Entertainment

Webcam Horror Films Reflect Our Current Digital Hell

Scary movies are a barometer of what society fears—and our current virtual reality is pretty terrifying.
October 28, 2020, 7:06pm
blair witch project

It was not even 6pm and I was drunk. I was almost embarrassingly drunk, and I was in front of all of my co-workers and bosses attempting to make conversation. It was the third virtual happy hour of the night. This was early in quarantine, when we all had just shifted to working from home and no one had any idea how to cope. As a result, I had a calendar full of back-to-back happy hours where we could “check in” and “chill out.” It was hell.

At that point, being on video seemed like a necessary evil. Something odd, but temporary. Now, eight months later, it feels almost normal. That is, until I realize that I am sitting alone in my room almost every day with my posture and eyesight slowly deteriorating.

Given that it’s October, I've been thinking about horror films. Horror is unlike other genres in that its purpose is to elicit an extremely specific response: fear. Because of this, horror movies can be thought of as a barometer of what we are scared of as a society. Big changes in culture lead to changes in the kind of horror movies that are produced. So, I went searching for people on webcams in horror movies.

The horror genre has long integrated the internet, often positioning it as a source of evil or a place where evil things happen. Webcams appear at the intersection of two specific horror subgenres: cyber horror and found footage. Cyber horror revolves around the fear of technology, and really took shape with the rise of the internet in the late 1990s and early 2000s, with films like The Matrix (1999) and Feardotcom (2002). Found footage has a longer history, landing on the map with films such as Cannibal Holocaust (1980) and later, The Blair Witch Project (1999), also experiencing a surge in popularity around the turn of the millennium when filmmaking became cheaper as consumer-grade video cameras became easier to access. Both subgenres became increasingly popular following 9/11, and the resulting fear of surveillance by the government as a result of the Patriot Act, alongside the rise of reality television.

Early horror featuring the internet often equated it to a spiritual realm, with movies like the incredible Pulse (2001) showcasing the internet as a place for lost souls who would urge participants to join them via suicide. In the same year, production began on The Collingswood Story (2002), a low-budget horror movie that is seemingly the first feature-length film shot entirely through webcam. The plot centers on Rebecca and John, a couple trying to make their long-distance relationship work with newfangled technology, far before FaceTiming your partner was a thing. Eventually, demons and hauntings find their way into the couple’s chat via an online psychic. Despite initial praise for its filmmaking, the movie ultimately doesn’t hold up due to a meandering plot. It would be a decade until the genre produced another feature-length webcam horror.

In 2013, The Den was released, telling the story of a student named Elizabeth who is writing her anthropology dissertation on human behaviors by studying a Chatroulette-like site called “The Den,” when she stumbles upon a murder. The film doesn’t position the internet as being a spiritual realm, but instead takes another route: that of extreme voyeurism. Clearly influenced by torture porn franchises like Hostel (2005) as well as the found footage genre’s historical interest in snuff films, The Den uses webcams and user’s desktops as the means to view others’ lives, tortures, and deaths. This influences how the characters interact with their webcams, which is wild to see. Early on, Elizabeth’s boyfriend lambasts her for always being online, missing out on all the things they can do together—a notion that stings in 2020, with a global pandemic blue-balling us all.

The most notable film in webcam horror would come out the following year, jumpstarting a webcam horror craze in the U.S. In Unfriended (2014), five high school friends hang out on Skype on the anniversary of their classmate’s suicide. As the night wears on, they begin getting messages from their dead classmate’s Facebook account, accusing them of taking part in the online bullying that led to her death. While the movie follows a somewhat predictable route, what is really striking is that none of the characters discuss being on video chat as weird, which is a meaningful facet of nearly every other webcam horror movie. Yes, the friends tease each other about not being able to hang out in real life, but old interfaces and paranormal activity aside, this movie easily could have taken place during the pandemic. The start of the movie, in which two of the main characters egg each other on to engage in some webcam sexy time, feels particularly relevant.

