Unfriended hits theaters today, and while it seems easy to reduce the movie’s elevator pitch down to “I Know What You Did Last Summer meets Paranormal Activity with webcams,” it’s really part of a much more important cultural tradition. The ever-expanding ranks of Internet Cautionary Horror Movies didn’t just appear one day fully formed, there’s a history here. The stage for Unfriended has been under construction for years, this weekend just marks the time director Levan Gabriadze’s movie gets to stand in the spotlight.
And these Internet cautionary tales encompass just one subgenre of horror, which has long been chronicling society’s ongoing battle with itself. Scary movies have always served as one of modern culture’s best time capsules. Using monsters as metaphors, horror films turn our actual fears into fantastically gruesome scenarios. Unfriended and its ilk simply reflect present-day anxieties about our lives online—just like teen slasher films tapped into our feelings about taboo topics like sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll in the 1980s. And in every decade from the early 20th century to the present day, each installment in the genre gives us a fascinating window into the fears of our past, and therefore a greater understanding of our present.
Want to know how horror went from killers in the woods to killers on the web? Need a primer on all the ways our apprehensions about the Internet have manifested into big screen tropes? Then let’s get started, shall we?
First, Here’s a History Lesson
Following World War II, a national case of PTSD manifested in a crippling fear of The Other, which lead to movies like It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), and even a movie just called Them! (1954). (Because if you’re not one of us you’re one of them, and that ain’t good.) The economy was riding high, but people dreaded what lay beyond our borders. They’re coming for our women, and they could be here at any time! And they could be GIANT MONKEYS! Considering this was pre-globalization and the world for most people was about as big as their surrounding neighborhood and local grocery store, it makes sense that the fear cinema of the day would be defined by paranoia.
Then came the Vietnam Era, and horror movies got a whole lot more horrible. Fabulous tales of King Kongs and Godzillas—now quaint by comparison—got swapped out in favor of a gritty, real-life aesthetic stirred up by widespread social unrest. For the first time, America was seeing unfiltered images of its own brutality. Technology had progressed to the point that TV was now a full-fledged industry. The cameras were rolling, and even if we didn’t know it at the time, they’d never turn off again. America the Hero had become America the Villain, and the images of atrocities pouring in from the front lines put the blood on our hands—a massive and depressing reversal from our identity as liberators in WWII. Movies like Last House on the Left (1972), Night of The Living Dead (1968), and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) were dirty, cynical, gruesome affairs playing to the disillusionment of an increasingly cynical audience.
That brings us to the 1980s, a funny time. People did a lot of coke, listened to Mötley Crüe, and watched tons of cheap horror. It was the golden age of the slasher movie (you have 18 titles to choose from in the Freddy, Jason, Michael, Leatherface cannon between 1980 and 1989) and while that’s not the best comment on credibility, we did get a lot of sex, drugs, and rock music. Maybe horror was trying to tell us something about the dangers of excess? Maybe everyone was just trying to piss off Ronald Reagan? Either way, well played, 1980s. That was fun.
And thus we arrive in the 1990s, which in terms of horror movies is the beginning of the era that would eventually give us Unfriended. The Internet and computers were moving out of military bases and into homes. Cell phones may have been enormous, but they were real, and even Zack Morris had one in Saved By the Bell. It’s during this time that the distributary of Internet Cautionary Horror really starts breaking off from the surging blood river of scary movies, and it can be broken down into three phases.
The Internet Will Kill Us
In the beginning, there was fear. Personal computing and Web 1.0 made globalization an in-home event. We could see the technology infiltrating our lives, but we didn’t know what it was capable of. Looking back on the movies of the day, we see a future in which the entire world is online, and we don’t just mean texting. The coming age would exist in cyberspace, and the landscape would be littered with eye phones, not iPhones.
In 1992’s Lawnmower Man, virtual reality experiments turned a quiet, developmentally challenged landscaper named Jobe (Jeff Fahey) into a highly functioning and weaponized human-machine hybrid. “Nothing we’ve been doing is new,” Jobe tells his “creator” Dr. Lawrence (Pierce Brosnan). “We haven’t been tapping into new areas of the brain; we’ve been awakening the most ancient. The technology is simply a route to powers that conjurers and alchemists used centuries ago.”
