Five films that define and develop the “Haunted Memes” horror sub-genre.
(See updated sub-genre definition here)
“Nicki Brand: What’s this? “Videodrome”?
Max Renn: Torture. Murder.
Nicki Brand: Sounds great.
Max Renn: Ain’t exactly sex.
Nicki Brand: Says who?”
— David Cronenberg, Videodrome, 1983
Videodrome (1983). Dir. David Cronenberg. Canada.
As with so many of David Cronenberg’s films, Videodrome is specifically tied up in Cold War anxieties about changing social hierarchies and technology. I talked about this in my podcast on The Shining, but in short Cronenberg’s work depends on making any change to hierarchies of oppression terrifying. What I mean by this is that, in Videodrome, sure the tech is scary, but the real threat comes from women taking control of both their sexuality and their pain. The film is built on a subculture of hardcore violence and pornographic video tapes and television, but the sex is specifically BDSM, in most case featuring women reveling in pain and degradation. Despite the overlap in subject matter, Videodrome doesn’t really exist in the same cinematic sphere as something like Fifty Shades of Grey. The BDSM and eroticism are specifically not visually appealing. Moreover, it’s a Cronenberg horror film, meaning that it’s firmly situated in body horror, so a great deal of the horror elements in the film rely on gross disfigurations of human bodies. This is where the connection to female sexuality becomes almost indisputable. The film gets its name from a TV show broadcast from a set of VHS tapes on an unknown signal that’s called Videodrome. One of Videodrome’s more horrifying effects is its ability to physically alter the human body. As he becomes more entrenched in the world of Videodrome, Max Renn’s (James Woods) stomach splits down the middle, opening up into a fleshy vagina-like orifice. We first see his stomach-vagina while he’s watching Videodrome and he experimentally inserts the gun he’s holding into the opening. Because why the hell not, what could go wrong? He then mysteriously loses the gun inside his own body. Later, the same stomach-vagina is used like a VCR, opening up to accept more Videodrome tapes. So, because Renn is exposed to women taking control of their sexuality and pain, he becomes something between a man and a women. He’s not necessarily castrated, but he isn’t properly a “man” either, according to biological essentialism and patriarchal understandings of binary gender constructs.
FeardotCom (2002). Dir. William Malone. US.
FeardotCom exists somewhere between the other films on this list and also shares some elements with The Ring and One Missed Call. The ghost of a woman who was tortured and murdered inhabits a deepweb site, feardotcom.com, that’s filled with torture, rape, and snuff films. She kills her victims exactly 48 hours after they visit the site because she was tortured for 2 days before she was killed. The haunting exists online and spreads via the internet, rather than by passing with the possession of an object or living in a haunted house. FeardotCom also borrows some themes from Videodrome. The clips we see from the website feature a woman in BDSM garb, carrying a flogger, strongly implying a connection between torture, death, rape, and BDSM. Instead of linking this to the breakdown of proper masculinity, FeardotCom equates women’s involvement in BDSM with rape, essentially putting forth the idea that women only exist sexually in relation to men and that they cannot fully own their sexual desire.
Pulse (2006). Dir. Jim Sonzero. US.
In this iteration of haunted technology, the tech (which doesn’t necessarily have to stay connected to the internet) provides a doorway. In the film, ghosts have always existed on a plane right next to ours. By connecting to the internet, those ghosts are able to infiltrate electrical connectivity, so that electronic tech is the means by which they attach themselves to people, choose who to haunt, and eventually become corporeal. Pulse takes technophobia, the irrational fear of advanced technology, to a level beyond many of the films on this list. Danger is not just produced by one kind of technology, or by one category, like communication tech. The deadly haunting is spread by anything and everything connected to electricity. Computers and cell phones, sure, but also washing machines, cars, and airplanes. This also means that the thing doesn’t have to be plugged in at a given moment to be dangerous, it just has to have some kind of electrical current running through it. The meme, in this case, is further-reaching and casts a much wider net than most of the films in this sub-genre.
Stay Alive (2006). Dir. William Brent Bell. US.
