Horror films animate the 21st-century fear that our selves are inescapably corrupted
Image: See Gate No.5 (2021) by Alex Jackson. Courtesy the artist.
Up until very recently, contemporary cinema has had a strange aversion to depicting technology as anything beyond background detail. There has been little reference to the internet’s networks of para-sociality, the ways its organization of information shapes a person’s inner life, the ways we are watched, our data fed back to us in the form of prompts, invitations, permissions, and obstacles. Most filmic characters still seem to have lives and selves that are obscenely uncontaminated by the digital. They make choices that are undeniably their own.
In recent years, there has been a slew of new productions depicting a world in which online and offline realms reflect and refract one another (for example: Ingrid Goes West (2017), Eighth Grade (2018), Zola (2020)). There is an emerging filmic lexicon for representing the internet naturalistically: the depiction of texts, likes, and screens within screens has become less and less awkward. And yet some of the most haunting portrayals of the utter strangeness of digital life continue to come from a genre that has nurtured these themes since long before arthouse and realist cinema took up the mantle: paranormal horror.
There is a good explanation for this, surprisingly, to be found in novelist Amitav Ghosh’s 2014 book The Great Derangement, which deals primarily with the question of why what we now think of as “serious” fiction fails to adequately tackle the subject of climate change. Looking back over the history of the novel from its inception to the present day, Ghosh charts how the literary form has been shaped by a bourgeois sense of the inertness, regularity and predictability of the outside world, a sensibility with which the improbable and often surreal effects of climate change are incompatible.
As the climate around us becomes increasingly unstable, we face the uncanny sense that what we presumed to be inert backdrop is in fact alive, listening
According to Ghosh, the contemporary novel’s emphasis on the inner dramas of a single character is the endpoint of a long process by which a recognition of non-human forces and non-human agency have been slowly banished from the “manor house” of serious fiction. The relegation of the non-human to mere “scenery” within the contemporary novel stems from what Bruno Latour called the wider “partitioning” of the idea of Nature from that of Culture in the Western imagination. Any story that hybridized these two realms was demoted to the “outhouses” of genre: gothic, sci fi, horror.
As Ghosh points out, the idea that humans are the sole agents of their own destiny is an illusion, albeit a persistent one. As the climate around us becomes increasingly unstable, we face the uncanny sense that what we presumed to be inert backdrop is in fact alive, listening, and has not only been shaping our surroundings, but also our very thoughts. In this way, global warming opens a doorway to a kind of “spirit world,” populated by the unseen forces of the non-human, which — in their proximity to our lives, and distance from what we know as the “human”— produce a feeling of hauntedness. The stories we are beginning to tell now inevitably betray this sense of uncanny. Our modes of thinking, in other words, are “possessed” by the non-human, a force that exists not only alongside us or around us, but also lives within, speaks through, and acts through us.
A feeling of hauntedness is one of a breached self: something that is not me lives within me. If “serious fiction” preserves the idea of humanity as the only sentient force in an otherwise inert world, then genre reveals the impossibility of distinguishing between nature and culture, between the human and the non-human. Genre fiction is a hybrid force populated by hybrid creatures: werewolves, vampires, witches, shape-shifters, extraterrestrials, mutants and zombies. Its central drama is the fundamental porousness of the self.
Because technology — like climate change — problematizes the notion of discrete human agency or identity, it too has, up until recently, been largely been excluded from the manor house, finding its home in genre film, in particular those derived from the gothic (in an essay on the topic for Real Life, the author notes that the strange fullness of the technologized smart home — in which unseen presences exert an insidious control — resembles the haunted house of gothic lore). The gothic is largely about the drama of containment: It takes place within boundaried spaces (a castle, a mansion, a forest, a town) which become metonymical for the idea of the discrete human self. The monsters and figures that proliferate within its boundaries — mirrors, doppelgangers, vampires and ghosts — speak directly to anxieties about the instability and penetrability of the self.
In the history of technology’s relationship with the paranormal horror genre, we find a wealth of information about our own changing relationship to technological systems. Julia Leyda, for example, has written about how the demon in paranormal activity is a debt collector, foreshadowing the housing crisis to come. Stephanie Monohan notes that modern horror captures the increasingly apparent fact that no separation can be drawn between our digital and embodied lives. Miranda Ruth Larsen has explored how the “desktop horror” genre reflects changing modes of spectatorship and the question of attention.
Increasingly, paranormal tech horror centers around stories of possession: a self taken over by a force that is external to it and yet deeply familiar. These films speak to the sense that the 21st century body is inescapably hybrid, possessed not only by the ecological non-human, but also by the technological non-human.
