15 Oct 2016

A History of Horror #3: Technology

A tape. A regular tape. People rent it, I don't know. You start to play it, and it's like somebody's nightmare. Then suddenly, this woman comes on … smiling at you, right? Seeing you, through the screen. And as soon as it's over, your phone rings. Someone knows you've watched it. And what they say is, 'You will die in seven days'. And exactly seven days later …

Computers and machines are crazy, right? Last week, I had enough trouble with a card-reader in a shop that I became convinced it brought out more money than I wanted it to. There comes a certain paranoia when trusting machines to handle sensitive or personal information, because while they may be able to think and work faster than a human brain, they definitely don't have empathy or common sense. They work only exactly as programmed. Which makes a malfunctioning machine even scarier, depending on the consequences.


The use of technology to create horror in fiction goes back to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), where the lead character Victor Frankenstein uses science and galvanism to reanimate a corpse. This also birthed the "mad scientist" trope and led it being hailed as the "first science-fiction novel". From then on, technology would find its place in literature. Russian novelist Alexander Veltman published Predki Kalimerosa: Aleksandr Filippovich Makedonskii in 1836. It was borderline horror, but also the first novel to use time travel.

In the 20th century, technology became more popular to write about in horror fiction. In the 1950s, films featuring giant monsters or extraterrestrial beings such as The Thing from Another World (1951), War of the Worlds (1953), and Godzilla (1954) provided escapism from a post-World War Two, pre-Cold War climate. Horror movie settings often depicted destruction on a massive scale, or individuals with high amounts of power, often caused by technology that affected atoms and radiation. It reflected the paranoia of government and scientific organisations at the time.

Horror movies of the 1960s and 70s moved away from these themes when the Motion Picture Production Code was abandoned. This led to a focus away from technology and offered more of a look at the horrors of humanity and community. It wasn't until technology such as computers and household televisions took off in the 1980s and 90s that it became the new focus. Videodrome (1983), The Fly (1986), and Night Vision (1987) all centred around technology that was developing at the time, or was the subject of scientific speculation. This continued into the 90s with The Lawnmower Man (1992), about a disabled man who becomes intelligent through computer science, and Ring (1998), about a cursed video tape that kills people seven days after viewing it. These films started a trend of horror movies intending to scare people about technology they use everyday. All of a sudden, you don't want to watch any more TV, or maybe you've developed a new paranoia of your mobile phone.

The 1980s also gave way to new special effects done entirely on computers. While directors such as Stanley Kubrick and John Carpenter laughed in the face of CGI, the technique was displayed grandly by such directors as David Cronenberg, Steven Lisberger and Nick Castle. The use of this new innovation led to some very strange results, and was largely abandoned in the 90s while directors waited for the technology to improve.



After the success of The Blair Witch Project (1999), a new subgenre of horror was born: the found footage film. The intention of this genre is to create a realistic framing device for the events that occur, which are seen through the lens of the camera carried by a character, and usually presented as raw footage discovered by passersby. As with films like Blair Witch and Cannibal Holocaust (1980), the participants of the film are assumed to be dead. In fact, in the actors' contracts they were prevented from making public appearances until a year after the film's release to promote a degree of authenticity in the film. This actually got director Ruggero Deodato into a lot of trouble. People assumed Deodato had made a snuff film, and was arrested and charged with obscenity and murder. Deodato eventually managed to get the actors together, as well as some photographic proof from the set to show that they were alive and well, and the charges against him were dropped. It's really fascinating how far a director may go to preserve authenticity in a film like that. When done correctly (i.e. not putting the scary thing dead centre onscreen), found footage may be one of the most effective genres of horror.

In real life, technology can also bring out the darker parts of humanity. The deep web exists as part of the World Wide Web that cannot be accessed by standard search engines. While these can be used for harmless practices such as email and online banking, it also has the advantage of masking illegal activity (also known as the "dark web") such as fraud services, illegal pornography, and terrorism. It's quite scary to me that these things may be going on behind the scenes, on the same platform that I'm typing up this post right now.


James Cameron's The Terminator (1984) depicted an apocalyptic vision of a world run by machines.
While we may believe that phones and computers are useful and practical in our everyday lives, horror creators have taken effort to show us just how scary they can also be. The first time I watch a DVD after viewing The Ring, I definitely took a moment to compose myself while I silently freaked out about the possibility of it being a cursed tape. But it doesn't have to be supernatural - if a mad scientist can create a sentient robot by reverse-engineering a computer, then who knows what is possible? Stay safe out there, friends. The singularity is approaching.

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