Cyber Panic: Social Media as Horror
Image above: Friends Request
Introduction: The Horror Film as Purgation
Walter Benjamin said, “There is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”1 Barbarism is a form of a horror and each decade endures its own barbaric elements driven from the contemporary climate of sociological, political, and economic ills. Very often the nature of these ills has been technological and industrial developments, with the most benevolent or innocuous intentions, but create unforeseen damage to societies. Benjamin’s insight suggests the deeply destructive aspects of human nature and as Sartre also suggested in No Exit(1944), “Hell is other people!”2 The socialization within civilization provides a wide spectrum of human behavior and the worst in people has been well documented in film and literature. Yet the tale of horror, both in film and literature exists, paradoxically, as cautionary and as escapist entertainment. It is rumored that Stephen King has said, “We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones” King suggests that the acts of barbarism in real life trigger escapist mechanisms such as these films.
The cathartic goals of Sophocles and other Greek tragedy dramatists are well written about. This tradition of purgation continues in the cinema today. Horror has been described as a tool of catharsis. Yet, beyond the utilitarian trappings, these films reflect the pulse of social anxieties and their influence on our daily lives. By creating horrific spectacle, horror films simultaneously reflect and provide escape from modern day acts of barbarism inflicted on humans by humans. At the turn of the millennium, technology and social media seem to have added a new form of horror.
Indeed, films with social media as their theme, may be actually just a trending fad in the film marketplace like superheroes Justice League (2017), Batman (1989)) or post- apocalyptic rehash from the 1980s : Escape from New York (1981), the Bronx Warriors (1982)). Yet, sociologists have often learned a great many principles about human behavior through the study of fads. What may one day appear as fad, maybe in tomorrow’s textbooks of human behavior, including creative output, leisure, and the humanities.
Exploitation versus Art
Horror films can in fact be gratuitous exploitation, but they can also be artistically interwoven. However, one need not only classify and divide the genres of horror to demonstrate “the gratuitous versus the artistic,” but rather look with an objective eye to discern trends in horror and see what they reveal about our society. “Romero and fellow directors like John Carpenter, Wes Craven, and Tobe Hooper depicted America’s youth sacrificed by old, paternal, reactionary forces full of resentment, sadism, and pure hatred –uncompromising pictures of a nation devouring itself.”3 The Vietnam War, Watergate, and Kent State helped create this hatred and distrust of authorities, which these maverick filmmakers conveyed and commented on.
Social Media: A Working Definition
The Merriam Webster dictionary defines “Social Media” as the following: “forms of electronic communication (such as websites for social networking and microblogging) through which users create online communities to share information, ideas, personal messages, and other content (such as videos)”4
Social media is a revolutionary innovation that drives social groups and individuals together at the click of a button. Its applications are wildly numerous. Yet, there have been horrific abuses of this technology including, bullying, stalking, trolling, public shaming, harassment, lies, and thievery, fraud and even murder. Unfortunately, as a result, a current state of suspicion and fear has fallen on technology due to some of the negative aspects of Facebooking or Tweeting. A significant symbol of this cultural fear is the horror genre movies that use social media as a trope. Some are satirical and effective, others are blatantly gratuitous, exploitative, and offensive, but they should all be read as concretization of subconscious or semi-conscious fears in a modern age.
The Reliance on Social Media
Social media fills many needs, and particularly those of young adults. These needs are socialization, informational, school related, occupational related, interpersonal and intimate relationships, creativity, interest or hobby related, like minded-ness, and political viewpoints. The instantaneous gratification of a “like”, baits young adults who are desperately in need of approval, so much so that disapproval could cause neurosis. There have also been wide spread cases of “Social Media Addiction”. Şahin and Kumcağiz noted that “In general, the current study found that there were significant relationships between narcissism, self-esteem and social media addiction, and that both narcissism and self-esteem predicted social media addiction while it also possessed specific limitations.”5 The connection between social media and addiction is a pattern that is being wilding discussed. There is a certain “fix-like” behavior that is chased after when logging on. Also, worthy of note, is the narcissistic and self-esteem component that comes with social media. In this way, many of the narcissistic characters in the social media horrors become early victims. However, beneath layers of narcissism, there are droves of teens that are alienated and fear lack of acceptance.
In addition to the fear of not gaining acceptance, an article in Computers in Human Behavior explains, “Theories of media effects have long established a link between media consumption and fear of crime.”6 There have been studies that show a connection between increased use of social media and the world view that many cultivate. It is evident that social media has heightened a sense of awareness about crimes such as police shootings and school shootings, hence, driving a more hostile world view, particularly in young adults.
