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Due to an unlikely set of circumstances, I went to see Unfriended — the new cyber-horror movie staged on a young woman’s laptop screen — as though the digital revolution had never begun.
I was without my mobile phone and in Hamilton, Ontario, the Canadian steel town where I spent the 1990s getting a pen-and-paper education. I had only been back once in the 13 years since I left, and not at all in this decade. But my feet, with their mysterious, pre-Google Maps memory, walked me from the bus station to the movie theatre at Jackson Square mall. As a teenager I would go there to watch the fright flicks of the day — Scream (1996), I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), The Blair Witch Project (1999). With a quaint arrangement to meet my companion at 6pm by the popcorn stand, I settled into my seat in the near-empty theatre.
Unfriended is a digital-age ghost story, and as a relatively early mainstream example of this genre, both its successes and failures are revealing. Perhaps in a nod to 1990s terror, the heroine is a teenager called Blaire, whose computer screen is our interface with the film’s larger world. She and her boyfriend Mitch begin a group Skype chat with their friends. Blaire’s screen crowds with severed heads, all reporting in from different places. They tease each other and discuss concert tickets but they also notice that an unknown user has intruded on their call. They can’t hang up on this interloper, whose avatar is Skype’s generic white oval face and shoulders — suddenly the ideal Scream mask for the digital generation. Unfortunately for the gang, it is not coincidental that this “glitch” has appeared on the one-year anniversary of Laura Barns’s death, a classmate who killed herself after a humiliating drunken video was posted online. Laura’s ghost has come to exact vengeance on these friends, who were in various ways involved in her public shaming. This maligned spirit starts to haunt both digital and real life, hacking their Facebook accounts and possessing their physical bodies.
I have spent the past couple of years writing a book about how the digital age is rewiring some very fundamental notions about personhood, such as how we take up space in the world, our ability to manifest in multiple places at once, and the basic sense of our separation from one another. Horror movies are particularly good barometers of our shared anxieties. Halloween (1978) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) are definitive examples of slasher films which, at their most symbolic, express our fear of being exposed by literally tearing their victims open, the deep privacies of the body revealed to the world.
In Unfriended we can see an attempt to find images and expressions for the new kinds of exposure that digitisation inflicts on us, with its ongoing demands of connectedness. The simplicity with which the film generates unease reflects the innately spectral quality of our digital interactions. Online life, constituted by disembodied communication, doesn’t require a ghost to feel ghostly. Instant messaging platforms force us daily to survive compressed moments of Gothic suspense: the bated breath as we watch a reply being composed, the minor foreboding when our friend drops away unannounced from a conversation or inserts delays into the quick-fire rhythms of the chat. At such times we feel the tenuousness of this sort of presence. Skype’s bouncy little pencil, signalling our friend’s forthcoming reply, is a symbol of the strange space they occupy between here and there, between being with us and resolutely elsewhere. Can anyone be blamed for feeling uneasy when the pencil drops dead to the floor after seconds of hurried scribbling, with no message to show for all this hidden busyness?
Viewers of Unfriended are well-primed, then, for the terror that accompanies the alert on Blaire’s Facebook page that “Laura is typing”. Since digital communication is an inherently ghostly enterprise, it is not difficult to defamiliarise the features of the desktop such that a spinning rainbow wheel becomes an ominous twirl, or the blinking textbox cursor a footstep that creeps endlessly nearer. The film shrewdly includes the most eerie default in social media: Facebook’s “seen by” function for its messages. A key ingredient of horror is the menace of a hidden gaze. In digital life, besides our chronic concerns of corporate and governmental surveillance, we are often explicitly reminded that sets of unseen civilian eyes are aware of our movements. We consider booking a hotel online and are told how many others are viewing it too, just as eBay announces that the rare Thundercat has “54 watching”.
