Jeff Randall’s Essex Fear Factor
Between 2009 and 2014, veteran journalist and longtime Essexm’n Jeff Randall wrote a column for Essex Terror magazine about fear and other forms of fright. This is a complete collection of his words and memories.
Jeff Randall’s Essex Fear Factor (12 September, 2009)
I was walking the streets of Essex again. It was good to be back. The shouts, the screams, the boarded up shops, the bronzed human skin and the stench from the bloodmarsh, all of it was a perfect bracing antidote of realness to the antiseptic and resolute unreality of the westminster lifestyle I’d been cocooned in during my days working for the BBC. And most of all, there was that constant pervading sense of gloom and the feeling of fear presiding over me, over everywhere and everything. I’d forgotten all about that, but it came rushing back to me almost immediately.
I was walking the streets of Mundon, the deformed and hunchbacked younger brother of the more famous Essex Town of Maldon, in search of the so-called Lesser Terror, a state of fear that renders the recipient trembling and silent, and often leaves them unable to explain what or why they feel that way. “I’m not scared, I’m just cold” is the typical response of the afflicted, even though it’s the middle of summer and they’re wearing a coat.
At first I thought I’d never find it. Two cunts came tumbling out of a pub in front of me, shouted “Watch out, Grandad” at me, then stumbled down an alley and out of view. I was shaken, frightened, but this was definitely not the Lesser Terror, this was more like a general case of Bus-Stop Fear or maybe Eating-Chips-In-The-Park-And-Then-Some-Boys-Ask-You-For-Some-Of-Them-So-You-Hand-Them-To-Them-And-Then-They-Run-Off-Laughing-With-Your-Dinner Anxiety. Not an altogether unpleasant sensation, but not the subtle emotion I was look for.
A jumble of fears and horrors accosted my nervous system over the next couple of hours. Afterwards I couldn’t remember them all, everything a strange haze of shattered memories, seen quickly as if in a quickly cut slew of movie scenes. Two girls swinging back and forth on some swings in the park; a dead squid half hanging out of a bin; llamas roaming around a field by a dilapidated church; twisted dead trees in a field of cows; mud; mud; mud; a car travelling down the road quicker than was generally considered safe. But none of these produced the Lesser Terror that I so craved.
I thought maybe the evening was, if not wasted, at least disappointing. I had begun to trudge back home, across the fields and along the sea wall. But then it happened. Before me in the hampered gloaming light stood a man, his eyes like holes in time, his hands held out towards me like hooks of flesh. And in his hands he held a tattered kite, some horrible 80s robot drawn on the front. “Is this yours?” he asked, and handed it to me. And as I looked down at it, read the words “Optimus Prime, Leader of the Autobots” printed across the bottom, I knew that it was. I remembered running around the fields of my youth, flying the kite, flying it always, until one day it had flown too high and left my grasp, and flown out into the river beyond. And now, 20 years later, here it was, in my hands, again.
The strange man began to walk away, and I began to shiver. “I’m just cold,” I told myself, as I stood there holding the useless flaps of material the man had given me, the wind flapping them back and forth like whips against my skin.
Jeff Randall is Essex Terror’s senior correspondent. His weekly column will appear here sporadically.
Jeff Randall’s Essex Fear Factor (27 October, 2009)
It’s Autumn half-term week this week, that strangely oppressive moment when the clocks go back and the leaves start to fall and the streets start crawling with the horrible children of a hundred thousand mums. It is a time for terror like no other.
I’ve been sent to the small town of Maylandsea, a small working-class town set adrift among the marshes of the Dengie. It is where the farmers send their workers to live, so that they don’t have to look at their contracted faces all evening as well as all day. For a man like me, it is one of the most incomprehensible landscapes on this Earth. A world of monstrous urges left out in the open instead of hidden safely away behind the walls of their houses.
There’s a boy on a driveway, maybe ten years old. his bike turned upside down. He’s standing astride the front wheel, his crotch placed gently on the rim, and he idly spins the wheel forward with his hands. He sees me looking at him, my face undoubtedly aghast. “Have you ever tried this, mister?” he shouts. “It feels really good.” Behind him his mother stands, her shirt pulled up, twin babies clamped to her breasts. And what breasts! Flesh flowing out in every direction, wanton and obscene. You don’t see breasts like this in London, at least not outside in the harsh light of day, and not for free. Behind her in the yard her washing line spins lazily in the breeze, sickening dried semen stains on the inside-out pants looking like the trails of slugs and snails. In a way I suppose they are.
