The Untold Story of the Small Canadian Town That Was Haunted by Radio Transmissions
From hearing voices in sinks to flickering lights, a new film looks at the otherworldly phenomena caused by Sackville's shortwave towers.
Since World War II, residents of Sackville, New Brunswick heard voices in their sinks, refrigerators, and radiator pipes. Lights glowed on and off at random, and even transmitted thoughts into their minds, causing one spooked soul to dream in languages that he was unable to speak. For anyone unaware of their source, these broadcasts from beyond could sound supernatural.
The foreign tongues filtering into the east coast Canadian town with a population of less than 6,000, were actually due to shortwave transmissions, unintentionally picked up from 13 radio towers located in the saltwater Tantramar Marshes. Built by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 1944, Sackville's Radio Canada International (RCI) site relayed content in multiple languages across the ocean. During the Cold War, the 120-meter towers became the first allied site to transmit Radio Free Europe across the Iron Curtain. Their transmissions weren't meant for the Maritimes, but they haunted homes like friendly ghosts.
For her latest documentary, Spectres of Shortwave, Moncton-born experimental artist and filmmaker Amanda Dawn Christie spent the last seven years exploring this otherworldly phenomenon. While working at Sackville's Struts Gallery in 2009, she heard stories from local residents about voices in sinks where "pipes acted like antennas and the bowl became a gramophone speaker." Christie was jealous that hers didn't pick it up, so she spent her pay cheques for the rest of the summer at a plumbing store, extending her pipes to bring the sink to the marsh.
"People thought I was crazy," Christie tells THUMP after a story about her project ran in the Sackville paper. "I set [the sink] up at an agricultural fair, where I met people I normally wouldn't bump into. The farmers whose families have lived there for generations had amazing stories. There was one woman who heard it in her clothing line when it rolled over the wheel." It was then that she decided to start recording their stories and make a film.
Sackville is also home to SappyFest, a beloved music festival taking over the town every August since 2006, with performances from local and internationals artists. Fred Squire is one of the former, and it's his story of dreaming in foreign languages—due to transmissions from an amp in his bedroom entering a hypnagogic mind state—that provides the documentary's centerpiece.
"Fred would fall asleep and dream perfectly coherently in Chinese or Russian," Christie explains. "He decided to call the radio towers to see if they were doing anything that would cause it. Then about 40 minutes later in the film there's a story from a technician who describes his call from a guy dreaming in different languages. The stories are similar but contradict each other, leaving the viewer wondering which one is telling the truth."
Though the director reveals Squire's identity in conversation, no faces or names are shown on screen, instead letting the audience hear these voices over dimly lit rooms or slow-moving landscape shots. She originally intended to depict the RCI shortwave site throughout four seasons, but when its demolition due to budget cuts was announced in 2012 (with the towers falling in 2014), this introduced a dramatic conclusion.
"For the first hour and half, no one is identified," she says. "There are a few of my own stories but I don't identify myself as the filmmaker. I'm just one other person in the town. Then when the last Canadian broadcast is sent over shortwave, the speaker breaks down crying when he says 'Thank you and goodbye.' You see the first tower fall and for the last 20 minutes of the film no one speaks."
The final two years of Christie's labour of love found her filming alone in the marsh with a 48-pound 35-millimeter camera, and climbing the towers to capture their droning soundtrack with contact microphones. Though the uneasy demolition crew initially expected a TV news team to be there for one day, they developed a cooperative relationship with their obsessed documentarian.
"I was at their safety meetings every morning at 7:30 AM to find out which tower was falling. At first they were apprehensive but I was allowed to show up if I interfered as little as possible," she recalls. "They would tell me right before a tower would fall with one minute or 30 seconds' notice. Sometimes I wasn't ready so I asked if they could wait two minutes, and they'd say 'OK, make it fast.'"
Spectres of Shortwave premiered at Halifax's Atlantic Film Festival, along with a simulcast of the film's audio as a radio documentary on New York's Wave Farm. It will screen next in November at FICFA in Moncton, and Christie is currently pitching to festivals around the world. Meanwhile, the shortwave site continues to haunt her sound art performances and interactive installations. On October 15 at Halifax's Nocturne, she will present Requiem for Radio: New Dead Zones, a scale model of the RCI site where visitors can trigger her contact mic recordings to "play the ghosts of the towers."
"Even if you study antennas and understand how they work there's still something amazing about radio waves," Christie concludes. "They're all around us and passing through our bodies. That's why I like voices in the sink and in the fridge. All of a sudden you're an unintentional witness to a broadcast that was meant for someone else. I'm sure some people find it annoying but to me it's a magical gift."
Jesse Locke is on Twitter.