Horror films resonate with audiences in part because they allow us to explore the things we fear the most in the safety of theatres. The Jetsons may have promised a fun future where technology and humanity lived in harmony, but reality has delivered something entirely different. Our interconnected digital world has given us instant content-on-demand where almost no aspects of our lives go unmonitored. Recent scandals involving large companies like Ashley Madison and Facebook have exposed the vulnerability of our privacy and personal lives.
In this edition of The Laboratory, I take a look at the constructions of technology as a “source of horror” over the last 25 to 30 years. As part of this entry, I examine some of the more common themes that have emerged in horror films. From Evilspeak to Upgrade, I’ll take a quick peek into what exactly scares us about technology and how horror films have played on these fears.
Computers Can Do Anything
It’s hard to believe today, but home computers were still shiny and brand new for people in the 1980’s. They were also quite bulky. Not all households had a desktop computer. Even fewer people understood how computers worked. Like all new innovations, computers were viewed with some initial skepticism and some pretty wild ideas quickly surfaced about what you could do with a computer.
From the outset of the 1980’s, the horror genre exploited general lack of knowledge about the technology and re-imagined computers as a source of horror. Evilspeak, a cult horror film released in 1981, envisioned the computer as a gateway to supernatural evil. In the film, military school reject Stanley Coopersmith uses a computer to translate Satanic texts and, soon enough, the computer houses the soul of past devil worshiper, Father Estaban.
The idea of supernatural evil using computers and media technology as conduits found its way into several subsequent horror films. Wes Craven’s Shocker featured a serial killer, Horace Pinker, whose soul is transferred into electrical networks and television following his execution. Ghost in the Machine, an unremarkable 1993 film, similarly imagines the soul of a serial killer living on in computer networks. The following year saw the release of Brainscan, another sci-fi horror film with Terminator 2’s Edward Furlong, about a violent interactive computer game where virtual deaths seep into the real world. In The Lawnmower Man, a film that shares only its title with the Stephen King short story, virtual reality technology transforms a simple-minded man into a virtual god, blurring the lines between the digital and the real.
Aside from using computers and technology as a Deus ex Machina, many of these 80’s and 90’s films characterize technology and new media as ‘dangerous’. Brainscan is perhaps the most explicit in its construction of this message. After all, it’s about a video game that literally kills; several years following its release, public debates about video game violence and real-world atrocities would intensify following the Columbine shootings.
The Ring offers a particularly poignant commentary on technology and media. Its concept of an unspeakable evil and tragedy spread from person to person through a cursed VHS tape touches implicitly on many of the criticisms of traditional and new media. Like the best stories and films, The Ring was ahead of its time. Its narrative anticipated the viral nature of social media, public shaming, and trolling.
What is it with reporters? you take one person’s tragedy and force the world to experience it … spread it like a sickness.
The Internet Is a Dangerous Place
As social media and digital technology rapidly advanced, horror films shifted focus from computers and technology as “gateways” for supernatural evil and have begun exploiting more grounded fears around anonymity, cyberbullying, and predators. In particular, the found footage horror (FFH) format has produced a few films that have constructed the Internet as a “dangerous place” inhabited by “risky others”. Films like The Den, Megan is Missing, and Unfriended are characterized by narratives focused on anonymous predators that proliferate social media.
Not coincidentally, the found footage format uniquely exploits parental fears around social media by giving the audience a visual gateway into adolescent social relations in the digital era. Both The Den and Unfriended, for instance, use their computer screen format to show viewers how rapidly cyberbullying and public shaming unfold in the digital era with multiple open windows and familiar social media platforms including Skype, Facebook, and YouTube. Narratives in these films emphasize the accessibility of people’s lives on the Internet and the dangers involved with sharing information publicly. Anonymous predators, or “risky others”, in each film engage in increasingly insidious forms of surveillance that allow them to exploit and victimize the protagonists.
Megan is Missing, a 2011 low-budget film, explores what happens to 14-year old Megan Stewart and her best friend Amy Herman when they begin chatting with boys on the Internet. When Megan agrees to meet ‘SkaterJosh’, a teen she has chatted with online, she goes ‘missing’ as the title of the film implies. Amy then begins her own search for Megan by chatting with SkaterJosh before she is eventually lured and abducted. In its final 20 to 25 minutes, Megan is Missing gruesomely documents the confinement, torture, and murder of both girls. The film confirms every parent’s worst fear – the Internet is filled with predators and offers no protections.
They can’t find me. You can set up free screen names anywhere” (Megan is Missing, 2011)
The Horrors of Surveillance and Technology
Other films have focused on public anxieties and fears around technology, surveillance, and the gradual usurping of free will. These are certainly not new ideas. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was a prescient film, years ahead of its time in knowing what was coming. Demon Seed released in 1977, and its story about an organic artificial intelligence trapping a woman in her home, was similarly years ahead of its time. Both films anticipated
Not surprisingly, George A. Romero also captured much of the fears with advancing technology in his underrated Diary of the Dead. Some fans were disappointed that an innovator like Romero was jumping on the found footage bandwagon. Yet the legendary filmmaker invests the technique with challenging ideas. In addition to the increasingly incessant need to document everything, Diary of the Dead explores how easily captured footage and images can be exploited and manipulated for different agendas.
Recent Blumhouse entry, Upgrade, joins several horror-themed films that examine our increasing dependence on technology. From smartphones to smart household technology, there are very few areas of our lives not governed or watched by technology. Upgrade’s story of a literal fusion between man and smart technology, particularly how references corporate profit orientation, is an all too relevant commentary. Past films, like the low-budget 90’s film Hardware, were early, gritty interpretations of military exploitation of technology has killing devices. Yet films like Upgrade and the smaller iBoy look