The horror genre is built upon terror. Ever changing as new situations create new fears. The rapid technological advancements of the 21st century has opened the genre up to new anxieties. From surveillance to artificial intelligence, developments in tech have led to a whole new sub-genre – where axe-wielding maniacs are replaced by computers. To understand the development of the sub-genre, it is important to look at three timeframes; firstly, exploring the conception of the internet and it’s first uses in horror. Then, looking at where we are now, what is the current state of technology and how it is reflected in horror cinema before finally looking at the future of technology and how that could impact the genre, and even how it already has.
To understand the growth in the relationship between horror and the internet, you must travel back to the release of a small independent title in 1999, The Blair Witch Project. A time where the internet was in its foetal days and the place to have discussions on the web was through internet forums. Unlike nowadays where any rumour can be easily debunked with a quick google search, you had to search forums to attempt to separate fact from fiction and you could never be one hundred percent sure with your conclusion. This is what made The Blair Witch Project so successful, through word of mouth within these forums many believed the story to be a documentary, and believed it’s protagonists were in fact still missing. The film used the uncertainty of the early days of the internet to perfectly blend fiction and reality and serve as the origin for humanity’s ambivalence towards the internet.
It is evident this film created a template for how the internet can be used to create anxiety
Released towards the end of a decade that represented a resurgence in horror, particularly with a new shift in focus towards self-aware, meta-horror, The Blair Witch Project offered a stark contrast. With a budget of $60,000, a lack of glossy footage and no recognisable cast members, the marketing of The Blair Witch Project was reliant on the belief in the story being told. Building a website which featured images of the filmmakers, interviews with their relatives and the mythology of the story – The Blair Witch Project created a blueprint for how fear and rumour can spread on the internet. Many of the more recent entries in the internet horror subgenre are found footage and lean into these blurred lines between fact and fiction that The Blair Witch Project is infamous for. It is evident this film created a template for how the internet can be used to create anxiety, and its legacy is still clear to see within horror cinema.
As the capabilities of the internet has grown, new anxieties have arisen. The horror genre adapts itself to these new fears which has consequently led to a rise in internet horror within the 21st century. From the killer uber drivers seen in Spree and Ride to deadly zoom calls shown in Unfriended and Host, it is clear that as a society we have many apprehensions towards the internet. Technology is such a prominent and important aspect of modern society, and a lot of people would be lost without it, yet at the back of our mind there is that fear of what could happen and there is a constant underlying narrative of the dangers of the internet. This narrative is perhaps what makes these techno-horrors feel so realistic and consequently why the fear of technology is very real.
it highlighted how quickly you can fall from the surface of the internet into a deep inescapable hole
A recent example that blurred the lines expertly, and despite its fictious nature felt rooted in something that could really happen was We’re All Going to the World’s Fair. Following a young teenager taking on the ‘world’s fair’ challenge, the film explored the dark web and notoriety that can be gained by internet challenges. With most of the film shown through low-quality cameras or our protagonists webcam, there was an invasive almost perverse feeling during viewing. Instead of watching a film, it felt as though you were just viewing a real individual using the internet and slowly watching a very familiar yet deadly spiral. It highlighted how quickly you can fall from the surface of the internet into a deep inescapable hole, representing the fear of getting into situations on the internet that can push you into a corner and how this usually happens to the most isolated and vulnerable.
You can see the inspiration of The Blair Witch Project within We’re All Going to the World’s Fair but the film fell under the radar upon release, yet with a bigger marketing campaign you could see people believing it to be factual. However, the forums of The Blair Witch Project have been replaced with a new form of virality, the rise of social media. The consequence of this is a totally new form of word of mouth, which can be seen in the infamy of Megan Is Missing. Despite it’s 2011 release, it wasn’t until the 2020s that the discussion of Megan Is Missing started spreading on the internet. The film warns of the danger of strangers on the internet, with the titular character going missing after speaking to a boy online. Reusing the tropes of unknown actors and poor camerawork, people started posting videos on social media platforms about how the film left them traumatised and wanting to delete their social media. However, the most revealing aspect of this film is how it left many trying to decipher whether it was based on a real story. This is the true evidence that as a society we feel real fear surrounding the internet, Megan is Missing was not based on a true story but many who watched it felt convinced that it could’ve been.
horror has shown how the potential growth of technology is a huge fear
It is not just the present state of technology that offers cause for anxiety, and horror has shown how the potential growth of technology is a huge fear. Circling back to the theme of unpredictability, the growth of technology has been huge in such a short space of time. Looking at where we were at the release of The Blair Witch Project to now, it is no wonder that the speculation on how technology could potentially grow in the next few decades has no boundaries. Recently, we have seen films about apps that can predict when you are going to die in Countdown and the true capabilities of AI in 2023’s M3GAN.
Perhaps the most famous portrayal of the dangers of technological advancements are present in the anthology series Black Mirror. Known for it’s dark tone and bleak messages, Black Mirror offers it’s viewers an insight into potential invention and then highlights the detrimental effects it could potentially have. As it’s title suggests, it reflects the worst of humanity and acts to confirm fears that as new technology is introduced, new potentially devasting consequences will also arise. Horror surrounding contemporary technology is scary as there is the constant feeling that what you are watching could be real, but perhaps even scarier is the media that presents what humanity’s potential future could be. The rise in internet horror has made clear that as a society we have deep anxieties surrounding the unpredictability that is intrinsically linked to the rapid developments in technology.