All the names – except J.J.’s – are changed, for reasons that should be obvious.
I grew up in Royal Oak, Michigan, about twenty minutes from downtown Detroit. It’s one of those places where the people with money ran to after things in the city went shit-shaped.
I went to high school with this guy I’ll call Nick. We had a TV Production class together, and we both decided that was the kind of thing we wanted to do for a living, so we ended up in a lot of the same film classes in college.
We weren’t that close, and I didn’t hang out with him that much outside of school, but a year after graduation, he contacted me about this show he wanted to make. He said he really liked my camera work, and I was better with editing and effects programs than most of the other students – I’d been playing with them as a hobby since tenth grade – and he said he could use my knowledge for the production values.
Nick was never that great at the technical side of things. Even after film school, his stuff always looked kind of cheap and Youtube-y. But he was charming, the kind of guy who could do great voiceovers, come up with impressive-sounding “artistic visions” (he was great at putting on airs and convincing stupid people his shitty-looking films were actually high art with all kinds of symbolic metaphorical ironic subtext or whatever) and pitch the hell out of any idea, no matter how stupid. So he thought we’d make a good team.
His idea was for this “Real Stories of Detroit” type of show. I mean, That wasn’t what he called it, but it’s a pretty good summary of the premise. His explanation was that people on the outside know this place sucks, but besides all those dilapidated building photos (“ruin porn, ” they call it) and the crime reports no one cares about, they don’t know enough about the very real horror that happens here on a daily basis. In other words, they didn’t see us as human, man, just a big joke.
I agreed with some of his points, I wasn’t finding paying work at the time, and I wanted to help out an old sort-of-friend, so I agreed to do some camera work for him. If anything became of it, I’d get partial credit and we’d split the profits.
During the planning phase, Nick was always going on about how the show would have both artistic merit and social relevance, exposing the darker side of humanity as well as the conditions we overlook right here in America, and hopefully, encourage the complacent masses to wake up and do something about our poverty and urban blight.
It took me about a week to realize that was all bullshit.
In the early days, the material that would make up the meat of our show was hard to find, so we spent hours every day combing through shock and gore sites for whatever we could find that might have come from around here in the last ten years. Over the next several months, my external drive filled up with camcorder videos of rotting corpses people stumbled across, security camera footage of cashiers getting shot in the face by robbers, leaked footage of blood-soaked crime scenes, and every type of forensic photo imaginable.
We called up and interviewed crack whores – the very few who had access to phones and could complete intelligible sentences, anyway – ex-cons, and people who’d confess to any depraved shit as long as we didn’t show their faces.
The “real stories” were never positive, always just the worst shit we could dig up. We never talked to people reading storybooks to kids or tending community gardens or anything.
According to Nick, that was “feel-good fluff” and didn’t “reflect the city’s brutal reality.”
According to Nick, what did “reflect the city’s brutal reality” was a freak show of poverty, misery, and suffering.
We added some dramatic public domain music and somber narration, but that was the only thing “artistic” about it.
Our first episode was too gory for any TV network to touch, or to post on any of the big video hosting sites without it getting pulled within the week. But we started our own site, and Nick posted links on a few of the sites where we’d found our source material.
It took a less than a month for me to start hating it, but when I make promises, I keep them.
I didn’t really want to quit until after what happened to J.J.
We did a lot of shooting on the streets – for both the interviews and for ruin porn – especially in the northeast and Highland Park. If you don’t know, Detroit’s west side is (mostly kind of almost) a normal city. Those parts of town where you hear about the forest reclaiming whole blocks and bears wandering the streets are up Northeast. And Highland Park is the worst of the many neighborhoods that make up crackland.
None of them are the kinds of places you want to walk into unarmed with a camera, so for security, we hired this big guy with tattoos on his face who always carried a 45. I have no idea how Nick met this guy.
One day, while we were out getting footage of the old Grande Ballroom to use as establishing shots for a nearby neighborhood where I think someone set his girlfriend on fire, we met this old homeless guy who went by “J.J.”
He was a drunk, but at least he wasn’t on anything harder, and for a drunk, he was surprisingly friendly, lucid and intelligent.
For a few dollars an hour and some hot food, he’d show us around his stomping grounds and point out some of the more interesting sights. There was one time when he showed us a house where whoever lived there had left their doll collection behind when they moved out, for example.
Whenever we were on set, Nick was really adamant that I not only turn off my phone, but leave it at home. He wanted to make sure I didn’t sneak and start texting or something while we were working.
