BY ELSA MCGRATH
A few months ago I experienced something straight out of an Anthony Burgess novella.
The story begins at an outpatient centre of the RPA, where I was attending fortnightly sessions for a condition I was dealing with. Apparently my particular case ticked just the right number of boxes needed to take part in a study that was happening at Westmead Hospital.
The main point of the test was to examine, with the use of an MRI, how the brain reacted to certain stimuli. It would only take an hour, and I’d get a special fun mystery prize at the end. So in the name of science and curiosity, I agreed to be a subject.
A week later, with map in hand, I drive out west – past the factories, past the crematorium, all the way to the front sliding glass doors of Westmead.
There I meet Dr. Brown, the mastermind behind the test, smiling and beckoning me over. She leads me through the maze of sticky-floored corridors, the walls of which are covered in one too many eerie paintings of sad children, to a small, all white, back room.
She opens a door and I enter. It’s basically a closet. Maybe a metre squared, made entirely of mirrors, yet with two doors facing each other on opposite sides of the tiny space.
I’m given a gown covered in teddy bears with broken arms and legs in casts and told to strip down and get ready for the exam.
I have one of those moments where all of a sudden you catch glimpses of yourself from angles that are completely alien to you – and it’s not great. Do I really look like that from behind? How long has that leaf been on the back of my head? What the fuck is that weird blotch?
With my self-esteem at rock bottom, I put on my crunchy white gown and step out of the mirror chamber. My paper dress crinkles with every step I take, and I have to hold it closed at the back so that the fans buzzing around the room don’t blow it open.
A skinny dude with bleach-blonde hair and an eyebrow piercing sidles towards me doing what looks like jazz hands.
‘Heeeeyyy. I’m Brett, okay? I’ll be walking you through this little testy test today, okay? If you have any questions, you come to old Brett, okay? Okay.’
This is where the fun really begins. Brett lays me down on a sliding bed in front of the buzzing, beeping MRI machine and leaves the room. I lie there for an awkwardly long amount of time watching a fly smash itself into the ceiling over, and over, and over again like a dickhead.
There are fourteen dead bugs inside the plastic light fitting. And some wires that don’t seem to be doing anything sticking out of a crack in a tile.
Brett finally returns, and with the click of a button, a large mirror on the wall suddenly changes to a window showing Dr. Brown standing on the other side wearing a headset.
Brett is fiddling with some gadgets on a small table. He picks ups some clunky headphones and straps them around my ears, immediately, Dr Brown’s voice fills my head.
‘Can you hear me? Shake your foot if you can hear me. Okay, great!’
‘Now, Brett is just going to strap you in, and then we can begin.’
As she’s saying this Brett tightens some bands around my arms and legs, immobilizing me, and puts two small cubed objects in my hands.
‘We’re going to show you some photos. When you see two pictures that are the same, one after another, I need you to press both buttons at the same time. Understand? Good. The test will last about an hour and half’.
My vision disappears as something is placed over my eyes.
‘Okay, we’re putting you inside the MRI machine now. The test will begin in a minute’.
I can’t move, and I can’t see. All I can hear are faint clicking noises as I feel my body being pushed into the round metal tube.
I’m momentarily blinded, as the thing strapped ten centimetres in front of my face comes alive, and I realise this is the screen that will be displaying the pictures for the next hour and a half.
‘We’ll play some soothing music for you to make the whole process easier.’
It begins as a hum, and then grows louder. Some sort of otherworldly music that is supposed to cover up the beeps, whirs, and clicks of the MRI.
Though it doesn’t at all. I can still hear the machine, only now it’s mixed with the noise of a futuristic lute. Possibly an electric harp in there, too? And what sounds like an underwater cowbell. I’m not even sure at this point.
The music grows louder, and sends uncontrollable shivers down my arms.
The screen starts flickering, and my eyes widen.
More clicks. More beeps. More whirring. I’m already starting to get uncomfortable but because of the straps, I can’t move an inch.
The next hour and twenty minutes is what can only be described as Hell.
The screen almost touching my nose flashes a different image every second, while the nails-on-chalkboard ‘music’ blasts into my skull. I almost forget I’m supposed to be doing a job.
