The best horror films are never only about the Double Gs—guts and gore. Sure, part of the appeal of scary movies is that they make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end, and that frequently requires a spray of blood or a nightmarish vision of terror in the form of Freddy Kruger or Jason Voorhees, but great horror films are always about something other than the thrills and chills.
To be truly effective scary pictures must tap into a collective anxiety; societal hot buttons that elevate the frights to a new level. For instance, Frankenstein plays on people’s fear of science while Godzilla is an obvious cultural metaphor for nuclear weapons in reaction to the devastation of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and you don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to see Dracula as the metaphorical embodiment of everything from drug addiction and old age to alternative lifestyles and capitalism.
Perhaps the most socially self-aware horror film of all is Night of the Living Dead. It’s got zombies galore but director George A. Romero had the braaaiiins to include a subtext that echoed the contemporary state America’s of race relations, the horrors of Vietnam and cynicism with government. It’s the best of both worlds—a thought-provoking movie that gushes with gore.
Film historian Linda Badley suggests Night of the Living Dead horrifies because the zombies weren’t bizarre creatures from outer space or from Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory, but because, “They’re us.”
This weekend a new film, Unfriended, turns the camera, or in this case the Skype screen, on us in an eerie story about bullying. On the surface Unfriended may look like a cheapo teen horror flick with a cast of unknowns—which it is, but so was Night of the Living Dead—but by basing the plot in the world of social media and the bad behaviour that comes along with anonymous avatars, it becomes a ripped-from-the-headlines comment on a very touchy societal subject.
The movie begins a year after Laura, a popular high school student, was cyber shamed into killing herself. A teenage girl is on a group Skype session when she begins to receive cryptic and threatening messages from Laura’s old account. As the movie unfolds secrets are revealed and the danger is amped up.
The mysterious killer is a hoary old horror convention, but here it’s told in the contemporary language of Millennials. Unsurprisingly, the movie has already sparked the interest of the Y Generation—the trailer garnered almost 300,000 Twitter comments on its first day—who relate to the setting—by-and-large it takes place on a computer screen—and who are all too familiar with the everyday brutality of Twitter, Facebook, Skype, Instagram and Spotify. They understand what a minefield the web can be and the filmmakers realized the narrative possibilities of creating cinema’s first deadly internet troll. Freddy Kruger is your father’s baddie; the new horror comes in bits and bytes.
Similar to Psycho’s Norman Bates or the undead of 28 Days Later, the kids of Unfriended tell a very specific story—the sad tale of a teen suicide—that becomes a universal horror tale by making the characters and setting ordinary and relatable. Like the best of classic fright films, it breathes new life into a form we’ve seen before by recontextualizing it for a new generation.