I didn’t know why he was so paranoid about it at the time, I mean, it’s not like he was even paying me by the hour, but it started to make perfect sense about two weeks later.
One day we were filming on Robinwood St. – just getting some shots of garbage and burnt-out houses to fill some space between videos of murders – when J.J. told us he used to squat over here, and he knew an abandoned but still pretty solid two-story house where you could get to the roof through one of the upper story windows. From there, we could get a shot of most of the neighborhood. I didn’t think it was safe, even with my lightest camera, so he volunteered to go first just to show us nothing would collapse under his weight.
Well, he caught his foot on something, lost his balance, and fell right off the roof and landed in (what was left of) the concrete driveway. Both his legs snapped under him.
We both kind of panicked. Mostly because we couldn’t afford to pay any medical bills or risk having anyone sue us. Nick was very adamant about that.
So we left him there.
Actually, it’s a bit more complicated than that.
It quickly dawned on us that if anyone came around and found him, he’d talk to some kind of authorities as soon as he was back to civilization.
Or at least I think I think that’s why we decided to do it. It was hard to hear each other over all J.J.’s screaming and crying. I’d never heard a man make that much noise.
So Nick had our bodyguard hold the guy’s arms while he shoved a rag into his mouth.
We used a clean one. We’re not animals.
Then he duct taped it shut. Nick and I put on our gloves, so we wouldn’t leave fingerprints. When we’re out shooting, we carry thick work gloves everywhere we go. There’s no specific reason, just that when you work in abandoned buildings, and sometimes around human waste and dead bodies, gloves are always a good thing to have. I didn’t know why Nick had duct tape. Maybe it was in case he ever had to do something like that.
That muffled the screams were enough to the point where no one more than ten or twenty feet away would hear them, but Jesus, his eyes. I still have nightmares about his eyes. Bloodshot and wild with pain and terror, just begging us not to do that.
Then we bound his arms behind his back and wrapped his hands in cocoons of duct tape. Then we picked him up and moved him into a nearby abandoned house, and because he was still thrashing around, we “accidentally” let him fall down the basement stairs, so he couldn’t wriggle his way out to the street.
Then we left him there.
We’d thought about having our guard just shoot him, but we all agreed that would make too much noise, and we’re not murderers, we’re just… Refusing to take responsibility for J.J.’s reckless actions. Yeah, something like that.
“What if we get caught?” I asked Nick.
I imagined myself trying to explain this.
The duct tape was because he was drunk and trying to attack us, officer. Had to restrain him. We’re so sorry we forgot to call you, but we were just terrified.
He just looked at me like he couldn’t believe my stupidity and told me they’d never investigate this. As far as they’re concerned, a homeless guy just pissed off some thug who broke his legs. Happens all the time around here.
Being a human with a functioning soul, I was freaked out the entire time, and I told Nick I wanted to quit. He just shook his head.
I looked behind him, and our bodyguard was just silently staring at me, with his shirt pulled up so you could see the gun and this look devoid of any recognizable emotions on his face. He just stared me down for thirty seconds straight without breaking eye contact before I just mumbled that maybe I’d keep working here, but I’d like the rest of the day off.
Would we actually have had to pay J.J.’s hospital bills or risk a lawsuit from this man who obviously couldn’t afford a lawyer? In hindsight, I don’t know, and I’m pretty sure Nick didn’t care.
When I got home and checked my phone, I found a text from Nick saying “SEE YOU TOMORROW.”
Caps his, not mine.
I knew what that meant. I wasn’t going anywhere. Nick and our bodyguard had voted down my decision, and they knew where I lived.
We’d come back a few times over the next few days just to… Check up on J.J. It took about three days for him to stop moving.
After that, we went right back to making the episode, and many more after that, like nothing happened.
We developed a cult following. Teens loved what we were doing. They passed it around on Facebook, used it to gross each other out. So did that specific set of gorehounds for who slasher movies are just a little too fictional to be scary. And violence fetishists. We got a lot of comments about people jacking off to parts of our shows I never wanted to know anyone could possibly jack off to. …And even more from people who just thought this kind of stuff was “what those ****** deserve.”
This went on for almost a year without incident.
…Until, a few weeks ago, I finally admitted one of my friends in private that I’d never wanted any of this shit and part of me had always thought just moving to another state and being done with it. I’m assuming she told someone who told someone else until Nick caught wind of it somehow, because two days later, he told me we’d be filming something special.
