Horror Head

Modern horror movies dramatize what’s really terrifying about digital networks: our inability to escape the terror of our embodied lives

Horror as a genre has a long history of engaging with our anxieties about modernity and its violence. Over the past 30 years, horror films have been a vehicle for confronting the ways technology tears open our understanding of the world we live in, and might one day tear open our bodies. This is most evident in tech-centric body horror, epitomized by the work of David Cronenberg (Videodrome, Existenz) but also seen in cult works like the cyberpunk horror film Tetsuo: The Iron Man. A more recent “tech boom” occurred in the early 2000s, first in Japanese horror (or “J-Horror”) and then later in the American remakes (the Ring series, One Missed Call, Pulse). Both of these subgenres deal with questions of embodiment in a technologized era. Cronenberg’s films depict tech/media as something that seduces the human body and then becomes a part of it, wrestling it from a person’s control and then transforming it in a visceral, often sexual way. More recent tech-horror tends to follow people who encounter a literal ghost in the machine — a vengeful spirit who haunts a telephone or computer, using the vessel to gain access to unsuspecting users and psychologically torturing them until they’re destroyed in the physical realm. In either case, the protagonists are punished for their curiosity, for giving in to the temptation to cross a physical or psychological boundary that is facilitated by their interaction with technology.

The films position the digital world as a place we consciously enter that is corruptible by other humans and vulnerable to haunting. They’re at the very least tech-anxious, if not techno-phobic, although more dated films did not anticipate the more insidious ways that tech actually became embedded in our embodied lives, nor the utopian promise of tech and cybernetics that Silicon Valley would sell consumers in the twenty-first century. In Cronenberg’s worlds, the digital is made flesh, and that is horrific. In our world the horror comes from our inability to escape our flesh and what we encounter in it.

In her text How We Became Posthuman, N. Katharine Hayles critiques the liberal humanist view that cognition takes precedence over the body. She traces the history of cybernetics and the concept of the posthuman that developed within it, claiming that the mind-body dualist fantasy that posthumanism relies upon ignores the fact that our embodied experiences are essential components in what makes us human in the first place. A posthuman reality would replicate the same oppressive structures that punish or reward people for who they are in their embodied lives, and would fail to erase the trauma that our bodies experience. The posthuman cannot liberate us if information and materiality are treated as mutually exclusive, as if our psychological selves are not constantly haunted by what our bodies and the bodies of others have endured, in our own lives and throughout history.

The posthuman cannot liberate us if information and materiality are treated as mutually exclusive, as if we are not haunted by what our bodies and the bodies of others have endured

This question of embodiment should inform our thinking about our lives online — about how our digital and embodied lives are not just intertwined but enmeshed, and about who does and does not get to move freely online and off without threat of harm. Whether or not it’s at the forefront of our minds, we engage with posthumanism every time we interface with a social networking platform; we have entire relationships, communities, and experiences that exist in digital spaces. But we can’t pretend they’re confined there. They reach out into our embodied worlds all the time; they enlighten us, they move us, and sometimes they traumatize us. The digital world is not a place we visit in order to escape our “real” lives and problems; we carry everything that has happened to our bodies “IRL” online, and it informs our online experiences and relationships as a result.

In a present where the promise of the posthuman is desirable to people — the idea that we can potentially escape the trappings of what it means to live in our individual, imperfect, sensitive bodies — horror does not arise from the fear of what happens when we abandon our bodily lives; it asks what happens if we cannot. If IRL experiences of embodied trauma follow us online, can we ever escape them? Did we ever have a chance?

It Follows and Unfriended, both released in 2014, occupy different parts of the horror film landscape. The former is critically adored for being a subtle, artsy (read: “highbrow”) commentary on sex and intimacy. The latter is regarded more as a typical teen slasher with a social media twist, digestible but forgettable. They treat tech very differently too: The entirety of Unfriended is told over the main characters’ computer screen, the narrative unfolding over social media and video chat platforms, while It Follows is almost completely devoid of modern tech devices, to the extent that it’s impossible to place the film temporally. Despite these distinctions, these films portray the horror of navigating social networks as someone marked by trauma.

In David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, college student Jay sleeps with a new boyfriend, who then reveals to her that he has passed along a sexually transmitted haunting. The haunting takes the form of a person, who slowly walks in the direction of the haunted. No matter how far you flee, it reaches you eventually. He tells her, “It could look like someone you know, or a stranger in the crowd. Anything to get close to you.” The only solution is for Jay to pass it along to someone else and tell that person to do the same, to get the haunting further and further away from her. He then drops her, half-naked and shaking, in the street outside her house. Jay attempts to evade the haunting and eventually tries to pass it along through casual sex, but it always comes back.

Aside from a strange e-reader built into a clamshell compact, modern tech is noticeably absent from It Follows. This prevents us from pinpointing when the film takes place, and situates us in an uncanny space, separate from our reality while resembling it in eerie ways. This establishes a mood typical of classic weird horror (things are slightly “off”), but it also serves to set up the world we’re watching as an analogue of an online social network. While adults exist, they’re not really present in the narrative; the teenagers run all over the suburbs of Detroit (depicted as quintessential “suburbia”) unencumbered by anything but the haunting following them. When they do cross geographic boundaries, like the 8-Mile Road marker into Detroit proper, they don’t encounter people unless they seek to — they can tread into places outside of their racial and class geographies as they please. Despite the lack of modern tech, the film’s title indicates an awareness of the networked world the film was released into.