When Blaire’s hacker friend urges her to sever connections to the ghost by “unfriending” Laura on Facebook, she discovers that this command has been made pale and unclickable in its drop-down menu, a moment that audibly spooked the teenagers behind me. The horror genre has always populated itself with abnormalities: the monster is fearsome in its assault on our notions of what is natural. In Unfriended, the tampering with our standard online templates produces a novel form of monstrosity, the vampire or werewolf trumped by an email with no forward button.
Unfriended also exploits its desktop medium by letting us witness the workings of Blaire’s mind as she types messages to Mitch or to Laura’s ghost. Like all of us, she edits and erases; typically, the drafts of her text move from disclosure to concealment. Her least guarded reactions appear onscreen, only to be gathered up again, letter by letter, and substituted with more calculated replies.
Unfriended makes the disconnect between our online and offline lives look grotesque. The webcam view on to a scene of paranormal torture is suddenly obscured by the victim’s Skype profile picture. One moment there are screams of anguish or spurting blood, the next we see the same terrorised teen in happier times: wearing a woollen hat with animal ears or full of youthful vanity, flexing biceps. This collision of the real and the mediated is a macabre version of a common digital experience. We’re often confronted with the poignancy of a troubled friend’s unflinching Facebook grin or privy to the sorrow behind their online gaiety. Putting on a brave face is nothing new but, traditionally, we haven’t been able to display two faces at once, to be simultaneously brave and despairing. Social media allows our public composure to run in real-time parallel with our woes.
As well as reconfiguring our inner lives, the digital revolution is making new demands of storytellers. This isn’t surprising, since communications technologies, in particular, have long been the scourge of dramatic tension. Indeed, writers often have to sabotage the technological efficiencies of the present to safeguard their plots. In his 1910 novel Howards End, EM Forster makes the Wilcoxes’ driver ill so that the young Paul Wilcox must cycle to the telegram office, slowing down the crucial communiqué to London that his engagement is off. Alas, the message arrives too late and an inept relative is already on her way: “Aunt Juley was gone — gone irrevocably, and no power on earth could stop her.”
In Iris Murdoch’s A Fairly Honourable Defeat (1970), a telephone falls to pieces in a character’s hands, with dastardly consequences. When Zadie Smith modernises Howards End in the novel On Beauty (2005), she adjusts her hero’s temperament to preserve the comedy: “It was too late to stop him and there was no way to contact him. Howard had a profound fear of carcinogens: checked food labels for Diethylstilbestrol; abhorred microwaves; had never owned a cellphone.”
In other words, characters must be kept apart, at least some of the time. This is especially true of horror films, in which someone going off on their own is the prelude to a necessary mishap. Both comedy and tragedy rely heavily on the separation between people, prospering in spaces where wires can be farcically crossed, feelings masked or misinterpreted, and opportunities squandered. What happens, then, to our traditional ideas of drama and narrative in a networked world? Unfriended pioneers one alternative to this problem by making relentless connectivity itself the source of drama. The hunted teens are thrust together, cheek by jowl, on Blaire’s screen, corralled by the ghost into a terrible togetherness. The film’s basic premise is claustrophobic: the friends must stay online to have a chance at survival. Disconnection, the ghost repeatedly insists, is death. They cannot close their laptops, run out of their houses and into the street, fall into the arms of a trusty neighbour or escape into the shadows. Even a phone call is forbidden.
Having locked the teens into this nightmarish Skype conversation, the ghost demands that they play a deadly adaptation of Never Have I Ever, an adolescent drinking game that forces people to admit to past deeds or life experiences. The game further reduces whatever distance and privacy remains between them. The spectral Laura wants their “dirty little secrets” exposed and publicised, just as hers were. This insistence on unbroken connectivity reflects a pervasive anxiety about the digital age, which arises from the more or less tacit notion that we are, or should be, willing participants in its many projects. The modern expectation, after all, is that both our social and professional lives have a digital dimension. This demand to be connected can give contemporary life an oppressive air, which Unfriended suggests through its phantasmic edicts.