I walk on, past the rutting dogs and the kissing teenagers, past the underwear laying forgotten in the gutter. At the edge of town, condoms caught in the branches of the bushes flap in the wind like so many flags caught in the maelstrom of lust that roars through the lives of these lascivious and lubricious people, their passions forever requited, no matter how base. I step beyond the town’s boundaries, and try to leave my shivers of revulsion behind.
Jeff Randall is Essex Terror’s senior correspondent. His sobs can be heard even in the North.
The Endless Replicating Terror of Infinity (19 February, 2010)
Colchester has long been a town associated with fears and horrors. Many of these were introduced by the Romans, like the pigbeasts that live in the historic sewage system underneath the town, where they devour whatever rotting filth that seeps down to their lair. And it was here, with the tyranny of Boudicca, that that most universal of historical fears — woman — achieved its apotheosis.
One of the most recent horrors in the town is the university. Built in the 1960s, it is an endless series of concrete squares and brick towers thrust into the side of a desolate hill. Utilising what were at the time state-of-the-art techniques of psychological depredation, this holocaust of architecture has been breaking the spirit of revolution and free-thought in potentional student insurrectionists for generations. And it is here that possibly the greatest terror of the present-day lurks.
Amidst the brutalist facade and the modern student class, their mobile-phones and oft-foreign voices ringing out across the concrete void as I walk amongst them, live the rabbits. An infestation that neither guns nor myxomatosis have ever managed to tame, the rabbits leak across the campus from the surrounding fields. Like with the crabs of Christmas Island, absurd sights abound. Football matches are played around them, rabbits crowding the six yard box. People sit and eat their lunch, feeding not pigeons with their crumbs but the Leporidaean hordes. And their corpses line the carpark, the spaces outlined in blood instead of paint.
“Everything about them is just wearying,” says one anonymous student. “Whenever my mother comes down to see me she points at each and every one and says ‘Look, David, a rabbit!” But once you’ve seen a million rabbits every day for three years you’ve probably seen them all.” There is something about his body language which suggests complete defeat.
There is the theory of the Mobius, too. It has been suggested that each pair of rabbits gives birth to their own grandparents, creating an infinitely repeating closed loop of continuity, safe from the tarnishing aspects of evolution and the theorised decay of entropy. Professor Theobald Vaaak shows me the workings of his theory, but they are far too technical for me to understand. He helps explain it using the analogy of the surface of a balloon, trickles of paint flowing down from the top like blood, forming clotted stalactites that hang delicately from its underside. This explanation, too, proved too oblique for me to follow, and the professor’s shouted denunciations followed me back to my car.
As I drove across the county to my next destination I tried to reflect upon my experiences of the day, but meaning proved elusive.
Jeff Randall is Essex Terror’s Senior Correspondent. All complaints shall be referred directly to the IPCC.
The Final Horror (15 April, 2010)
I have experienced many different flavours of fear on my journey around this horrifying county, but there’s been one type I’ve long been avoiding. People here speak of it in hushed tones. They try to avoid it in any way possible, even if the only alternative is buying a second-hand car and driving around at 120 miles per hour while screaming. I am, of course, talking about The Bus.
I have experienced similar horrors before. In London there is the underground, and even, so I’m lead to believe, another form of train that roams above ground and chases across the scorched countryside beyond the M25. I have travelled by plane, a civilised form of transport if ever there was one, but I have heard tales of a cheapened version, fat women crushed into cramped interiors by the thousand alongside their equally obese men, black bin bags full of duty free and sick clasped in their clammy fists. I even went on a ferry once, when researching the cyclopses of Wight. Yet I was still unprepared for the trauma of the bus.
The day begins at the bus stop. Located on the edge of town, the “platform” marked only by a sign hidden behind a tree, a queue begins to form. The queue is shapeless and bloated, barely even a queue at all. Am I supposed to remember the order in which we arrived? Is it just a free for all? Am I expected to fight my way into the coach when it arrives? I look around me, hoping to ask advice from my fellow travellers, but all of them are of such a sullen and disgusting disposition I hesitate. My hesitation develops into a full silence, and becomes too large to be broached. Instead I wait.
