Timehop is creepy. I hate Facebook Memories, telling me that a social media platform “cares about me” and the nonsense I share on it. Recently I stumbled across a LiveJournal account of mine which had lain dormant since I was 16 years old. Besides the natural embarrassment of seeing what a clueless dork I presented as in the public diary entries I skimmed, it was also frightening to come across a perfect document of my teenage state of mind, preserved such that it could have been uploaded that very day. Unlike my own memories of that period, the passage of time had not degraded these posts. Elements had not been lost. Nothing had been forgotten.
The digital era offers us the power of perfect recall. The emphermality of memory transferred to the materiality of hard drives, media and lines of code is a haunting one. An article from an 1877 edition of Scientific American, cited by Jussi Parikka in her book What Is Media Archaeology?, suggested that “by making ‘speech immortal’…fragments of people in terms of voices and images were having an afterlife now through storage media such as the phonograph: ‘A strip of indented paper travels through a little machine, the sounds of the latter are magnified, and our great grandchildren or posterity centuries hence hear us plainly as if we were present.’”
Until the invention of The Cloud and other decentralised, digitised methods of archiving data, we at least could rest assured that any recording device would eventually prove to be as prone to forgetting as our minds are. Vinyl scratches and scuffs, leaving permanent distortion, pops and crackles. Tape decays until it becomes unplayable. Floppy disks can have their contents wiped entirely if you introduce them to a strong enough magnet. All of these mediums — and CDs and hard drives and USB sticks along with them — can also just be simply smashed into pieces. They are as fallible as our own memories, and there was a reassurance in that.
In the 1972 television play The Stone Tape, written by Nigel Kneale and directed by Peter Sasdy for the BBC’s annual “A Ghost Story for Christmas” strand, the Pure Research department of Ryan Electrics are in pursuit of an alternative to these imperfect recording mediums. The employees of this more esoteric end of the global electronics company’s R&D wing have had a few cracks at developing something better than magnetic tape — including the evocatively-named “digital crystal” — that is not “delicate and prone to lose its memory.” Their breakthrough comes in the form of a closed-off room in Taskerlands, a derelict country manor being done up as the Pure Research department’s new base of operations. Head of the team Peter Brock (Michael Bryant) is initially furious that work has not started on renovating the space into a computer lab for programmer Jill Greeley (Jane Asher); that is, until his employee/extramarital lover tips them off to a “haunting” centred on a stone staircase in the corner of the room which goes nowhere.
After some fiddling about with expensive, delightfully seventies high-tech equipment, the team surmise that the apparition — a woman in 19th century dress running up the stairs, turning, and letting out a blood-curdling scream — is not a ghost in the traditional sense. “This isn’t a little shade that couldn’t get into heaven because the pearly gates were shut,” as Brock puts it. Instead, it’s a recording of an event that appears to be played back from the ancient Saxon walls that provide the house its foundation, much in the same way that magnetic tape makes use of natural minerals to hold sound. Unlike traditional tape, however, this format can play back the traumatic event with perfect clarity, over a century after it was recorded. It’s horrible.
The “recording” is a scientific breakthrough to Brock and most of his team, but is a more disquieting discovery for other members of The Stone Tape’s cast. After meeting a local landlord, Alan, who used to play in the long-abandoned Taskerlands as a child, Brock and Jane invite him to the room. Almost immediately he has dropped to the floor in hysterics, eyes bulging in horror and tears running down his cheeks. After calming down, he recounts a memory of locking a friend, “Old Jackie,” in the room during their childhood expeditions to Taskerlands. Forcing him to stand in the space and relive the experience unlocks a previously-repressed tidal wave of guilt, a remembrance best left suppressed.
The team’s second breakthrough is in realising that the stone don’t simply record and playback the residual haunting out loud, the way an amplifier and speaker set does. Instead, it projects the sounds and images directly into the minds of those nearby; this explains why the unusually sensitive Jill both sees and hears the tragic last moments of the woman, while most of the group only hear the footsteps and scream, while one member doesn’t experience anything at all: “the exception to prove the rule, thank God.”
Our own memories are fallible, imperfect, and prone to mistakes almost by design. It’s a self-defence mechanism a lot of the time. Setting aside those who claim to have a photographic memory, when we recall past events and experiences, we do not select them from a tidy archive and play them back like an objective recording. Remembering is restaging, running through the event with the benefit of hindsight and informed by our own cognitive biases, a reconstruction that gets further and further from the “truth” every time.
This imprecision proves to be helpful for particularly traumatic, painful or shameful moments in our past. Psychologists have identified a tendency for autobiographical memory to centre ourselves as the protagonist in any given situation, to have been in the “right” whether in casual conversation or heated debate. It is this surety that allows us to carry on, for the most part. Those who suffer from anxiety, depression or intrusive thoughts may find it harder to get out of bed in the morning, to get to sleep at night, to act at all. Constantly turning over times we may have done something we regret, or being unable to forget a profound and traumatising wrong done against us, is not particularly healthy.
