Crowd Demons

I first came across the phenomenon when commissioned to photograph guests at a grand soiree. With so many ladies and gentlemen in high spirits, it was impossible to compel them to behave; they simply would not remain still long enough to achieve a satisfactory tableau. I therefore gathered them in smaller groups: four or five posing for a picture while the masses remained unfocussed behind them. This would satisfy my client, I hoped, though he’d seemed the difficult type–a gentleman whose nose could easily be put out of joint. I took a dozen pictures or so, and left.

However, when I came to develop the photographs, there were few that I would dare put my name to. Many were spoiled by a strange phenomenon, a coalition of shadows manifesting as frightful faces in the spaces between or behind my subjects. Had such appeared only in one image, I might have thought it the result of my weary gaze and the random fabric of the crowd. Yet I found these blurred faces in so many of the pictures that I could not dismiss their presence so easily.

Now, I am familiar with so-called ‘spirit photography’, but I have never subscribed to the notion that ghosts might be caught on camera. Besides, these faces were not human enough to be considered visages of the departed. The faces were indistinct, yet enough of their features were clear that there could be no mistaking their nature. Teeth like daggers and horns curling to a point, along with malicious expressions at odds with the pursed lips and smooth brows of the guests…These were not the faces of people in the crowd, caught fleetingly. These were visions of demons.

I took the few photographs I deemed acceptable to my client the next day, prepared to apologise that there were not more. On reaching the drive of his grand house however, I found a police-search underway. My presence being instantly detected, they enquired as to my business, and I was questioned thoroughly about the events of the night before. They would not tell me precisely what had occurred, but it was clear that some serious crime had taken place. Moreover, they informed me that my client could not receive me and seized my photographs for their investigation. I did not mention those pictures I had locked safely away.

It was only when an article appeared in The Times that I learned what had happened. On that evening several otherwise respectable ladies and gentlemen had attacked one another in a sort of mania, scratching with nails and teeth. Many were injured, and several afterwards sent to an asylum for treatment. My client himself had lost the tip of his nose in the fracas. Recalling the gay atmosphere of the evening I found this all difficult to imagine, and yet I thought of those unexplained, demonic faces in the pictures, and I wondered if there was something to them.

I have never been superstitious, preferring to look to science rather than folklore to make sense of the modern world. Nevertheless, I kept a close eye on the papers and came across several cases of ‘crowd mayhem’, as the journalists called it. Groups of otherwise civilised people enjoying themselves in the city of an evening, inexplicably turning to bestial violence. Friends, relations, it didn’t seem to matter; if the group was large, or company condensed, mayhem could occur. The police were puzzled; after all, this new phenomenon appeared to be inexplicable.

I couldn’t go to the police with some insubstantial theory and a few blurry photographs, so I undertook my own experiment. The sites afflicted so far were popular haunts, places I knew to be usually pleasant to visit, but they were closed for investigation. So, each evening I gathered my equipment and sought crowds: shoppers in the streets, audiences at concerts, busy dockyards, and a variety of drinking establishments. I took pictures of crowds of all kinds across the city.

Developing those photographs, my hands trembled. I did not want to find more of those demonic faces, and yet a part of me wanted to be right. Perhaps it was my vanity, simply the wish to be correct in my deductions, or maybe I was hoping an external agent was the cause of the mayhem that otherwise must be attributed to some failing of human nature. Blame demons and those people who tore at each other’s flesh become innocent victims.

The faces appeared again, this time in every single photograph I’d taken. In fact, there were more faces than I’d revealed at that fateful soiree. Some I recognised from picture to picture, and one in particular stood out: a long face with a pointed chin and protruding snakelike tongue, with eyes that looked directly at the camera. In one image, that face superseded all others, so close to the lens I could detect something like intelligence in those eyes.

I’d been taking photographs for years, portraits of the living and dead, and I’d never come across anything like this before. I didn’t want to risk my reputation, but I felt the public had a right to know. Still, I hesitated. I continued to examine the papers and sure enough, over the next few days, incidents were reported at all the venues I’d visited. Crowd mayhem had spread like a disease across the city. Women were warned to ensure they were home by twilight. The police remained baffled.

I could have taken the photographs to the police, or perhaps a man of the church, but I wasn’t yet sure enough in my convictions. People might believe I had engineered the images somehow, or worse, think I had a hand in the events since my presence had preceded so many. Yet I had to speak to someone. I decided to visit somewhere I could expect to be seriously considered: The Society of Demonological Research.

