Review: Digital Horror: Haunted Technologies, Network Panic and the Found Footage Phenomenon

Posted by Benjamin E. Noad on May 09, 2016 in Ben Noad, Reviews, Uncategorized tagged with , , , ,

Review: Digital Horror: Haunted Technologies, Network Panic and the Found Footage Phenomenon edited by Linnie Blake and Xavier Aldana Reyes (New York and London: I. B. Tauris & Co., 2016)

This recent edited collection channels a political urgency that beckons further attention to the stylistics, nuances and cultural significance of global horror cinema. The essays it contains are inspired, richly detailed and are, in a word that may do justice to the entirety of the collection as a whole, haunting. The most immediate effect of this inquiry is realised in Blake and Reyes’s introduction: that the digital aesthetics of horror do not merely emerge to register the fears and preoccupations of a panoptical neoliberal era, but that these films actively partake in the disassembly of encoded silences, corrupt regimes and a range of cultural anxieties surrounding the institutional powers managing mass-scale surveillance. As Blake and Reyes suggest, ‘[o]urs is a world in which social media has enabled the emergence of new forms of online subjectivity, even as the proliferation of surveillance technologies position us as objects of an authoritarian gaze invested in tackling criminal activity and maintaining the civil order of the status quo’ (2016: 2). One need only to remember that the UK’s ‘Snooper’s Charter’ – a proposed bill that would permit juridical figures the power to ‘hack’ people’s mobile phones and browsing histories – is firmly in mind as but one of several investigatory powers increasingly normalised in the name of ‘public safety’.[1] As horror realises all too well, however, to act always in the Other’s best interest elides some far more sinister motive elsewhere.

If this, on my part, sounds paranoid, then I am not doing justice to the book’s extensive critical focus. Digital Horror seeks broadly to present its title matter as ‘a diverse range of films with differing perspectives on the contemporary world but, in its more complex and engaging manifestations, unified by an interest in the impact of new technologies upon our diverse societies, our relation to the past and the present, and upon human subjectivity itself’ (2016: 11). Thus, the book examines the intricate ways in which horror film can be considered to engage with ongoing transformations in digital technologies. This is explored through eleven different essays separated into the three coherent sections: ‘Haunted Technologies and Network Panic’; ‘Digital Horror and the Postnational’, and ‘Digital Stylistics’. The first of these sections closes with an innovative piece by Neal Kirk, ‘Networked Spectrality: In Memorium, Pulse, and Beyond’. Here, Kirk responds to the frequent yet limited critical readings that locate social and cultural anxieties affecting the relationship between ghosts and technology. While, as Kirk points out, ‘ghost stories migrate from literary to audio/visual media, they become more self-conscious of how to represent the spectral in those new media environments’ (2016: 54), few readings have examined in detail the ways that ghosts become as distributive and mobile as the technologies in which they manifest. Given that my review began by hinting towards the ‘social anxiety’ models that Kirk takes issue with, it seems fitting to address this part of the book first.

To counter the critical readings that might ‘obscure important technological processes that enrich the relationship between ghosts and social use of new media technology’ (2016: 55), Kirk proposes a new framework: ‘Networked Spectrality’. This fresh approach, as Kirk usefully explains, ‘aims to account for representations of ghosts that are transitioning from the singular, linear, personal and analogue to ghosts that are digital, multiple, nodular and distributive’ (2016: 55).This far more engaging way of viewing the circulatory nature of films such as Pulse (2006), (John Sonzero’s remake of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s film Kairo (2001)), enables a vision of horror that construes itself as active participant in and conduit for the haunting of digital communication transmissions. Kirk argues that: ‘[a]s representative of contemporary cultural productions that depict the internet and new media as a source of fear, Pulse is significant because, in the language of the film, “it opens the door” for society to be digitally haunted by new media e-presence and ghosts supposedly ungoverned by traditional spectral mechanics’ (2016: 59). Kirk’s close readings of Pulse and the ‘online only’ film In Memorium offer a most haunting vision of the ways in which fiction demonstrates technical horrors that are far too much a digital reality. Tantalisingly, Kirk ends the essay by hinting that while new media technologies are always increasing, ‘other digital nightmares awake as technological development continues to proliferate’ (2016: 64).

