Nonfiction / Brian Clifton
:: Anatomy of a Ghost ::
A young woman bolts out of her house; she appears to be chased by something invisible. As she zigzags around the street, her focus shifts from something following to what is in front of her. She gazes at the camera. Her face is both terrified and desperate. She looks simultaneously at the viewer and her invisible chaser because, for a moment, they are the same. She jukes and darts back into her house, and the camera pans to follow her. Almost immediately, she reemerges and runs to a car. She peels out and down the block.
This is the first scene of It Follows—a movie that follows a young woman, Jay, and her friends as they are terrorized by an invisible monster whose bloodlust seeks the newest person added to a long chain of sexual encounters. The monster is slow and relentless. It can impersonate anyone, but often it takes the appearance of those familiar to its target. Throughout the film, characters subtly break the fourth wall—both in the presence and absence of the imposter that follows.
In the film’s next scene, the camera is perched in the backseat as the young woman drives down a highway. She white-knuckles the steering wheel. As if by twitch, she turns to look behind her.
S-O-S she’s in disguise. S-O-S she’s in disguise. There’s a she-wolf in disguise.
One night, after crashing my bicycle, I booked an Uber to drive me from Westport, the swiftly gentrified bar district of South Kansas City, to where I lived in the Historic Northeast. My apartment lurked behind the intersection of Gladstone Boulevard and Independence Avenue, which put it very east of Troost (the street that the Nichols family used to redline Kansas City in order to keep African Americans and Jews pinned between highways and separate from the WASP‑y population they desired) and a smidge east of Prospect, which was often cited, despite the intermittent opulence and poverty east and west of the street, as the boundary between those who had and those who had not.
I loaded my bike into the Uber’s van and got into the front seat. The driver cruised down Paseo, inching closer and closer to my neighborhood. We drove under a highway; the driver looked around as gourmet donut shops were replaced by payday loans, as bars disappeared and convenience stores filled their places. He looked at me. He said, This is not you.
Yes, I responded. He pushed further, repeating this-is-not-you like a hook. At first, I tried to explain that I did in fact live in this part of town. Unable to convince him, I quieted, trying instead to convince myself—a situation made more difficult by my recent acceptance into a graduate program, a return to the institution that I had fled years before.
Is this me? I asked myself as I wheeled my bicycle into my apartment. Is this me? I asked my students when I lectured about “the thesis.” Is this me? I asked my planner, its days filled with “assignments.” Is this me? I asked my school email address, its seams splitting with the uncategorized waves of announcements, questions, advertisements, and surveys.
“Even Brian has been published!” I overheard one PhD student say to another. It was at night. We were at a bar. My first year of the program and fresh from a string of manuscript rejections, I already had a bad case of Imposter Syndrome. Approaching 30, I was often embarrassed by it—I thought I should have grown out of the feeling by now, but here it was like a sheepish child peering out from behind me.
I continue to socialize with this man. He is a poet I admire. Our conversations are slightly awkward, but no more so than any two people who have only a vague connection—a baseball fan and a beach volleyball fan bonding over their love of “sport.” He is neither hostile nor resentful; I never hear him say anything similar about me or anyone else again.
Sometimes, I wonder if that was what was said at all or just what I heard. Other times, I wonder if that distinction matters.
Baby, baby, baby, oh, baby, baby, baby, no. I whisper-sing on a friend’s balcony. These are the lyrics to Justin Bieber’s “Baby,” a song that lands relatively early in Bieber’s oeuvre. I have never heard the song: not on the internet, not on the radio, not at parties. Yet, the hook, which I’ve taken to whisper-sing when I need to vocalize but have nothing to say, is somehow ingrained in my mind. My friend says that I’m singing it wrong and pulls out her phone to find a video of the song on YouTube.
Please, don’t do that, I plead. Baby, baby, baby, no, baby, baby, baby, oh. I continue to say the words out of sync as the song’s first bars twinkle through her iPhone. A man sticks his head out of the apartment and calls for her. She leaves. I stay on the balcony, saying again Baby, baby, baby, oh, baby, baby, baby, no.
I think about the moment’s uncanniness. What is more similar to Justin Bieber, his recorded voice, digitized and squeezed through the air, some circuitry, the almost molecular sized iPhone speaker, or Brian Clifton whisper-singing the hook to a song Bieber had sung nearly a decade ago when puberty had not yet carved away his boyishness? Which entity is the imposter?
Between my first and second year of my PhD studies, I had two jobs. I was a teaching assistant for a literature class. I washed dishes to make ends meet over the summer. My schedule was Friday through Monday 5:00pm to 2:00am. The work was short, repetitious, and grueling. Often, I found it hard to grip things during my days off because my hands were so sore. My feet shriveled from being constantly wet. Because I lived in a college town, most of my coworkers attended the university I attended. One of the servers, Francie, I knew from the literature class I taught directly before I washed dishes.
