Can ghosts of the afterworld really haunt our gadgets? Probably not. But Haunting Melissa, the game-changing horror movie released this week by director/creator Neal Edelstein—the producer of The Ring and Mulholland Drive—plays off our unconscious fears of invisible forces lingering in our machines.
By machines, I mean iPhones and iPads—since Haunting Melissa is actually an app that can only be downloaded on iOS platforms. So don’t expect to see the film on the silver screen; instead, it must be downloaded and watched, piece-by-piece, in a series of short episodes. When asked about his decision to leap to the so-called “second screen,” Edelstein told The Wrap, “I wanted to tell a ghost story in a different way because of the way technology was moving.”
Accordingly, Edelstein uses the intimacy of this new viewing experience to his advantage. In order to cut through the distractions of text messages, Facebook notifications, and other alerts that may be bombarding your phone at the same time, Haunting Melissa draws you in by maintaining the illusion of personalization. In the very first scene, the fourth wall is broken by a man with a blurred face and distorted voice speaking directly to you. “I just need you to see this for yourself,” he intones, “Listen.”
Then, you’re dropped into a video chat between a young couple. Melissa, the pale-skin and high-strung protagonist, explains to her boyfriend that “weird things” are happening in her house. Without a doubt, their Skype session would look strange on a giant movie screen. But scaled down, it looks entirely authentic—like you’re just watching a call between your friends.
For the rest of the episode, your perspective continues to come from Melissa’s various devices—whether it’s video footage shot on her phone of her dad’s closet (a little girl is whimpering in there…), or streams from her webcam while she’s asleep. These gadgets pick up on ghostly apparitions that the naked eye cannot see. At one point, Melissa wonders if the strange flickers and sounds appearing on her video could be coming from “electromagnetic waves…or something.” Obviously, we know that they’re not.
In this way, Haunting Melissa derives its creepy-factor by tapping into our own latent fears of ghosts in our machines. When a device turns on by itself, whether it was the work of a hacker or a demon doesn’t really matter. The idea of a computer, phone or even a music file having a life of its own is scary enough.
Edelstein’s references to the Blair Witch types of found-footage horror movies are obvious enough. But Haunting Melissa goes one step further than its predecessors in one more important way: it wants to go viral. The first episode you watch is free, but in order to unlock the second, you have to share the movie on Facebook, thus spreading it to your friends. It’s like The Ring for the social media age.