He took me into this abandoned school in one of those neighborhoods with like one building left per block. Our bodyguard was waiting there for us, as well as about ten of his friends. They were all wearing matching colors and bandanas that covered their faces.
When I came in, Nick had set up a tripod for me, about ten feet in front of something under a filthy sheet that squirmed from time to time.
Our bodyguard pulled off the sheet, and there was this terrified kid bound, gagged, and tied to a chair. Looked like he was in his mid teens, definitely not older than twenty. He looked kind of like my little brother, and maybe that’s why Nick was so enthusiastic about making me film this.
This boy, our bodyguard told us, had been talking too much, and these guys wanted to make sure the world knew just what happens to people like that. The whole time, Nick was just staring vacantly at me with this empty half-smile on his face.
I pointed the camera at the kid, turned it on, and just watched. I knew what was going to happen, but for some reason, the part of me that usually triggers fear just didn’t go off.
One of the bandanas was slowly circling him, tapping a baseball bat on the floor. I think he was the leader, so he got to go first. With every tap, the kid would almost shit himself, which was the point.
Finally, after about three or four minutes of that, he swung it right into the kid’s gut. They started low so he wouldn’t pass out.
After they’d worked over every part of the kid’s body besides his head, they finally handed it back to the leader, and he took one hard, climactic swing that splattered red and bits of meat across the walls. Then several more, just to drive the point home.
By the time they were done, his face wasn’t recognizable as human, I could see the white of the inside of his skull, his brain was lying on the floor looking like a raw hamburger dropped off a building, and there was a river of blood running across the floor.
The strangest part was that I didn’t cry or anything. I guess that by that point, I’d just kind of checked out mentally. That was probably the moment I learned where Nick and our bodyguard got those weird stares.
When we put the footage in our show, we told everyone a gang member had anonymously dropped it in our mail slot after he heard about the kind of show we were doing.
“The following video is real, and extremely graphic. Viewer discretion is advised.”
Everyone knows that just makes you want to watch it more.
As soon as I got home, I opened my email to find one from Nick saying “SEE YOU TOMORROW.” That’s just his way of rubbing it in.
But he didn’t need to, because I wasn’t really planning to quit anymore. It’s just something I bitch about sometimes.
See, Nick might not have a conscience, but at least he’s been unusually honest through this whole thing. He made good on his promise about the money and the credit. I’m now half-owner of what looks like it’s going to be an online empire. Nick knows a lot of people, and these days, I’ve started to, too. Through these people, we get material.
A lot of the things it used to take us hours to dig off the internet, now… I’ll get an anonymous phone call, drive out to some abandoned building where guys in masks or bandanas are waiting for me, and film, silently and without empathy, myself.
People send us even more, too, from grainy cell phone videos to almost professional-level Canon TSi work. Beatings, rape, stabbings, execution-style shootings, and some things much more creative.
It’s not hard to find our site on your own, if you haven’t already, but I can’t link you to it. I can’t even tell you its name. Nick’s kind of a narcissist, and he Googles it all the time to see what people are saying about us. The site is down right now anyway. We’re moving to a bigger server. All the views keep crashing it.
Local newspapers slam us and the tourist board clucks their tongues, but we bring in enough ad revenue to pay for a middle-class lifestyle for us both. One night while we were out drinking, Nick started raving about “This is what the news was talking about, the ‘user-created content revolution.’ We’re a fuckin’ Alger story, and watch, people like us are going to run the media in the future.”
And it’s true.
People like us will bend public opinion to our will, tell you who to vote for, and train you to love watching what we want you to see.
We’ll raise your kids.
People love us. They’re imitating our format all over the place. First just in this country, in places like Newark, New Orleans, and Chicago, but I’m seeing it from other ones, too. They send me all the links. Today, I watched a bunch of Zetas pick up machetes and lay into a housewife as some kid imitated Nick’s narration style in Spanish.
But none of this matters. The only reason I can confess it all here is because you’ll never take it seriously. Even if you’ve seen our site, you think it’s just a spooky story to tell on the internet, and you’ll assume there’s no way I’m not really who I am. People have pretended to be me on the internet before. We’re a legitimate company, you’ll say. We’d never do things like this.
Police have questioned us a few times about stuff we may have seen, but we just tell them we find it on the internet, or it gets sent anonymously to us. No idea where this stuff comes from. Fucked-up place, this city. We have part of our budget set aside to pay off the ones who ask too many questions, and that deals with the problem. They are, after all, Detroit cops.
I don’t care anymore.