And wait. Despite the timetable saying the bus will arrive at 8:47 am, that moment comes and goes unmarked. I look at the people around me. Am I to be trapped for eternity with them? I can feel a fear tugging at my intestines and I want to turn and run, but professionalism keeps me from abandoning my post. I will catch this bus, even if it kills me.
At 9:03 am the bus finally arrives. I hang back, letting the more experienced travellers fight it out for position. I am still no wiser as to the organisational principles by which position is decided, but it all appears peaceful enough. Perhaps the delay in the arrival of the bus is designed not to infuriate but to pacify. Anger can only last so long before it turns to ash.
Finally I step onto the bus. A thrill as I cross the threshold. Now I am no longer outside, I am Inside. I am on the bus. It is a dream come true. And like all good dreams, soon it will turn to nightmare. “A return to Chelmsford, please mate,” I say, handing him a pristine twenty pound note fresh from the cash machine. “Haven’t you got anything smaller?” I haven’t. “I haven’t,” I tell him. He sighs, eventually snatching it from my hand. £13.40 in five pence pieces is returned to me as change. I stare at them as they clatter endlessly out of the machine. I stare at him but he’s not looking back. If he wasn’t protected by perspex I’d throttle him until he was dead. I have to content myself with labouriously opening my wallet and putting the change into the correct hole as slowly and as awkwardly as possible.
This has no effect. The driver just pulls off without even waiting for me to finish. Flustered I try to pick up the money as quickly as possible but most of it slips through my fingers and spills all over the floor. I bend over to pick some of it up but this leads to the coins in my wallet falling out to join their comrades on the floor. I stand up, breathe deeply, attempting to steady myself and calm down, but the bus lurches its way round a corner and I am flung haplessly into the back of an unamused man. I decide then to abandon the change and make my way to the safety of a seat.
I stumble my way down the length of the bus and collapse into one of the seats near the back. There isn’t much leg room, but at least I don’t have to sit next to anyone. I sit as close to the window as possible, and rest my forehead on the glass. The condensation cools my brow and obscures my view of the outside world, making everything an indistinct blur. Whenever the bus stops, its chassis begins to rattle, and the vibrations are amplified by my skull, causing my teeth to shake and the inside of my ears to itch. I fall into a torpor, the snorted conversations of teenage boys around me receding from my awareness. Greyness begins to envelope me, and I fall into a reverie, fantasizing about gunning down everyone inside, one shot at a time, remorsely, their apathy aiding me in my pursuit of their destruction. I walk slowly up the aisle, each footstep falling on another of my scattered 5 pence pieces, and when I reach the front of the bus I shoot the driver in the face. The bus veers into a layby just outside Danbury, hitting the kebab van that sleeps there. Everything bursts into flames.
The bus pulls into central Chelmsford at 9:53 am. We all file emotionlessly off the bus, each of us robotically thanking the driver for doing his job. I realise that it isn’t fear I am feeling, it is disgust. My journey is at an end.
Jeff Randall is Essex Terror’s senior correspondent. He has moved away.
The Terrifying Embrace That We Can Never Escape (4 August, 2010)
Last week I received the call all of us dread more than any other. It was Mother, and she requested my appearance at her and my father’s golden wedding anniversary. I had hoped that when my work on Essex Fear Factor had finished my time here in this despicable county would be over. I should have known better. There would be no escape.
I had grown up here, and fled as soon as nature allowed, but my forebears remained. Parents, grandparents, aunts, they spread out across the marshes like a malarial plague, easy to forget for years before finally the fever remanifests itself and debilitates you all over again.
It had been fifteen years since last I was brought so low. On that occasion, on a quick visit to wish my father a happy birthday, I had been forced into helping him with his endless DIY. I had no suitable clothing, having come in my professional suit and tie, and the only thing that my father had that fit over my exaggerated frame was an old Comic Relief t-shirt, the kind made out of that magical 1990s material that allowed colours to change when the temperature rose. It was an evening I had tried to forget, and had almost done so. But nothing is ever truly gone.