When Francie came back to the dish pit, we would talk about literature, her imminent graduation, and the other students in the class. At first, we orchestrate this show each shift we have together. Slowly, our words become clipped. Slowly, there ceases to be a need to express ourselves.
In seventh grade, AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) enthralled my friends. We chatted online; we made away messages from the lyrics of our favorite songs; we sent each other the screen names of strangers. One evening an AIM window popped up on my computer, “hey.” “hey. whos this?”
The generic screen name, bedazzled with punctuation marks, responded—it belonged to a girl (was her name Maddie?). We chatted for weeks. We divulged secrets. We developed something akin to feelings. We agreed that we were dating. We had never met each other. We were text bouncing through circuit boards.
Anatomy of a Ghost was also a screamo band from the early aughts. The group never achieved widespread success, disbanding after their first album in 2004. A couple members went on to start Portugal. The Man, an indie pop outfit that now crafts commercial-ready licks. Their fourth album, The Satanic Satanist, is a collection of down-tempo soulful indie pop.
One day after driving my car, my dad runs into our house and demands I burn him a copy of whatever CD was playing in the dash. As I do, he raves about the band’s sound, about how it is music. I give him the Memorex disc, “Portugal. The Man – The Satanic Satanist,” written in Sharpie on it.
My dad never speaks of this album or them again, and so, in our brains, the band returns to its previous other-life: a dismembered specter, a diagram of a memory.
We hear the night watchman click his flashlight, ask if it’s him or them that’s insane.
After Jay and her paramour have sex in an abandoned parking lot, he drugs her, ties her to a wheelchair, and brings her into a dilapidated building. Jay questions her lover, who explains the monster’s motive and the simple rules by which it abides, namely that it follows whoever had sex with the most recently cursed person. The two then see an approaching figure. As the boy wheels Jay around, the two face directly into the camera. Jay screams, “What do you want?”
Soon, Jay realizes that the boy was not lying. The monster enters her home, causing her to flee to a park on a bicycle. Her friends and her neighbor, Greg, run after her. They tell Greg someone had broken into her house. Sobbing in close-up, Jay says, “I need to find him.” The camera shows Jay and her friends facing the viewer while Greg’s right torso fills the left side of the frame. It is as if the characters are huddled, deliberating, in a circle under a streetlight and the camera hangs in the space between being occluded from the group and completing the huddle. Responding to Jay’s demand, Greg says, “The person who broke into your house.” His inflection makes his words both a statement and a question. He removes his hand from the pocket of his denim jacket and gestures behind him. His thumb points into the camera.
The group finds the boy who had cursed Jay with the monster. Realizing the monster is real, they drive to Greg’s family’s lake house. When the monster arrives, it chases Jay and her friends into a boat shed. It busts a circular hole into the shed’s door. The group looks through it as if through a viewfinder at the beach where they had just been. The only difference between what the group sees and what the viewer had just seen is the absence of themselves.
“No Brainer” features Justin Bieber—his voice being more important than his lyrics, which anyone can find online. Dusted by post-production magic, Bieber’s vocal track is otherworldly—simultaneously straining to sound confident and sexual while remaining lock-step and mechanized. Lifeless yet relentless, Bieber’s vocals are a mall populated by replicants.
The uncanniness that envelopes Bieber’s voice increases throughout “No Brainer,” culminating in an intricate warren of Bieber’s hook with a slew of falsetto harmonies and trilling whoas. The tangled melodies ghost multiple Bieber’s and multiple, fragmented moments within Bieber’s serenade.
Listening to the song is to understand that its message doesn’t come directly from one (or many) human beings but instead is a string of sounds produced to imitate human connection via language. “No Brainer” is a love song sung by no one to no one.
I read a book of garish sentences. I do not bring up my judgment in class (or I do). Even I roll my eyes at this type of performance.
In morning traffic between Dallas and Denton, I sit at a standstill in the left-most lane. I am alone. The sun has come up (I know by the time I get back home it will have gone down). On the shoulder, near the concrete barrier between I‑35 North and I‑35 south, is a dead pitbull. Its body is rigid but not bloated. Its fur is gore-stained. I think, because it was hit on the highway, it must have died near instantaneously; I do not know how these things work.
The dog corpse is next to me. We hover near each other for what seems to be an eternity. The dog’s pelt does not appear broken, though its insides jut angularly, suggesting the chaos that the collision must have initiated within the pitbull’s body. As I stare at the dead body, I bring my hand to my mouth and my eyes water—my mind still stinging from, weeks before, believing my own pet was about to die.