Stories of haunted technology are not a contemporary phenomenon, but the exact ways in which these hauntings are imagined have changed, along with technologies themselves and the socio-political contexts in which they operate. Early “handy cam horror” films such as The Blair Witch Project (1999) and the Paranormal Activity franchise (2007) exploited the terrifying visual ambiguity of low-res images produced by early digital recording equipment, while also suggesting that the digital eye was more attuned to paranormal phenomena. These films set up the suggestion that extending the body’s perceptual faculties through technology makes it more vulnerable to possession by non-human forces, as if the self hybridized through technology were already susceptible to further hybridization (in Paranormal Activity, a priest warns the young couple that their obsessive attempts to capture the demon on film only invite it further in).
Increasingly, paranormal tech horror centers around stories of possession: a self taken over by a force that is external to it and yet deeply familiar
In more contemporary examples of paranormal tech-horror, this vulnerability is more explicitly to do with the instability of characters’ own identities. Identity play or falsification is punished ruthlessly, creating a gap between “self” and persona by which the digital spirit can insinuate itself into the bodies of its victims. In the 2020 film Host — a pandemic horror that takes place entirely within the allocated hour of an unpaid Zoom call — a group of friends meet to break up the monotony of lockdown by performing a digital séance. Before they begin, the guide warns them that “because we’re doing this over Zoom, we’re slightly less protected than we would have been.”
The exact nature of the “protection” lost in the digital space is the central question of Host, and is answered largely through the fact that the medium affords an extreme malleability of the self: one character tries on demonic Zoom face-filters, another sets a video of herself as her background, creating a doppelganger effect. In the most serious instance, a participant fakes the presence of an invented dead classmate. When the hitherto reassuring guide hears of this, she fears for the group’s safety: “by inventing a person that doesn’t exist,” she says, “we’ve summoned a fake spirit… imagine like you created a mask, so now anything could come through and wear that mask.” While the idea of a prank gone wrong crops up in plenty of horror films that don’t take place on Zoom, Host suggests that the creation of masks online is riskier, because it constitutes the propulsion or expansion of the self into a realm in which it no longer has agency over what it becomes. The online mask is a bread-crumb trail leading back to the body: the digital ghost follows it and is invited to step through
Technology encourages the expression of multiple selves in multiple contexts, while also seeming to make their coexistence impossible (I am thinking, for example, of the 2020 meme-format popularized by Dolly Parton juxtaposing the LinkedIn Dolly with the Instagram, Facebook and Tinder). In a piece for Real Life from 2017, Rob Horning cites R.D. Laing, writing: “the creation of identity in the form of a data archive would seem to fashion not a grounded self but an always incomplete and inadequate double — a ‘self partially forced from the body.’ You are always in danger of being confronted with your incohesiveness, with evidence of a past self now rejected or a misinterpreted, misprocessed version of one’s archive being distributed as the real you.”
The anxiety of films like Host, then, is twofold: They concern themselves not only with how the self’s natural multiplicity has been heightened and exaggerated by digital extension, but by how this allows for “back-flow” from the digital realm — so that it’s not clear precisely which fragments of the self are “natural” and which are a result of contamination by technology. The portal works both ways.
The doppelganger is the archetypal gothic figure of identity anxiety, so it is not surprising that it crops up increasingly within tech horror, and even in horror that has ostensibly nothing to do with tech (Jordan Peele’s Us, for example). In the 2018 film Cam, a camgirl named Alice (whose working name is Lola) — known for her boundary-pushing shows — simulates her own suicide online in order to increase her ranking. Shortly afterwards, she’s locked out of her account on Freegirlslive.com, and is horrified to discover that somebody, or something, is still broadcasting from her account. This being wears her face, uses her mannerisms and broadcasts ostensibly from her own studio, but there is something distinctly off about it; an absence that becomes eerily apparent when Alice, camming her double in a one-on-one chat from one of her subscribers’ computers, finds that it does not recognize her. We learn that Alice is one of multiple victims, and that “it” works by taking “anything it can find of you online.” But we never learn what it is — whether, even, it is technological or paranormal — an ambiguity that only draws these two forces into closer proximity.
Cam came out a year after the emergence of the first deepfake pornography in Reddit forums, and there are some aspects that speak very directly to this (the fake Lola speaks certain lines that Alice hears parroted in the livestreams of another “possessed” camgirl). In other ways it is not that literal. The relationship between real Lola and fake Lola is troubled by the fact that the real Lola is already a double, a persona whose existence Alice has never been able to fully reconcile with her life outside of her work. This schism, as well as her tendency to falsify, is what makes Alice (Lola) vulnerable to possession (imagine like you created a mask, so now anything could come through and wear that mask). The punishment for “trying on” different selves, it seems, is having something try on yours.
