Many people wonder what it would be like to be famous, to be a star.
I guess it’s the reasons casting and talent shows became so popular in the early 2000s. It was a sort of wish fulfillment, plain and simple.
By that time, I’d worked in the television industry for quite a while and knew it was a harsh place. There was no actual job security. Once a show, project, or series was over, you were on your own.
When I was offered to be part of a production team in this new and upcoming category, I took the chance right away.
It should pay off and for years I worked on my countries equivalent of Popstars, Got Talent, Top Models, The voice, and other similar productions. I was not a juror, moderator, or writer. No, I was part of the production team.
Being behind the curtains taught me quite a bit about the ins and outs of this industry.
It won’t be news to anyone if I tell you that all those shows are fake and scripted.
We, as the producers, had a clear idea about the show beforehand. We knew exactly what types of people we needed for a season to be a success. While talent is necessary other criteria are much more important.
The most important thing was that each of the finalists filled a particular image, a stereotype, so to say. A few of those are the hottie or hunk, the wallflower, the hatchling or little genius, the unattractive one, the old guy, and the freak.
Most of those should be self-explanatory.
The most interesting one is the freak. He’s a total wildcard. He’s not there for people to identify with, but for them to cringe and laugh at, to love or hate, but also to impress. It can be a social-awkward nerd with an unbelievable set of dance moves or a cross-dressing furry with a fantastic voice. The weirder they are, the better.
It was a general rule that most people would watch the first couple of shows of a season. The reason was simple. Those were the initial castings and general the most humorous of the entire season. What can I say, people tuned in to laugh at all the weirdos that showed up. What sold them on the rest was the finalists.
During the castings, our prime goal wasn’t to find talented people. Our top priority was to fill as many of the different stereotypes as possible. One of the hardest to find was the freak, but they were also the most rewarding ones. Whether or not we could fill the sport could make or break an entire season of the show.
Think about any of the talents shows you watched. Which people do you remember? Who did you talk about with your coworkers? It’s always the weirdos.
On a casting day back in 2014, I met one such person. Because of that encounter, I should never work in that industry again.
Casting days are tough. Sure the castings last only eight hours, but because of all the organization, it can easily become double that.
The worst thing about it is that a considerable number of candidates just plain suck. It’s funny for an hour or two, but after that, it drags you down.
During the preceding weeks, our roster of finalists had filled up one by one. Only a few spots remained open. One of those was the freak. We had made it a priority in this week’s castings to find someone that could fill the spot.
There’s no shortage of weird candidates. The tricky part however is to find one that’s talented enough to be a finalist.
That day one person stuck out the moment he set foot into the building. It was the violinist Stephan de Preaulx.
He chose each of his steps wisely and held his head high in the air. An air of grandeur surrounded the man and not just a bit of arrogance. His outfit stood in clear contrast to his entrance. He wore a plain black suit with a bow tie and a pair of old worn-out leather shoes.
Stephan was an older man, most likely in his mid-fifties. He was tall, lanky, with arms that seemed a tad bit too long. His hair was a long, greasy mess and a scrubby goatee accentuated his face. His most remarkable feature was his eyes. They were of a hazel color and showed a radiant, almost feverish glow.
In short, he was so weird you couldn’t help but stare at him.
Weirder still than his appearance was his behavior. It was both eccentric and over-dramatic. That wasn’t all though. His way of speaking was strange too, old fashioned, and almost antiquated. He’d pronounce certain words and vowels almost formally while slurring others. His accent didn’t fit his name at all. It wasn’t French, but a mixture of provincial German with a hint of Russian. No one could tell if it was genuine or faked.
“Stephan de Preaulx, violinist extraordinaire, here to test his music,” he announced in a booming voice when he was asked what brought him here. It resulted in a lot of stares from the other people in the room.
When we asked him how long he’d been playing his instrument all we got as an answer was a smile. During the brief interview, he didn’t say a lot. Occasionally he even spaced out. He didn’t react to us anymore and instead whispered to the instrument he was holding in his arms.
