from the fifties, some said it looked older, and others said it was more recent but was recorded so that it looked old.
Anyway, shortly after the beginning of the video, the old man would begin to speak. The strange thing was that nobody was sure what language he was speaking. The audio was distorted, but occasionally you could hear clearly. Some people thought he was speaking a dialect of English, or an archaic form of English, because they could make out some words. They also described him as having a croaky voice, and an unusual accent.
A lot of people who watched that far into it got the impression that he was giving a sermon, or a lecture. One student I spoke to said that he felt convinced by the man’s words, even though he had no idea what he was talking about. It was as if it had some kind of hypnotic effect on him. More disturbingly, most who watched it reported hearing laughter in the background. Some described hearing noises like a baby crying. The noises ranged from being faint, to sounding as though they were in the same room.
At the thirteenth minute of the video the man would stop talking, as if he had finished saying what he had to say, and for the first time, his expression would change. He would smile – a broad-lipped, wide-eyed, emotionless smile. Very few people continued to watch beyond this. This moment in the video was reported to be extremely disturbing, for some unknown reason. Many of the viewers feared that they would be scarred for life by the image of the old man smiling into the mirror.
After a few seconds, the man, still smiling, begins to slowly turn his head to face the camera – that’s as much as I know of what follows. Nobody who carried on watching ever went into further detail.
When I asked one student why she wouldn’t tell me what came after, she went so pale that it was frightening just to look at her.
What I do know is that one student who did watch further, previously a grounded atheist, stopped attending his lectures. They found him a week later, curled up, hiding in a church, shivering with fever and crying that he didn’t want to go to hell.
The old man in the footage was never identified. Nor was the language he was speaking recognised by any of the professors of languages and linguistics at the university. But it was definitely not any form of English. The room with the mirror could have been anywhere in the world.
It’s still a mystery what happened to the tape in the end. Just as it appeared out of nowhere, it disappeared. After a few months the hype died down. I haven’t spoken to anyone about it since I finished university.
Perhaps it’s still there right now, hidden somewhere in the archives of a college library, or under a bed in an empty dorm room. Perhaps it’s in a landfill site somewhere faraway.
Perhaps someone destroyed it a long time ago.
I hope someone destroyed it.
I think there was something on that tape that doesn’t belong in this world.