In the fourth episode of the eighth series of Doctor Who, listen. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Doctor Who.
Trigger Warning: For discussion of fear/terror, abuse, nyctophobia, home invasion imagery, PTSD.
There are many things that go bump in the night.
The first time I experienced the same sense of existential terror that Moffat exploits for “Listen,” I was six years old. I woke in the middle of the night, covered in sweat. The gentle glow of the nightlight in the hallway – the same one my mother used so that my brother and I could see our way to the bathroom – poured into our bedroom. It didn’t take long for my eyes to adjust to darkness, and I remember glancing over to see my brother on the opposite side of the room, fast asleep, seemingly unaware of the dread that had crept into me. I used the top sheet to wipe away the perspiration that covered my face, and then I waited, my eyes locked on the hallway.
From that first time I saw her until the last time, I never once heard her. I felt her. I knew she was under the bed or down the hall way, and she would simply slide into view, as if she could disobey gravity. She wore a long white dress that hung still off her tall, lanky body. She would always stand at the foot of the bed and stare at me, her hands always an inch or two from my own feet, and I would often remain paralyzed for what felt like hours, staring back at her, waiting for something to happen. Nothing would. I’d pull the blanket over my head and will her to go away, and I would eventually pass out from sheer exhaustion.
When it happened a second time, I asked my mother to allow my brother and I to switch beds once a month so that I wouldn’t be in front of the door. She obliged, and I never spoke of what had happened to me those years in Boise in that godawful house. Not to my brother, not to my friends, not to anyone. There was other weird shit that happened in that house – objects crashing all the time, mysterious footsteps, disappearing things, and sounds from other parts of the house when we were all in the living room – but the woman from under the bed was the worst.
Once I got to California, I found an anthology called Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark, and my newfound obsession with The X-Files fueled a desire to read things that scared me. I gobbled up the series right up until the third book, where I got to a story called “The Dream,” which had the following illustration on a full page.
I didn’t read that story again for nearly twenty years.
When I was twelve years old, the sensation started again. I would suddenly wake up in the middle of the night, covered in sweat, convinced that someone was in my bedroom. I never saw the woman in the white dress ever again, but for a full year, this happened to me a couple times per week. I would lie awake, drenched in sweat and fear, until the paralysis stopped and I gathered the courage to turn on the lights. I never discovered anyone under the bed or hiding in the closet.
One night, I awoke to a dog barking in the distance. Not terribly far; it sounded like it was from a house over or two. Terror swarmed through my body again as my eyes adjusted to the light blaring into the room from our neighbor’s backyard. A brother and sister had moved in next door earlier that year, and I often found myself sitting in the living room in the afternoons, watching the brother when he worked on his Mustang in the driveway, his shirt off, sweat glistening over his pecs and abs. My mother hated them, though, as they often held raging parties and forgot to turn off the light in the backyard. It was impossibly bright, and I’d had to move my bed to another part of the room because of how often the light would pour into my room and wake me up. They hadn’t had a party that night, but my mom had yelled at the siblings for speaking too loud in their own yard.
My mom yelled a lot in those days.
I couldn’t tell what the darkness in the corner was, though. It was too bright in the room, and I recall turning on my side, facing the window, and rubbing my eyes in a pathetic attempt to clear them up. When I opened them again, I locked eyes with someone standing outside my window, staring at me. I know I froze, more out of an instinctual reaction than anything else, but I also remember being uncertain that what I was seeing was actually real. After two years of imagining a woman visiting me in my bedroom in Idaho, I had developed a cynicism to help me cope with how frightened I had become.
The eye blinked.
Dogs started barking – in my own yard this time – and the man at the window bolted away. I did not fall asleep for the rest of the night, and like my experience with the woman in the white dress, I did not tell a single person what had happened to me for over a decade.
