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A Shout From The Attic: Willie Hudson And The Movies

In this slice of autobiography Ronnie Bray recalls a childhood attic adventure into the magical world of the movies.

Read also Ronnie's wise and humorous weekly column. Click on Letter From America in the menu on this page.

The 1940s saw the explosion of the moving picture industry. Our town boasted nineteen picture palaces where the best of Hollywood could be seen for a few pennies. As satisfying as “going to the flicks” was, my cinema experiences raised many questions. For example, how did they choose which actors were going to be shot? Did they, as I once determined, find those who wanted to commit suicide and then do the job for them with Johnny Mack Brown’s, or Hopalong Cassidy’s silver six-shooter? An even more pressing question about the pictures was "How did they make them move?" To this last question Willie Hudson, Frankie Knight, and I found the answer one Saturday morning in Willie Hudson’s attic – almost!

From that preternatural place of pre-adolescent procurement known only as “Somewhere”, one of our trio obtained a Magic Lantern, a couple of glass Magic Lantern slides, and a six-inch strip of black and white celluloid moving picture film. It didn’t come from Nanny’s wardrobes, but perhaps Willie or Frankie had their own secret places that held relics of a disappearing world.

A wax candle that threw its yellow light through the lens in its snout as it poured soot out of the fluted ventilation cowl at the top of its tin chimney powered the Lantern. The dividing wall between the Hudson household and next door’s had been conveniently whitewashed and so served as our screen. That morning, when we climbed through the ceiling access hole, we were the Three Musketeers setting out on an adventure so thrilling that we could scarcely breathe.

With trembling hands, we fed the slides into the slide-channel, adjusted the focusing device, and viewed in silence. Gaudy hand-coloured representations of common flowers were not very exciting for nascent scientists, but the presentation of the black and white movie film was a different matter. Though there was no provision on this ancient artefact to accommodate cinematic film that fed from top to bottom, we did the best we could by holding the film between the slide gate, and pulled it up and down one frame at a time with a pause between each a shaky movement.

It was Willie who caused the hysteria by rushing up to the small square image on the white wall, calling out, "It moved! I saw it move! It moved!”

Frankie and I shuffled forwards, out of the gloom into the throw of the projector to see what moved and how. We peered and squinted at the picture, but failed to share Willie’s hallucination. For me, and for Frankie, the moving picture did not move. However, Willie, now transformed into a phrenetic Galileo Galilei, asserted repeatedly, “It moves, it moves! I saw it move!”

Frankie and I met eyes in the dimness, each understanding the others fear that we were in the presence of indescribable evil, madness, or both! Our only concession to Willie was low grunts that could be taken either way according to which way someone wanted to be convinced. Us geocentricists thought discretion the better part of valour because, although Willie was not known for meanness, except of a subtle kind against his infant brother whom he terrified with a goose feather and an impromptu characterisation of his own creation, Mr Feather, uttering with leering grimace in an unearthly voice “Mr Feather’s going to get you!” we didn’t want to upset the poor deluded fellow any further. Not knowing at that point how fragile his sanity might be we felt it better not to put it to the test.

The candle was ceremoniously snuffed, and we descended from the attic. As soon as our feet were back on the terra firma of the first floor landing, we got our old friend, Willie Hudson, back as he had been before we trifled with a technology that we did not understand. We decided not to tamper further with forces that delight in darkness and gloom – candle-lit attics in particular – because we feared they would seize any opportunity to hoodwink the innocent and impressionable, especially the ones who, like us, who firmly believed that the dead would reach with bony hands through mossy grave soil and grab you by the ankle to drag you down to dark and dank solitary chambers of decay beneath the greensward loam of graveyards where they restively waited for unwary victims.

With such a worldview, it is possible to believe anything. It is possible to believe that the pictures Frankie and I knew were motionless, apart from the shaking of our unsteady hands, were moved by a malevolent ghoul. Having escaped from whatever it was that Willie believed moved the pictures, and from his madness, we did not venture into his attic again. The contraption was not brought to light or even discussed again. And yet even as I write this tale, the shadow of a nameless fear falls across me, as it might over you if you had been with us that morning when up in Willie Hudson’s attic, something stirred.


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