's 2017 Horror Write-off:

An Old Skinner

Submitted by Eldritchhat

All my life I considered my skepticism the shining jewel of my existence. Epistemology and empiricism, faith in the material, drove my passions and cooled my tempers. Only now could science fail me, or, in honesty, could my own mind so drastically obfuscate my perception. My dreams have been eschewed by the cruelty of my surrounding, and there is nothing but hope depleted in my situation. In a fugue, I found that my colleagues had turned me out onto the pavement, perhaps because my mind has always been my ultimate unraveler. Ten years a researcher and it was clear that I had anchored no ties. Left alone with myself for so long, I think I can tell why.

A thick, broiling depression cemented my feet and inflamed the wound, over and over. For weeks I slept in a wrought-iron bath, and the stone in my belly planted me there for hours every morning. The apartment was now a damned cave, my own personal dungeon where the instruments did lie that I might use to enact my masochism. The once comforting embrace of my mattress and silk sheets were now a bed of nails and tourniquets.  I had draped blankets and towels over my sparse windows, reducing my sun to a few luminescent bulbs. Only a few books, not of my own shelves but stolen from the university, were my sole sources of solace.

The book that stood out amongst them all consisted of the collective research of a former colleague of mine, though one discharged far before me. A Dr. Emily Gorey, who had been a small part of the psychology department, and a traditional behaviorist in philosophy. Dr. Gorey subscribed with a whole heart to the conception that, for psychology to be a true science, it must be totally objective and avoid the trappings of sentiment. Skeptical as ever, I thought of this as an antiquated perspective. Still, as a firm subscriber to the dialectic, I thought even the most outlandish idea could be useful through the correct lens. Gorey's proposition there of had intrigued me for quite a while, and I sought it here as a spark to kickstart my brain.

The good doctor wrote that, according to tradition, operant conditioning worked within a constrained, binary framework. Throughout the work she quotes B.F. Skinner, quite often referencing the skinner box, for which he is the namesake. These boxes were simple experimental apparatuses where a rat would press a key in order to either receive a food pellet or halt a continuous shock. I only had a passing familiarity with this work, as for the most part I knew of Skinner more in regards to linguistics. However, the insight that Gorey posits was quite enthralling for my sensibilities.

First off, she proposes that any negative reinforcement implicitly posits a prior positive punishment, otherwise there would be no shock or pain that could be removed. As well, all negative punishment must have an implicit positive reinforcement, for something must first be given before it can be taken away. All of this seemed quite reasonable to me, but it was starting with her next discussion that her ideas became somewhat abstract. She states that positive reinforcement and positive punishment both establish their own respective negations in temporality, projecting both forward into the future and back into the past. Taking all of this to its logical extreme, she conceives of punishment and reinforcement as a continuum with both halves immutable.

According to Gorey, everything we find pleasurable inevitably posits pain, as well as vice versa. Understanding this, she ventures from the realm of science into more speculative philosophy, postulating that people can only differentiate pleasure and pain because of how we are conditioned by our surroundings. Finally, she extrapolates a new sort of operant procedure in the vein of the skinner box, one where the subject must endure reinforcement or punishment towards an implied reward of the opposite that is never actually supplied. She states that she has garnered encouraging results from trials with rats, but expresses a desire to begin experiments with human subjects.

I believe it was somewhere around the time she was arranging for these experiments that she was abruptly disposed of. Just as I, she had been struck down at an integral moment in her career, without any warning, and I felt a deep pang of resonance. Soon after, I would find myself looking in the mirror on my medicine cabinet, imagining more of her eyes than my own within those sockets. For such a time I was now enveloped by a similar line of thought, though of course tweaked towards my own dispositions. I peaked back at Wittgenstein, remembering his thesis that all philosophical problems are really issues of language, and I was inclined to agree. Perhaps the epistemological evolution of language and culture, the discrepancy of symbol and meaning, might cement that human language is itself such a skinner box.

Delving into every book within my library, I fell into a manic haze of linguistics. I was totally convinced that I could compose some revolutionary theory and establish myself as an intellectual goliath. My dreams were thus both crashing waves and bubbling lagoons, flooding my daily life and surfacing with fantastical concepts. While I gorged myself academically, I neglected my corporeal hunger and skimmed many nights off the top of my sleep. On a certain level I was aware of my self-destruction, so after a week of isolation I finally plunged back into that harsh natural light.