Traffic lurches forward, dissipates. I speed off to drop off rent and then to teach freshmen the necessity of a thesis. I hear myself say, Why did you cover your mouth? Go through the performance of tears and then not cry?
Francie was not the only student I worked with. As I would find out in the fall, Clarissa would also be a student of mine. Over the summer, Clarissa watched me dance to songs about how sex on a sofa can be a type of yoga, about wanting men in Timb’s, about basic bitches thinking I’m a head case.
On the first day of class, I walked into class and see Clarissa in her black, cat-eyed glasses. She sat near the back. I told her specifically hello. I immediately became a dishwasher masquerading as a professor. I tried to restart my performance of a “laid back” prof. I stumbled. I got through class. Afterward, I asked Clarissa if she is alright being in my class. She said she was. Great, I said.
In my early twenties, I saw Portugal. The Man play a small venue in Lawrence. I had driven there from Kansas City with an ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend who was a friend of mine. We smoked weed in the car. I was unsure what to say, so I drove faster, hoping soon the venue would be so full of music I could feel safely alone. When the band struck up, I snuck into the crowd and twitched like a sad virus.
After work, I drive an hour home. My car’s check engine light flashes at me (indicating misfires). Another light on the dash informs me my airbag system is malfunctioning. For the past fourteen miles, a small orange gas pump has shone next to my fuel gage. When I pull off the highway, my car strains and rattles; things grate against each other; metal squeaks when I stop. My car is its own imposter, and a poor one at that.
I am that bitch, I'm-a, I'm-a that bih, yeah You know I'm that bih, can't get off of this dih, yeah
I tilted my head and bobbed it back and forth. I said with a smile, “Nice.” I let my body go slack. I repeated this action, saying various positive phrases: fuck yeah, sick, that’s rad. It was dark. Dallas unfurled into bits of halogen. I continued to imitate the friends I believed supported everyone.
It Follows ends with Jay and Paul holding hands and walking down a neighborhood street. The monster that followed had not been defeated so much as rerouted; scenes earlier Paul drives to a seedy and industrial part of Detroit to visit a sex worker. It is implied the plan was to pass the creature to someone who routinely had sex with a vast array of people.
One of the most compelling ambiguities of the film, for me, is its message. Is It Follows anti-sex? There are plenty of indications that this is the case—a monster that is sent to punish the sexually active, the reduction of human sexuality to a transaction for survival (the sex scenes in the film play out self-serious and dutiful with more desperation than passion). Yet the sexual content of It Follows is shown neutrally. Neither Jay nor Paul are shamed for their sexuality once becoming sexually active. And in one scene the two characters reminisce about finding pornography and looking at it as a group on one of their lawns. Paul says, “We had no idea how bad it was.”
This sentiment, coupled with how often the fourth wall is broken, seems to push the film’s message away from being anti-sex into being a more nuanced critique of socialized shaming. Maybe the film’s monster then becomes not a punishment for sex but an embodiment of the insecurities Jay and Paul project onto individuals of their repressed and repressing society—what would my neighbors/mother/cousins/friends think if they knew I had had sex? Or maybe it is the insecurities these people have of performing sexually—did I enjoy this encounter enough or was my pleasure a show?
I pulled into our driveway around 2:45am. I had finished a closing shift washing dishes. The radio’s rapid twitches—extreme metal-click-Vietnamese lounge-click-bubblegum pop-click-neo-libertarian conspiracy theories-click-trap-click-advertisement—wafted like dust around my still and silent hatchback.
I showered and drank a Topo Chico. I sat, my hair wrapped in a towel. I refreshed my email. I checked my bank account. I stumbled into the dark bedroom; Rowen, my partner, was curled on her side, already asleep. We spooned in the way longtime lovers must on a full mattress.
My body still vibrated from the quick succession of repetitive tasks I had done for the past eight and a half hours. I wondered if, even while sleeping, Rowen could know I was the one in the dark with her. Was there an essential aspect to me, my touch that let her know I was there and not another? Was this the case with everyone? If so, why did my eyes watch the door ready for a terror to waltz through whenever Rowen left to use the bathroom, why did I imperceptibly jump when she clutched my body in the dark?
As I thought and thought, I sat up and craned my head over so I could see around her shoulders, her hair. In the dark, I squinted at her, finding what made this sleeping face hers. Yes, the body next to me was Rowen. Yes, I am myself. I fell asleep.
A few days before a middle school mixer, I messaged Maddie, “we should meet at the dance.”
I waited, but Maddie didn’t show. Our parents arrived. Maddie disappeared from AIM. A few weeks later, a friend told me Maddie was really Justin, a boy in our class, the whole thing was a joke, and many people were aware of it.
