Midyears and upperclassmen alike speak of a shadow that wanders the dark places of south campus. Silent and still, the revenant takes man-shape to stalk unwary students that amble too far beyond the safe perimeter of the dorms. Thankfully, the apparition is nothing more than an unnervingly lifelike statue of a man nestled among the trees across from the Women’s Studies Research Center. The plaque beneath the sculpture reads “Fall.” The piece, a 1995 work of bronze by the ever prolific Seward Johnson, remains one of the more frightful of Brandeis University’s collection of hidden and often overlooked structures.
“Fall” is so successfully scary because it often startles its victims while they are performing furtive acts. Privacy is a rare commodity on a college campus, and students will go to great lengths to acquire it. Denizens of Ziv and Village with their contraband in hand will often seek the surrounding patches of woods in order to escape the prying eyes of officers and CAs. One spot in particular seems designed for this purpose—nestled beyond the slope of Village A is a veneer of forest that gives way to a small clearing with a convenient bench in it. This seating area, a toothpaste-tinted metal dining bench with fixed seats, looks like it was stolen from Sherman or Mandel, though its true origins are perhaps unknowable. In daylight the spot is openly exposed to the Women’s Studies building across the way, but it is easily concealed by the cover of darkness. It is a favored spot among nighttime visitors, but the human simulacrum looms nearby.
Silhouetted by the spotlights of the Women’s Studies building and South Street, the sculpture’s obviously bronze exterior is masked but not completely veiled. The man is rendered with an uncanny realness of proportion and texture. The clothes on his back ripple slightly, and his baggy jeans billow and crunch as they travel down bronze legs. The sculpture is about as tall as a real man. Conspicuously, the statue lacks a pedestal. It is rooted firmly in the ground by a pair of brown moccasins, furthering the illusion of humanity. Most of Brandeis’s art installations are abstractions, but Seward’s “Fall” is so human that you are likely to have a heart attack when you stumble upon its eerie figure in the dark for the first time.
A closer inspection of the piece reveals deeper uncanny qualities baked into the artifice. The aptly titled “Fall” is actually a rendition of a mustached man with a rake in his hand that looks awfully like a shouldered gun at a distance. The figure is hunched slightly as he stoops to light a pipe perched between his lips. His face is long and thin, and the individual muscles of his cheeks pull and stretch as if the fat were sucked out of them. The texture of his skin is perhaps his most odious aspect. Tiny craters speckle every square inch of skin, and his hands possess the tiny dimples and wrinkles of real finger flesh as they curve to hold aloft the rendition of a pipe and lighter. The contrast between the painted articles of clothing and the man’s golden flesh is jarring, but it is better than the original look of the sculpture’s skin, which was painted to mimic pale flesh complete with eyeballs and a five o’clock shadow. Our version is looking quite shabby from years of forest dwelling.
Despite the creepy flair, we are actually quite lucky to possess a piece of art by John Seward Johnson. The man is a renowned sculptor whose body of works spans decades. “Fall” is one of seemingly hundreds of his more mundane works that capture scenes from everyday life. That the sculpture should be relegated to the woods on the outskirts of campus is not out of place at all—many of Johnson’s sculptures were designed for parks and natural spaces. They slip easily into the casual forms of human repose, which is why “Fall” is so unanimously mistaken for a real person even in broad daylight. It is his lack of movement, the standoffish appearance of lurking and watching, that ultimately gives up the ghost.
Once revealed, “Fall” rarely scares a second time. The man becomes almost comforting in his familiarity, ease, and his old habit of lighting a pipe is strangely on par with the activities of the students that visit him.
One question remains unanswered in my mind, however: Why was this figure of a white man placed specifically to gaze at the entrance of the Women’s Studies Research Center? I suspect this is no coincidence. His patriarchal gaze is ever fixed upon the hall of Brandeis’s feminist department, and I do not think that added context should be taken lightly.
No student should graduate without experiencing the terror of believing a hunched man is looking at you from the forest. I will provide no instructions more explicit than the Women’s Studies Research Center, as the experience relies upon an inherent unawareness. This sculpture is the very definition of overlooked, until it suddenly isn’t!