Given the unique characteristics of social networking platforms, individuals who are interested in learning more about crime and violence events may turn to—or engage in—conversations and posts on social media more frequently As a result, social media consumption and engagement may also cultivate, or increase, fear among the individual.7
Therefore, as the aforementioned suggests there may ultimately be a spike in paranoia amongst young adults who rely on social media for many needs. One need only see the proliferation of media coverage on social media incidents to see how venues like Facebook and Instagram affect culture. Filmmaking is “truth 24 frames per second” as Godard said, and the recent trend of films may reflect the truth about the increasing paranoia. This increasing paranoia is then capitalized on by the film industry, as many other fears throughout history have been, to turn a profit.
The Subgenres of Social Media Horror
As Social Media horror is exploited, the films wherein social media is either the malevolent force, or the tool where the technology is used to harass, kill, threaten, bully, intimidate, or dominate can be divided in three categories: 1. popular thriller/ghost story-concept films 2. Cautionary dramatic tales dealing with stalking and bullying 3. Gore and horror, low budget, paranormal/ gore- usually direct to streaming devices.
It should be noted that all three of these sub genres confront social media as a form of cultural degeneration, wherein, the worst, or in this paper, the most barbaric, in human nature rears its ugly head for contemporary times. “The ‘mirror’ of films and TV programs shows a bleak, pessimistic and unsparing picture of a society deeply affected by fear, uncertainty, and aggression,” says Riegler, a noted historian.8 Evidence of this aggression can be seen by the numerous, horrifying incidents of school shootings. Most of these incidents, it should be noted, dealt with some aspect of social media. Whether it be tweeting or videos, the role of the often ubiquitous social media, plays a part.
Chuck Tryon, in his article about audience spectatorship in films such as Blair Witch, and The Last Broadcast (1998) explains:
Television, video, and the Internet appear as threats to the stability and safety of human subjects, challenging not only the status of cinema itself but also the stability of the nuclear family, specifically through the reconfiguration of the relationship between public and private space. These films seem to imply that electronic media will lead to fragmented social relationships because of their illusion of authenticity and their potential to further isolate people from a larger community.9
Cultural fear about technology has been part of cinema since James Whale’s Frankenstein. After all, Frankenstein was the mutation of technology and humanity. There seems to have always been distrust of the new and increasingly complex. However, in many cases the issues that are created by technology may very well be a legitimate concern.
Many of the films expressing “Social Media Panic” have appeared on the Lifetime Movie Network as a form of cautionary tales. Lifetime has marketed itself as programming for women, and reflects the fears and anxiety generally of middle class white women. Films such as Social Nightmare (2017) and Cyber Seduction (2017) deal with a fear of exposure. Social Nightmare tells the story of a young woman’s chances of college acceptance being destroyed after someone posts inappropriate photos on line of her. This sort of public disgrace does not exist in a vacuum; rather the plot was liberally gleaned from news stories about such situations. The publication of stories of this type fuels the panic and Lifetime posing as socially conscious, is capitalizing on the scare. Cyber Seduction taps into primal fears about infidelity and the new layer of human expression-expression that can be used to endorse both positive and negative behavior.
Early Social Panic Movie
Swimfan (2002) was one of the earliest thrillers about a psychotic woman using instant messaging to stalk her ideal boyfriend. It alerted the public to the abuses of the internet before Facebook really took off. Although, was regarded as a competent psychological suspense film and hardly very influential, the message was most likely lost. Repeat themes in films to come about actual true-crime stories swiped from headlines, would ultimately make the central concern of “all-access” and “social sharing” more visible.
Cyberstalking, the case focus in Swimfan, was unheard of before messaging boards and online dating came into fashion. There were many headlines full with listings of online dates via Craigs’ list gone wrong. The result is again an impetus for the Social Media panic, with the early incarnations of Craigs list, a site to list apartments, jobs, dating, had been demonized by unfortunate incidents of abuse, crime, and murder.
Swimfan has a certain quality of washed hues of blues that repeat throughout. The film is somewhat visually appealing and the acting above par compared to other thrillers of this ilk. One gets the sense that the instant chatting is secondary to the plot, rather than essential as with films of later generation. It is as if you can see through the chronology of film how social media has saturated our culture. By looking at films at the cusp of the social media revolution and comparing them with later films, the transition is staggering on how much more dependent films are on these resources than earlier.
The New Cyber Horror Formula
In two recent films, Friends Request (2017) and Unfriended (2014) try to capitalize on what may be term “Social Media Panic”, but succeed only in giving a trite social message.
