Horror films resonate with audiences in part because they allow us to explore ours fears in the safety of theatres. The Jetsons may have promised a future where technology and humanity lived in harmony, but our reality is entirely different. The 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.
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.
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 skepticism. Into this void of knowledge, some pretty wild ideas surfaced about what computers could do you could do.
From the outset of the 1980’s, the horror genre exploited general lack of knowledge about the technology. Horror films quickly re-imagined computers as a source of horror. Evilspeak, a 1981 cult horror film, envisioned the computer as a gateway to supernatural evil. In the film, military school reject Stanley Coopersmith uses a computer to translate Satanic texts. Soon afterwards, the computer houses the soul of past devil worshiper, Father Estaban.
Virtual Reality – Even Scarier Than Computers
The idea of supernatural evil using computers as conduits found its way into several subsequent horror films. Wes Craven’s Shocker sees executed serial killer Horace Pinker’s soul transferred into our television airwaves. 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, about a computer game where virtual deaths seep into the real world. In The Lawnmower Man, virtual reality transforms a simple-minded man into a virtual god, blurring the lines between the digital and the real.
Technology as ‘Dangerous Other’
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 would later offer particularly poignant commentary on technology and media. Its concept of an unspeakable tragedy spread from person to person through a cursed VHS tape touches implicitly on many 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
More recently, horror films shifted focus to exploit more grounded fears around anonymity, cyberbullying, and online predators. In particular, several found footage horror films 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 film exploits parental fears around social media. Megan is Missing, for instance, gives its audience a visual gateway into the digital world of teens. Both The Den and Unfriended use their computer screen format to show us how rapidly cyberbullying and public shaming unfold our digital world. Both films fill the screen with multiple open windows and social media platforms including Skype, Facebook, and YouTube. Their narratives emphasize the accessibility of our lives on the Internet and the accompanying dangers. Anonymous predators, or “risky others”, in each film engage in increasingly insidious forms of surveillance. Unseen predators are exploit and victimize protagonists with ridiculous ease.
Megan is Missing – Every Parent’s Worst Nightmare
Megan is Missing, a 2011 low-budget film, commits every parent’s worst nightmare to the screen. Writer and director Michael Goi illustrates how easily 14-year old best friends, Megan and Amy, are exploited after 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 searches 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 fears around technology, surveillance, and loss of free will. These are certainly not new ideas. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was years ahead of its time in knowing what was coming. Demon Seed, released in 1977, was also a few decades ahead of the curve. Its story about an artificial intelligence trapping a woman in her home anticipated the introduction of Alexa and Google Home.
Not surprisingly, George A. Romero also touched on these fears of advancing technology in his underrated Diary of the Dead. Romero’s use of found footage disappointed some fans. It felt like the innovator was jumping on a bandwagon. Yet the legendary filmmaker invested the technique with challenging ideas. Diary of the Dead explores our incessant need to document every aspect of our lives. In addition, Romero comments on how easily captured footage can be exploited 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, technology governs much of our lives. Upgrade’s story of a literal fusion between man and smart technology 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