The instrument was as weird as he was. It was a slightly warped and distorted version of a violin. The best way to describe it is to imagine a violin made by someone who’d only heard about them but never saw a real one. It came close enough, but it was still distinctly different.
If this guy was any good with his instrument, I thought, he’d be sure to become a finalist.
We scheduled his act for later in the afternoon. After the initial interview, we pretty much left him to himself in the waiting area.
Most people spend this time preparing for their act or socializing with the other candidates. Stephan did neither. He just sat down and waited. Again he seemed to space out completely and ignored everyone who tried talking to him.
He only came back to life when we informed him it was time for his act. In a moment his expression changed to one of intense focus and his eyes showed the same feverish glow I’d seen before.
“Well then,” he said in his weird voice and got up.
Again, he did it in an over-dramatic way and almost jumped off the chair. The few other candidates that remained in the waiting area couldn’t help but giggle.
Without listening to our instructions or waiting for his cue, he made his way to the stage. It forced us to play his entrance music, Pachelbel’s Canon in D almost half a minute early.
The procedure for every act is the same. The most important part is that it’s the judges who set the tone. You’re the guest in their show after all. The protocol is simple. They welcome you, ask you a few questions and pull a joke or two before you’re asked to perform your act.
Not so with Stephan. The moment he’d made it to the stage he spread out his arms and introduced himself in his loud, booming voice.
“I am Stephan de Preaulx, violinist extraordinaire, here to test his music!”
The judges laughed.
“Well, he might not know how things work here, but he sure knows how to make an impression,” one of them said jokingly.
It was a blatant plea for this guy to stick to the protocol. Stephen, however, fucked things up further.
He completely ignored the judges, raised his violin, and began to play.
A long, terrible screech came from the instrument.
“Oh god, this can’t be happening,” I cursed to myself and frowned.
As the man kept moving the bow over the violin hectically, the screeching continued to fill the studio. This guy didn’t know the first thing about playing the instrument.
The audience broke into loud laughter and soon booed the man. The face of the judges changed from complete surprise to utter disbelief. Their faces said the same thing I was thinking.
“Is this guy for real?”
After only ten seconds of the unbearable sounds, the first of the judges rose her hand. She was about to hit the buzzer to vote the man out, but then her arm stopped in midair.
Her expression changed, she gasped audibly before she lowered her hand again. The laughter and the booing of the audience subsided.
Everyone became quiet and only the terrible screeching of the ghastly violin remained. Almost the only one because right then I heard it too.
There was a second, much different melody below the screeching. It was a harmonic, droning melody, one that was almost hypnotic. As quiet as it was, the longer you listened, the more you ignored any other sound. You were drawn in by it more and more.
An ordinary violin shouldn’t be able to produce such a melody, I thought. Was this the reason for the strange shape of the instrument?
For a while I just stood there, at the side of the stage, watching Stephan’s hectic playing, and listened to his music.
Then I noticed something.
It was almost invisible and at first, I thought it was nothing but an optical illusion. It was a translucent strand that spread out from the violin. I watched dumbfounded as twisted and then extended towards the audience. Was this weird man somehow able to visualize his music?
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I closed my eyes, then opened them again, but the strand was still there. By now though, it wasn’t just one, it was hundreds of them. They were all growing further and further, the faster the man played.
Most of the people in the audience sat there, wide-eyed with an empty expression on their faces. It was as if they were hypnotized. None of them seemed to notice the strands and none of them reacted as they entwined people.
I stared at the other members of the production crew and many were as confused as I was.
When I looked back at the audience, I saw a middle-aged woman jump from her seat. Her face was a mask of terror as she raised her hands, clutching at something invisible to her eyes.
It wasn’t to mine though. The translucent strands had closed around her throat. Mere moments later her eyes grew wide, her body went limp, and she fell to the floor.
The strands let go and I could see that they were now faintly glowing. A moment later they receded to the instrument, taking the small, glowing light with them.
As I watched, I saw the same thing happening all over the audience to at least a dozen more people.