Walking to the the local pharmacy I noticed a flyer stapled to a telephone pole. It caught my eye as I too caught it, for in the middle sat a large icon of an eye inscribed with vegetal flourishes. It was then that I noticed what it was advertising: A psychological experiment to be conducted that coming monday, providing volunteers a $25 incentive. I considered this on the way back to my apartment, and I resolved that I would take part in it. Though its ugly head would pop up from time to time, it was not the financial incentive that engaged me. No, it was a dawning sense of curiosity that I thought such a trial might satiate. That weekend I steeled myself and could just grasp a small respite from self-loathing.

When monday did finally arrive I awoke with such a dreadful demeanor that I felt stuck in an empty vacuum. The pressure on my mind oppressed me so much that I had to clutch myself to prevent from shaking. However, I would not allow my spiteful brain to overpower me, so I prepared a cup of chai tea to calm my stricken nerves. I had decided that I was to participate in the world no matter how my depression insisted, though I now hoped that some mercy might make the proceedings brief.

This was the first event that entailed my return to the university since my untimely ejection. In order to minimize both cold and humiliation I wore my scarf high over my mouth. The facility where the experiment would take place was one I had never visited in all my time on campus. It was a squat box of a building constructed of brick and wholly indistinct from all those surrounding it. Upon my approach, I spotted a woman in a red suit that stood at the entrance. To my eyes, it seemed that she was either wearing a wig or very unconvincing red dye under her wide-brimmed hat, and her nails too were a waxy crimson. This woman greeted me in a formal tone and quickly ushered me in.

The immediate inside of the facility was a lobby with a baker's dozen of fellow participants, all of whom sat in metal folding chairs aligning the septic-green walls. Many of those before me carried out banal conversations, something that I was not in the state to bear, nor did I find quite palatable in the warmest of times. I bided my time as each participant was beckoned down the hallway, partitioned out at ten minute intervals indicated by the loudspeaker, unmistakably carrying the voice of the woman in red. The voice was deep and a little raspy, perhaps from smoking, but not necessarily unpleasant, even sensual for those so inclined. I, however, was struck by a twinge of anxiety as the names were read out and the population slowly dwindled down to me. I feared that I might suffer another panic attack, even run out of the building, but I steeled myself as the voice cooed "Gregory Hampton."

There were many doors that lined the sterile hallway, but it was clear which one was meant for me. At the end of the hall stood a white wooden door with the same intricate, floral eye carved into it. The design was nearly identical, yet missing from the poster had been the pink iris, like the color of a petunia, that was painted over the cedar. I jiggled the brass knob without a budge from the frame, and for a second I dreaded that it might be locked. However, I braced my slight frame against the wood, and it opened with a soft click. Upon entering I saw a similar green, carpeted room with fluorescent lights casting the walls in a vile hue, a loudspeaker afixed to one corner, and what seemed to be a porcelain bathtub in the center of the room. It's only now that I realize that the door that closed behind me was the only entrance to the room.

I approached the tub and saw within the dry basin a leatherbound book and a ballpoint pen, though a drain was pointedly lacking. I picked up the book and swung back its front cover, noticing that on the inside cover was scrawled: "climb in." Against my better judgement I assumed that it was referring to the tub and did just that. I believe I was cogent of just how strange this all was, but up to this point I naively justified it as part of the procedure. Laying with my back against the porcelain, I flipped through the pages, scanning for any sort of instruction. It soon clicked with me that this book was another version of the same thesis which had so enamored me. I skipped to the back of the book and found a letter written in the same hand as the instruction at the front:

First and foremost I would like to thank you for participating in my experimental therapy and for respecting my necessary confidentiality. You possess an exquisite and fractured mind that are simply invaluable to my research. It has been a pleasure learning about you and your life so that I might perfectly tailor your treatment. You may have noticed that I have constructed your current surroundings to be familiar and best facilitate the desired behavior. I am well aware of your often debilitating case of depression and general anxiety, including your tendency towards panic attacks, as well as your closeted homosexuality. Do not be ashamed, neither your disability nor your sexuality are things to be ashamed of, but they are things that we all must learn to cope with. I know what you have been through, with your parents who never understood you and alienated you from emotional intimacy. I know that you used your brilliant brain to pass through school at the top of your class and escape to the university. I know that you entered into a relationship with your advisor in graduate school and that he prayed upon your emotional vulnerability. I know that one night he was intoxicated and threatened to expose your secret if you didn't do everything that he told you to. I know that in your desperation you shot him with his own gun. You disposed of his body with an acid bath. I know that you are frightened that you were ousted from the university because they suspect you in the investigation.