“Friend Request seems to want to make some kind of statement about our screens as our black mirror — objects we stare into that make us change. The terrain is ripe for commentary about our relationship to technology, the way we live our lives online. But any message gets lost in its rather sludgy climax,” writes Katie Walsh for the LA Times.10
The film is slow moving and attempts to be subtle, again with specific in-depth photography of computers screens. It seems that computers aren’t particularly aesthetically appealing in the traditional sense of cinematography, yet they are vital to the narrative.
“The formal experiment of Unfriended is intriguing. Here is a movie that takes place in real time and in which everything we see is limited to whatever is on the screen of the main character’s computer….the movie has a message: Cyber-bullying is bad. Unfriended is, one supposes, partially an overblown attempt to scare people straight about that despicable trend,” says Mark Dujsik for Roger Ebert.com.11 Peter Travers said, “Unfriended is basically Friday the 13th on a laptop, but the gimmick works like gangbusters.”12 Working like “gangbusters” may be an overstatement, and the film is likely to be lost in the white noise other social media panic films.
Unfriended demonstrates the gimmicky approach many filmmakers have taken towards portraying social media in horror films. These gimmicky techniques call to mind the shocks devised by filmmaker William Castle in the 1950s with films such as The Tingler, or Homicidal. Yet gimmicks are something that finds their way into the conscious of the American psyche. The tactics show an attempt to capitalize on public dread.
Unfriended begins with a series of boxes on a screen each with a “talking head” of a teenager. The first two characters engage in cyber-flirting. We are then introduced to the other set of mischievous, snarky characters. What follows is a series of screen scrolling and a set of articles retrieved about a girl’s suicide. Then the only audible soundtrack is a keyboard and clicks/ send/ receive jingles. The plot is literally driven by windows and computer actions.
It is striking how this film was obviously made for millennials. It does not seem likely that a person was not indoctrinated into the social media network would find this interesting. Therefore, the film is a exploiting a niche market with tech savvy teens and tapping into their fears which seem much more esoteric then the teens in Friday the 13. Through the course of the film betrayals, sexual trysts, cat fights, and disappearances ensue. There is very little actual physical violence in the film. Wherein early teensploitation horror films, sex and violence were the staples, this film is relatively tame. Most of the content is based around salty dialogue.
Unfriended is a form of cinema veritέ with social media. The computerized milieu is meant to increase a sense of cyber-verisimilitude. The story unfolds rather naturally and at first appears to be about nothing. The visuals can be less than inspiring, but maybe that is the point. YouTube plays a significant role as an app within an app, a clever play on the metanarrative that Unfriended is. Unfriended may be the first film wherein the viewer may need to be computer literate to comprehend, which calls to mind the idea that acquisition of new skills may now be vital to visual literacy if you are not a digital native.
Because of some minor profit and success there has recently been a sequel to Unfriended, further evidence that social media has some resonance in viewers, particularly one of hidden danger and threat behind the computer screen. It seems that Hitchcock may have made use of social media, as the ubiquity in modern society would inevitably have to be addressed by a film maker dealing with horror or suspense.
Relevance in Time
It should be noted that like many horror movies in the time they were released, in more cases than not, the horror/social media genre movies have received unpleasant reviews. It is only after years go by that film scholars go back and see the value of these films that become like rare social artifacts. Such is the case with films such as Last House on the Left and Texas Chainsaw, wherein, what was originally thought of as a step above trash now are recognized has having significant social importance, especially in the history of film.
Earlier the term “Social Media Panic” was mentioned. It seems useful to compare this type of panic to that of “Satanic Panic” in the 1970s, wherein paranoia about satanic cults stirred up fear in certain communities and as a result there were many films made about it beginning with the masterpiece The Exorcist (1973) and at its worst, Race with the Devil (1975), a b picture made with Peter Fonda, and Warren Oates. These films too showed manifestation of fear of cultural degeneration. Such fears are often justified in the contemporary world. Yet, sometimes fears of the irrational can grip the public, as in this case.