In this claustrophobic vein, it recodes the heroine’s archetypal flight from her fiendish pursuers. The classic Gothic scenario has a maiden chased through the corridors of a haunted castle, perhaps in nightdress and bearing a flickering candle. As the digital successor to all those tormented girls, Blaire is in her movie teen’s nightwear of plaid shirt and underwear, her face flushed pale blue from the laptop’s screen. Since she is forced to seek help according to the ghost’s rules, her flight is perversely stationary. The real world, being off-limits, is of no immediate use to her. Instead, she desperately looks for salvation on Chatroulette, an online platform that matches you at random with others around the globe. Sitting cross-legged on her bed, she races from one set of baffled users to the next, trying to explain herself through her tearful panic.
This succession of Chatroulette onlookers contributes to the film’s chilling account of our digital connectedness. Blaire and her friends are, in one sense, surrounded by others — both their immediate colleagues in the ghost’s merciless agenda and all those instantly reachable online multitudes. They haven’t been allowed to make the slasher film mistake of leaving the group. And yet, in this vision of digital life, there is no safety in virtual numbers. As the lights go out in their respective rooms and the ghost turns its attention to their physical selves, their true, helpless isolation is evident. This is a hysterical extreme of the commonly felt paradox that constant connectivity can produce an unwelcome sort of solitude. Whenever Laura’s ghost posts online texts, pictures, and videos that implicate the friends in her suicide, the social media mob is quick to announce their condemnations. While Blaire screams, beneath each of these incriminating posts unrolls an instant thread of disgust and spite.
Indeed, these merciless voices contribute to the film’s biggest artistic challenge. How do you conclude a story that is trapped in a cycle of violence? Laura’s ghost engages in precisely the same acts that drove the living Laura to suicide, while those who condemned her now redirect this indiscriminate rage on to Blaire and her friends. This moral collapse, whereby the disciplinary and democratic powers of public shaming mutate into bloodlust, is a crisis of our online culture. Unfriended captures the brutal caprices of this public spirit but, in so doing, becomes technically trapped by its relentlessness.
Aeschylus’s trilogy of plays, The Oresteia, is an earlier meditation on the human capacity for cyclical, unending violence. The story is bleak: Orestes slew his mother Clytemnestra for killing his father and her husband, Agamemnon. For her part, Clytemnestra’s murderousness was roused when she learnt that Agamemnon had sacrificed their daughter in exchange for a good day’s sailing. In the final play, Orestes is pursued by the Furies, ancient deities who demand vengeance for his crime of matricide. Speaking as a dreadful chorus they declare: “On him who slays we sweep with chasing cry/ Though he be triply strong/ We wear and waste him; blood atones for blood.”
But where does this blood atonement end? The goddess Athena intervenes, realising that the dispensing of justice needs to be institutionalised, not left to individual vengefulness, to family members caught in a ceaseless settling of old scores. Athena knows the wrath of the Furies is similarly unbounded. She breaks the cycle of violence by establishing a trial-based judicial system that makes use of the city’s wise citizens in a democratic upholding of the law.
Without giving any spoilers (another challenge to drama in the digital age), Unfriended doesn’t resort to divine intervention for its conclusion. It is more true to its times than that. While a ghost can find a natural home in the spectral online world, the civic structures that might temper our Furies have yet to be fully imagined, either by mortal or god. Some critics have found the film’s ending dissatisfying but this inevitable let-down is itself significant. Unfriended’s dramatic failure is our social failure. The mayhem of its plot, as formless and malicious as an unwinding comments thread, should alert us to the quotidian excesses of our digital rage.
‘Unfriended’ is released in the UK this week
Laurence Scott’s new book, ‘The Four-Dimensional Human: Ways of Being in the Digital World’, will be published by Heinemann in June
Photographs: Allstar; Landmark Media