I am not here to pass judgement on you, Gregory, I am simply here to help you heal. I reveal all this to you now in order to build up to what will likely be an intense exercise. While you have been lead to believe that your trial has been confined to this one day, the truth is that this is only the culmination of years of preparation. There are a number of blank pages at the back of this document with which I would like you to take notes about your experience that I might use as feedback. Around the back of this tub is a tool that will be used in this session, and we will begin the proceedings proper once you retrieve it. Remember, you may only use it once.

I felt nauseous. I couldn't believe this, because I knew that it was all lies. Yes, I suffer from depression and panic attacks, that I cannot deny. However, such wild accusations could not be farther from the truth. My advisor, Richard, had died four years ago from an aneurysm, and there had been no investigation with which to link me to. I even attended the man's funeral, shook the hand of his wife, and visited the body I knew all too well. None of this made any logical sense, nor could I believe that the writer was Emily Gorey. The doctor lives in Arizona, she is not a clinical psychologist, and, whatever this cruel joke was, it was far from therapy.

In my frustration, I threw the book out the side of my container and soon scrambled out myself. I refused to participate in whatever strange dance my tormentor had orchestrated. I pulled and pulled the door knob, but it was clear that it had locked behind me. For a few seconds I considered breaking the door off its hinges; however, even if it swung both ways, my emaciated frame would have shattered quite easily. I stared at the tub. Eventually I resigned myself to shuffling behind it, hoping that perhaps the "tool" could assist in my escape. Ruminating from now, I'm surprised that I had kept myself together for as long as I did, perhaps because I felt more dumbfounded than distressed. This clarity ended abruptly. Lying at the base of the tub was the realization that I had spent some ten minutes in a room with a loaded pistol.

I bent forward and thought to examine the firearm, but my hand was shaking so violently that I may as well have been reaching towards an open flame. My heart was heavy against my ribs, I was hyperventilating, and it took all of my paltry will to keep from passing out. I reasoned with myself, argued that I could use this to shoot out the lock and then run to the authorities. However, at the back of my mind I knew that if my captors were willing to leave a weapon lying around for me, they were likely armed for certain contingencies. As I reached towards the gun I heard a deep inhale, which I at first attributed to myself. Once I gripped the metal implement, though, I could now tell that there was a deep, feminine voice reverberating around me. A song carried throughout my chamber, operatic and wordless, yet mournful. I was entranced, and for moments I envisioned poppies sprouting from a grave upon the countryside.

I grabbed onto the rim and pulled myself up, while in tandem the song too began to rise. As soon as I had a peek, I sprung to my feet, clutching the grip of the tool and pointing the barrel out in front of me. Towering above me in the tub was "Emily," the woman in red, looking down upon me as she sang. Those vibrant green eyes tore into mine, and they failed to so much as glance at the outstretched pistol. Her voice echoed off the walls into my ears, filling me up with both a sense of embrace and ever-growing claustrophobia. She reached a low refrain, mercifully closing those blazing eyes, and with a deft touch she presented her open palm. Stepping forward, I could see that she intended to take my hand, perhaps the gun. I stole a glance towards her cherry lips, they were savoring the meaningless syllables like a piece of butterscotch, and considered the offer.

I shot her.

Her fall was swift, blown back through the socket she collapsed into the tub. Her mouth stayed open and the song did not stop, it simply returned from its refrain. I retreated to the corner of the infinitely condescended broom closet and assumed a fetal position. Thirty minutes elapsed, then an hour, and every ten minutes the song would loop. I pulled myself up and examined the corpse, noting just how red that moth-bitten blazer was, how a pool was now forming around that bald head and terrible wig. I retrieved the book and pen from where I had discarded them and then began to write.

Here I am now, though I will not be alone for long. Soon someone, maybe the cleaning woman, will come along and see my mess. This is my failure. I allowed my emotions and spoiled brain to get the better of me. I am no longer a creature of reason, a man of science, but a simple animal drained of all sanity. I had expended the single use of that damned pistol, and my only "tool" left is the pen. Perhaps I have convinced you of my innocence. Yet the words seem to me like lemon juice, and already those of the sadist begin to disappear. At the least, while it be not a sword, the tip of the pen may be so sharpened to puncture an eye.