Phones: A Terror To Horror? Or A Devilish Lover?

“What’s your favorite scary movie?”

“7 Days….”

“Why haven’t you checked the children?”

Ah, horror movies. From the everlasting tradition of oral storytelling to the big screen, horror stories/films/literature/etc. have found ways to haunt every aspect of our day-to-day lives. One such way of scaring us is through our phones, but through this medium there have been many technological changes that in turn change the methods used by creators. For example, how do we make people feel isolated when a smartphone has reception nearly anywhere these days? How do we utilize the unknown when anyone can have sketchy numbers blocked from their phones? And don’t even get me started on how we are now seeing a generation of people who have no clue what the extinct payphone was!

In the beginning, a mastermind like Alfred Hitchcock could easily use the disrupting timbre of a rotary telephone. It’s loud, sudden, and perfect to place in moments of tension. Hey, do you hear that in the basement? Listen closely, put your ear to the basement… you hear that? *silence* BRRRRING!!! RRRRRING! It’s perfect. And whilst the rotary phone became obsolete, phones could still be used to this effect. You see it on the landline used in M Night Shyamalan’s “Signs” for example.

And that’s something that could be beautifully used with both landline, rotary phones, and especially phone booths! Restriction. Pre-cordless era, one had to stay put on the phone. There was no walking around the house unless you had a weirdly long line. What does this mean? Well, if you want to obey the killer caller’s orders, stay put. It’s not quite horror, but remember Phone Booth with Colin Farrell and Forrest Whitaker? While it’s not always the case that a full-movie consists of a phone call, the idea of being restricted to the area of your phone during a call can mean multiple things – you can’t check anywhere else in your house until you hang up, if you want to dial 911 you have to race to a phone that’s hopefully still intact, and ultimately, your contact with the outside world is limited to a designated area of your home. Overall, it just sucks.

But a wireless landline! Ah-ha! Everything’s great! Not quite. As we see in films like the rebooted 2006 version of “When A Stranger Calls” the horror adapts into becoming a free-range type of situation. Able to move around the house, the limits to the horror escape the isolation of one area of the home to the home itself. “When A Stranger Calls” is a good example of this, because viewers see the isolation taking place in the actual rural placement of the home. True, it is the typical baby-sitter horror, but with a wireless phone comes a great tension of life-or-death marco-polo.

It is from here that we get into the wonderful introduction years to cellular telephones. “Go anywhere you wish!” they say. That is, until you travel 2 miles out of a major city and find that coverage sucks. Welcome to the world of the first-generation cellphones! Hello, Nokia and Motorola! I think that the beginnings of cellphones worked out far better for horror films because with the early unreliability of these devices, content creators could easily convince the audience that the phone would never work once you needed it to for added terror, and then work when needed for the proper plot device movements. Same could be said of cut-off phone conversations, they schemingly lead the viewer to the next place and add to anxieties across audiences. But what about when the reception increases throughout the country? How do we adapt from here?

One way is to manipulate the supernatural around you to make the cell phone void altogether. Oh, you usually get reception everywhere? Spirits, dude. 4G doesn’t exist here. Oh, your phone can give you directions to the safe zone? Spirits, dude. Your google maps are messin’ up big time. Oh, everything else is fine and there’s actually no supernatural stuff going on? What a time for your phone to be dead. Some may call these manipulations cop-outs, but when done correctly, they can do real wonders to making sure the audience has struck out of escape options to yell at the screen with. My favorite instances of this are in the Silent Hill franchise. No matter what, it is understood that Silent Hill plays by its own rules. There is no society that you are used to, there is no technology, night and day do not exist. Fantastic. Where’s my popcorn?

Another way is to just go with the flow! “One Missed Call” and its Japanese original “Chakushin Ari” takes full advantage of the new technology and distorts it. And this is really why I love Japanese-based horror films. Being incredulously tuned into the culture of American horror and isolation-tropes, being introduced to something like “Chakushin Ari” is so unsettling. Why? The phones work fine. They are haunted, in a sense, but majority of the horrors that are experienced are within the public. You know, the public, that place where we usually are supposed to feel at ease and safe? And once the horrors begin to happen in isolated spaces, the effects of the terror felt are far greater. I mean, if this stuff could freak you out with people around, imagine what can happen behind closed doors! It is films like “Chakushin Ari” and “One Missed Call” that do a neat job in taking advantage of the tech of the day to work for the time being.

But what about today? Lately it seems like more and more horror articles pop up to question the survival of the horror genre when considering the continuously increasing access to mobile devices of all sorts. Sure, we can keep spinning off every new piece of technology and making them scary (i.e. dark-web tales, creepypastas, etc.), but what about horror content that doesn’t want to be solely based in the technology of the time? The last pieces of example I’ll give out comes from the recently released film “Rings”. I really enjoyed how this film took advantage of the supernatural. It was a bit corny in the end (don’t worry, I won’t spoil it), but overall I saw the creativity used in order to make the cellphones a non-factor in the story. As a viewer in the theatre, I wasn’t distracted by that thought. And the same goes for a film like “Get Out”. Access to phones did not change throughout the course of the film, and yet I still felt isolated and anxious. Keep your heads up, horror creators, if there’s a will, there’s a way.

In all, as time changes, so do our livelihoods in nearly every aspect of being. How we function, how we communicate, how we commute to work, how we gather our information, how we perceive the world and its existence develops over time. Variables that we cannot control whatsoever, but variables that can certainly be creatively manipulated. In the case of phones, I don’t think that the development of technology necessarily hurts or limits horror. Instead, I’m thinking that maybe it challenges a new wave of horror altogether. We’ve seen horror in the 60s already, and we’ve already seen how it looks in the 70s, 80s, 90s, etc. While it is good to go back with film to capture new ideas about the past, for those who want to make horror about the present and future, fear not. These challenges, I think, will only assist in making present-based horror that much more new, unique, and exciting. But also, there's like, NEVER any cell reception on the reservation - so any Native horror writers/filmmakers/etc.... JUST SAYIN'!


And for God-sakes, stop looking at your phone in the theatre!

Anthony-Hopkins-as-Alfred-Hitchcock instructs you to silence your cell phones with this in-theater PSA!