022-The Video File

The Department of Psychology at the University of Glasgow has an interesting mpeg video file on their server that was used up until 2009 as part of a presentation to second-year psychology students for two tutorials on cognitive bias and visual perception.

The video was shot by a group of four fourth-year students at the university, and was intended to chronicle a five-day period in which they all lived on the streets of Glasgow without provisions, money or modern conveniences, as part of a thesis on the Maslow hierarchy and how it corresponds to psychogenic needs. The video has been cropped and edited heavily – first by the students for their thesis, then by the module leaders for use in the cognitive bias tutorials.

The video file – named “02.01.2005_parei_exped.mpeg” – opens with an introduction to Surinder, Stacy, Rashima and Natalie, who give a brief outline of what they intend to study by sleeping on the Glasgow streets for a week. The next ten minutes documents the group trying to find a place amongst the twilit central streets in which to set up their sleeping bags as the sky begins to darken. Spirits are high, but it’s obvious that much of the cheer and messing around is done to keep the feeling of the January chill away – Surinder continually makes light of the camera attempting to use its facial-focus technology to focus in on each of the group and failing. Once the group find an acceptable place – up a side-street just off of Argyle Street, in between a tall apartment building and the entrance to a walled yard filled half with rampant weeds and half with trash, broken glass, and gravel. The group keep the tape running for ten more minutes, with Surinder manning the camera, as they lie in their sleeping bags and discuss what they expect the next day will bring – the biting cold in the air easily felt in the quiver of their voices – before they bunker down and try to sleep.

The tape’s next five minutes shows the group discussing how they slept – and in Rashima’s case, it was badly; she reports waking several times through the night and thinking that she saw figures standing out amongst the shadows of the tall weeds in the gravelled yard adjacent to the group’s “camp”.

The footage cuts to the evening, where three of the group are bunched together, talking about an encounter with the police that must have happened off-camera, before Rashima’s voice cuts through the air as she waves maniacally at the group from inside the yard. The camera cuts to the group’s feet as they stand around an open, uncovered drain hole in the ground, around three feet wide, with a rudimentary set of iron bars pushed into the wall to act as a functional ladder. Rashima insists she saw a figure standing in the same location the night before. The group seem to entertain her story rather than dismiss it instantly, and, as the camera continually flickers its focus while facing the impenetrable darkness only a few feet down from the mouth of the open drain, the team agrees that everyone will sleep in shifts in case there is someone nearby that may pose danger to the group. The camera pans back to the area of the yard where the open drain sits as the group head back to their camp; for all that those few seconds are shot with no focusing problems, there is still something stark and eerie about the scene, almost as though there was something there that, when the viewer sees it, would immediately “unlock” it.

Once again, the camera cuts to late night – it is difficult to see well due to the inadequate lighting from nearby streets and from the camera’s continual auto-focusing. Stacy is sound asleep, Rashima is sitting up in her sleeping bag, and Natalie is standing up next to the six-feet-high metal fence around the yard, apparently shouting over towards a dark corner at the far side of the yard. “Isn’t that where the drain is?” Surinder asks from behind the camera – no-one answers, but Rashima turns to face Surinder with an expression of equal parts contempt and fear. The camera alternately focuses on Natalie and the corner of the yard where Natalie has focused her attention.

The footage jumps to the next morning, with Surinder and Natalie looking at the hole again; Surinder takes a bottle lying nearby and drops it into the hole to gauge its depth, but no sound answers his query. Stacy soon joins the group, insisting that the footage is detracting from what they were there to investigate, and that they are being unprofessional and unscientific in passively encouraging Rashima to be frightened.

The final twenty minutes of the footage takes place at night; the entire group is awake and talking (or bickering) animatedly. The camera pulls up as Surinder stands and takes it to the edge of the yard, then jams his arm through a hole in the fence to get the camera as far in as possible. For three seconds, there is silence that accompanies the shot of an indistinct, but vaguely humanoid figure in the shadows of the yard – a muffled sound, like the crunch of gravel muffled by a cloth-shod foot, chokes the silence – and the whole scene erupts: Rashima screams, Natalie shouts something to an unknown person, Stacy begins to moan as if in pain, and Surinder yelps and drops the camera.

The last few seconds are footage of the camera spinning, hitting the ground, and staring out into darkness. The frames immediately following the camera’s crash to the gravelled ground have been slowed down either due to the damage or to postprocessing; the facial-focus flickers once, towards the interminable blackness before it, and the sharp contours of a vaguely-human face emerge from the shadows of the darkened yard. The camera catches only the pinprick eyes and ragged grin of the face before it falls out of focus and turns off completely.

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