Magazine article The New Yorker

Object Permanence

Magazine article The New Yorker

Object Permanence

Article excerpt

Object Permanence

"Your Kid's Room camera saw someone." One afternoon, working at home, I received an e-mail with this subject line. I opened the message to discover a grainy video still of a tall, blurry ghost in a baseball cap, abducting our infant son. It took me a moment to identify this intruder. "Hey!" my husband called from upstairs. "I set up the camera!"

The baby monitor, an ominous black orb about the size of an avocado, sits on a high shelf, unsuccessfully concealed between a Teddy bear and a seashell. An app on my phone streams footage of the baby's room. We had been unaware of the notification feature. These e-mails kept coming. Each night, more footage bloomed: two huge albino manatees, floating spectrally through the nursery. If it's strange to spy on your baby, it may be even weirder to become a voyeur of your midnight selves.

In an essay on F. W. Murnau's classic horror movie "Nosferatu," Jim Shepard describes the way the director designed individual shots "not only as static compositions but also as spaces continually open to every sort of intrusion and transformation. . . . Murnau turned it into a compendium of comings and goings, of slightly alarming trajectories, of reminders that there was always stuff outside of the frame that the viewer couldn't see."

Surveillance feeds have opened thousands of such spaces, transforming the most banal settings into potential crime scenes. There's a reason that the home-security camera, with its fixed, unblinking eye, has been exploited over and over again by the "Paranormal Activity" franchise. It's difficult to watch even a sleeping baby in that submarine palette without a kick of dread. Open the app, and suddenly a room in your home becomes one of Murnau's haunted thresholds. Who knew that a smiling plush lion could look so totally sinister? Everything seems on the verge of rocking, billowing, falling open. Adding to the disorientation, you can choose to enter this movie at any time; it's being shot just down the hall.

Perhaps the scariest thing is how quickly I've gotten over my unease; I've become addicted to live-streaming plotless footage of our baby. Raccoony eyes aglitter, our son stares directly into the lens with the beautiful unself-consciousness of all wild things, regarding it with the same indiscriminate curiosity that he fixes on his curled feet and the Diaper Genie and the moon, unaware that anything is gazing back at him. …

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