Raw fish, raw meat, eggs, eggs *click* pizza, raw fish, donuts, sausages, raw meat, raw meat *click* apples, eggs, raw fish, pizza, eggs, raw fish, raw fish *click*.
My eyes are wide open as the repetitive, endless images pour into my head and I lose track of how long it’s been and somehow I keep dropping in and out of a kind of sleep.
My brain just keeps shutting itself off and restarting. It becomes impossible to keep myself alert, and when my eyes open, I jolt awake and remember where I am. Over and over and over again.
Every time I drop out of consciousness I have second-long dreams about hybrid-mutant foods attacking me.
My hands are cramping up as I pulse the buttons.
My hands are turning into claws.
I am a crab.
I am crab’s smirking revenge.
It feels like hours in there.
The images are endless.
The music in my ears is becoming unbearable.
Every part of my body is cramping up.
I don’t know how much more I can take.
A second later, and it’s over.
The flashing food ends.
The screen goes black.
The alien harp stops.
The only thing I can hear is the MRI making washing machine sounds.
‘Okayyyy, nice. Thanks so much for doing that; we got some really great results. We’ll get you out in just a moment. The machine just needs twenty minutes to do its thing. In the meantime, we’ll put a movie on and you can just lay there and relax’.
I take a long, slow, deep breath and close my eyes.
The nightmare is over.
It’s finally, finally… over.
‘YOU ARE TEARING ME APART, LISAAAA!’
My eyes burst open.
Tommy Wiseau appears in front of me. His veiny, twitching neck muscles pulsate as he throws his clenched fists in the air and moves his mouth, though no sound escapes. I am strapped to a bed inside a giant metallic magnetic coffin stuck watching The Room for twenty minutes with out of sync audio.
I’m descending. I’ve reached the seventh Circle of Hell.
After an agonizingly long twenty minutes, the screen strapped to my face again goes black.
The food is gone.
Tommy’s veiny neck is gone.
Sweet, sweet nothingness remains. Someone brushes past my exposed feet sticking out of the MRI. The bed vibrates slightly as I feel my body being pulled out of the machine. I still see nothing, and all that my ears can register are muffled voices.
Is someone singing? It sounds familiar.
The headphones are taken off first.
Someone is definitely singing.
More than one person…
‘Let it gooooo, let it goooo! La la la the wind and snoooow! Are you awake, Queen Elsa? It’s not winter yet. Get it? Because of Frozen! And your name’s Elsa. And that’s the name of the Ice Queen girl. This is her song. Let it goooooo!’
Am I in a perpetual nightmare? What the fuck is going on? I move my head around blindly trying to find where the voice is coming from but they’re completely surrounding me.
I am so disoriented.
Someone takes the buttons from my hands and starts undoing the clasps of the face-screen.
The ceiling light is pure white, and blinding.
I blink and rub my face trying to get my vision back to normal.
‘Let it gooooo, let it goooooo’ is still being chanted as my sight slowly but surely starts to return, and I am able to make out the bleached head that is Brett standing over me.
His smile is too big, and he is still singing. I turn my head to the left because honestly right now, I can’t handle the intensity of his face, only to find another bleached Brett staring at me with an open mouth grin.
I flip my head to the right side.
‘LET IT GOOOOOOOO, LET IT GOOOOOO!’
This is it.
I have lost my mind.
This is how it all ends.
There was a problem, and I died inside the machine.
This must be the ninth Circle of Hell.
‘Nice to see you again, Queen Elsa! This is my identical twin brother, Trav. How cool is it that we both work here?!’.
I am inside the mirror room again.
But this time I don’t look at my body from the weird angles as I did before.
I just stare off into space trying to comprehend what just happened.
Clothes back on, I exit one of the doors to find Brett and Trav standing there like Tweedledum and Tweedledee.
‘Dr Brown wants to thank you for taking part in the study. As a token of appreciation, we’d like to give you this special gift’.
Brett, or maybe it was Trav, I’m not really sure at the moment – they’ve blended into one person – hands me a card.
I open it and inside is a $20 gift voucher for Coles.
They simultaneously smile and wave goodbye as I shuffle away into the sunset.
I never heard what happened with the results of the study.
Hopefully it helped someone, somewhere.
All I know is, I still have food nightmares to this day.
And that Coles $20 gift card?
I lost it.