For any of y’all who grew up in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the graphics in this wonderful bit of camp about a killer video game will look awfully familiar. The game in question, Stay Alive, looks like, and borrows some horror elements from, Resident Evil 2, but instead of a zombie-infested mansion, it’s a ghost-infested plantation. It also gives new meaning to the term “permadeath.” Permadeath is the gaming device where, if your character dies, They’re just dead. Do not respawn, do not pass go, do not collect $200. In some game, like Minecraft and Don’t Starve, permadeath means that you lose the world you’ve been building. In others like The Binding of Isaac, if you die you lose all game progress and have to start from the beginning. In the most extreme cases, like The Flock, once you die you can no longer enter the game, and once all players die the game goes offline permanently. Stay Alive takes it one step further: when a player dies in the game, they die in real life, too. The film makes a few attempts to distance itself from the wholly technological hauntings of other films on this list like Pulse and Unfriended by centering the haunting on the ghosts’—Lady Bathory’s—corpse. There’s also supposedly an incantation that the player has to recite aloud in order to activate the haunting. These elements harken back to traditional ghost stories, but they only provide the pretense of old-fashioned lore without being concretely necessary. In the narrative world that the film constructs, especially given the film’s ending (the game is mass-produced and stocked at a local game store), neither the body nor the incantation are necessary for the game to become deadly. The haunting is already digital, so the game itself is the “pernicious meme” that Kiernan describes and that I use to define this sub-genre.
Unfriended (2014). Dir. Leo Gabriadze. US.
This film is interesting mostly because of its production conditions. Horror film history is littered with stories of the horrible, trying, torturous shooting conditions of low budget indies. Unfriended, however, was shot in one, 80-minute take at the lead actor’s (Shelley Hennig) request. The film had a $1 million budget and made $64.1 million box office. To give you an idea of what that means in the scope of horror movie budgets, If Follows cost $2 million and made $20.6 million, Sinister cost $3 million and made $77.7 million, and Get Out cost $4.5 million and has made $174 million so far. Unfriended’s low budget is, in part, due to the lack of expensive camera equipment (the whole thing was shot on laptops), and the fact shooting longer days meant less shooting days total. These production conditions aren’t just fun facts to pull out at parties, though. They contribute to the film’s narrative themes and help add definition to the Haunted Memes sub-genre. The film’s premise has to do with a viral video, cyberbullying, and a teenage girl’s suicide (also caught on video and widely disseminated over the internet). The suicide video is a meme, its spread is infectious and it animates the girl’s ghost, giving her the power to kill those she thinks are responsible. With the necessary cost to produce and distribute media, especially horror media, dropping at an exponential rate, shooting a film like Unfriended in one take, with just over 2 weeks of principle photography mirrors the kind of online, user-generated content creation that the film is focused on. A movie like this could be made by a handful of friends with really good improv skills, their laptops, and some decent screen recording software (so basically what every YouTube gamer already has).
Now, while I will praise Unfriended for its commitment to form-following-function, and for the innovation of its production conditions, the film’s narrative premise is incredibly problematic. The story hinges on the idea that Blair (Shelley Hennig), Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm), Jess (Renee Olstead), Adam (Will Peltz), Ken (Jacob Wysocki), and Val (Courtney Halverson) caused Laura Barnes’ (Heather Sossaman) suicide. Promoting this narrative, that someone else can be the cause of another person’s suicide, is irresponsible and ultimately incorrect. It deprives people struggling with depression, self harm, and suicidal ideation of agency. It implies that, given a certain amount of trauma and a certain set of conditions, there’s no choice other than suicide. It also paints suicide as a form of revenge, a way to get the last word in. This glorifies something that is currently the 10th leading cause of death in the US and takes 43,000 lives per year as of 2016, according to the CDC. This theme comes up a lot in media dealing with teen suicide, and no matter how important and successful the rest of the show, movie, game, etc. is, using this narrative device is never, never ok.
Author: Geneveive Newman
Image Credit: Universal Pictures © 2014