What haunts us online? What do we take with us into our digital lives that tethers us to embodied reality and prevents us from reaching this posthuman self?

Unfriended, directed by Levan Gabriadze, takes place entirely on the protagonist’s laptop screen, which serves as the viewer’s interface to the universe of the film. We follow her as she picks a song to play on Spotify and pokes around on Facebook until she meets her friends in a Skype group chat to discuss buying concert tickets. There’s an extra profile in the group that no one recognizes — a “glitch,” someone claims. They try to remove it to no avail, but don’t stress about it too much, until they begin receiving messages from the Facebook profile of their friend Laura who committed suicide a year prior. Laura’s ghost picks them off one by one, seeking revenge for the uploading of an embarrassing party video, and the subsequent trolling that drove her to end her life. Along the way she forces them to confess betrayals they’ve kept secret from one another, instilling feelings of pain and shame that each will carry with them to…well, wherever they’re going next.

The drama centers on the characters differentiating between what is or is not a crime, based on whether it was perpetrated online or off. They maintain a certain innocence and self-righteousness — “everyone else was doing it”; “it was just a joke” — and are punished for not admitting that their online selves are indistinguishable from their “real” selves, that their behavior in the digital world was representative of who they were as friends. No one expresses any visible regret until the very end of the film, when the last person left in the group chat is revealed to be the one who originally posted the video of Laura. She apologizes, and with this final acknowledgement of the collapse between her embodied and digital life, the ghost gets the recognition she seeks.

What haunts us online? What do we take with us into our digital lives that tethers us to embodied reality and prevents us from reaching this posthuman self? In Ghostly Matters, sociologist Avery Gordon defines haunting as “one way in which abusive systems of power make themselves known and their impacts felts in everyday life … it is an animated state in which a repressed or unresolved social violence is making itself known, sometimes very directly, sometimes more obliquely.” Gordon differentiates between haunting and trauma, claiming that while trauma lingers within us, it is more of an individualistic obstacle. Haunting, on the other hand, exists to push us towards action, to correct a violence that is social and historical: “Being haunted draws us affectively, sometimes against our will and always a bit magically, into the structure of feeling of a reality we come to experience, not as cold knowledge, but as a transformative recognition.”

In context of the posthuman, the hauntings in these films operate as information within digital channels. They represent the parts of oneself that have been “uploaded” online: our behavior, our traumas, as well as our keystrokes and locations logged. In It Follows, the haunting that follows a person from place to place is not that dissimilar from the technology that locates a person via their digital footprint. The teens can only travel so far, and any place that feels safe to them (for instance the lake house where they take temporary refuge) feels that way for a reason: some memory or emotional connection from “real” life. The kids in Unfriended face a similar terror: all of their misdeeds exist as information in some form or another, whether in photographs they thought were deleted, or deeds they confided in one another. While they assume they are safe online, they soon learn that the two worlds are not separate.

In both films, characters are unable to leave the network that is replicating their trauma and confronting them with it. The information created in their embodied lives is used to punish and destroy them. And it is not a coincidence that the characters being punished are teenage girls, easy targets for abuse online, whose trauma is often weaponized against them. When ghostly figures appear before Jay in It Follows, they are often either large, threatening-looking men, or vulnerable-looking women or children; threats or victims. They stop following her (although the ending leaves this unclear) once she gives up casual sex for love. Her sexuality is policed by this spectral threat, not unlike the threats that women face online — from avatars, some faceless and some resembling those they see every day. A similar gendered policing happens in Unfriended. While the ghost dispatches with both the girls and boys in the friend group, she only shames the girls by revealing scandalous photos of them, reproducing what they did to her.

Hauntings, however, exist to teach us something — to propel us to fix something in a system that is broken. Gordon invokes Walter Benjamin’s theory of profane illumination, a conjuring that leads us somewhere but also connects us to the past and signals our role in it, asking us to do something: “You are already involved, implicated, in one way or another, and this is why, if you don’t banish it, or kill it, or reduce it to something you can manage, when it appears to you, the ghost will inaugurate the necessity of doing something about it.” When we encounter our traumas online we also encounter the structural injustices that allowed violence to occur in the first place. As insurmountable as those structural powers already are in the physical world, they feel even more immutable online, permanently etched into social networks in the form of data. Unless people confront and dismantle oppressive structures in the embodied world, we will continue to be haunted by the repercussions of historical violence everywhere we go, online and off. We will not only be denied the liberatory promise of the posthuman; we will perpetually chase it as it eludes our grasp and punishes us at the same time.

The kind of horror that truly embeds itself in our consciousness doesn’t give us a roadmap on how to master our fears. Instead it forces us to confront what we cannot defeat, which has typically meant our mortality and the vulnerability of our bodies. Technological modernity has thrust us into a space where it’s revealed that maybe the true horror doesn’t lie in losing our connection to our bodies, but in not being able to escape them. Like the characters in these films, our “real” lives have been uploaded. Our experiences, memories, and to a large extent, our bodies are dissected, interpreted and shared by others, sometimes with our consent and sometimes without it. The violence we encounter online and the power dynamics that threaten or bind us do so because they were already capable of catching us in the “real” world; where, at least sometimes, we may have been able to hide.

Stephanie Monohan is a writer, illustrator, and youth researcher for MTV. She is currently pursuing a masters in Media, Culture, and Communication at NYU Steinhardt. Her work focuses on the intersections of technology, horror, and capitalism. She resides in New York and can often be found screening midnight movies at the Spectacle Theater in Brooklyn.