‘Net-Horror’ movies lay bare our dormant fears about the internet

Posted on: 30 October 2021

by David Stevenson, Assistant Professor, School of Creative Arts

While it is true to say that cinema, in most cases, tells us something of our anxious encounters with the modern, it is in Horror film that such fears are writ large. Net Horror, as I would describe it, is a constellation of films in which the most dormant fears concerning the internet are laid bare. It is not particularly surprising that our increasing interconnectedness would feed into our fear; that we would be chilled by this technological rush the more we are tethered to it, and yet its usage in particular films are good at instructing on on what precisely it is that makes us quiver beneath the glare of our computer screens.

The initial fear of the internet is clear with one of its earliest examples in horror. Kurosawa’s Kairo (Pulse, 2001) posits that the internet is a repository for collective human despair, dreadful enough to turn its users into nothing more than a smeary wall-stain in their one-room apartments. The ability of remote communication also introduces the idea of remote surveillance in which our privacy is never our own; the helpful abundance of guides online that provide solutions on “how to stop google listening to [my phone]” suggests there is substance behind this apprehension. Further, anonymity creates the possibility of an ‘unmasked’ self online, and new possibilities of criminality from the comfort of one’s home.

The Den (2013) covers the majority of these anxieties. The film is an early example of what is loosely dubbed ‘Screenlife’ – that is, that the entire film is relayed from the POV of a desktop interface. This approach enables a manner of remote viewing in which the story is relayed to us through webcams, mobile phone cameras, and home security feeds. The story begins with our hero, Elizabeth, proposing a questionable research assignment to her university board; a month spent continually logged into ‘The Den’, an online video call chat room (does anyone remember Chatroulette?) that enables one-to-one calls with any available, random user across the globe.

Elizabeth is there to chart her ‘meaningful’ interactions with this global community, but it doesn’t take very long for her to become the target of a malicious hacker. By hacking into her computer, Elizabeth’s private life becomes a matter of public spectacle, and, by impersonating Elizabeth online, the hacker is then able to dispatch of her friends and loved ones with digital chicanery. Beyond the chills of Elizabeth’s descent into a grotesque, online-enabled underworld, there are two particularly nasty conclusions passed on to the viewer. The first is that these violations are perpetrated not by one nefarious stalker but an entire organized cartel of hooded thugs. The final nail in the coffin, so to speak, is that the dispassionate tortures and executions carried out by this unknown group are under the mandate of average Joes with credit cards; no more than an afternoon thrill for white-collar Dads with the house (and the computer) to themselves. The Den’s giveaway on this subject matter comes from the one instance in which we hear one of the hacker’s speak; a muttered criticism to Elizabeth’s pregnant sister for carrying a child out of wedlock. Elizabeth’s always-on experience of the internet is riddled with misogyny from the outset, but The Den implies that this hatred, furnished by the anonymity of the internet, is powerful, organized, and highly profitable.

More recent horror efforts have begun to detach the internet away from the screens of its physical apparatus, and instead become something more embodied. Scary of Sixty-First (2021) is the debut film by Dasha Nekrasova, previously known for her role as co-host of the ‘Red Scare’ podcast, which provides an acerbic and occasionally scandalous critique of modern culture. So it is with Sixty-First; a story in which two young women find that their new lodgings on the Upper East Side is in fact an “orgy flophouse” that previously belonged to the notorious Jeffrey Epstein. From this comes two narratives; Addie meets the anonymous ‘Girl’ (played by Dasha) and the two become increasingly fixated on unravelling the conspiracy of Epstein’s death to score one against the elites, while Noelle descends into the depths of a psychosexual fugue of giallo proportions; replete with colour gels and pounding synths – courtesy of Oneohtrix Point Never’s Eli Keszler. The film, tonally, is one of intense frustration.

The myth-busting duo are incapable of exposing a conspiracy either so gatekept, or so non-existent, that their efforts are futile in any case. Noelle is seemingly possessed with a desire that can neither be defined or controlled, though it is difficult to ascertain if this apoplexy is caused by demonic influence or her infuriatingly inert boyfriend. In Sixty-First, Epstein’s ‘haunting’ of the Upper East Side encapsulates an unanswered thirst for answers, one that is wholly obfuscated by our online connectedness. In this way, the Epstein case is a shibboleth for stories untold and unresolved; Noelle and The Girl canvas the streets of New York looking for answers and wholly forget themselves in the process; the quest to expose the truth inures them to a world of totalising dysfunction, but this comes at the price of a singular and unending obsession.

Where we see that The Den is a film in which any one of us can be a victim of the internet’s supernatural malice, The Scary of Sixty-First does away with the mediating device of the computer screen; the internet is with us wherever we are, and we visit the worst of it upon ourselves. Perhaps we will yet be able to prevent ourselves becoming subsumed in the internet’s collective angst, but, at the very least, we don’t have to stray too far from home to give ourselves a seasonal fright.