Open Window

In modern horror, visibility is torture

Back in 1979, the apex of terror was learning that the calls were coming from inside the house. A Skype call, here and now, could be coming from other realms, rooms, or from a dungeon. Michael Myers may have crawled through the open casement of a suburban house, but camera lenses are now one-way mirrors that beam in from anywhere.

Old evil finds familiar targets through new portals. In the ’70s, “it seemed filmmakers were recording simulated scenes of anti-female violence in order to exorcise their own feelings of insecurity and impotence with members of the opposite sex,” film historian William Schoell observed back in 1985 in Stay Out of the Shower. “Like Norman Bates, they were killing the pretty women they were unable to make love to. They were stabbing, skewering, mutilating, and scalding the beautiful, haughty ‘bitches’ [who] teased them provocatively, but never delivered.” The girls in those 1970s horror films were typically nubile, sexually active, and — notably — camera-ready.

“Clever young girls,” as Heather Havrilesky recently wrote, in a piece for the Atlantic about Shirley Jackson, “imagine they were born to be cherished, when instead they’re created merely to be destroyed.”

Camera lenses are now one-way mirrors that can beam terror in from anywhere. Old evil finds familiar targets through new portals

Anybody who expected the 21st century’s horror films to represent women much better than their predecessors must not read the news, since masculine rage appears to increase in proportion to female autonomy. Women may be more visible — in higher education, in the workplace, leading in mainstream films — but in contemporary horror, a girl’s visibility is her vulnerability. Violence begins with the camera, and with these women’s willingness to appear, dressed or undressed, in front of it. Being seen is its own sick punishment. In these kinds of pictures, exposure is torture.

“Wounds,” according to Leslie Jamison’s essay “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” “suggest sex and aperture: A wound marks the threshold between interior and exterior; it marks where a body has been penetrated.” The internet-connected camera is an aperture between the interior and exterior, too, and opens up pathways to violence. Within horror, a new subgenre has emerged in which murders become fodder for pay-per-view websites: Olivier Assayas’s Demonlover (2002), whose major concerns are 3D manga porno and brutal S&M; Megan Is Missing (2011), which is advertised as unendurable; The Den (2013), in which fear begins with Chatroulette; 2014’s Open Windows and Girl House, which presents itself as a spring break, sorority-centric livestream, until it doesn’t. Audience appetites for the violence serve as proof of threat.

Webcam horror builds on old tropes — many are rape-revenge films, in the sense that a male filmmaker exacts revenge on women through depiction of rape, though they part with the genre’s original convention in which a woman, or a bereaved family, exacts revenge on her rapist. In these films, the crime being punished is not bodily violation, but violation of privacy — most often, a woman or girl’s ostensible violation of her own, which is seen as abandoning modesty. Their techniques make brutality look, if not slick, then more “real” in its ugliness. “Rawness” is not necessarily a function of gore, but of its total availability; horror lies not only in the image itself, but in its replication for a theoretically-infinite audience.

In Demonlover, a website menu displaying a grid of snuff pornography looks, to the unfocused eye, like a scramble of red, pink, and visual noise: Screens within screens make the torture a collage, as if viewed in a haunted house whose every surface is mirrored. Girls have always had mental and physical breakdowns in horror, from madness to dismemberment. Now, seen through the new and refracted aesthetics of phone cameras, their breakdowns are visual — gritty pixelation means that images are degraded at the very same time as their subjects — and, worse, seen, in films within films that amplify the trope. Victims are tortured, then tortured again via media capture, so that degradation is twofold.

Women and girls are best viewed in a reflective surface, so that we can see ourselves as an overlay, and so that we can imagine that they are, in turn, seeing us. These women never are. We are never the face of the girl cast back in the glint of the knife — as in Dario Argento’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet — but the killer’s white and impassive face in the window.

In Zachary Donohue’s The Den, the protagonist Elizabeth receives a grant to research a Chatroulette-like site as a kind of “social experiment.” She proceeds through cocks, boys demanding “titties,” and middle-aged perverts to find something more distressing: a video of a young girl being murdered. Her curiosity makes her a target. The first violation she undergoes is sexual — a tape of her having sex with her boyfriend is sent to her professor.

Megan Is Missing, from 2011, is known for punishing horror filmgoers’ curiosity. Written and directed by American Horror Story cinematographer Michael Goi, the plot is — well, a modern American horror story, in which two suburban girls, both pale and pretty, disappear. We discover that they’ve been kidnapped by one of the men they talk to online, then assaulted and horrifically murdered. One is a virgin before she is kidnapped, and one is what the film implies is the opposite. Like Psycho or Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the movie’s said to be “inspired by true events.”

The film’s tagline recalls the teensploitation films of the ’50s and ’60s (Because They’re Young, Too Young to Love, The Careless Years, et cetera), with a modern twist: “Megan and Amy are best friends. They share secrets. They chat with guys online” — and as punishment, “in a few days, they will never be seen again.” Like Last House on the Left, which tries to justify its violence with the flimsy moral that young girls must tread carefully in a world filled with predators, Megan Is Missing flexes its ostensible moral message by being near-immorally explicit. Early in the film’s timeline, Megan recalls a sexual assault — at the age of 10, at the hands of a summer camp counselor — as if she is writing a Penthouse Forum letter. If it’s the case that teenage girls can now perform for a ready audience online, it’s certain that they’ve always been watched regardless.