In the present day I walked up the drive, the gravel crunching under my shoes as I strode briskly to the door. Moments later I was in, Mother popping out of the door like a ghastly jack-in-the-box as my finger hovered over the button that would ring the doorbell. Kisses followed. I was seven again, and full of resentment.
Ushered into the kitchen, I blankly handed out my gifts, my parents placing them on the table with barely even a glance. I’d spent an entire lunchhour deliberating over which chocolates to buy in Thorntons, and here they were, already dismissed. I dreamt of smashing them up with my fist. I dreamt of eating them all in the car.
I dreamt of many things.
But I was dragged away from reverie. “It’s been so long since we’ve seen you, Jeff,” Mother said. “I can’t remember the last time you were here.”
“It was when dad was doing the kitchen. I helped him put those panels up on the ceiling.”
My father nodded. “You remember, surely. Jeff here, in that Comic Relief Tshirt, holding up our ceiling like Atlas.” Father started to laugh. “And the nose on the shirt started changing colour, going redder and redder and redder!”
Now Mother: “Hahaha, yes! I came in, and you were laughing, and then I saw the t-shirt, and I started laughing.” She started laughing. “It just kept getting redder and redder.”
Father: “Like his face!”
Their laughter was continuous now, like it had been back in 1995. I tried to speak but shame and embarrassment and a sheer unspeakable terror stilled my tongue. I became unstuck in time, flipping seamlessly between now and then, their laughter echoing in stereo through time, rising, always rising. Every time I thought it must subside it redoubled in strength, every time I thought they might speak it was just instead a thunderous splutter of mirth that had gained almost complete solidity. I cycled through emotions so quickly I could not even begin to name them all. All I know is that as I walked back to my car in the gloaming gloom of dusk I no longer wished to be alive. The horror of existence was laid bare, and it was complete.
Jeff Randall’s Essex Fear Factor (30 August, 2011)
The barren lands of south Essex are places where I rarely venture. Here concrete streets are forever twisting themselves into ever more bland configurations, a Lovecraftian-horror in reverse. Victorian terraces overnight contort themselves into blocks of glass fronted flats, their balconies emptier than the souls that reside within. Schools are ground down and compressed into the cement blocks that build ever more labyrinthine multi-storey car parks. Even the supermarkets collapse in on themselves, the resulting supernova leaving ever more densely packed neutronmarkets behind.
Minds here are corrupted not by incomprehensible visions of infinity and malevolence but by a bizarre religious devotion to Margaret Thatcher’s doctrine of self-sufficiency. The gibbering madnesses that result are, however, largely the same.
Hospitals, a frightening reminder of the coddled horrors of living in a socialist state, are largely shunned, and their functions are slowly being replaced by a variety of macabre houses of medical horror that cater to the twisted whims of these strange and deranged people. Shopping centres no longer contain just shops. Here you can have your teeth vibrated clean, strapped down into a chair just outside Wilkinsons, your lips pulled back, a crowd of onlookers marvelling at the lack of enamel left in your maw. There, next to that stall where they print pictures of their inanely grinning faces onto canvas for no readily apparent reason, you can have your eyeballs sliced open, businessmen allowed a quick glimpse of the ultraviolet dimensions before the cornea is replaced and their lunchhour is over. And everywhere you can sit with your feet in a trough and let piranhas feast on your everdying flesh.
Those that cannot pay are left to rot in their shoes.
Jeff Randall is Essex Terror’s senior.
Jeff Randall’s Essex Fear Factor (3 April, 2012)
It has often been said that our children are our truest reflections. What they do, how they behave, their clothes and the deformity of their faces, it is a pure and uncorrupted record of our triumphs and our failures. Nowhere is this truer than in the playgrounds and supermarket carparks of Essex.
In my day, school playgrounds were a beautiful place, filled with concrete climbing frames and boarded up bombshelters and the hugest tractor tyres a farmer could discard. These days there is nothing but the smoothest asphalt, black and untarnished even by the painted lines of netball courts. And spread out equally across the playground, each exactly as far away as they can be from any other being, are the children.
Sullen, grey, motionless, these children are like ghouls abandoned into the sunlight. Each one stares at the phone in their hand, prodding bony fingers into the screen like crows tapping endlessly at a dazzling window. Occasionally a laugh will ripple across the playground as a new joke is accessed online, a new insult aimed at the heart of whoever today’s enemy happens to be, emailed and facebeeked across their abstracted community.
