He designed the system on basic human decency, and it failed almost immediately. Such abuses of goodwill have plagued mankind as far back as history goes and as recently as the DIY video rental fiasco at the local water park.
In hindsight, the idea for the do-it-yourself video rental could hardly be described more positively than "absurd" and "utterly stupid." He created the system after video rentals lost their prominence in a last ditch effort to squeeze out any remaining revenue from tapes we still owned. Essentially, the system operated like a lending library with a tip jar set out.
Murphy, my boss and the mastermind behind the project, emptied the tip jar into the register every evening. From my vantage point working as cashier, I could observe just how pathetically minuscule the daily profits were compared to the waterpark’s. People just refused to pay when not supervised.
Even from the start, I had never been on board with the idea. When he first suggested it, I had voiced concern that people wouldn’t respect the rules. Murphy responded that, “If we treat the customers like children, they’ll behave like children, but if we treat them like adults, they’ll behave justly.” I suppose that’s a nice sentimentality, but it entirely failed to account for teenagers.
In addition to consistently checking out movies without paying, local high-school kids would also take it upon themselves to relieve our stock of children movies and adult films. Then they’d swap the tapes and return them to the shelves. I heard that they called it the Pornography Game.
After a long series of customer complaints, Murphy bestowed me the honorary title of video rental quality assurance manager. As such, I got to check that every tape contained the right movie. Despite being hired as a cashier at a water park, I now found myself digging through old videotapes for a living.
It didn’t take long for the teenagers to adjust their game accordingly. They began writing over the tapes themselves instead of just swapping the cases, so I would have to physically watch every movie to guarantee that nothing had been altered. Because they would sometimes just change out the audio or tamper with the final scenes of the films, I constantly had to view the entirety of the movies with sound to ensure their quality.
I tried persuading Murphy to drop the project, as he was losing money with me working the rental full-time, but he would hear none of it. It seemed utterly absurd that I couldn’t just run the place like any other rental store or stop the teenagers as they checked out their movies, but Murphy remained adamant in his resolve and seemed to think that such a thing would go against the spirit of the project. The DIY rental was his idea and we’d all be damned if it didn’t work just fine. Surely the project could function if Murphy would ditch either the porn or the children’s movies, but still he refused, informing me that those were the only two kinds of films ever rented.
And thus my days went by, watching old children’s shows and dated pornography. Of both genres, I memorized every movie in our catalog. I knew every line before it was spoken, every character before they appeared, and every fuck before it was given.
I would sit in the back of the rental area, scornfully watching every teenager check out their products. My lips moved subconsciously along with the dialogue.
I began to work late into the evenings, growing embarrassed when customers, whom I often knew, observed me watching pornography for a living. My hours drifted later and later into the night, until I would arrive after the water park itself closed, just to watch the videos. I kept tabs on when each video was checked out and returned, so I only had to watch the newly returned ones.
Generally, that was about four movies a night.
My schedule flipped to accommodate working a night-shift. I slept during the days, just to show up in time for work. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t considered ditching work entirely and pretending to have watched the videos, but Murphy religiously watched the security tapes and would know if I slacked off even one night.
Murphy had meant for me to throw away the tapes once I had found they'd been altered, but so much effort had been placed into editing them, I would honestly feel guilty if I didn't watch them to completion. I wondered how the teenagers possessed such patience to keep editing the damn videos. When I was that age, I could never have worked so hard at something with such little payoff.
The teenagers gradually revealed themselves to be adept opponents, splicing more and more obscure moments of the films together. I burst out laughing every time a woman would moan in orgasm, only for her voice to morph jarringly into Woody the Woodpecker’s laugh. One particularly twisted editor altered an entire Spongebob episode to include swinging yellow-colored penises every few minutes.
Some of the edits were just strange. One guy kept bleaching out the porn stars’ faces on the films, so that the movie would show these eerie white blobs in place of their heads. Another time, I found a copy of The Lion King where a distorted female voice would constantly screech the word “rape” throughout.
I wanted to meet the people editing the tapes; they seemed like such a curious bunch.
At least six months ticked by that I had spent playing that end of the pornography game, six months of meticulous searching and fixing what I could. I had developed quite the coffee addiction while sitting alone in the small office we called video rental. My dim single bulb light cast its lonely beams out into the darkened building as the bleached-out humans lurched on my television screen.
Sometimes I would swear I could hear noises coming from outside, and I would scurry into the main office to watch the security feeds. The grounds were always still. Just an empty water park.
