The Future

A Good Place: The public access channel from hell

The YouTube channel Local 58 uses the aesthetics of the past to speak to the anxieties of today.
The Future

A Good Place: The public access channel from hell

The YouTube channel Local 58 uses the aesthetics of the past to speak to the anxieties of today.

The internet is too much,
but this place is just right.

In 1980, amidst preparing to launch television’s first 24-hour news channel, media mogul Ted Turner pre-taped its coverage of the Apocalypse. CNN, he had vowed to a reporter, would “stay on until the end of the world,” at which point he intended his anchors to “cover it, play ‘Nearer My God to Thee’ and sign off.’” Over the subsequent decades the “TURNER DOOMSDAY VIDEO,” as it was rumored to be named, became a morbid piece of media lore — an eccentric worst-case scenario plan concocted by a notably eccentric man. Then, in January 2015, Gawker’s sister site Jalopnik obtained the video and put the oddity online for everyone to see.

The unearthed minute-long clip shows exactly what Turner promised. A military band stands in formation, playing the tune that, legend has it, the Titanic’s band performed as the ship sunk into frigid Atlantic waters, outside Turner’s Georgia mansion while a nearby officer raises the American flag. “HFR [Hold For Release] till end of the world confirmed,” the video file’s note reads — an instruction as absurd as it is unsettling.

Though we’re well into the age of digital video, this bit of analog imagery somehow still feels like an appropriate, even likely, sign-off for humanity. Our memories — even memories of an imagined future — become disfigured and warped by time, decaying like reels of video tape within their owners’ minds. The Turner Doomsday Video can easily disguise itself now as one of those memories, perhaps even a potential preview of our grand finale episode.

A couple years ago, a series of experimental horror videos began seeping across the internet that watched like potential catalysts for airing Turner’s sign-off. Most were formatted as if recorded to VHS from a public access channel, with tinny background music warbling in and out of key as static burns raced across the screen. One in particular, titled “Weather Service,” starts with a recording of an evening’s programming schedule, before being interrupted by a strange emergency meteorological announcement warning viewers to stay away from windows and avoid looking directly at the moon for increasingly disturbing reasons. That announcement is then seemingly hacked by another entity, vowing the whole thing to be a hoax, the entire two-and-a-half minutes feeling not too far removed from the real, unsolved Max Headroom broadcast intrusion events of 1987, albeit somehow creepier.

“ITS [sic] IN THE LIGHT...THE MOON CAME IN...HE FOUND ME...IF YOU ARE AFRAID…WE WILL LOOK TOGETHER,” the text crawl reads at one point, before abruptly cutting to a grainy, close-up shot of a full moon slowly encroaching from the corner of the screen to the sound of what sounds like distant screams.

It wasn’t long before curious viewers traced the video back to a series called Local 58 from filmmaker and cartoonist, Kris Straub, named after the supposed station broadcasting these public access horror stories. Straub’s Local 58 collection is a horror-genre filter held up to the era of cathode-ray TV, using the sterile calm of public access channel aesthetics to unsettle audiences with decaying film and Doppler Effect audio. A large part of Local 58’s uncanniness is derived from Straub culling the majority of his footage from fair-use stock footage. “Weather Service” doesn’t approximate cheap, royalty-free video — it’s comprised of it almost entirely, according to the clip’s YouTube description, and is overlaid with Straub’s original stories told through emergency broadcasts and public service announcements.

Another Local 58 highlight is “Contingency,” which resembles a Cold War-era government PSA, with the twist that it is only to be aired “in the event of United States [sic] complete surrender to insurmountable forces.” Its on-screen text instructs the viewer to “honor liberty by taking the final and greatest liberty of them all.” The clip then instructs how to best take that “liberty” — a euphemism for suicide, preferably while lying on your front lawn. The Heaven’s Gate-ish alternate-history-horror of “Contingency” may come off as absurd at first, but its grim finality feels like if one took Ted Turner’s real-life apocalypse clip to its logical conclusion.

“Though they may occupy our borders, our streets and our homes...they will never occupy our SPIRIT,” reads the instructional text. “...Act immediately. You take America with you... This message will repeat until there are none to read it.”

The shorts, currently five in total, are threaded together both aesthetically and with a morbid sense of humor. “You Are On The Fastest Available Route” diverges from Straub’s retro-imagery, instead depicting an ominous nighttime drive turned deadly through the lens of a car’s dashboard cam. While “Fastest Route” looks to be shot with a digital lens, the camera’s cheapness is apparent from the outset, distorting sight and sound much like the film reels used in other entries. “Show For Children” combines stock animation with original artwork from Straub into a cartoon that’s equal parts Eraserhead and old-timey animation. “Real Sleep” promises just that, but with a few nightmares, of course.

Local 58 relies on technology to tell a very specific story, all while avoiding technology as the culprit of the story’s horror. Analog cultural artifacts are imbued with both a level of tangibility and ephemeral nostalgia, eliciting responses in us that Local 58 exploits. By presenting us with what feels, on an aesthetic level, to be genuine historical texts, and then undercutting them with scenarios from Straub’s mind, Local 58 transports us to an uncanny valley full of tape loops and rudimentary computer text.

With any luck, the Ted Turner Doomsday Video will never need to be used for its intended purpose, and instead become yet another precautionary piece of history. If the time does unfortunately come for its appropriate use, it’s more than likely that the tape will never run as intended — Turner isn’t even involved with CNN these days, and even if he was, the last thing anyone wants to do as the world ends is satisfy the absurd whims of a billionaire. Either way, Straub’s Local 58 series can be viewed as its companion pieces. These short clips are only parts of larger stories, not so much depicting the event itself as inviting us to fill in the terrifying blanks with our own static-filled imaginations.

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Andrew Paul is a writer living in New Orleans. Previously, he wrote for The Outline about Bigfoot and climate change.