Until the early 2000s, there was one trope in horror that was reliable and so familiar to audiences, it’s become an online joke:
The call is coming from inside the house.
Despite the fact that this line still gives me a bit of a chill, there’s little way it makes sense for me now. I haven’t had a landline phone for over ten years. Sure. The call could be coming from inside the house, but there’s no way I could know that without seeing the person who’s making the call. Unless they’re somehow on an iPhone and they have Find Friends and they’re on my list…
Technology has changed vastly since Jason Voorhees picked up his first machete or Freddy terrorized his first dream. Whereas in 1984, being home alone meant that someone could, conceivably, cut the telephone line to your house, leaving you stranded without much hope of rescue, we’re now surrounded by “the internet of things,” making it much more difficult for this type of horror to work.
Granted. It’s not impossible. Just more difficult.
This “phenomenon,” for lack of a better word, became starker when I was rereading Salem’s Lot by Stephen King not so long ago. While I have no doubt the story could be updated with today’s technology and still be just as scary as it was when it was first published, the isolation that came naturally to the town really added a layer of terror to the story. There was no internet for anyone to look up symptoms. No Siri or Alexa to call out to when the vampires were knocking at the door.
While there are still locations where this type of horror would be effective, most modern movie-going audiences or readers are going to ask, “Why don’t you just use your cellphone?”
However, where certain mechanics of horror past might not work as well as they once did, this opens new avenues for storytellers. The gothic horror that was once popular over 40 years ago only plays well now for certain audiences wanting to revisit that genre now. Slashers, demonic possessions, and zombies took over for the put-upon mistress in the sprawling haunted house. So this is certainly not the first time that horror has changed with the times.
Now, technology serves up its own horror. AI, intrusive technology and automation make for all new horror tropes that had only been idealized before in sci-fi/horror hybrids. Movies such as Cam and Unfriended have capitalized on the evergrowing intrusiveness of technology and how humans (and those not-so-human) can manipulate it.
The idea behind new tech and horror is that, instead of someone attempting to enter your home to terrorize you, thanks to the internet, they already were in your home. In many ways, this brand of horror is often more effective because, in the case of technology, you may be watching the movie on the very device that is terrorizing the protagonist of the film you’re viewing. No amount of locking the doors or flipping on the lights will save you from this beast about to strike. If anything, you may willingly put yourself into the earlier horror scenario of isolation in order to rid yourself of your would-be modern villain. A phone with connectivity? No thank you. Cut the lines!
At the heart of all horror, whether it relies on being in an isolated cabin in the woods or in the heart of a metro area surrounded by AI, it all boils down to one thing: how our minds perceive the world around us. If we’re alone with no hope of rescue, every tree and every darkened window will pose a threat. If it’s technology at large that’s out to get us, it won’t matter that our neighbors next door can hear us scream because the killer was always just a text away.
Horror changes and evolves with each change in society, whether that change is technological, societal or political. Fear is a powerful emotion and it’s always right there, which means no matter how times change, there’s always a way to scare the living daylights out of us.