Written by: Anastasia Salter, Pop-Culture Editor
This Halloween, we’ll get out our pumpkins and costumes as usual. But the things we’re afraid of are changing more quickly than the seasons. In honor of Halloween, let’s take a look at the fears of a wired age in classic and recent books and films. These aren’t the sort of terrors that will have you on the edge of your seat, but they are the quiet voices whispering that our newly connected selves aren’t as safe behind our screens as we’d like to think.
This Sandra Bullock flick will make you laugh with its old-fashioned Internet, but as far as fears of identity theft go it’s pretty up there. It plays out in the “you’ve got a secret” genre and is reminiscent of Enemy of the State or Conspiracy Theory but with a web focus. Help comes from smiling avatars in a chat room and the web already substitutes as a social life for the film’s misfit hero. The film serves as a good reminder to those enamored with the idea of working from home, dating online, and ordering pizza through the browser that without real people, there’s no one to know who you are, and no one to miss you if you disappear. The pinnacle of the film’s paranoia is when another woman physically steps into the lead character’s life, and no one knows the difference.
The Stepford Wives
Yes, it’s a classic, but in vision, this film remains decidedly modern. Women are systematically replaced with robots that more suitably fit their husband’s idea of domestic goddesses, and no one knows the difference. Some movies play on our fear of machines as enemies, like the Terminator franchise, but far more insidious is our fear of being replaceable–in work, in life, in love. Other more recent stories in this vein include Pam Bachorz’s Candor, a book about the reformation of American teenagers by a company specializing in subliminal messages, and After, Francine Prose’s harrowing tale of how careful propaganda might turn parents into informants on their own children in the wake of a school shooting. In all these films, the fear is of losing yourself.
Diary of the Dead
OK, so we can’t escape the zombies yet. This underappreciated Romero film turned a different type of camera on the zombie crisis–YouTube. Rather than watching the madness unfold worldwide through traditional news media, which is censored and unreliable to begin with, the college-age protagonists of Diary of the Dead film their exploits and post them to YouTube. Romero’s utter lack of faith in human nature comes through in some particularly gruesome ideas for viral video stunts that the zombie invasion might bring with it. There’s also a stark reminder of what happens when you start to see the world as a potential video instead of in terms of people, and an undercurrent of paranoia of mass media for good measure.
Almost everyone these days wants to be YouTube famous: that path leads to book deals, record contracts, reality TV shows and the promise of great success even for the truly stupid. Just look at what happened to the girl from Duke who released a powerpoint of her sexual contracts–yup, book and movie deal right around the corner. But there’s another way to get YouTube famous that’s less appealing: dying on the internet. A few movies have explored this idea to lesser or greater effect–Kick Ass plays with the idea of a video broadcast turned web video of a captured superhero, the reverse of how Kick Ass rises to YouTube fame. Untraceable is more akin to Hostel: it milks the idea of torture-porn to such an extreme that it itself becomes unwatchable, better viewed as a trailer on YouTube than on DVD.
David Cronenberg’s movies are always creepy, but eXistenZ was ahead of its time for its vision of future massive multiplayer worlds that would be truly convincing. Employing the world within a world within a world conceit to at times dizzying effect, eXistenZ combines disgusting potentials of biologically implanted tech with the idea of virtual reality resistors: those few people, with determination akin to religious fanatics, who would try to save the world from its own fantasy constructs. With 3D television experiences offering tantalizing potential for the next generation of immersive MMOs and the holodeck looking more possible than ever, eXistenZ, with a great performance from Jude Law, is worth some philosophical contemplation and offers a truth more complex than the red pill, blue pill of the Matrix.
First Person Shooter (X-Files)
In case you were looking for an excuse to dust off your X-Files DVD collection, there’s one shining episode that deserves revisiting. Written by William Gibson, First Person Shooter features the idea of the next-generation first person shooter game, like laser tag or paintball taken into full virtual space. Unfortunately, someone forgot to build in safeties, and people are getting killed by virtual bullets. Like the Trek episode where guns on the holodeck turn real, convincing virtual reality turns out to be more than anyone bargained for. The classic story in this genre remains Ray Bradbury’s “The Veldt,” a story of parents who raise their kids with a virtual reality nursery that starts to matter more to the kids than anything of the real world.
Recently released YA sci-fi novel The Unidentified by Rae Mariz follows on the heels of a whole genre of novels that look at where social tech is heading–Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother and M.T. Anderson’s Feed are other great ones from the crowd. In The Unidentified, school is reimagined as a corporate sponsored game, where instead of grades you have level-ups. For those of us who might think this would be a golden age for geeks, think again: Mariz imagines the consequences of every interaction and fashion choice within the game being monitored and mined, kindof like Google advertising taken to the next level. Popularity in this world is literally marked by having your Facebook page equivalent “branded” and being marked as cool enough for corporate sponsorship. If this is the future of education, we’re in trouble.
The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains
Nicholas Carr’s recent social critique, The Shallows, is a reminder that the greatest horror stories are sometimes in nonfiction. Agree with him or not, Carr has painted a picture of a society that is moving away from deep thought. His thesis, at the very least, requires taking a serious look at how we relate to our technology, and whether deep reading is becoming a thing of the past. If you’re up for reading the entire book, well, then you’re probably not losing the ability to read just yet. If, on the other hand, Carr’s book seems a little long, then you might consider watching the film Idiocracy instead. If that movie doesn’t terrify you, nothing will.