Keeping with the story of Kairo and its American remake Pulse, at least for the time being, though in yet another re-imagining, I wish to address an essay in the second section of the book by Zeynep Sahinturk: ‘Djinn in the Machine: Technology and Islam in Turkish Horror Film’. This is an exciting work, not least of all because Turkish horror cinema is increasingly flourishing outside its country of origin. Here, Sahinturk examines a brief history of Turkish horror films and provides a very in-depth discussion of Hasan Karacada?’s D@bbe films, the first film of which is, as Sahinturk describes it: ‘an unacknowledged remake of Kairo’ (2016: 98). Demonstrating a broad knowledge of Turkish horror genre and the religious and folkloric sources that influence its productions, Sahinturk explains how striking it is that, whereas early Turkish horror films were often remakes of Western cinema titles, films ‘made after the 2000s choose to create horror out of Islamic tales and thereby became popular’ (2016: 96, original emphasis). Sahinturk argues that by utilising the ‘ghost-in-the-machine’ trope in addition to the counterfeit narrative device of found-footage phenomena, ‘post-millennial Turkish horror films underline both the extent to which horror is a truly transnational genre and the dominant role played by US and Japanese films at the cutting edge of the medium’ (2016: 96). Indeed, Sahinturk provides a convincing case for how such films ‘explain the popularisation of Islamic mythology as a source of horror in a Turkey ruled by the AKP [pro-Islamist Justice and Development Party] for the last decade’ (2016: 97). Turkish political contexts – and how these have informed critics and filmmakers alike – are tactfully explored in this short yet extensive essay, which aptly showcases the metaphorical djinns operating behind expressions of ideology.

Another highly original critical commentary is to be found in the opening of the book’s closing section: Agnieszka Soltysik Monnet’s ‘Night Vision in the Contemporary Horror Film’. Perhaps the ultimate Gothic chiaroscuro, night vision technologies play a crucial and overlooked role in recent horror films. As Monnet suggests, ‘[n]ight vision brings a whole new visual rhetoric to the horror film, […] One of the most immediately striking things about night vision is the eerie green glow that turns people into uncanny figures with opaque and shiny eyes’ (2016: 123). Monnet draws from the night vision technologies developed by British and US military forces during the invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, demonstrating the frightening anonymity night vision casts upon the figures beneath its gaze, threatening to dehumanise civilians and military targets that are rendered ‘often indistinguishable objects in a derealised field of vision’ (2016: 125). Turning to night vision in horror cinema, Monnet’s main argument is that there are ‘three main kinds of uses of the night vision sequence in contemporary horror: forensic revelation, traumatic memory and uncanny depersonalisation’ (2016: 127). The analysis that follows – a close reading of 28 Weeks Later, World of the Dead: The Zombie Diaries 2 and Entity – present a Gothic vision that stipulates pressing ethical issues regarding biopolitics, parallaxes and the perception of military intervention. ‘These films’, Monnet argues, ‘reflect discomfort with the military digitalisation of death and the concomitant dehumanisation of civilians, soldiers and viewers alike in highly mediated, digitised and visually alienating virtual environments. Most of all, however, the films reflect unease with contemporary neoliberal militarism’ (2016: 134).

This collection remains an important contribution to film and Gothic studies. While this review offers a mere survey of select essays from this book, rest assured that the remaining content it offers loses none of its political significance. This volume works on many interdisciplinary levels and it strongly attests to the underappreciated impact that Gothic scholars manage on a daily basis through critical exploration.

[1] See for instance the following news article in the Guardian of March 2016: http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/mar/01/snoopers-charter-to-extend-police-access-to-phone-and-internet-data

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