What to make, then, of a recording medium which does allow for complete, perfect recall? Well, it’s fucking terrifying. For Jane especially, the discovery of the titular Stone Tape brings up questions of empathy, loneliness and suffering. As she and Brock prepare for bed after a long day of tests in the storeroom, she explains she is not frightened, but profoundly disturbed at the thought that the apparition may hold onto some level of consciousness. “It’s — the thought of it,” she says. “Of there being nothing left of you but — just enough to repeat the worst moment of your life over and over again…It’s horrible. But it’s better than knowing. I couldn’t bear it if she knew…To be so alone…”
The new occupants of Taskerlands exhibit many behaviours that would do best to be consigned to the dust heap of history: the casual chauvinism and sexism directed at Jill, whether it’s Brock’s treatment of her as hysterical, Collinson’s suggestion she is especially “sensitive” to the house’s paranormal phenomenon because of her gender, or the sexual harassment from her colleagues; Brock also jokes that the apparition is running and screaming from the long-dead founder of the house “trying to pinch her bum”; the equally un-PC racism of the Ryan Electrics staff when referring to their business competitors in the East, who they refer to as “the Japs” and do Engrish-laden impressions of; the barmaid at the pub Jill and Brock visit makes reference to a “coloured” boy who used to hang around Taskerlands and “had all these funny words.”
There is the repeated notion in The Stone Tape, which it shares with the MR James stories which had previously constituted the “A Ghost Story For Christmas” series, that the past is better off not only forgotten, but buried and never touched. If the past is allowed to be something more than a faded memory, if it achieves a physical form or some level of materiality, the protagonist is in trouble. In Nigel Kneale’s previous BBC serial Quatermass and the Pit, the exhumation of Martian skeletons in the London Underground reveals an uncomfortable connection between human and extraterrestrial evolution that would otherwise have died with the aliens (on the team’s arrival in Taskerlands here, the group undertake a ritualistic sacrificing of the company’s Martian mascot (actually employee Stewart Jessop in a goofy costume)).
There is plenty else besides the repeated reliving of the “worst moment” of the ghost’s life that ought to be forgotten in The Stone Tape. Taskerlands housemaster Roy Collinson (Iain Cuthbertson) bemoans the fact that the building is being renovated at all, still insisting it would be better to tear it down and start all over again, an attempt to strip the past traumas of the place of their materiality. Brock initially wants the storeroom to be concreted over post-haste, alarmed to discover that the centuries-old foundational stones could get conservationists involved. It is only upon realising that this relic of the past may hold the key to his future success and monetary gain that he becomes interested in history.
There are moments where the imperfections of human memory almost save the team from their eventual fate, when the physical remnants of the past are of no use, or absent. A visit to a local vicar to peruse the parish records is a particularly amusing moment, as his archive is in horrendous disarray and his own memory appears to be failing him. He is prone to disgression and forgetfulness, even mid-sentence, going off on tangents about pollution and prayer books. “I feel I’m obsolete,” he says by way of apology for offering little concrete about the history of Taskerlands, before adding, tellingly: “but not sinful.”
Is perfect recall sinful? It’s certainly tyrannical. We have multiple examples of times when the memory of the internet, which never forgets, has ruined lives, lost people their jobs, and so on. In 2013, the UK’s first youth police and crime commissioner resigned after racist and homophobic tweets she made between the ages of 14 and 16 were dredged up; since then, we’ve witnessed similar stories everywhere from football to Hollywood. On a more personal level, there is the uncanny ability of social media algorithms to kick you when you’re down, offering to reconnect you with romantic partners you have long since parted from, because you have mutual friends in common on the platform. Scrolling back far enough through your Facebook or Instagram lets you pore over posts and images featuring deceased or otherwise lost friends, pets, lovers, or periods of your life, recorded with all the clarity of a 12-megapixel phone camera.
It is unnatural to be able to recall past events this well; inhuman, even. So it follows that the eventual conclusion of The Stone Tape sees the Ryan Electrics team, whom Brock reckons has “an exact grip on [the] thing, this clarity”, accidentally “erasing” the recording of the doomed maid in their attempts to harness it for commercial gain. In doing so, they reveal a much older, more malevolent and less easily graspable apparition that presumably dates to the Saxon era of the stone; or perhaps even further. The constant replaying of the maid’s last moments were already emotionally intense enough to have disturbed Jane, the landlord and multiple members of the team (as well as the audience, who also have to endure the wonderfully-designed and genuinely terrifying blood-curdling scream played over and over again), as past trauma which is difficult to bear in such clarity.
By insisting on the stone’s power as a recording device, the Pure Research team eventually afford the past enough of a physical presence that it causes Jane to fall to her death, in a reconstruction of the maid’s untimely demise in the past. Past and present come into terrible confluence, the tragedy of the 19th century happening again exactly the same in the contemporary world; a LiveJournal entry looks just the same now as it did when it was written a decade ago; jpegs of ex-partners don’t fade; statuses shared by now-dead friends and relatives will arrive in your Facebook Memories, tricking you into thinking there is a material presence behind them, that they’re still around. The tyranny of perfect recall.