I enter the playground unnoticed. I plot a course through the children, keeping as large a gap as possible between me and each of them, hoping I can reach the building without stepping accidentally too close to one of them and alerting the mass of creatures to my presence. I am almost to the front door when I step on a discarded quavers packet and lose my footing, stumbling slightly further forward than I had intended before being able to regain my balance. Instantly they are upon me.
Each one turns to face me, phones held up and out, the blinking eyes of their cameras fixed on my face. The calm is broken by the screech of a hundred EU-mandated simulated phone shutter noises scrying away in unison, attempting to capture whatever it is within me that constitutes my soul. I freeze, my mind blank, all my years of journalistic professionalism lost in a blaze of pretend whirrs and clicks. By the time the bell goes and the children are sucked into the gloom of the school I have collapsed to the floor like Mina ravished by Count Dracula himself, bloodless and utterly alone.
The Bench (15 August, 2012)
Ubiquitous and yet simultaneously overlooked by many, the mundane park bench holds a terrible power that far exceeds that which you could ever really expect for so simple a device.
Most merely attribute the unnerving disquiet they feel as they stroll purposefully past one to the inhabitants of the bench itself, be they drunkards, youths or the lazy. We look at them and think they are not like us. Here we are with our purposeful strides, our important days filled with errands that cannot be completed by sitting about in the sun, and there they are, muttering and squawking unintelligibly in their strange and degenerated languages.
But they were like us once. It is not they who are responsible for their ill-fitting clothes and unbrushed beards, nor for their confused ramblings and incoherent anger. No, these people have been corrupted. And they have been corrupted by the bench itself.
It is a seductive beast, a patient predator. Who among us, no matter how powerful the stride and business-filled the day, hasn’t occasionally been caught by a sudden feeling of fatigue as they march from one building to the next, briefcase in hand, suit tight across the chest, the sun forcing your pupils down to pinpricks and the pressure inside your skull building agonisingly to a crescendo. I know I have. And it is those moments that we become vulnerable. There, we say, there. I could sit down there. Just for a moment.
A moment is enough.
You will discover then that, although the bench looks comfortable, it is instead a terrible contraption designed to exacerbate the aches and moans of your body. Curved subtly in a form not fit for human bones, once you have sat down a process of spine hunching begins. It is a slow attack, designed to creep up on you unnoticed. It is only when you go to stand up that you notice its effects. Your hand will involuntarily shoot out and hold your lower back. It will try to rub some life back into it, and, hopefully, seconds later you will stand up straight and continue on with the manful stride that you had paused seconds before.
But it is here that the unlucky falter. Perhaps their rubbing technique is inadequate, ruined by an unpleasantly cold or clammy hand. Maybe they had lingered too long, a brief rest turning into what could only be described as a genuine period of idleness. It is possible they had been transfixed by the sight of a squirrel with a bare tail that resembled a rat’s, or a pigeon with a mangled leg. Whatever the circumstance, the outcome is the same: an ache so great they think “I think I’ll sit back down again. Just for a moment.”
And sit down they do. But just for a moment? I am afraid not. They sit down again, forever. The bench has them now. As it has so many.
The Endless Months Of Summer (10 July, 2013)
It is, inevitably and unavoidably, summer.
The air has congealed around me, clogged and ruined by fist-sized lumps of pollen, floating in it like croutons, patiently waiting their turn to choke the unsuspecting. The bass from passing cars pulses through this filthy soup like the shock waves from detonating depth charges, pushing wave after hot wave of it into your face whichever way you turn. The stench of lighter fluid and the charring of meat mingles with the fresh rivers of sweat pulsing through my skin, seeping through my shirt, soddening my tie.
(No amount of washing will salvage these once immaculate clothes. Instead I will have to brave the labyrinthine horrors of Debenhams on my way home tonight, and the thought causes me to involuntarily shudder. Is there no aspect of life that does not instill some sort of fear within my heart.)
Through this humid swamp wade the people of Essex, naked, or as near as can be, shoeless and shirtless despite the refusals of the co-op and the job centre to serve them unless they cover their immodesty. Their flesh is plucked and shaved and waxed clean, oiled, pink, everything resembling shapeless slabs of chicken flesh festering in the sun. Mr Whippy’s melt in their hands, running down their clenched fists like jism, dripping on to the tarmac as they walk past, leaving a trail of splatters in their wake, a four dimensional map that would allow me, if I wanted to, to trace the movements of their day.
