Written by: Maria Leia
The bloodcurdling scream. The dead telephone line. Suddenly the electricity doesn’t work and no one is around to help. It looks like someone is going to die. Or at least, it used to look that way. Nowadays, there’s always the silent alarm, the motion-sensored lights and the handy cell phone ready to come to the rescue. And when all else fails, a Twitter mayday tweet generally does the trick. Which means that as terrifying as those old horror tropes were, it is time for an update.
In fact, the abundance of cell phones has created a lot of extra work for horror writers. In our 24-hour communication culture, not only would depriving an individual or a family of a phone line be much more difficult, but the absence of text messages and Facebook updates would be incredibly suspicious. Even downing a cellphone tower isn’t a surefire bet, though roaming charges carry a horror of their own.
For example, in 1997’s Funny Games, the victims are left alone several times by their captors, but are unable to successfully escape or call for help before being recaptured. All the murderers had to do was cut one single solitary phone line. Today, their security system would have to be completely disabled, a red flag to security company. Then they’d have to gather up all the cellphones, the e-readers, the computers, the laptops, the online gaming devices, the tablets, and anything else that may catch a signal in order to truly ensure that no cry for help goes out. Even the most diligent psycho can easily miss an old flip phone stored in the junk drawer.
Scream’s opening scene is another prime phone related example. It consists of the killer repeatedly calling, while Drew Barrymore’s character becomes increasingly frightened by the stranger on the line. Caller ID would fairly quickly take care of that problem, and even if a 911 call was somehow out of the question most homes have a security system where a single push of a button would have called in the cavalry. It’s not quite so easy to be anonymously terrifying anymore.
Not that technology can’t still be used in horror. In movies like The Ring, interactive DVDs can easily be substituted for the ominous VHS tape. The idea of a murderous hacker spying on a movie watcher through a laptop or Smart TV is inherently less supernatural, but can be just as spooky – especially if it is revealed later that there was no working internet signal at the time. Likewise, Poltergeist could also be adapted in much the same way. A staticky television could become a creepy webpage. The team of researchers could easily still exist, though they’d likely have a popular Youtube page they maintained for funding. And rather than just jumping into the portal to rescue the lost child, a camera could be threaded through for some early reconnaissance. Technology may have changed, but humanity’s fear of the supernatural is still alive and well.
Today’s horror movies reflect that fear clearly. Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension is a recent release that relies on many of the old plot points, including children being taken over by evil beings and technology recording creatures invisible to the naked eye. In Oculus, an evil mirror creates chaos. All the security systems in the world do no good against beings from another dimension, and the characters for the most part are too swept away by their fear to fully utilize all the resources that are available to them. In Cabin in the Woods, technology and the supernatural merge, with surveillance cameras recording the victim’s every move while ancient demons enjoy the loss of life from below.
Technology has created a mask of safety, but a skilled writer can strip off that costume and reveal the same ancient fear underneath. Mysterious phone calls and isolated victims may no longer be easy tropes to achieve, but ghosts and demons still send a chill down a viewer’s spine, and a hacker with a web camera can still cause mayhem. Horror may be evolving, but it is here to stay.
Author’s Note: Maria is a writer interested in comic books, cycling, and horror films. Her hobbies include cooking, doodling, and finding local shops around the city. She currently lives in Chicago with her two pet turtles, Franklin and Roy.
Photo credits: Oculus, Cabin in the Woods, Scream, Funny Games