A Brand New Bag
Leslie Felperin writing for Variety says “Chatroom (2010) is a thriller that tries to tap into anxieties about the online activities of contemporary teens, but the result is more likely to prompt [roll on the floor laughs] than tremble in their seats.”13, while Andrew Osmond for Sight and Sound explains, “Nakata’s film lays emphasis on the negative effects of social networking. The film is an old-style “Awful Social Warning” and chronicles how several strangers meet in an online chatroom and are ever more deviously manipulated by the chatroom’s seductive sociopathic founder. The inept dialogues contribute to the nonrealistic to the film, compounded by the fact that the film is also far duller than many real-life online stories.”14 Chatroom was originally a British stage production and it does not translate well to film. The result is stunted and stagy. Talking heads and computer screens appear to be a new norm for many films, and that paradigm is altering the fabric of real “Cinema”. Many of these films are reproductions of reproductions of simulated reality and they do not translate to drama. It would seem that the act of using social media is more gratifying than reproductions about it. The simulation of the cyber environment is less intriguing, as it turns out, then it seems. Therefore, films such as Unfriended and Chatroom, despite being timely, do not pull off the trickery of traditional suspense films as their approach is one of gimmicky and less on the emphasis of character development.
New streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu have created new markets to exploit the demand for Cyber horror. One need only glance at the horror section online and see the stories of social media run amok ad infinitum. The sheer repetition of plot lines and the recurrent sex and violence themes suggest major market supply and demand. This further suggests the growing impact of social media and the dread that it may well induce. Many of the films deal with “games” where people die for online sport.
Marshall McLuhan defined the “global village”, a singular united world connected by technology. William F. Baker writing for the Nation describes the implications of the global village saying, “When used today, “global village” usually has positive connotations. As media and commerce make us more interconnected, the argument goes, the world shrinks into a peaceful, prosperous, global village. But McLuhan did not think of the global village as a happy place at all. He saw it as a place of terror, the home we would all have to move to when electronic media had finished re-tribalizing us.”15 Indeed, the village with increasing interconnected lives through technology has made the world more terrifying to many.
The twitter-verse has had enormous impact in politics as Trump’s presence in it demonstrates. One need not wander far to find film titles such as #horror, obviously demonstrating how social media has infiltrated our vernacular. The hash tag has become another cyber tool that turns either way, both as a help and as a weapon. The instantaneity of twitter-verse works as part of the Global Village theory, but with implications McLuhan never could have imagined. No one is safe is the message sent when nearly every public figure sends and receives disturbing tweets, and any person is at risk for maleficence.
Theoretical Approaches to Cyber- Horror
There are two main critical theories that can be effectively applied to Cyber -Horror
In a chapter in Film Theory, Joelle Collier explains, “the objective of film theory is to answer the question (which serves as the title of one of the most influential works of theory), what is cinema (Qu’estce que le cinéma?)
The Collier article explains about the most current theorists in film: The new theorists rejected the basic assumptions of the materialist theorists, but implicitly acknowledged the systematic rigor that they had brought to the study of cinema. This most recent current in film theory is epitomized in the work of Gilles Deleuze. Rather than conceiving of cinema as a language system, or codes that have to be cracked in order to find its meanings hidden below its surface.16
The language of Cyber Horror is not cryptic as one might expect. Perhaps, reading these films as symbolic reflections of our age may be the best way to interpret them. If we look at Unfriended or Friends Request, we see coded entries into the subversive nature of horror. While these entries into film are hardly on par with the more difficult films of Antonioni, Godard, or Truffaut, they can still be read a type of barometer of the social climate.
The films can also be seen through the lens of Structuralism and Semiology. Collier describes Structuralism as part of the work of Claude Levi Strauss who studied a given culture to ascertain patterns, repetitions, myths, etc. The recurrent elements, according to Strauss are the key to understanding deep seated values in a given culture.17 Film experts apply this to film to see what film reveals about its culture, and certainly understanding the conventions of genre, predictability of plot, recurrent motifs all play a role in tapping into what the film reveals about the culture that produced it.
For example, many of the conventions of earlier slasher films are evident in these films including the promiscuous girl being first to go, the wrongly abused character getting revenge, or
The Highs and Lows of Cyber Horror
Sobcynski’s review of #horror explains that,It will prove to be nothing more than a nightmarishly awful blend of mad slasher nonsense, social satire and After School Special that offers nothing of value in the way of humor, scares or insight. It may have the lofty goal of illustrating how pre-adolescent cruelty in the cyber-era can jump from the screen to real life in horrible ways, but the end result is so bad….18
#horror may be the lowest on the rung of the recent trend in social media films, but it certainly is the most unsubtle, and overtop foray into this territory. Even the worst films can reveal insights into contemporary culture. Again, we see teens being stalked by killers, but this time he has a hashtag. Under the guise of preaching, the film is pure manipulation and exploitation.