I was a senior in high school when I got assigned my final project for AP English. We were to create and perform a trilogy: three pieces, each in a different medium/style/format, that represented parts of our lives. I chose to perform a monologue intermixed with song, a poem, and a piece of prose I wrote that explored the complicated and frightening relationship I had with my mother. In that piece, she was the woman in the white dress at the end of my bed, waiting for me every night, filling me with dread. Near the end of this piece, my twin brother, pale and sweating, excused himself and darted out of class. It was a bizarre moment, but I felt certain that he was furious at me for criticizing our mother so publicly.
He came back twenty minutes later, after two others had given their performances, and he stood in front of that classroom, and he told a story about a woman in a white dress who would visit him in his bedroom in Boise, and how she never said anything, and how she stood there, silent and terrifying, and how he was thrilled for the months during the year when he got to sleep in the bed that wasn’t in front of the door.
We’ve never been able to explain that woman, despite that neither of us had ever spoken of it to each other in the ten years since we left that house in Boise. We’ve talked about it many times (and if you were part of the group of people who came to my event a couple years ago at Downtown Disney, you heard us talk about it) and learned some details from our mother. While she confirms that there was some weird shit going on in that house, she never saw a woman in a white dress. For years, I had attributed the visions to some sort of shared delusion or hallucination on our part. They began right around the time that we started being abused. Years later, my night paralysis coincided with the abuse surfacing again. When I got free of that place and began the complicated process of coping with what had happened to me there, it just seemed sensible to me that the monster under the bed had been my mother, that I’d imagined the woman in white and all the other creepy shit in the homes I lived in.
But the truth is that I’ll never know the truth. There’s no way to. I grew up as a frightened child, one who was convinced that the world was out to get me. I did not have the Doctor or Clara Oswald to come to me in the night, to assure me that my fear was actually a weapon. Instead, I was simply afraid. That fear stayed with me long after I ran away from home, long after I graduated high school, and long after I escaped Riverside for college. I had some comfort, though, and it was my obsession with horror that helped teach me to accept my fear. Instead of denying that it ever happened, I deliberately sought it out. I got used to the feeling of adrenaline coursing through me. So, in a way, I figured out that fear was a superpower all on my own.
Why have I told y’all all of this? I wanted to explain the reason for my utterly ridiculous reaction to “Listen.” I am terrified by the very concept of this episode, from the idea of something hiding under your bed to home invasion scenarios. The visuals of “Listen” are my top scares, hands down. From the figure in the blanket to the sounds outside Orson’s ship, I was given an experience that was literally the worst thing I could imagine. They’re my fears, and they felt unique. (You’ll notice I laugh a lot when I’m afraid. I always have. Same with experiencing high amounts of pain. Apparently, I’m just wired wrong.)
The beauty of “Listen,” though, comes from the kindness of the story. While I found it to be an utterly enriching exploration of the Doctor and his fears, I appreciated that in the end, Moffat’s script did not judge the Doctor for being afraid. No, that little kid in the barn on Gallifrey was given the power of fear by Clara, all so that in times of fright and uncertainty, he could choose to do good. This is, admittedly, a high-concept episode of Who. Like “Midnight,” it relies on the strength of the unseen, which is never an easy thing to pull off in a visual medium. But unlike “Midnight,” which posits that fear can bring out the worst in humanity, “Listen” says that sometimes, it brings out the absolute best in us. Rupert gains the strength to call himself as he wishes and pursue a life he always wanted. Danny faces his fears when dealing with PTSD and dating. And Clara Oswald gives a young boy a chance. She gives him the opportunity to face the uncertain future with fear in his heart and hope in his mind.
This is truly one of the greatest episodes of this show, y’all. It’s ferocious at times, but not without a tenderness to it. The performances from Jenna Coleman, Peter Capaldi, Remi Gooding, and Samuel Anderson are so good they’re almost unreal. This was an ambitious episode, one that could have easily failed given how poorly some of the more metaphorical episodes have gone in the past, but I’m so blown away by the sheer technical and emotional artistry of “Listen.”
Bravo, Doctor Who.
The video for “Listen” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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