There's a long history of horror movies infusing technology with terror

By Drew Mackie
Updated April 20, 2015 12:45 PM
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Unfriended puts a social-media twist on the standard horror movie setup, “Hey, what if a ______ was haunted?”

In this case, it’s a sinister Facebook account and a Skype conference call that’s more evil than any you’ve had to sit through for work. Laugh if you want, but it’s surprising that it has taken this long for a horror film to take on social media and the teens who use it the way Unfriended does.

You see, scary movies love to infuse technology with terror. More often than not, our lives revolve around technology, and that’s probably why it’s unnerving to see these devices we watch, hold, talk into and keep stuffed in our pants pockets suddenly become a source of all manner of badness.

Here, then, is a short list of the ways horror movies have previously encouraged us to go off the grid.

Demon Seed (1977)

Julie Christie stars in this sci-fi horror film about a woman imprisoned in her home by a security system that’s too smart for its own good. You have to wonder what its creators would think of how freely we allow smart technology to run our lives today.

Poltergeist (1982)

The ghosts get at the Freeling family any way they can, but it’s the TV that zaps away poor little Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) to Ghostville USA. Huh, bad stuff pumping straight into a suburban American living room via the TV set? That’s some cultural commentary right there.

Videodrome (1983)

In this David Cronenberg-directed mind-bender, Max Renn (James Woods) runs a TV station that begins airing a mysterious TV show that seems to show torture and murder. Things turn very icky for him, and there’s a scene where he literally inserts a VHS cassette into a VCR slot in his abdomen. The message? It’s scary what we turn into when tech and entertainment combine to appeal to our basest instincts.

Nightmares (1983)

Video game arcades were all the rage in the ’80s, and adults were fretting about what effect all this gaming would have on our nation’s youth. This comes to a head in the “Bishop of Battle” segment of this horror anthology, in which Emilio Estevez wages war against an impossibly hard, presumably demonic video game that deals real-life “Game Over”s to foolish players.

Terrorvision (1986)

The culprit in this one? A satellite dish that beams evil alien entities to Earth. The moral, clearly, is that getting all those extra channels won’t actually improve your life. John Ritter and Pam Dawber fared better in the similar Stay Tuned in 1992.

Maximum Overdrive (1986)

Stephen King’s directorial debut has cars and most other machines gaining sentience and turning on their masters. It’s not the best King adaptation ever, but talk about those driverless, automated cars long enough and someone who doesn’t trust the idea might just eventually bring up Maximum Overdrive as a cautionary tale.

The Lawnmower Man (1992)

Be scared of virtual reality! This film has a pre-Bond-era Pierce Brosnan finding that an experimental virtual reality program warps its test subject’s mind into something advanced – and angry. Lucky for us, virtual reality didn’t become part of our lives the way we thought it might in the early ’90s. But gosh, that early CGI in the trailer is downright terrifying today.

The Net (1995)

It’s a thriller, not a horror film, but that doesn’t mean that this Sandra Bullock outing made viewers any less scared of the Internet, an entity that few Americans understood at the time. The movie’s take on website design is laughable today, but it did foreshadow the dangers of Internet-spawned social isolation and dangers of identity theft, right?

The Ring (2002)

Both The Ring and Ringu, the Japanese film it’s based on, feature a lot of digital tech, but the deadly curse is transmitted via something oddly analog: a VHS cassette. Now that’s a viral video. The joke’s on you, Samara – in 2015, most teens wouldn’t know what VHS is, much less how to play one.

Feardotcom (2002)

An evil website! By the early 2000s, we’d all grown comfortable with the Internet, but we’d also learned the hard way that there is some weird, messed-up stuff online. This clunker tries to get at that but handles it about as well as you’d expect from a movie with a name like Feardotcom.

Pulse (2006)

In this remake of another Japanese film, Kristen Bell and Ian Somerhalder battle ghosts that are transmitted by wi-fi. Yep, evil wi-fi. So I guess the only safe place to run is, where, your grandparents’ house?

One Missed Call (2008)

Never before has the phrase “That’s not my ringtone” tried to convey terror. In this one, a pre-Modern Family Ariel Winter claims unwary victims using voicemail. There’s something in here about the way cell phones have infiltrated our lives to the point that we can’t survive without them, but it does raise the question: Why not just cancel your voicemail plan?

Transcendence (2014)

In this Johnny Depp thriller, it’s not just technology to fear; it’s the singularity – the point at which humans and tech combine into something new, something powerful, and in the case of this movie, something scary. Is the singularity actually going to happen? Hold on, lemme look that up on my smartphone and get back to you.

So what comes next? A haunted GIF? The cat video from hell? Killer App: The Movie? If Hollywood doesn’t think of something, then surely some machine will.

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