Dr. Lawrence protests, warning Jobe that “Man may be able to evolve 1,000-fold through this technology but the rush must be tempered with wisdom!” Sorry, Doc, but the floodgates of technology are open and we’re all about to get drenched.
As the decade progressed, the advent of Internet cautionary tales turned technology into a pandemic, and VR was the transmission mode of choice. According to Lawnmower Man 2: Beyond Cyberspace (1996), the connected world would enslave us under maniacal demigods like Jobe. Virtuosity (1995) told us we’d eventually be 3-D printed sociopaths. And if you bought what Johnny Mnemonic (1995) was selling, electronic components themselves would turn the air into invisible poison.
It wasn’t until the all-important The Net in 1995 that fear of the web would be brought back down to Earth. Internet horror had outgrown its speculative VR playground and moved to a much more realistic domain where people were the enemy instead of prototypes. Phase two showed us that the trouble wasn’t the coming dystopia. It was the stranger next door.
People on the Internet Will Kill Us
The early 2000s were a formative time in web-based scary movies. Think of it as an adolescence: awkward, lanky, and stuck between its youthful naïveté and the eventual self-awareness of adulthood. In other words, it was a rough time.
Now that personal technology was approaching ubiquity, we understood that, at least for a while, the world wasn’t going to turn into a digital prison that gave people the “black shakes” with toxic airwaves. Phew! The Internet by itself wasn’t going to kill people, but as the The Net taught us, people sure as hell were going to use it to do a whole lot of bad, which materialized in online sport killing. The time of the Internet Killer was upon us.
Feardotcom (2002), Halloween: Resurrection (2002), Dot.Kill (2005), and Untraceable (2008) all featured serial killers broadcasting their murderous deeds to craven audiences. Our relationship with technology—particularly the rise of the webcam—was running headlong into America’s post-9/11 appetite for torture porn, and the results were gruesome. The internet was turned into a weapon, and by subscribing to livestreams users were wielding it in conjunction with the murderers themselves.
“Reducing relationships to anonymous electronic impulses is a perversion,” Alistair Pratt (Stephen Rhea) tells us before he cuts someone open in Feardotcom. “The Internet offers birth, sex, commerce, education, proselytizing, politics, posturing. Death is a logical component. An intimate experience made more so by knowing the victim.”
The 2001 Japanese movie Pulse (remade in the States in 2006) incorporated elements of these other entries from the early 2000s, but subbed in a supernatural force for a meat-based murderer. Most importantly, though, this second phase of online horror was when we started taking responsibility for our actions online—or at least taking responsibility for the actions of someone else. Violence was still a result of outlier figures that played to our base instincts. We had some deniability left to grab hold of, but as phase three approached, it was becoming clear that the scariest thing online wasn’t some unknown horror. It was us.
We Will Kill Each Other on the Internet
By 2010, cell phones, FaceTime, Skype, laptops, iMessage, Facebook, Twitter, and all our other tools had permeated every facet of the developed world. The ubiquity of tech forecast in Johnny Mnemonic had come largely to pass (though in a less gross way) and the ability to actually live inside the Internet was a real thing thanks to globe-spanning role-playing games. We hadn’t been enslaved by Jobe or fallen victim to a frequency-based disease, but that meant we were running out of bad guys to blame. Maybe the problem wasn’t a scary series of tubes or a creepy guy with a webcam in a hovel. Maybe the scariest part of the Internet was learning that anyone could be a villain.
Such is the case in Unfriended. A campaign of online bullying, surely considered benign by those administering the persecution, results in the suicide of a young girl named Laura Barnes. On the anniversary of her death, the girl returns to haunt a handful of her classmates during a Skype hangout. Laura, like Jobe, has entered the machine, and if her former tormentors don’t comply with her demands, people are going to die. But she’d probably kill them anyway, even if they did listen, because Laura—or her ghost, or her proxy—has become the senseless Internet monster we’ve learned to fear as each kill is broadcast for everyone else to see. But all of this could have been avoided if Laura hadn’t been pushed over the edge by her peers, kids who she saw every single day—not masked killers, not psychopaths, just classmates.
While Lawnmower Man may have made us anxious in 1992, the progression of online horror has moved from global to local to very intimate confines, with the tight frame of the webcam emphasizing how close we are to that which we fear most. So if you go see Unfriended this weekend, make sure to consider the road that got us here in the first place. It doesn’t make for the most uplifting of movie marathons, but it’s one hell of an effective cautionary tale.