The horror canon is vast and constantly expanding; finding new ways to illicit the fear we are all capable of experiencing at some point or another. Fears can change over time, so horror films are tasked with appealing to its ever-evolving audience. With that in mind, filmmakers and screenwriters have begun to utilize the technological advancements we take for granted every day as a means to scare us out of our wits. Films like WHEN A STRANGER CALLS have been rendered defunct now that caller ID and “Find my Phone” apps exist, and I’m sure we’d be hard pressed to pass on the VHS horrors of THE RING now that most people don’t even own a VCR anymore.
As a society, we are more connected and tech savvy than ever before, but with every gadget and gizmo we hold in our hands, we’re constantly looking for the next upgrade or the next big thing. While it’s easy to show up to your local Apple store and grab the newest iPhone, film schedules and the permanence of film don’t allow the luxury of ensuring their film is up to date. Even then, what do we make of the technology after the film has had a shelf life of many years?
Unlike laughing at the shots where people haphazardly try to search for signal on their old Nokia phones or immediately starting an eye roll at people “hacking the mainframe” on a computer, there are now horror films that have entire storylines dependent on very real and very familiar technological experiences. THE DEN, OPEN WINDOWS, DARK SUMMER and UNFRIENDED are all horror films released in the last two years that are centered solely around the major form of social interaction of millennials.
The idea of someone reaching out and touching you when they aren’t allowed is a nightmare that has plagued generations. Whether it’s Buffalo Bill reaching out in a night vision stupor towards Clarice Starling in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, or the quick jump scare of a hand on the shoulder, unwanted interaction is at the core of many horror films. Now that we are in the age of social media and hashtag activism, this fear of unwanted interaction has merely changed its form into that of video chatrooms and FaceTime sessions.
What also scares us is the unknown, and with new technology, these filmmakers are capitalizing on this brief moment of unknown before the software and technology is wildly understood, implemented, overused, abandoned, and then ridiculed. A film like FEARDOTCOM was terrifying upon its release, because it was made during a time where the idea of watching strangers on the Internet was taboo and scary. Now? We have Periscope on our phones so we can watch celebrities get a hair cut in real time.
Technology is usually the quickest way to date a film, and more often than not, producers try their damndest to eliminate any of these elements. So why is it that films like THE DEN, OPEN WINDOWS, DARK SUMMER, or UNFRIENDED exist? These filmmakers are essentially capturing lightning in a bottle with a brief moment in cinema. The same way something goes “viral,” these films come, make their impression, and disappear into the ether… much like every other meme. For the most part, these horror films are outdated before they ever make it in front of an audience, and yet they are still being consumed en masse. Why?
We embrace these films because they’re a time capsule for a culture. These films exploit our nostalgia as it’s happening. The draw to these films is that if we understand the technology better than the characters in peril, we are rewarded knowing that we would be able to survive in these cinematic scenarios. Hollywood knows this, and takes it as a challenge to give us ways to not only win back jaded fans, but also hopefully garner new ones.
Some may call these films niche, but the reality is that this is just another step in the horror evolution. “My car is out of gas” turned into “my cell phone doesn’t have service,” and now we’re taking it one step further with video chatting allowing others to experience horror in real time. Why do we need to have a final girl stumble upon the body of her dead friend when we can put the terror in the palm of her hand through a FaceTime chat? The gratification of instant communication is turned on its head in the world of horror because now blood and guts becomes even more visceral on two screens in one.
On August 27, 2015 a man in Virginia shot and killed a news reporter and a cameraman live on air. While this incident is tragic and disturbing, the fact that we were given two different points of view in which to watch the murder of two innocent people have proved that technological horror isn’t just a gimmick, it’s the unfortunate future of the reality we live in. Our major modes of communication have drastically changed, but we’re so afraid of films appearing “dated” we stray away from embracing where the future is headed, even if it’s bleak.
Art imitating life, or life imitating art?