I have a confession. I love found footage horror and have an undying need to protect the often-maligned subgenre from criticism. I’m not trying to excuse the absolute tripe that sometimes passes for found footage horror, but hand on my heart, one example I feel that was dismissed a little too quickly and energetically by the horror community, is Unfriended (Levan Gabriadze, 2014).
In Unfriended, the internet is a place haunted by characters’ mistakes as much as the supernatural and the insidious potential of social media is at the heart of the film’s construction of fear. A large majority of critics received the film negatively on its release, suggesting that Unfriended was an example of found footage horror trying desperately to stay relevant by co-opting the aesthetics of social media into its repertoire after riding the surveillance-cam wave of Paranormal Activity for the past decade.
Within the film, Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman) committed suicide a year ago due to an internet based shaming campaign urging her to kill herself. This campaign followed the uploading of a video to social media, which showed Laura having soiled herself while passed out at a party. As the film progresses, the audience learns that Laura’s group of friends all played significant roles in her shaming. Their actions, such as uploading the video and making fake profiles to further torment Laura, were done under the cover of digital anonymity. However, as Laura’s ghost haunts their communicative technology, she now knows all.
This haunting of the internet by both Laura’s ghost and the characters’ actions, and as such its connection to Jeffrey Sconce’s concept of haunted media (2000), was what first attracted me to the film. Unfriended unfolds within the considerable limits of a laptop screen, using the familiar aesthetics of the internet and social media to engage with and update the ghost story trope.
Traditionally, the ghost story hinges on the idea of the unfamiliar or supernatural appearing as a rupture in the mundane reality of everyday life; in other words, a ghostly happening in a credible setting. In Unfriended, the credible setting is protagonist Blaire’s (Shelley Hennig) laptop screen and the film’s use of familiar interfaces such as Google, Facebook, Youtube, and Messenger. The inclusion of familiar icons and sounds (down to the tapping of Blaire’s fingers on the keyboard) all act as markers of authenticity. They then also act as markers of continuity, marrying our real world to the fictitious setting of the film and pulling us into its call to play, where the mundane reality of internet-based communication is a site of threat and horror.
Unfriended seems then to position itself at a point of contradiction, where it simultaneously appears to castigate the millennial generation, who live out minutiae of their lives online, while aiming the film’s appeal directly at that same group. This contradiction echoes the nature of the film’s content, which seems to have one eye on a possible social media horror future, but one foot firmly planted in the tradition of haunted media and the tried-and-true tropes of the ghost story, straddling a line between pre- and post-millennial horror cinema.
One of other aspects that piqued my interest initially in Unfriended was the film’s engagement with the mediation of real death on the internet. Death and dying have begun to circulate online with increasing visibility in the last few years, for example, the option to memorialise deceased users’ accounts on Facebook.[i] More relevant to this post, there has also been a rapid increase in the number of real death/gore sites, such as Rotten.com, and Ogrish.com, which host real footage and photographs of accidents, crime scenes, suicides, and other uncensored gore.
Real death sites are demonstrative of how difficult it is to police digital communities, as shown by the uploading of the infamous 1 Lunatic, 1 Ice-pick video. This video, which shows the mutilation, dismemberment, and implied cannibalisation of a young man (I watched it so you don’t have to, you’re welcome), was originally uploaded to bestgore.com by the murderer, Luka Magnotta. Having been downloaded over 300,000 times before it was deleted from the site; the video was simply re-uploaded to different sites by downloaders. The Magnotta footage therefore, took on a life of its own once uploaded, and will never truly disappear from the internet, meaning the online world is essentially, haunted by its presence.
Not only does Unfriended explicitly include a real death site in its aesthetics, choosing Liveleak.com as the host for Laura Barns’ suicide video at the opening of the film,[ii] but the narrative also engages with the idea that once something is uploaded, whether this be a video, a comment, or a status update, it is on the internet forever.
Nicholas Mirzoeff has suggested that the networked subject is everywhere on the screen, but no one is watching (2002). The ghost of Laura Barns ensures her former friends are watching, as they are compelled to stay logged on as she systematically eliminates them. Their carefully constructed online identities are ended viscerally by online performative murder suicides, broadcast over the internet to their friends, who engage in a form of unwilling digital witnessing.
Although the characters are together in online space, and can even see each other in their group video chat, their geographical isolation from one another becomes more apparent as the film progresses. This isn’t a horror film where we can gleefully shout at characters not to split up and enter a dark spooky house, as they are already completely alone, linked only by a fallible internet connection and a compulsion to stay online. Unfriended seeks to pull the horror genre into the digital age, and to update its sub-generic home of found footage horror to a place where disconnection equals death.
[i] It has been reported that with this option available, dead users will soon outnumber living users on Facebook, making the social media site something of a digital graveyard. For more, see http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/news/facebook-dead-set-to-outnumber-the-living-as-legacy-contacts-turn-profiles-into-museums-10042169.html
[ii] Until recently the Laura Barns suicide video was still available to view on Liveleak.com, where it was often mistaken for real footage of a gunshot suicide.
Mirzoeff, Nicholas (2002), “Ghostwriting: Working out Visual Culture”, Journal of Visual Culture, Vol. 1 (2), pp. 239-254.
Sconce, Jeffrey (2000), Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television, (Durham NC: Duke University Press).
Shellie McMurdo has recently completed writing about FX’s American Horror Story, school shooters and hybristophilia. Having successfully presented her work on the horror genre at various conferences, she is currently in her second year of research at the University of Roehampton. Her thesis title is ‘Blood on the Lens: Found Footage Horror and the Terror of the Real’ and focuses on, you guessed it, found footage horror cinema. In her spare time she enjoys reading about Ted Bundy and drinking copious amounts of coffee. If you like, you can talk to her on Twitter.