I honestly can’t say why I got so jumpy all the time; there was no money in the registers to steal or anything. There’s really no reason at all anybody else would ever break into the place.
Still, my mind couldn’t lose the notion that something watched me.
The paranoid feeling came stronger than ever when I arrived particularly late one Tuesday night. It must have been around two in the morning once my car pulled into the parking lot. I frowned to myself when my headlights shone on rows after rows of cars.
Why were people still around at this hour?
Nervously, I drove my car at a crawling pace to the nearest parking spot. I eventually convinced myself that Murphy must have rented out the lot or something, and I stepped gingerly out of my car and into the cold night air. I couldn’t help but glance into the car windows to confirm that they were empty.
Timidly, I walked by the numerous rows of cars. With clouds blocking out any moonlight, I felt my way to the entrance. Light leaked out from below the door crack. My muscles tightened when I slowly opened the door.
Bright interior lights stung my eyes. They took a moment to adjust, in time showing me the empty inside of the building.
There was nobody there, but everything had been left out as though people had left in a hurry. Food and drinks sat on the table, the registers were opened with exposed money, and a soft buzz of television static flickered through the stale air.
I called out sheepishly to see if anybody was still around.
With the hairs on the back of my neck standing fully erect, I went to the back room to check the security feeds. Each nook and corner taunted my nerve; every shadow insulted my weakened bravery. To my surprise, I couldn’t find any tapes once I entered the security room, just a cooling mug of coffee, some old magazines, and a knocked over ash tray.
The ceiling fan spun slowly overhead as I paced back to the rental area. Indoor lights blocked out any visibility from the windows, concealing the outside with my reflection. I looked at my mirror image with distrust, sensing that something watched me from the other side of the glass.
Turning away from the entrance, I scanned quickly over the movies, constantly looking back over my shoulder. Wind whistled. through the door left hanging ajar from when I had entered.
Quickly, I found that only a single tape had been moved in the rental stock: The Jungle Book. I grabbed the VHS, planning to get the hell out of there and watch the video at home, but the tape slid non-cooperatively out of the packaging and landed with a sharp crack on the floor. A moment hung over while I stared at the naked tape in confusion.
It was the security tape from just before closing.
Somewhat shaking, I pressed the tape into the VCR and watched the static filled television screen cut to video feed. I saw a grainy, black and white, overhead view of the large pool. The place seemed pretty crowded, with kids splashing around happily in the water. Parents chatted and lounged around the edge of the pool, and I could just barely make out a lifeguard station.
I glanced behind me towards the door and windows. After some hesitation, I turned back to the television.
The time stamp on the corner of the screen set the time to be around five-thirty as everybody went about their business around the pool. I watched the tape with uneasy curiosity until the time hit six p.m.
At precisely six o'clock, everybody froze. The children stopped playing, the parents stopped talking, and the lifeguards stopped watching. Everybody’s face shot up towards the sky. They stood in shock, as though unable to comprehend what they were seeing. Then at practically the same time, they all lost their shit, running and screaming in every direction. They fought chaotically to get out of the water like a pack of drowning rats. The children clawed and bit at each other in a feral frenzy to escape from the pool. It’s impossible to describe the sheer terror in their eyes as they fled from the water. Neither the lifeguard nor the parents tried to help the kids in any way; they just screamed and sprinted off, out of frame.
Before even a minute had passed, the shot was of an empty pool.
At five after six, the video cut to static.
After I left shop and reported the incident to Murphy, we promptly contacted the authorities. A few men in suits spoke to me privately, and after I told them everything I saw, they essentially banned me from ever asking about or visiting the water park again.
I’ve tried to talk to Murphy about it, but he’s seemingly dropped off the face of the earth since I told him about the tape. Nobody ever published any findings on the disappearances, I’ve never found any of the people who edited the movies, and no traces of the park-goers or the employees who vanished ever turned up, even to today. I never learned how the tape ended up in the rental area, or where the rest of the tapes went off to.
Really, I barely know anything at all about what happened aside from what I saw with my own eyes.
All the unknowns have been driving me mad since then, and I’m not alone. For the few weeks following the event, random people in town would just break down crying and shaking. Their faces keep me from sleeping soundly, eating in peace, or even holding down a steady job. Even more than their despair ridden expressions though, one question in particular has always bothered me the most:
On the tape, what were all the people looking up at?