Content Warning: The videos discussed and linked in this article contain strobing and glitching effects. Those with sensitivities to such effects should not view these videos. You can still read the article though!
I watched a lot of horror in 2021 as well as a lot of short form video on YouTube, but rarely did the two intersect. YouTube’s where I go when I need a recipe or some generally uplifting content like from internet-famous lizard Peperonie. If I want to watch a scary movie, or scary content in general, I just don’t really think of YouTube as a place to go for it. That is, except for Local 58.
Prolific webcomic artist Kris Straub’s Local 58 is a channel that, as of this writing, features only 9 videos that total less than 30 minutes and it is one of the scariest pieces of media I can think of. In addition to being personally very spooky to me, it’s also been a critical influence on found footage horror, especially the subgenre that it all but created called “analog horror”. Each video on the Local 58 channel consists of a snippet of late night television from a fictional analog cable station, WCLV-TV, located in Mason County, West Virginia*. The segments take place in a variety of time periods, from the station’s inception around the 1930’s, right up to 2021. The signal frequently “glitches” and is repeatedly hijacked with content that begins somewhat innocuously, but spirals into something visually disturbing or at least brian-wormingly insidious.
In ~ our uncertain times ~ it seems that a large amount of the fear and anxiety we experience originates from announcements just like the ones on Local 58. Local authorities break into regularly-scheduled programming to warn us of impending danger or simply to test emergency broadcast communication protocols. These messages and tests, often accompanied by a high-pitched, attention-getting tone, always scared the beejeesus out of me when I was a kid and, in a slightly different way, as I became an adult. It certainly helps the creepy atmosphere of Local 58’s content that it references programming that is really only ever viewed in the wee hours of the morning, almost always alone. The presentation itself is jarring, but so are it’s implications–that some sort of nefarious doom is always just over the horizon.
Part of the scariness of these official announcements comes from the even-keeled tone, asking us to remain calm or follow some esoteric or arbitrary-seeming protocol in the face of a threat that’s not always clear or is merely alluded to. There’s something deeply terrifying about someone telling you, unprompted, not to worry when you weren’t even worried before. Local 58 turns that anxiety way up to eleven in all of it’s content. Not all of the videos on the channel are in the form of Public Service Announcements or emergency broadcasts, but all are meant to lull you into a feeling of comfort before jarring you into a terrified state, glitching into something outwardly terrifying and leaving you there long after the video’s ended.
‘Show For Children‘, for example, is an old-timey animated video in the style of 1920’s ‘rubber arm’ animation that you might associate with Disney’s Steamboat Willie. Straub’s version is about a cute skeleton named Cadavre, who is searching for his partner. Walking through graveyards and looking increasingly distressed, he looks in several graves, finding more and more grotesque material in each one. A menacing and possibly malicious moon, always grinning, follows Cadavre down a dark road to his eventual demise.
In fact, the moon as an antagonist (or at least an object worthy of suspicion) is a consistent theme that runs through in Local 58. In ‘Weather Service‘, one of the first videos created for the channel, the evening’s late-night schedule is interrupted by an emergency broadcast warning about a weather event. This warning is further interrupted and hijacked with a message telling the viewer to “go outside” and to “look at the moon” before instructing the viewer to do the opposite. A back-and-forth battle of conflicting messages ensues as the station seemingly attempts to wrest control over the messaging from the hacker. Eventually, cryptic images of the moon are overlaid with the sound of anguished wails.
This theme is picked up again in a video called ‘Skywatching‘, a late night Local 58 show presumably about stargazing or astronomy. We spend most of the video looking at grainy, unfocused handheld camera images of the sky. The final moments, though, where we focus in on the moon’s surface reveals something puzzling and sinister, complete with the cryptic, darkly poetic messages that are one of the channel’s hallmarks.
In my favourite segment, ‘Contingency‘, an end of day broadcast is hacked with an “accidental” reveal of a contingency communication from the “US Department for the Preservation of American Dignity that’s meant to play if the country is taken over by a hostile foreign power. The instruction is for citizens to “Act” immediately, asking them to assume the “Victory Position” (face up, feet together) on the front lawn and to eat a bullet in the name of liberty and honour, but not before euthanizing children and pets. It assures us that the President, Lyndon Johnson, has already “acted” and implores us to “let our united resolve echo through history: Even in defeat, we refused to yield.” The video ends by proclaiming the hacked message is a hoax, but a final title card breaks in at the end instructing the broadcaster to claim the message is a hoax. Tricksy governments! Either way, every carefully-crafted element–the detuned soundtrack of ‘My Country ‘Tis of Thee’, the glitchy, yellowed screen filter over an American flag–completely gets to me and like the best horror, keeps me coming back.
I think that the authoritative way that the various messages come through in Local 58 is precisely what makes them so unsettling. This authoritative voice can come in many forms–either the government, whomever is hacking the channel, or, in the case of ‘You Are On The Fastest Available Route’, the GPS system on which so many of us rely and implicitly trust. In that segment, which is one of the more contemporary offerings and takes place in 2014, dashcam footage is presented of an automobile journey into increasingly more suspicious surroundings. There’s kind of a secondhand discomfort as the driver, unseen, continues to mindlessly follow directions down the dark roads that are definitely leading them towards danger. The video ends as you might expect, but lingers just a little too long on the road before the GPS proclaims that “you have reached your destination.”
‘Real Sleep’ is an instructional guide to better, more restful slumber. It asserts that better sleep is dreamless sleep, and proceeds to use strobing imagery of disembodied faces to ‘calibrate’ the viewer according to the “Kleitman Map”, based on the real Dr. Nathaniel Kleitman who specialized in sleep research. What’s more authoritative, or at least credible, than your doctor? Of course, this video also contorts itself into a series of distorted imagery, and if you follow the instructions you might find yourself staring dead-eyed at a strobing screen, mindlessly murmuring “there are no faces.”
Local 58 and Kris Straub spawned a whole subgenre of found footage that’s come to be known as “analog horror.” While I don’t think a definition of the term has been agreed on, it is commonly taken by the subculture of horror fans that have formed around it to mean the use of Emergency Broadcast-style aesthetics applied to horror. Following in it’s footsteps are the excellent Channel 7 and Gemini Home Entertainment, with the former expanding many of the themes in Local 58’s ‘Contingency’ and the latter drawing on similar ideas and aesthetics from ‘Real Sleep’. Local 58 even plays with the analog label in it’s latest video from October 2021. ‘Digital Transition‘ has Local 58 literally saying “goodbye, Analog” as the station attempts a conversion to a digital broadcast signal. It quickly becomes clear, however, that whomever is hacking the feed is, shall we say, resistant to the idea. This hijacked signal waxes even more poetic than most, warning that “a cut throat” leads to “a thousand mouths” and that “we will speak for him.” Does that video portend more Local 58 content to come? Some otherworldly force behind the hijacking? I hope so, because as much as Straub’s channel has inspired many pretenders to the throne, nothing compares to the original.
Sachin Hingoo has been ordered to ensure your compliance. It is against the law to delay. This message will repeat until there are none to read it.
*home of the Mothman!