In contemporary horror, a girl’s visibility is her vulnerability. Violence begins with the camera, and being seen is its own sick punishment

Do we need to see a teenage girl get raped to believe it? In the interests of full disclosure, I failed to finish the film’s full 20-minute closing scene, which sees Amy, a virgin, raped and then buried alive in real time. The killer shows the camera that he’s bloody after the act; the gesture is artless enough to make the viewer feel conspiratorial. His hand is framed like our hand. Scenes from Megan Is Missing, as well as from I Spit on Your Grave, are hosted on several hardcore sites as masturbation material. The film presumes a lascivious interest in watching female suffering — after all, we are watching. It shifts all culpability onto the girls themselves for the interest they allegedly provoke.

Open Windows, a 2014 film by the Spanish director Nacho Vigalondo, conflates and confuses horror and real pornography cunningly: its lead, Sasha Grey, is best known as a porn star, though this movie never turns pornographic. Her casting feels a little like a mean conceptual pun: She plays Jill Goddard, a mainstream movie actress promoting a blockbuster. (Open Windows is Grey’s third horror movie — the first being Smash Cut, a film starring Last House on the Left’s David Hess as a failing director whose props are real, dismembered women.) The movie is Vigalondo’s net-age take on Hitchcock’s Rear Window, and Elijah Wood, who plays a fanboy nerd, is its Jimmy Stewart. Cast in the same dead-split of leading man and voyeur-creep, he finds himself taping Jill through a hotel window, then stalking her at the behest of an unseen and threatening hacker.

“Just stop thinking,” Jill says in her earliest scene. “If you stop thinking, they won’t be able to get into your mind.” There is nothing wrong, per se, with being seen as an object: Jill’s problem is that she’s an object treated with no care. Near the climax of the film, Jill is captured and broadcast live on the web; her fans are told if they don’t close out the browser, she’ll die. They don’t.

Viewers presume that Grey knows a little about being surveilled, which means that every time we see her character broadcast via webcam, the image is grimly layered. It also means that when she is forced to strip, we realize we’ve seen it all before. The reveal feels perversely demure; it also feels guilty, amplifying the thrill for the audience. We see her nipples and cotton-clad crotch, but the kicker is bearing witness to the coercion that brought her character there, so that while Jill sheds her robe at the hacker’s instruction, she also sheds terrified tears. Naked fear is the real shocker, both confirming viewers’ prejudices about women’s sexual agency, and our taste for seeing it stripped away. “American [directors] give you the violence,” Grey once said in an interview. “Europeans give you the sex.”

The title Girl House makes one think of a zoo exhibit. This is not inaccurate: Its plot involves girls making money by broadcasting stripteases, trysts, and so on from inside a sorority-style house. Viewed from a certain angle, it might be inspired by one of Jenny Holzer’s essays:

A real torture would be to build a sparkling cage with two-way mirrors and steel bars. In there would be good-looking and young girls who’ll think they’re in a regular motel room so they’ll take their clothes off and do the delicate things that girls do when they’re sure they’re alone. Everyone who watches will go crazy because they won’t be believing what they’re seeing but they’ll see the bars and know they can’t get in. And they’ll be afraid to make a move, because they don’t want to scare the girls away from doing the delicious things they’re doing.

The film, in a kind of audacious double-dare, begins with a quote from serial killer Ted Bundy: “I’ve met a lot of men who were motivated to commit violence. Every one of them was deeply involved in pornography. Porn can reach in and snatch a kid out of any house today. It snatched me out of mine.” “You have to give demented props,” says the film’s one mainstream review in the Hollywood Reporter, “to a sleazy horror film that begins with an onscreen quote about the evil effects of pornography from someone who presumably knew what he was talking about.”

Girls have always had mental and physical breakdowns in horror. Now their breakdowns are visual: the gritty pixelation and refracted aesthetics of phone cameras means images are degraded along with their subjects

For the first 40 minutes of the film, we watch girls walk around in their underwear doing delicious things to each other, taking part in an online project masterminded by a man who calls himself “the 21st-century Hugh Hefner.” When a male interloper breaks into the “girl house,” he upsets the equilibrium between viewer and viewed, which makes the girls out to be “teases” instead of performers. This means that, according to slasher-film rules, they are marked for death. (Where, incidentally, is the line between performing and being performative? Are these girls who perform, or is this performative girlhood? Girl House never offers up an answer either way.)

The manufacture of porn is also the subject of Demonlover, which spins a convoluted plot about an industry feud surrounding the distribution of manga sex films into something unspeakably dark. Diane De Monx, a sleek undercover informant from a company called Mangatronics, discovers that its competitor, Demonlover, operates as a front for a live torture website called the Hellfire Club, which offers pay-per-view violence to anyone with a credit card. Calling it “a high-gloss corporate thriller that watches a group of vicious women executives,” Roger Ebert, in his review, is as interested in its business philosophy as its moral sensibility: “Would it be cost-effective to torture people online? How would you advertise this site, and bill for it? How much would it cost? Who would be reckless enough to pay?”

Judging from the genre, the answer to Ebert’s last question is: more of us than we would like to admit. Demonlover’s twist ending hinges on humiliation: By the closing scene, Diane is no longer a distantly sexy businesswoman and “ice queen,” but a drugged and kidnapped sex slave with the name ZORA. We have no idea if she will die, or live on as a permanent victim, though it’s unclear which is worse. “You want to torture ZORA?” the website’s userface asks a young boy. “Send us your fantasy and we will make it REAL.”

With a teen’s naivety, he types in that he’d like her to be “Storm from the X-Men.” With a teen’s inherent perversion, he adds: “She is bound to a metal bed.” When he returns, he uses the video feed as background noise for his science homework; ZORA stares out directly at us. Who else would this torture be for? Who else would be reckless enough to pay?

Philippa Snow is a London-based writer and editor at Modern Matter and Hexus journal. She has written for i-D, the Guardian, Dazed & Confused, and the Quietus, among others.