“What the hell’s going on?” I pressed out .
The voice of an old lady brought me back to reality. She’d noticed that the person next to her had fallen to the ground and she’d called for help.
Other people seemed to wake up from their hypnotism, but no one understood what was going on.
As more and more people were passing out and clutching at their throats, panic spread. Some people tried to help the victims while others tried to flee from the studio.
All the while, the frantic music of Stephan de Preaulx continued. The man wasn’t fazed in the slightest by the chaos erupting around him.
As people ran for the exits, I finally gave the cue for security. Then I took a step towards the stage and the violist myself, only to stop right in my tracks.
There was something other than the translucent strands. It was several shades that surrounded the violinist. They were almost invisible, like the strands, yet I could make out their faces. One was boasting with laugher, his face a mask of infinite jest. It played the violin with Stephan, creating this second, hypnotic melody. The faces of the others were nothing but impish grins and glowing eyes.
They were the ones who controlled the strands. I saw them sending out more and more of them, twisting them and entangling people. Then, once a person had passed out, they pulled them back and devoured the small light they’d stolen.
My body froze the moment one of them laid eyes on me. It must’ve realized I could see it.
I stumbled back one step, then another and then I could not move. As security rushed Stephan, I felt something close around my throat. My fingers clutched at the translucent strands. I tried to rip them away, tried to stop them from suffocating me, but I was unable too. All the while the ghastly shade grinned at me.
I fought for air, tore at my throat, and told myself repeatedly to stay conscious. For a second I slipped off into the darkness, but then I could suddenly breathe again.
Security had finally made it to the stage and ripped the instrument from the man’s hands.
I sat there on the floor, taking in breath after breath greedily. The shades, as well as the strands, were gone.
After the music had stopped, people calmed down and soon normalcy returned to the studio.
By now the emergency personnel had entered. Most of the people who’d fallen turned out to be fine. Nothing had happened to them apart from passing out and suffering a few slight bruises. It was quickly concluded that the strange violin music was to blame for what had happened.
I could see the relief on many people’s faces when they heard that their friends and relatives were unharmed.
Unharmed, I thought. It was true enough, at least in a physical sense.
Those shades though, they’d been after something else. Whatever they’d taken from people wasn’t physical though. I knew because for a moment I’d felt those strands probing inside of me, searching for something. The only thing that saved me was the sudden end of the music. It had banished those terrible shades back to wherever they’d come from.
When I turned to the stage, I saw how the strange violinist took his instrument and bow from security. Then he turned around and walked backstage. As he passed me, he gave me the shortest of grins which sent me back cringing in horror.
I wanted to call out to people to stop him, to restrain him, and ask him what he’d done. But somehow I could only watch as he walked away.
Only a few minutes after his act had been put to an end, Stephan de Preaulx had vanished from the studio.
Afterward, higher-ups proclaimed it had all been a social experiment. They wanted to see how an audience would react to this type of performance. People’s tickets were refunded and everyone present would be awarded tickets for the rest of the season. The crazed violinist was revealed to be an actor. The strange things that some people had seen were state-of-the-art visual effects.
We members of the production team got over very own version of the story. It was essentially the same bullshit they’d told the audience. I didn’t believe a single word, but I still signed the form they held in my face, regardless.
For the day all castings were discontinued, but the next day it was back to business as usual.
That morning I showed up like I’d done on so many others throughout the years. When I reached the stage, however, something inside of me made me recoil instinctively. It was almost as if my body was afraid to find Stephan de Preaulx out there once more.
In the end, I couldn’t do anything about it. I tried entering again and again, but after I’d suffered a terrible panic attack, I could do nothing but resign from my position. Even when the studio told me I’d never get a job in the industry again if I left now, in the middle of the season, I still did it. There was no way that I could ever work in a studio or near a stage ever again.
To this day, years after the incident, I still wake up in the middle of the night. I’m still suffering from terrible nightmares.
And every single time, there’s this cold pain in my chest and I’m filled with a sad yearning for something I’ve lost.