Sobcynski, goes on to say,” More troubling is that it is never clear whether Subkoff means this film to be a legitimate expose of the horrors of cyber-bullying, or a satire of media-obsessed youth so focused on their cellphones and “likes” that they do not even notice when they are systematically being bumped off literally instead of metaphorically.”19
#horror’s director is noted fashion designer making her directing debut. That may be the reason why there is attention to fashion design in the film. However, the material does not lend itself to fashion nods, rather in concentrates, or rather tries to cash in bully-panic. However, the film is notable for being a shining example of social media panic.
Kyoshi Kurosawa’s mixes the internet with the supernatural in Pulse (2006), as Kit Hughes writes: Pulse functions thematically as a meditation on contemporary feelings of alienation and loneliness in the face of new technologies. Much of the expositional dialogue centers on lost relationships, the inability to know or communicate with others, loneliness of both the living and the dead, and the ghostliness of those who seek out and fail to find connections through the internet.20
Kurosawa’s take on the traditional ghost story is striking in that it reveals a new methodology to creating narrative. One of the oldest tropes of narrative storytelling is the ghost story and Kurosawa’s contribution is apropos to the current zeitgeist. Kurosawa’s film is more engaging and less exploitative then other entries in the genre. The film is less concerned with social media as tool to fear, and utilizes in the film more as a rhetorical narrative device to comment on the indelibility of the internet.
Technology, specifically social media is growing and developing and maybe viewed as still in a “honeymoon phase”. It is not clear what the ultimate effect on society will be, but the recent onslaught of social media related horror demonstrates a clear social anxiety about its effects. The sub-genre is yet another niche that can be examined by social critics to reveal more about the human condition. It is worthy of note to mention that horror films expand and retract, and when one trend pans out, another takes over. It will be interesting to see what the next phase in development of films trends brings, and once more, what will be the next set of circumstances, fears, and horrors, the next generations will harness.
1 Benjamin, Walter. Theses on the History of Philosophy. New York: Illuminations, 1971.
2 Sartre, Jean-Paul. No Exit. Samuel French: New York, 1968
3 Riegler, Thomas. “We’re All Dirty Harry Now: Violent Movies for Violent Times.” The Interface / Probing The Boundaries , no. 70 (2010): 17-41. Communications and Mass Media Complete. (Accessed February 1, 2018.)
4 “Social Media” Dictionary by Merriam-Webster: America’s most-trusted online dictionary. Retrieved February 02, 2018, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/
5 Sahin, Cengiz, and Hatice Kumcağiz. (2017). “The predictive role of narcissism and self-esteem on Social Media Addiction.” International Journal Of Eurasia Social Sciences / Uluslararasi Avrasya Sosyal Bilimler Dergisi 8, no. 30: 2136-2155. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed February 6, 2018).
6 Intravia, Wolff, Paez, and Gibbs. “Investigating the Relationship between Social Media Consumption and Fear of Crime: A Partial Analysis of Mostly Young Adults.” Computers in Human Behavior 77 (2017): 158-68.
8 Reigler, “Dirty Harry”.2010
9 Tryon, Chuck. “Video from the Void: Video Spectatorship, Domestic Film Cultures, and Contemporary Horror Film.” Journal Of Film & Video 61, no. 3 (Fall 2009): 40-51. Communication & Mass Media Complete, (accessed February 1, 2018).
10 Walsh, Katie“Social media-themed horror film ‘Friend Request’ makes for dumb midnight movie fun”. 2017, April 21) Los Angeles Times. Retrieved April 29, 2019. https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/la-et-mn-capsule-friend-request-review-20170921-story.html
11 Dujsik, Mark (2017, April 8) “Unfriended”. Roger Ebert.com Retrieved February 1, 2018 from https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/unfriended-2015
12 Felperin, Leslie. (2014, May 14) “Chatroom”.Variety.com Retrieved February 1, 2018 from http://variety.com/2010/film/markets-festivals/chatroom-1117942758/
14 Osmond, Andrew. “Chatroom.” Sight & Sound 21, no. 1 (January 2011): 62-63. Humanities Source, EBSCOhost (accessed February 5, 2018).
15 Baker, William F. (2011, August 4) ‘Fifty Years in the Global Village’: Remembering Marshall McLuhan on His 100th Birthday. Retrieved February 1 2018.
18 Sobcynski, Peter. “#horror movie review.” RogerEbert.com. November 20, 2015. Accessed February 2, 2018. https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/horror-2015.
20 Hughes, Kit. “Ailing screens, viral video: cinema’s digital ghosts in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse.” Film Criticism 36, no. 2 (2011) Academic OneFile (accessed February 5, 2018). http://link.galegroup.com.qbcc.ezproxy.cuny.edu/apps/doc/A277674702/AONE?u=cuny_queensboro&sid=AONE&xid=9d71175a.