Austin Lugar is contributing to the problem by being the editor of TheArtImmortal.com. There he produces pop culture podcasts including The Immortals, Let’s Take Five and Ad Absurdum. He is also the co-editor of Mystery Muses, Organizing Crime and Organizing Crime Classics, all available through The Crum Creek Press.
Unless you are a weirdo who prints out websites, you are reading this on the internet. The internet consumes every part of our day to the point where people brag about turning it off for a moment. They are, of course, online to gloat about this, but nobody’s perfect. Unfriended recognizes the essential daily habits of the internet and uses that to psychologically torture its characters and the audience.
When I say Unfriended takes place within the internet, I don’t mean it’s like TRON with digitized heroes fighting their way through spam filters. Instead, it’s entirely on the laptop screen of a high schooler named Blaire. Through Skype, she is able to chat with her boyfriend and then a larger group of friends. It’s not dissimilar to the way I hung out in high school but with considerably less travel time. Instead of a parent’s basement, it’s a free video call.
Even as I write the first draft of this review, I don’t have a tidy computer screen. This Word Document is in front of Google Chrome, which has a tab open for Twitter, the Wikipedia page for Unfriended, another tab for a Wikipedia article of the list of Fantasy Island episodes, and then a tab for My List on Netflix because I was going to see what horror movies were on there after I work on this. Also I have QuickTime Player open on the right playing an early episode of Fantasy Island. (It’s not a very good episode.) Typing it out, it feels like a lot. And yet, it’s normal and actually feels less ADD than usual.
In the film, Blaire and her friends operate in a similar manner — as they bounce from Skype to Spotify to Facebook to Gmail to YouTube. The horror begins when the clustered apps turn on the characters. An unknown person keeps joining their Skype call even though that’s not how Skype operates. They cannot be left alone. Buttons disappear from Facebook, Gmail won’t allow emails to be forwarded. They cannot call for help. This isn’t a glitchy computer; it’s a home invasion.
Home invasion stories are some of the creepiest of the horror genre because the element of safety is gone and there is no certainty that it will ever return. It is easy to judge the characters to say that if they don’t want to be killed by this vengeful ghost, turn off the computer. While Unfriended does give plot reasons for why that would be disastrous, the actors provide the emotional resonance. To log off would be the equivalent of splitting up in a haunted house; when you’re online, you’re connected. And the internet doesn’t stop when you’re not looking.
Before the supernatural elements occur, the internet already plays out as a believable horror landscape. The result of online bullying led to the suicide of one of their classmates, Laura. It was due to a video of her being embarrassingly drunk at a party. Once that video was uploaded, the whole planet could have seen it — shared, memed, tagged and mocked on any platform Laura uses. Her home was destroyed; the internet was no longer a place for community, only cruelty that could arrive from any direction.
Despite Laura’s presence from beyond the grave, this is a movie obsessed with realism. The high schoolers talk like high schoolers, not like high school characters. They use Google, not Chumhum. The psychology around the bullying and the suicide is upsetting not only because of the subject matter. The uncomfortable result of the death lingers around the way the teens communicate through guilt, ill-received humor and avoidance. What really breaks them is their fear of looking inward and learning how easy it is for them to be monstrous. They endure these trials through the lens of a laptop and it doesn’t feel out of place.
As the film concludes, the lasting terror doesn’t come from the idea that we, too, can be attacked by a poltergeist. We don’t need the poltergeist. We live in a home that is always invaded and we won’t move.
For most of his life, Evan Dossey has generally avoided horror films. The genre makes him profoundly uncomfortable. This means he has enormous gaps in his cinematic knowledge. Each year, he asks friends and family which essential horror movies he needs to see in order to fill those gaps and spends the better part of October agonizing over them, tossing and turning over them … and writing about them. This year, he’s sharing the month with those friends and family — letting them offer their own thoughts about the tales that terrify (or perhaps just titillate) them. This is everyone’s No Sleep October.
NO SLEEP OCTOBER 2018
Blue Sunshine — James Ledesma
Spoorloos (The Vanishing) — Andrew Kimmel
The Devil’s Candy — Joshua Hull
FYFF Horror Marathon 2018 — Evan Dossey
Cat People (1942) — Aly Caviness
The Child’s Play Series — Salem
The Shining (1980) — Dave Gutierrez
Hellroller — Richard Propes
Poltergeist III — Greg Lindberg
Scream — Heather Knight
The Witch — Rick Dossey
The Frankenstein Cycle — Lou Harry
A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors — Sam Watermeier
Eastern Horrors — Alex Holmes
Freaks (1932) — Alys Caviness-Gober
As Above, So Below — Jonathan Curole
The Beyond — Nick Rogers
The Dentist — Mitch Ringenberg
The Halloween Franchise — Evan Dossey