Most of us wonder what it would like to be famous, to be a star.
I guess that is one of the reasons that caused the success of casting or talent shows. They are one of the many trends the early 2000s brought.
After working in it for quite a few years, I knew the television industry could be harsh. When I was offered to work in this new and upcoming genre, I took the chance.
For years I worked in my countries equivalent of Popstars, Got Talent, Top Models, The Voice, and other similar shows. Before you ask, no, I was not a juror, moderator or writer. I was part of the production team. Being behind the curtains taught me more than a bit about the ins and outs of the industry.
It is not news to most, but most of those shows are fake and scripted.
The producers always have a clear idea about the show beforehand. They know exactly what types of people they need for a season to be great. While talent is a necessity, certain other criteria are more important.
The most important thing is that each of the finalists fits a particular image, a stereotype so to say. A few of these are hot girl or hunk, wallflower, hatchling or little genius, unattractive one, old guy, and freak.
Most of these should be pretty self-explanatory.
The most interesting one of these is the freak. He is a total wildcard. He is not there for people to identify with, but for people to laugh or cringe, to love or hate, but also to impress. It can be a social-awkward nerd who is an unbelievable dancer or a cross-dressing furry with a fantastic voice. The weirder they are, the better.
There is a list of stereotypes that has proven to be indispensable for a good show. It is a general rule that people will watch the first or two shows regardless. Those are about the first castings and only about laughs. What sells them on the rest are the finalists.
During the castings, we’d, of course, look for talented people. Our priority was to fill as many of the different spots on our list as possible though. One of the hardest to find was the freak mentioned above, but those are often the most rewarding. Depending on whether we could fill the spot or not, could make or break a whole season.
Think about any of the talent shows you saw. Who do you remember? Who made the press? Who did you talk about with your co-workers? Yep, it is always the weird ones.
This story took place back in 2014 on a casting day and also my last official day in the industry.
Casting days are tough. Sure there are only eight hours of castings. With all the organization and all the technical stuff, it can very well turn into double that amount.
The worst thing about it is, that a considerable part of the candidates plain and simple suck. It is funny for an hour, but after that, it starts to drag you down.
During the preceding weeks, our roster of finalists had filled up one by one. There were only a few empty spots left. One of those was the freak. We had decided to make it a priority in this week’s casting to find someone who could fill the spot.
There is, of course, no shortage of weird candidates during the castings. What makes it so much harder is that you also need someone who is talented enough to be a finalist.
On that day there was one person who stuck out to me right as he set foot in the building. It was the violinist Stephan de Preaulx.
He chose each of his steps wisely and held his head high in the air. You couldn’t deny that he was trying to show a certain grandeur. His outfit was a clear contrast to this way of acting. He wore a plain dark suit with a bow tie and a pair of old, worn-out leather boots.
Stephan was an older man. If I had to guess, I’d put him in his fifties. He was tall, quite a bit sturdy, with arms that were a tad bit too long. His hair was long, greasy and messy and a scrubby goatee accentuated his face. His most remarkable features were his eyes. They were of a hazel color and showed a radiant, almost feverish glow.
In short, he was the type of person who’d make you stop in your tracks in wonder.
Weirder still than his appearance was his behavior. It was both eccentric and as I mentioned already over-dramatic. That wasn’t all though. He spoke in an old-fashioned way. He’d pronounce certain words and vowels in an almost formal way while slurring others. His accent didn’t fit him at all. It was a mixture of provincial German with a hint of Russian in it. No one could tell if it was genuine or faked.
“Stephan de Preaulx, violinist extraordinaire, here to test his music.” he would announce in a booming voice when asked what brought him here. This resulted in a lot of curious stares from the other people in the room.
When we asked him how long he’d practiced, he didn’t answer and only smiled. During the brief interview, he didn’t say a whole lot. Occasionally he’d even space out. He’d not react to us anymore and instead whispered to his instrument.
Said instrument was as weird as he was. It was almost an ordinary violin, but somehow distorted and warped. The best way to describe it is to imagine a violin made by someone who only heard about them, but who’d never seen a real one. It came close enough, but was still, distinctly different.
If this guy was any good with his instrument, I thought, he’d be sure to make it.
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. Others were socializing with the other candidates. Stephan sat down and waited. Again he spaced out completely and ignored everyone who tried talking to him.
Only as we informed him that it was time to start his act, did he come back to life. In a moment his expression changed to one of intense focus. His eyes showed the same feverish glow from before again.
“Well then.” he said in his weird voice and got up.
Again, he even got up in an over-dramatic way by almost jumping off his chair. Many of the remaining candidates in the area giggled at it.
Without waiting for any instructions or cues, he walked towards the stage. It forced us to play his entrance music, Pachelbel’s Canon in D, almost half a minute earlier.
The procedure for every act is the same. The most important part is that the judges are the ones who set the tone. You are the guest on their show. They welcome you, ask a few questions, and pull a joke or two. Only after that, they tell you to present your act.
Not so with Stephan. He walked out and before anyone would react he introduced himself to the audience. With outspread arms and a booming voice he said:
“I am Stephan de Preaulx, violinist extraordinaire, here to test my music!”
The judges started to laugh.
“Well, he might not know how things here work, but he sure knows how to make an impression.” one of them said in a joking way.
It was a blatant plea for this guy to stick to the protocol. Stephan decided to fuck things up even more.
He completely ignored the judges, rose his violin and started to play.
A long, terrible screech came from the instrument.
“Oh god, this can’t be happening.” I cursed to myself.
As the man kept moving the bow over the violin in a hectic way, the screeching continued to fill the air. It became clear that this guy didn’t know the first thing about playing the instrument.
