Inside the Video, Into the Screen: Horror and the Internet Wormhole
By Eve Reid
The nomenclature ‘video nasty,’ once reserved for violent and explicit films, struggles to find definition in the digital age. The online world now contains a multitude of terrifying tales, graphic violence, and the possibility for confrontation with one’s deepest fears that go beyond what the horror genre has been able to fully represent. In the past, the genre has provided a structured and, to some extent, controlled experience of fear and terror. However, the advent of the internet has ushered in an entirely new facet of fear, one entirely unpredictable and unmoderated. The anonymity and accessibility of digital platforms foster an environment where graphic and unsettling content can proliferate unchecked. While one would like to believe that what is within the screen stays there, scholars such as N. Katherine Hayles foresee a digital permeation of quotidian existence. She describes this as the ‘posthuman’ condition, where we become disembodied as we vanish into the virtual world. The horror genre has attempted to address this condition of digital mediality intruding on material existence in the international film cycle since the beginning of this millennium.
One can locate the genesis of this trend back to the 90s found-footage documentary aesthetic, as seen in the Blair Witch Project (1999), which arose out of the iconography of the snuff video seen in Cannibal Holocaust (1980). This developed into the self-referential, meta-horror film exemplified by The Ring (2002) and Sinister (2012), both of which addressed the potential of the video within the video. In both cases, these films looked at the malevolent spirit arising out of the realm of the videotape. The potential for video mediums to harbour supernatural entities was explored particularly in Japanese cinema, often infusing horror into our relationship with technology. These films offer a stark contrast to Walter Benjamin's theory on reproductive technology, particularly in the context of his seminal essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1935). Benjamin's theory posits that technological advancements, such as photography and film, devalue the aura and uniqueness of the original work of art by making it endlessly reproducible. Benjamin implied a passive role for technology in the reproduction of art. In contrast, in films like Sinister and The Ring, technology is portrayed as an active catalyst for supernatural events––the locus for a certain aura to arise and impact the viewer.
More specific examples such as Pulse (2001), Smiley (2012), Cam (2018), Unfriended (2014) and its sequel Dark Web (2018) have brought a new cycle of films with a focus on specifically online terrors. The most poignant and effective of these, however, is We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (2021) directed by Jane Schoenbrun.
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair follows teenager Casey (Anna Cobb) and her participation in an online role-playing game: The World’s Fair Challenge. This game requires its players to complete an initiation ritual, where they must draw blood from their finger and smear it onto their computer screen. Following this, players document the mysterious psychological changes that they supposedly undergo as part of the game––videoing themselves for YouTube and speculating about the effects of the game’s curse on internet forums. Casey spends hours in her attic room messaging user ‘JLB’ who is a self-identified World’s Fair veteran who seeks to ‘guide’ Casey as she undergoes the transformations associated with the game. Aside from these online encounters, Casey is always depicted alone and although we briefly hear the voice of her neglectful father, she has limited encounters with the world outside her room and her computer. There are only several occasions where we see her walking solitary through her hometown, the flat rural landscape of Saugerties in upstate New York. Eventually, Casey becomes disturbed with JLB’s interest in her and admits that it has all been make-believe, leaving the World’s Fair Game behind.
The ‘aura’ of the digital here is developed within the landscape of the metaverse; liberation through and possession by online forces are combined with video-art gaming aesthetics. The scenes of the film are always mitigated through a screen, whether this be in a shot from a phone camera or one which posits the viewer behind the fluorescent light of Casey’s computer screen. Elements of the found footage collage can be observed within this, in scenes of Casey watching YouTube videos into the early hours of the morning or with segments where she films herself to document her game playing for JLB and other participants. At one point, as she projects a video made by JLB onto the wall of her garage, we find that he has distorted or ‘memeified’ her face, warping her features so that her eyes appear like black holes. The possibility of one’s identity being taken/affected by online forces is realised here in both a fabricated way and in a scarily real and intrusive fashion. This resonates with Jean Baudrillard's notion of hyperreality. As Baudrillard argued, we have entered an age in which simulations and copies have become more real than the original sign. In the context of digital horror, online landscapes and the evil spirits within often take on a hyperreal quality. This hyperreality generates a sense of unease, as viewers grapple with the blurring of fiction and reality in online spaces, as takes place in JLB’s warping of Casey’s visage. The boundary between offline/online is increasingly complicated both in the film’s cinematography and in Casey’s own actions, until it becomes unclear whether Casey plays along out of boredom or as a result psycho-sematic affects involved. The horror is amplified precisely because it feels so real; Casey acts erratically, covering herself in neon paint and filming herself grinning malevolently in her sleep. How much of this can be explained through make-belief? Is she reaching a point of ‘posthuman’ disconnect which is affecting her mind?
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair frames the horror of digital hyperreality through the internet phenomenon of ‘Creepypasta.' ‘Creepypasta’ refers to widely circulated horror-related legends which often take the form of chainmail-type fearmongering and involve popular evil entities like 'Slender Man’ and references to games like 'Ben Drowned'. The unique aspect of these digital scary stories, located in internet wormholes, is that they blur the line between fiction and reality in their rumour-like nature, leading some people to believe that there is truth in their existence. Certainly, as the supernatural/terrifying encodings in digital aesthetics and digital life are the most relevant genre trend in the contemporary horror film movement, Creepypasta lends itself well to adaptations onscreen.
It is appropriate here to look at ideas surrounding the uncanny, as discussed by Freud and Kant, where the familiar becomes eerie and unsettling. This takes on a new shape in relation to ‘digital realism’ in relation to internet legend and its filmic representation. Theorist of digital culture, Lea Manovich explains this as the way in which digital media does not merely reproduce the physical world but creates a new form of realism, one that is inherently tied to the capabilities and constraints of the digital medium. It is not about replicating the physical world but creating a digital space where supernatural forces can manifest and terrorize. Casey, in the film, narrates her fears of being subsumed by digital forces: ‘I know how it's going to end now. I'm going inside the video, through the computer, into the screen.’ This encapsulates the terrifying potential of ‘digital realism’––being consumed by a posthuman boundless and infinite internet landscape. We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is so effective in challenging the boundaries of the genre because of its immersive visuality and content. Immersion is the experience of the internet wormhole, being so deep in an anonymous, accessible, and infinite digital world that the experience becomes entirely disembodied. Casey's mundane life in Saugerties lacks vibrancy and excitement, while her online experiences, though terrifying, are seductive in their boundless nature. It is fitting that Schoenbrun troubles coming-of-age tropes in relation in exploring the horror of what lies beyond the screen. The film emphasizes how easily online forces can disrupt normative adolescent development, exemplifying the increasingly realized nature of the premonition of the posthuman.