Everywhere there are babies, as if it is not only fruit that ripens in the sun but foetuses too. Paths, roads, fields, all are commanded now by battalions of prams and pushchairs, following me, harrying me, crashing into my ankles, forcing me out of the way, into the brambles and the ditches, off the kerbs and the zebra crossings, into the dead zones next, between parked cars, behind lampposts, the forgotten entranceways of long dead shops.
And above everything the constant scream of lawnmowers, of saws, of drills, of phones and radios, of too-loud laughter and shouted conversations, of the endless, pointless fury of their existence. I place my hands over my ears and scream as silently as I can.
In hell, I realise, it is not fear that you feel, but revulsion. I close my eyes. The sun glows red through my lids. I dream of the heaven of winter, and the death of all things.
Jeff Randall has sick on his shoes and all around his mouth.
The Looking (8 May, 2014)
There are many customs that, just by existing, highlight the essentially hypocritical nature of human civilisation. We understand violence to be wrong yet enjoy nothing more than watching the spectacle of the pugilistic arts. The lauding of honesty and fairness, along with a sense of civic altruism and neighbourly goodwill, are integral to the myths of our national character, yet the structure of society is such that these values are actively detrimental to our careers, our relationships and our life expectancy. And although good manners dictate that it is wrong to stare, here in Essex they don’t just tolerate The Looking, they sanctify it, venerate it, and ultimately have managed to contort their reality to facilitate it.
Watching — staring, Looking — is an old pastime, older even than we could ever know, and more varied than we could ever hope to define. But while most of the most popular and enduring forms of looking tended towards the spectacle, such as sport and theatre, the act of just looking at another person has also always held a fascination. Although the exact details of everyday, participatory acts of watching in antiquity have been lost with the passing of those days, and can never be fully proven to have happened in any case, the popularity of the art of portraiture cannot be solely attributed to the desire of the narcissistic to be looked at, and surely hints that the joy of Looking has long held an equal appeal.
Theatre, in the Essex variant, merged slowly with the more prosaic portrait-style viewing experience and eventually became what was known as The Looking. In a typical Looking, someone would sit on stage and, without acknowledging the audience in any way, undertake a mundane and solitary activity for between two to five hours. The most popular subjects for a Look were those that were both repetitive but also private or the preserve of the privileged: the eating of a particularly fine dinner; the reading of a book (which, even in recent years was still considered an exotic pastime in the county); the brushing of lustrous hair before a mirror; the intimate petting of a familiar.
As with all traditional forms of entertainment, the number of people attending Lookings declined with the rise of many of the popularised technologies of the 20th century, especially television. Indeed, TV is such a perfect medium for The Looking that you could imagine it had been designed solely for this purpose. With the rise of the hidden camera show genre — possibly the apotheosis of television as a medium, ushered to new and thrilling heights each week by the genius of Jeremy Beadle and his acolytes — the joys of the The Looking were brought to an audience many millions of times larger than the population of Essex.
But something was lost. Television created two problems, one borne from its limitations, the other from its strengths. One of the joys of staring at those unaware of your presence — indeed the essential illicit thrill of the entire enterprise — is the possibility they may see you staring, reversing the dynamic and forcing the shame back onto you. Television cannot provide this. (Of course, the formalised Lookings of yore could themselves never replicate this frisson, yet the electric atmosphere of a near-silent crowd and the skills of the actors playing The Looked could create a dynamic tension that formed at least a facsimile of the real thing.)
The second problem is that television also created in us the need for The Looking to be both a shared, communal experience (for The Lookers) and also a more private one (for those at which we Look). No longer would an evening spent watching someone read a book on stage be enough to sate us, not when we had gorged for years on the furies of the mercilessly teased and the tears of the recently bereaved.
This contradictory desire for an ever more intimate scene upon which to Look, and ever increasing audience to Look with is a difficult one to resolve, and one which I hope stays permanently unresolved.
Although Jeff promised the editors of Essex Terror a follow-up to this article, explaining everything within, he never provided us with one, and soon after stopped answering our calls. We have not seen him since.