The audience first 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 as mine: Was this guy for real?
After no more than ten seconds of the unbearable sounds, the first of the judges rose her hand. She was about to hit the buzzer and vote the man out. Then her arm stopped in midair.
Her face changed completely. Her eyes grew wide, and after another second she lowered the hand again. The laughter and the booing in the audience subsided as well.
At first, I had no idea what was going on. As everyone went quiet, the only sound remaining was the terrible screeching. Almost the only one. I soon heard it too.
There was a second, much different melody below the screeching. It was a sort of harmonic, droning melody, almost hypnotic. As quiet as it was, the longer you listened, the more you started to ignore any other sound. You were drawn in more and more by it.
An ordinary violin couldn’t produce such a melody, I thought. Was this the reason for the strange look of the instrument?
For a while I 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 from the instrument. I watched dumbfounded as I saw it twist and extend towards the audience. Was this strange man able to visualize his music?
I didn’t trust my eyes. I closed them, then opened them again, but the strand was still there. Not one though, it was hundreds of them, 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 see what I was seeing. No one reacted as these strands gathered around people and then entwined them.
I looked around backstage. Many other members of the production team shared my confusion.
When I looked back at the audience, I saw a middle-aged woman jump up from her seat. She rose her hands, clutching at something invisible to her eyes.
It wasn’t to mine. The translucent strands had closed around her throat. Only moments later her eyes grew wide, her body went limp, and she fell to the ground.
After that, the strands were receding, towards the instrument. Now though, their ends were glowing faintly, as if they were taking something back with them.
As I watched, the strands took the glowing light with them, back into the violin. I saw the same thing happening all over the audience to at least a handful of other people.
“What the hell is going on?” I asked myself.
It was a scream that brought me back to reality. An older lady had noticed the person next to her had fallen to the ground and she was now screaming for help.
Other people here and there now seemed to wake up from the hypnotism as well. No one understood what was going on.
As more people were passing out or clutching at their throats, panic started. Some tried to help the victims. Others tried to flee from the terrible scene around them.
At the same time, the frantic music continued. Stephan wasn’t fazed in the slightest by the erupting chaos.
As people ran for the exit the cue for security was finally given. I took a step towards the stage, and the violin player as well, only to stop right in my tracks.
There was something other than the translucent strands. It was a number of shades that surrounded the musician. They were almost invisible, like the strands, yet I could make out their faces. One was boasting with laughter, his face a mask of infinite jest. It played the violin with Stephan, creating the second, hypnotic melody. The faces of the others were nothing but impish grins and glowing eyes. They twisted and controlled all the hundreds of strands.
I saw now that it was them who pulled the strands back. It was them who devoured the light they took from the people.
My body froze as one of them focused its eyes on me. The thing must have realized that I saw them.
I stumbled back one step, then another, and then I was unable to move. As security rushed onto the stage, I felt something close around my throat. My fingers clutched at the translucent strands. I tried to rip them away, as they were suffocating me, but they were too strong. All the while the ghastly shade grinned at me.
I fought for air. I told myself over and over again to stay conscious. For a moment I slipped off into darkness. As security overpowered the man and ripped the instrument from his hands, I was able to breathe again.
I sat there, taking in breath after breath greedily. The shades had already retreated into the instrument.
After the music stopped, it took only a short while for the situation in the hall returned to normalcy. People started to calm down. Some awoke just now from the hypnotic effect of Stephan’s music.
The emergency personnel had entered the hall. Most of the people who’d fallen to the ground were fine. Nothing had happened to them apart from passing out and getting a few bruises. They concluded that the weird violin music was the cause. In a particular percentage of people, it seemed to lead to hyperventilation.
I could see the relief of many guests as they found their friends and relatives unharmed.
Unharmed, I thought. It was true enough in the physical sense. Those shades hadn’t been after their physical bodies though. I knew they had taken something different from these people. I knew it because for a moment I had felt those strands probing inside my own body, searching for something. The only thing that saved me was the sudden end of the music. It had banished those shades back to whatever place they’d come from.
On the stage, I saw how the strange violinist picked up his instrument and took his bow back from security. Then he turned around and walked backstage. As he passed me, he gave me a quick smile that made me cringe back in horror. Then, I presumed, he merely walked out of the studio.
I wanted to call out to people to stop him and to restrain him, but somehow I could only watch as the man walked away.
Only a few minutes had passed since his act had been put to an end, but Stephan de Preaulx had already vanished.
Afterward, the production company proclaimed it had all been a sort of experiment. They called it a kind of social experiment to see how an audience would react to this type of act. They told everyone in the audience that their tickets would be refunded. For their participation though, they were all awarded tickets for the remaining season. The crazed violinist had been nothing but an actor. The strange things that some people reported had been state of the art visual effects.
The higher-ups came up with their own story for us members of the production team. It was nothing but a more elaborate version of the bullshit they’d told the audience. I didn’t believe one word of the form they held in my face but signed it regardless.
For the day all castings were discontinued. The day after they continued as if nothing had happened.
That morning I showed up like on so many others in the years before. When I reached the stage though, something inside made me instinctively recoil. It was as if my body was afraid to meet Stephan de Preaulx out there once more.
In the end, I couldn’t do much about it. After trying over and over again, there was nothing else I could do but to resign from my position. Even when the studio told me that I’d never get a job in the industry again if I left in the middle of a season, I still did it. There was no way that I could ever work in a studio again.
To this day, four years after the incident, I still wake up in the middle of the night. I am still suffering from terrible nightmares. Every single time there is a cold pain in my chest, and I am filled with a sad yearning.