I took a cab to the headquarters of the society, a nondescript terraced building with a curious symbol marked above the door. It was the shape of an eye, divided by a jagged line. Examining it made my own eyes water, so I turned my attention to the door and knocked. Clutching my pictures to my chest, I requested admittance, and was announced to a small company.

Three elderly men sat around a table in a cramped sitting-room, warmed beyond reason by a smoky fire in the grate behind them. They did not greet me or ask my business, but blinked at me as though I had come to be studied. I sweated under their gaze for a moment and decided to get straight to the point.

“Gentlemen, I have come to ask your advice,” I said, and placed my pictures on the table one by one. The gentlemen immediately turned their full attention to the evidence before them. Yet, they did not seem startled by the images, and their questions when they came were of an unexpected sort.

“Have you ever seen the demons when alone?” they enquired. “Or heard them? Or talked to them?”

They seemed more concerned about my personal experiences than the phenomenon itself.

“Are you suggesting these faces have something to do with me?” I asked. “I’ve taken many pictures before, and there have been no such faces. They only appear in crowds. Then, terrible things happen. You must have seen the papers. People turn on each other. It’s horrendous. We must do something.”

The three men looked at each other.

“There is something we can do,” said one, “but there is no need to traipse about the city chasing demons if we locate the source.”

I took offence at the implication in their accusing looks and would have left, only one calmly offered to buy my pictures for a handsome sum and asked to commission a photograph. I was glad to be recompensed for my labours, and I never turn down a commission. I offered to return with my equipment the next day, but they insisted on coming instead to meet me at my workshop. To this I agreed.

I spent a fitful night, thinking over their questions. The more I told myself that it was only crowds I need fear, the more the floors of my apartment seemed to creak, and the windows rattle. I even, as I closed my eyes, fancied I heard breathing at my ear.

Next morning I rose wearily and prepared my equipment. I tried to light the fire but it would not catch, and the room was unnaturally cold. My sitters arrived with equipment of their own, which they spread upon the table I provided. They produced a number of odd trinkets and instruments: fat candles, jagged knives, pincers and the like, as well as a coil of rope. In the centre of the table, they erected a rectangular mirror. They arranged this so that while I took their picture, the mirror would capture me taking it. It was a strange arrangement, but the money was good, and I was assured that we’d deal with the demon problem as soon as the project was complete.

They sat quiet and still for their picture, then insisted that I develop the image at once. I hurried to oblige them, and whilst I worked in the darkness I heard furniture screeching across the room as they prepared it for whatever they intended. A ritual perhaps, to destroy or banish the demons I had exposed. Though how ropes and knives might become weapons against incorporeal creatures I had no idea.

I had not expected the photograph to reveal anything extraordinary. Thus far the demonic faces had appeared only in images captured in crowds, and three men and a photographer hardly constituted a crowd. Yet, as the shapes and forms began to appear, I realised that there was something strange about the picture. The three men sat perfectly composed around their table, not a blurred face to be seen, but in the mirror light shimmered and broke as though caught in rippling waves, forming the faces I had seen only in shadow before. They surrounded me, either side and above my shoulders, all leering at the lens. That long face with the protruding tongue perched grinning where my own head would have been, were I not stooped behind the camera.

My first urge was to rip the picture into pieces too small to reveal the truth of the image, but as it was not yet fixed a finer notion occurred to me. By careful application of chemicals, I could destroy only the offensive part, and so I did. There was something immensely satisfying about watching that mirror fade to impenetrable black.

I thought myself very clever as I took the picture to show my waiting clients, but stepping into the room the air around me seemed to shift and tilt. I looked down to see a large symbol daubed in black upon the floor. An enormous eye, a line through its centre. It seemed fixed on me, and I had to close my eyes against it, knees buckling beneath me.

Hands caught me by the shoulders, and the picture was torn from my grasp. I couldn’t catch my breath to complain and was too weak to resist. Someone pushed me into a chair, and pulled rope tight around my legs and wrists.

“We will exorcise your demons,” they said, “one way or another.”

I opened my eyes, but could not see the men for all the ghastly faces, everywhere, filling my vision. I knew then, that even if the society men managed to banish every one, I would never forget those knowing eyes and forked tongues. Those images would be fixed forever in my memory.