The online mask is a bread-crumb trail leading back to the body: the digital ghost follows it and is invited to step through
The doppelganger as it is deployed in contemporary horror, then, is not just a “dark side” but the sign of a fractured, distributed self that acts in unpredictable and uncontrollable ways because of its dubious relationship to the human. Being possessed by a demon is no longer a straightforward affair, because the necessary condition for this possession is the existence of an open doorway that already indicates cross-contamination — a corrupted self. In Personal Shopper (2016), Kristen Stewart plays a medium named Maureen, living in Paris, who works for a high-profile supermodel named Kyra while searching for a sign from her recently deceased twin brother. When Maureen begins to receive text messages from an unknown source, she suspects at first that it’s her twin brother, or another, more malevolent entity. It informs her that it wants her, but “not physically,” and subsequently cajoles her into trying on Kyra’s clothes, culminating a scene in which Maureen masturbates in couture and then wakes up in Kyra’s bed, blinking, as though roused from a fit of real, bodily possession.
As in Cam, Maureen’s vulnerability to possession in Personal Shopper appears to stem from the fact that her selfhood is already fractured along multiple lines: first, as a result of the loss of her twin, a real-life double with whom she shares a heart abnormality as well as an ability to access the spirit world; secondly, due to the uneasy parallels between herself and Kyra, in whose footsteps she walks like a ghost, choosing her clothes, standing in for her when she’s late for a shoot, bitterly browsing images of her online and finding traces of her own labor in Kyra’s outfits. Throughout the film she slips between the “real” Maureen, who relates strongly to her brother and feels alienated from her work; and the “fake” Maureen, who is seduced by the glamor of Kyra’s life. There is some fairly trite dialogue about freedom and the ways people’s lives are dictated by brands, in light of which Maureen and her brother’s supernatural perception seems to indicate their ability to see the invisible, ghostly workings of capital. If Maureen is not immune to being “possessed” by such forces, then she is at least aware of them.
In interviews, director Olivier Assayas readily states that Personal Shopper is not meant to be read as a literal ghost story: Maureen is the classic unreliable narrator of the old gothic tale, her inner world distorted by grief. And yet this reading seems to detract from the film’s central source of horror, which is that there is, really, no distinction between inner and outer at all: it is not possible to point to a center in the film and call it “Maureen.” Some of the most absorbing scenes in the film are those in which Maureen researches and practices her craft as a medium; a craft which essentially entails abandoning the self in favor of becoming a conduit. On her phone she watches YouTube explainer videos about painter Hilma af Klimt, who claims to have received her visions from the spirit world, and a fictional 1960s tele-documentary about Victor Hugo’s interest in the occult. The phone is a portal, and in the moments when she is strongest, Maureen is a portal too, an intensely hybrid body through which many voices and many forces flow.
If “possession” by the digital ghost constitutes a breach of the ontological boundaries of the self (it is no longer clear where the human ends and the machine begins), then it also complicates the temporal boundaries of the self. Underpinning nearly all contemporary tech horror films is an anxiety about what, precisely, lives on after the extermination of the body. In Unfriended (2014), the ghost of a deceased classmate hijacks a Skype call and systematically doxes her victims before possessing their bodies: Each of their last moments are defined by the chilling realization that the evidence of their worst deeds will outlive them. In Cam, Alice discovers that Baby, the camgirl who holds the top ranking on Freegirlslive.com, in fact died six months earlier in a car crash, though her doppelganger lives on, feeding off the hours and hours of footage the real Baby recorded during her lifetime. The undead and undying (zombie, vampire, witch or android) are always hybrid, their humanity corrupted by something else that has got in. Hybridity is a condition of immortality.
The digital ghost, though, is not just a metaphor. There is a real risk that the most commodifiable aspects of the self will be the most persistent, continuing to generate value long after our death. Earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal ran a piece on the “Tech quest to ‘live’ forever,” examining how digital assets might be preserved and synthesized into an “essence” that could be turned into a chatbot or even implanted into a humanoid robot. Such entities, the piece speculates, could serve “not only as static replicas for the benefit of their loved ones but as evolving digital entities that may steer companies or influence world events.” The digitized undead could indeed haunt the living in very active ways.