I looked at Justin, at the other kids in the class—aware of the difference between how they saw me and how I had seen myself in the past weeks, aware of the difference between how I had seen them before and how I saw them after.
Years after first seeing Portugal. The Man, I rode my bicycle around Kansas City and came across a free concert series on top of hill that rises between I‑35 and Broadway Boulevard. Headlining the event was Portugal. The Man. I locked up my bike and made my way to the front of the stage. I hardly recognized the band—the singer, who used to position his mic sideways so he wouldn’t have to look at the crowd, directly addressed us, his hair recently cut short, his lips accentuated with a neat moustache.
Portugal. The Man played songs I did not recognize. All around me were people I did not know bopping along in flip-flops, cut-offs, tank tops, and ungodly fluorescent rimmed sunglasses. I drifted back, watching the space I had occupied in the crowd slowly disperse, like a ghost into the stained walls of a haunted house.
A man messages me on Facebook. He tells me Rick Barot sent him a personal rejection for a group of poems he submitted to the New England Review. He, this man, mentored me during my first stint in graduate school.
In a previous message, he asked, “Do you know an editor there? Or is it just that your poem was THAT good?” A year previous, he told me that it was great that I was using my personal connections to get published.
I congratulate this man. I say good things are coming.
For a time during my commute, I repeat, Why did you cover your mouth? Go through the performance of tears and then not cry? It is true: there was no one else in my car and I doubt anyone in traffic was monitoring me, I felt no connection to this animal other than the one all animals feel, I will not be bothered by this experience a year from now. As if by twitch, I look behind me. I switch lanes. I look in the mirror and see myself looking back. Maybe everyone performs a little for themselves, for the microscopic feedback loop between the synapse and the eye, the ear, the hand, the nose. Maybe this performance is necessary, but why? And for whom do we bring our hands to our mouths—the future self or the past? Are they so distinct?
I’m different. Yeah, I’m different —pull up to the scene with my ceiling missing.
A professor posts a question in an online discussion board. I answer his question with a series of questions. In class he references Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s game of questions. I don’t get the reference, but I laugh and say I hadn’t thought of it that way.
Moving up an ontological level, It Follows unspools like a dream, a projection of the viewer’s insecurities onto the succession of digital images. The soundtrack aids this effect. Crystalline and distorted synths dissolve into ethereal amorphous swells; it is simultaneously a product of a Vaseline-smeared 80s aesthetic and distinctly separate from it (a ghost of the future the 80s predicted that never came). The soundtrack becomes most hauntingly poignant in the film’s final scene. Its synthetic textures fade into crisp renditions of birds and yard work—close yet uncannily distant from sounding natural like how a voice in a dream booms within the dream-self’s mind rather than emanates from the mouth of its speaker.
Jay and Paul walk, holding hands. Their heads casually rotate from each other to the camera, to the sidewalk, to the houses around them as does ours—another instance of the broken fourth wall. Like the soundtrack, they become immersed in the naturalistic sounds. Jay’s sexual history is known to us, the viewer, and to Paul. Paul’s sexual history is known to Jay and to us. We exist, the three us—Jay, Paul, and viewer—aware of each other, conclusively ourselves as we gaze as if there were nothing before our eyes—absences ready to be filled.
One night during closing, I put on Dead in the Dirt’s The Blind Hole. The songs pummel their feedback-laced riffs and snare-heavy blast beats into everything 50 seconds at a time. I towel melted ice cream from the dish rack. I hose bits of bacon and grilled chicken clinging to the side of the dishwasher. I squeegee a grey-white liquid from where the walls meet the floor to the drains in the center of the room. Dead in the Dirt grinds. Dead in the Dirt screams. “I was a dog on a short chain and now there’s no chain.”
From the writer
:: Account ::
Between semesters of the PhD program I was a dishwasher at a restaurant where two of my students also worked. I had been feeling like I didn’t belong in academia and this, to me, further insinuated that. I wanted to show a mind wrestling with the constantly mutating performance of self that is asked of a person in public no matter where that is. Who am I in the car? Who am I at my job? Who am I at the grocery store? Are all these selves compatible?
I also thought using song lyrics from musicians that had gone through dramatic persona shifts—Shakira’s move from Spanish-language to English-language pop star, Bob Dylan’s chameleon-like identity, Qveen Herby’s move from Disney star to raunch rap, 2Chainz’s move from Tity Boi to trap star—would trouble the idea of performance and authenticity. What does it mean when the people whose words infiltrate a lot of my day are play acting as someone other than themselves?
Brian Clifton is a PhD student at the University of North Texas. His work can be found in: Pleiades, Guernica, Cincinnati Review, Salt Hill, Prairie Schooner, The Journal, Beloit Poetry Journal, and other magazines. He is an avid record collector and curator of curiosities.