Unfriended updated the found footage horror genre for a modern time, and like any update, it was met with backlash. Reviewers either praised the film as a novel experiment or felt it lacked tension because of its reliance on a very specific filmmaking style that fell outside of traditional horror scare tactics. And yes, our desktops are not inherently interesting, but this movie takes on new meaning now that we are faced with the internet day in and day out, and only see each other through video conferencing. The dissemination of background information throughout the film is very in line with our multi-screen, too-many-tabs lifestyle, as we learn of the central suicide through various news articles and YouTube videos among which the main character toggles. Timur Bekmambetov, the film's producer, went on to release a very Dogme 95-esque manifesto about how “screencast” films should be made, knowing it would spark a subgenre—and it did.

Over the next five years, there would be many more webcam horror movies, with a boom directly following the release of Unfriended (including the sequel Unfriended: Dark Web in 2018). But these movies—like e-Demon, Ratter, and Searching—use the internet and the computer desktop as a means to tell a story without quite understanding what it means to rely on the internet to do your job, find love, hang out, or just live your life. While some of these films were rather scary (applied glitch effects aside), they didn’t feel truly Online, the way we all live now as we grow increasingly separated from one another in physical space.

While both found footage and cyber horror contain a wide array of films ranging in quality, few came close to showing this specific digital hell that we all have fallen into during the pandemic. But as it turns out, such a film came out this year, with the release of Host, a British horror movie that takes place entirely through Zoom. Shot during quarantine, Host tells the story of six friends who decide to shake up their night by hiring a zoom psychic to lead them in a seance. The plot unfolds similarly to The Collingswood Story, and Gemma, one of the more skeptical members of the group, is immediately contacted by the ghost of a friend who recently committed suicide, only to later reveal that she faked this story to scare the other people on the call. By doing so, she inadvertently opened a gateway and welcomed in a demon, resulting in chaos and death. Watching Host now is a fun ride with genuinely scary moments, which is saying a lot after eight months of perpetual Zoom fatigue. Even its use of the Zoom interface (as well as the use of face filters and digital backdrops) feels akin to how we actually use these technologies. Aside from whether or not it's scary, it is undoubtedly a feat of filmmaking.

Host was conceived by director Rob Savage, after he staged a terrifying scare on one of his own Zoom get-togethers and then wrote the script in collaboration with members from that call, directing the final product entirely over the internet. He worked with actors to craft practical effects in their apartments that they would then have to pull off while acting for their webcams, resulting in some of the most inventive scares I have seen in recent horror. However, the “ghost in the machine” narrative doesn’t tap into the horror of living your life solely online—a prominent feature of the pandemic.

There was one film that really hit that nerve: Daniel Goldhaber’s directorial debut, Cam (2018). While it doesn’t take place solely on a desktop, the main character falls into a situation that has horrifying implications on our lives. Alice works as a camgirl for FreeGirlsLive.com, masquerading as Lola_Lola. In order to raise her rank on the site, she creates extreme web shows where she fakes her own death for the highest bidder. After participating in a joint show at a nearby cam house, she awakens to find all her passwords changed and a lookalike stealing her identity on her account, but taking her extreme shows further. Alice slowly discovers that this doppelganger is not in the real world, but exists online, in the livestream itself. Alongside its surprisingly sex-positive script written by former camgirl Isa Mazzei and an incredible lead performance by Madeline Brewer, _Cam_ excels through demonstrating an undeniable truth: No matter how much we personalize technology, the platform is ultimately is in control. All of our apps, websites, webcams, and means of communication are built around the falsehood that we have the ability to decide how much we share and that what we share is of our choosing. This could not be farther from the truth, and we see it all play out in Cam.

The chances of stumbling on a direct connection to the afterlife online is slim, and requires a stretch of the imagination. However, we know that our likeness can be imitated and our digital presence can be stolen from us and used for means outside of our control.

Recognizing this threat gives shape to the hell we are currently experiencing, because while “company Zoom happy hour” is a trend that (hopefully) is slowly dying, working entirely via the internet is most likely here to stay.

Robert Hickerson lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. He loves horror movies and his favorite is Suspiria (1977). See more of his work on IG at @roberthickerson