Hybridity is a condition of immortality. Reckoning with these other agencies means first understanding how they are embedded within us
In his book Haunted Media, media theorist Jeffrey Sconce charts how telecommunications devices throughout history have come to be imbued with agency. He identifies three recurring fictions in the figuration of the telegraph, radio, television and computer: First, that these devices allow for an uncanny form of disembodiment (a “Mike Teavee”-type scenario, in which anything from a human consciousness to a whole body is dissolved and transported); secondly, that they act as the bridge to a self-sustaining “electronic elsewhere” (a fantasy dating back to the 19th century that persists in imaginaries of the VR realm); and third, that technology itself becomes anthropomorphized (most visible in fictions involving androids and cyborgs, but also present in early imaginings of the television). Increasingly, all three of these fictions find their way into tech horror, bound together in a causal loop: the severing of selfhood from the physical body allows for its unlimited dispersion and diffraction, resulting ultimately in a state of hybridization (or possession) whereby it is no longer possible to separate the human from the machine.
While these fictions recur throughout the history of modern telecommunications, they don’t always take the same guise. Sconce notes that before the advent of the wireless, stories of haunted tech had a more liberatory undertone, in which the souls of the living and the dead were allowed to communicate through a transcendental plane facilitated by technology. With wireless, though, this idea of “an exciting gateway to a new electronic community of the airwaves” took on a more melancholy air, giving way to the idea of “a lonely realm of distant and estranged consciousness, a vast ocean where the very act of communication reminded the operator of his or her profound isolation.” Today, such stories carry a still more sinister charge, channelling anxieties about the demonic force of capital, by which all the dispersed and diffracted elements of our selves are organized into the most lucrative possible arrangements.
If it is true that the self is increasingly commodified under techno-capitalism, then the antidote doesn’t reside in reconstructing the self as holy, sanctified, complete, and unbreachable. “Where it concerns human beings,” writes Amitav Ghosh, “it is almost always true that the more anxiously we look for purity, the more likely we are to come across admixture.” To say that the self is hybrid and fluid does not mean the individual human has no agency at all; only that it is entangled with other agencies, too. Reckoning with these agencies means first understanding how they are embedded within us.
In the opening pages of The Great Derangement, Ghosh recalls a scene from The Empire Strikes Back in which Han Solo lands his ship aboard what he believes to be an asteroid, only to discover that the huge mass is a living creature. The humans of the future, he writes, will look back on the film as a textual artifact of “a very brief era, lasting less than three centuries” in which “a significant number of their kind” believed that planets and asteroids were inert. Perhaps paranormal horror films, similarly, will serve as a textual artifacts of a growing awareness of the complexity of interactions between humans and technologies: not simply scenarios in which a sentient, discrete entity instrumentalizes a lump of metal to achieve an end, but one in which various forces, operating at various scales, meet and cross-contaminate: resource flows, human labor, geological conditions, cultural frameworks — all of this seeping into the seething porous nodule that we call the self.
If capitalism’s forces of commodification and alienation depend on the figuration of the world as essentially inert and predictable, then there may ultimately be hope in thinking about technology this way; as something that must be understood in terms of anima, life-force, or, in Ghosh’s words, as a kind of witchcraft. Susan Hillier’s 1984 video artwork Bellshazar’s Feast explores newspaper reports of supernatural images appearing on television screens after the sets had been turned off. “Explanations can be found in 90 percent of cases,” the artist’s voice reads to us over the slowed, glitching image of a burning fire. “It is the unexplained 10 percent that is the most provocative and the most interesting.”
In promising access to hidden frequencies and spectra, perhaps the haunted machine offers an attunement to a different way of reading the world, in which every glitch, failing and inexplicable apparition is a sign and an opening through which myth and magic bleeds back in.
The unexplained and inexplicable disrupt what Ghosh calls the tyrannical “calculus of probability” which suppresses our awareness of non-human agency. Once we begin to recognize the human as porous to extra-human forces, we also recognize that the inert is not only alive, but tends to misbehave. Even phenomena of our own creation escape the logics we have invented in the hopes of containing them: climate change, according to Ghosh, is after all the “mysterious work of our own hands returning to haunt us in unthinkable shapes and forms.”
Crucially, in Ghosh’s view, capitalism isn’t a force doing haunting; it is itself haunted by its own history, a history that encompasses forces beyond the human. The ghost in the machine, in other words, isn’t just an allegory for big tech. What if the non-human figures that Ghosh evokes — animal, river, rock and storm — had found a way to “get in” to the digital realm, and thus “get in” to us? What if they had been there all along?
Lauren Collee is a London-based writer and PhD student. Her essays and short fiction have appeared in Another Gaze, Uneven Earth, Eyot Magazine and others.