Orford Ness is a spit of land on the Suffolk coastline.  Most reports surrounding the military testing and research facility that resided on its shores have been classified, in part due to the research conducted in the Ness laboratories surrounding the firing mechanisms of nuclear weapons, and in part due to the research into radar technology at the adjacent research centre, Cobra Mist.  The files have only recently been released into the public domain due to this classified nature, with some obvious details within the memoranda being kept back due its still-sensitive status. 


Being engaged in research into the history of the Ness in terms of its military history, these files were of extreme importance to me and gave the work I was engaged upon some years previous a sense of suspense until they became available.  To my surprise, however, the documents in fact contained the detail surrounding an intriguing set of events, kept classified until the early 2000s due to the nature and unsubstantiated claims made by the persons involved in the reports. 


The laboratories upon the Ness housed several staff who would stay on the spit of land for many months on end, working on their research with intense devotion. The reports detail several intriguing occurrences reported by radar operators and technician researchers at the centre, all of whom were largely kept in the dark about the true nature of the Ness and its research.  Such was the fear that the events generated for the staff, according to the report, that several members at Cobra Mist were forced into other departmental jobs further away from such sensitive material on the mainland.  The majority of the reports concern two operators in the general radios and radar department at Cobra Mist, Richard Allan and Jennifer Watkins, both of whose jobs were involved in the tracking and the testing of the technicians’ equipment and the landing distribution of falling objects.


Because of the work required, the report suggests that the operators would be on duty for many hours leading to a great level of fatigue, such exhaustion being excused for what Mr. Allan and Ms. Watkins were said to have experienced.  In the report, the document of which contains several details of radio activation times and related detail about interactions observed, it is noted that Mr. Allan first began to hear strange noises which, in the words he gave in the interview for the report, were said to be “a hissing scream that broke through first as static distortion and then as… that of a man or woman screaming.”  The report suggests that Allan did not initially report this sound coming from the communication and measuring equipment due to “witnessing the phenomena alone and needing verification of both the working condition of the apparatus and then further witnesses to confirm said phenomena.”  Following the procedure, he conducted a full examination of the equipment during the third phase of his observation shift, the signed document of which is the only evidence in the document of Allan’s initial witnessing of the scream within from the static.


The following evening, Allan can be seen in the log record to have used a section 14 request for a secondary viewer on his observation shift.  Ms. Watkins is noted as his intended second and the shift seems to have largely progressed as normal with the hourly details and anomalies noted in the phase log for the 25th of November, 1952.  Towards the end of the log, however, it is clear that both Allan and Watkins stop filling in detail for the times between midnight and 3:15 AM.  Only in the log after this period is either of the pair’s reports filed; with Allan’s stating that “Repetition of human sounds heard during Phase 2, 24/11/1952”.  Watkins’ simply states “Screaming heard, secondary confirmation.”  From the documentation, it is clear that both Allan and Watkins were reprimanded in some way for failing to fill in their reports fully, such an activity being compulsory when on their form of phase shift at Cobra Mist.  Later on in the report, it is confirmed that Allan is forced into partaking in a psychiatric examination of which the conducting doctor, Julian Sterne PhD. concluded that “Mr. Allan is suffering from acute exhaustion from late night shift work which may account for the recorded abnormalities in his reportage.”  Watkins’ history is barely related in the report though it is clear that she is moved swiftly out of Cobra Mist and to another job entirely at the MOD barracks at Woodbridge.  Allan, however, returns to duty after a week of “recuperating on the mainland”, so it states in the Doctor’s report.


This is not the end of the documentation in regards to Allan for it is clear that his return to duty did not mean that the incidents were forgotten or indeed that he agreed with the Doctor’s medical conclusions and reasoning behind the audio phenomena.  Along with the report is an audio reel which, as later documents allude to, were presented to the higher rank officials as proof that Allan was not simply hallucinating.  This did not stop Allan also following closely behind Watkins with a transfer to another base some weeks after.  The tape is an audio-recording reel-to-reel taken by Allan, initially in secret on his second shift back on the late duty phase of the radar operation.  It was concluded by Allan in a later interview with both the medical officer and his superior in operations, that the use of the nearby Orford Castle as a deflector pin-point in the operation of mapping was the cause of the phenomena and that, if not changed, some unforeseen danger would befall the laboratories; the danger seemed to revolve around the chaos that could be caused in a moment of required attention during a dangerous experiment in one of the further labs testing classified materials, so Allan is said to have thought.

Image result for orford castle drawing

The second interview with Allan reports that his rest period on the mainland was not taken properly and that he was engaged in local research revolving around the castle which can be seen from the spit.  He suggests that the famous local folklore of the capture and torture of the Orford Merman – a creature from the sea whose webbed fingers and inability to communicate led to his torture within the castle walls by local fishermen in the 1100s – was somehow being replayed through their equipment, perhaps due to some unknown experiment in the adjacent Ness testing laboratories. 

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On playing the reel of audio, after hiring out an old player from the King’s College London, it was clear to me that Allan was indeed correct.  The tape begins with the usual crackle of the area scan, interspersed with a bleep every few second to indicate a specific number of metres which the scan is passing over.  As the tape progresses, the screams gradually fade in with a gurgling sound but still unmistakably that of someone crying out in great pain.  The tape reaches a peak of screaming before cutting out abruptly.  Allan’s tape was played to the acting commander whose own response is not included in the file.  It is briefly recorded that all radar experiments were suspended for at least a week hence in which several technical investigations were carried out.

Image result for reel to reel audio 1950s

During the same week, it is recorded, with expressed corroboration of the Ness research teams, that several researchers and scientists had been found with cuts upon their skin and faces that could not be explained.  The medical officer for both research laboratories writes little detail in their preserved reports, or at least what he did write has since been erased.  Three researchers from the Ness, along with Allan, are reported to have required hospitalisation due to loss of blood, presumably from such wounds being unable to heal.  All of these researchers are detailed as having worked late shifts upon the Ness, the phenomena clearly being one with precedence for the late evening and early morning rather than in daylight.  The report concludes with calling the phenomena “Merman Syndrome” and suggests that Orford Castle should not be used as any form of deflection pin-point in research or experimentation.  Sometime after discovering and exploring all of these documentation surrounding Merman Syndrome upon the Ness, putting the information into the public domain lead to a wealth of interest, especially from artists and writers who had taken to using the spit of land as inspiration for the creation of various works.  On hearing of the existence of audio of this phenomenon, one sound artist messaged with the desire to create an installation using the same, original sound.  The National Trust, the current owners of the Ness and its buildings, were delighted with the possibility of showcasing the artist’s work.


Though unable to visit the installation myself, put together in one of the famous pagoda laboratories on the Ness by the artist, strange reports and several incidents lead to its early closure.  Several volunteers from the arts organisation were said to become unusually ill when invigilating the installation.  In fact, almost all of the subsequent volunteers were taken ill, complaining of dizziness and faintness after only minutes of being sat within the laboratory where the work was installed.  The final report which I have personally added to the Merman Syndrome file concerns one particular case from the installation team who, similarly to the staff of the laboratory more than fifty years previously, was rushed to hospital due to a severe loss of blood after only several minutes contact with the looped audio during its deconstruction.  Claims from several co-workers that the man was covered in large, unexplained wounds upon his skin and face have, however, so far failed to be substantiated.



One thought on “Fictions: Merman Syndrome

  1. Reading this extraordinary narrative gives rise to the idea of scripting a film, something like ‘The Stone Tape.’ A radio drama would be an excellent alternative.

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