How to Spook Your Listener

By Bonnie Swift

Haunted. I felt haunted when I first listened to Scott Carrier’s, The Test on This American Life, in 2001. Now, more than ten years later, this story is still etched in my memory like few stories are. It’s a story about Carrier driving through the Utah countryside, in search of people with schizophrenia.

He has been hired by the state for the summer to administer a standardized test. In the process of conducting these interviews, he sounds the depths of consciousness, only to discover further depths. Eek.

Like a series of paintings hung on the pristine white walls of a gallery, this story utilizes empty space to its advantage. Carrier hasn’t used any field recordings, interviews, or sound effects other than the very sparse musical note. It’s only his voice, and his voice is slow, flat, restrained, and downright spooky. A single guitar or xylophone punctuates his sentences, but does nothing more. The effect is a heightened sense of the void that Carrier is navigating. Every word reverberates.

Eerie also that Carrier begins to question his own sanity as the story unfolds. He engages us on a level of intimacy rare among even the closest of friends. His wife and children have recently left, he is angry, depressed, worries a lot, feels like he’s ‘faking it,’ and he cries ‘like a three year-­‐old’ when he gets home one afternoon. He makes himself vulnerable to us, and we find ourselves caring deeply for him.

But then Carrier leaves us without resolution! He brings us into the den of madness, and then we get lost, and then the story is over. It makes us want to rewind and listen to it again, in hopes of finding some peace the second time around. But there is none, and that’s partly why it’s so eerie. This non-­‐ending makes us question whether there actually is something at the bottom of those reverberating depths.

The Test [15:00]