The early days of social media ushered in an era of Web 2.0 fears, the loss of privacy and the threat of cyberstalking among them, plus the depressing realisation that everyone you went to high school with is overtly racist.
In the decades since, we’ve found new, more existential flaws in the matrix, as troll farms encourage the distribution of false and damaging information that is algorithmically delivered to our apps in order to confirm our existing biases, or maybe make us really angry. But still we scroll. Addicted to the rush of endorphins brought on by a couple of likes, and to that equally heady sense of righteous indignation, we’ve lost the sense there’s any particular value to objective reality.
Opinions about business magnate Elon Musk vary wildly, but this week’s news that he’s buying Twitter and taking the company private has raised concerns. He promises to open the platform’s algorithms to public scrutiny, which is probably a good thing, but what becomes of an already problematic platform once it comes under the sole control of one of world’s wealthiest individual? A new Eden? Or further descent into hell? I guess we’ll have to keep scrolling to find out.
Popular entertainment has often struggled to keep up with the pace of technological change, but we’ve been living in this world long enough that the movies have made some impressive, entertaining, and darkly funny statements about our online lives. A few of them even come close to capturing the horrors of reality.
Hard Candy (2005)
The chat rooms that serve as a key plot point in Hard Candy might as well be cave paintings from our circa-2022 vantage point. On rewatch, though, there’s surprisingly little that wouldn’t work just as well (and just as disturbingly) in a more thoroughly modern context, even if you’d be a bit more likely to find the creeper slipping into your DMs via your phone. Here, Elliot Page had his first lead role in a major movie playing against Patrick Wilson, and older photographer with an interest in underage girls. Page’s character, it turns out, is neither helpless nor harmless, and has been setting up Wilson To Catch a Predator-style — and has a fairly unpleasant evening planned for him. One of the O.G. films dealing with the dark side what we now commonly call social media, Hard Candy’s horrors seem prescient, especially in a world where there are more ways than ever to exploit the vulnerable online.
The Den (2013)
Beating Unfriended (the next entry on this list) to the punch by about a year, but without approaching that film’s impressive box office take, The Den has been largely forgotten — unfortunate, given that it was a trailblazer, if not quite a masterpiece. Melanie Papalia plays a grad student working on a sociology thesis exploring the extent to which she’s able to engage in meaningful interactions via “The Den,” a service very much like Chatroulette that allows users to connect with strangers at random. Given that this is a horror movie, she soon sees something she oughtn’t have, and has a hard time convincing anyone to help, even when he own life is in danger. Though a lot of the plot is fairly by the numbers, it builds to a clever climax while making the effectively straightforward point that what we think of (or once thought of) as online anonymity is maybe not so much.
A surprising success and, at the time, a new way of doing found footage, Unfriended holds up as clever horror innovation, even if the idea of a whole movie unfolding over Skype is so 2014. There’s often a bit too much going on (seriously gang: close some windows), but the movie digs into the ways online interactions can have tragic consequences in the real world (and, apparently, into the afterlife).
The Sisterhood of Night (2014)
The lesser-known but worthwhile thriller smartly moves The Crucible into the modern(-ish) age. After her private texts are published by a vengeful classmate, Mary deletes her social media accounts and starts an offline sisterhood. That antisocial offline silence, though, is far more interesting and novel than anything anyone else has got going on, and inspires gossip and innuendo that eventually gets the whole town in an uproar. It’s a smart take, suggesting that there’s no escape from our extremely online culture.
The digital age brought with it a new (and entirely reasonable) set of fears related to privacy. Are my texts really private? Is that ever-present webcam really under my own control? The effective, low-budget Ratter stars Ashley Benson as a grad student who gets hacked by a stalker who begins watching and listening to her through all of her devices. It’d be a scary premise even without the horror movie tropes.
Even with its YA vibe, Nerve manages to make effective points about the perils of our collective desire to become internet famous. Starring Emma Roberts and Dave Franco, Nerve deals with the titular online game in which viewers challenge players to increasingly hazardous real-world tasks with monetary rewards, but even more highly coveted (and less fungible) views and likes. It doesn’t go particularly hard, but it’s entertaining and creates a heightened, but reasonably believable world that captures the social compulsions that can drive us deeper and deeper down online rabbit holes.
Ingrid Goes West (2017)
The social media age requires us to live in two worlds simultaneously, worlds that often operate on very different rules; it’s no surprise we can’t all navigate them both seamlessly. Here, Aubrey Plaza plays Ingrid, an Insta-obsessed and generally troubled woman who attempts to get a fresh start in the worst possible way: she ingratiates herself with social media influencer Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen) by kidnapping, and then heroically returning, her dog. What follows is more darkly comedic than horrific, but certainly disturbing. The film comments on both our obsession with celebrity and our desperate need for acknowledgement and attention.
Tragedy Girls (2017)
High school seniors McKayla Hooper and Sadie Cunningham are having limited success with their true crime blog “Tragedy Girls.” Willing to do just about anything to stand apart from the crowd, they bait and capture a serial killer before deciding that the real way to up their follower count is to continue committing murders as the killer while reporting the grisly details on their blog. If Tragedy Girls doesn’t say anything that hasn’t already been said about what people will do for likes, its over-the-top style, darkly comedic tone, and refusal to moralize make it a particularly biting entry in the clicks-at-all-costs sub-genre.
Assassination Nation (2018)
The directorial debut of future Euphoria mastermind Sam Levinson (who also penned the screenplay), Assassination Nation opens with a lengthy list of trigger warnings, then proceeds to justify every one of them over the course of 108 frenetically filmed minutes. This acid-tinged satire explores what happens to a seemingly bucolic community after a hacker leaks compromising photos of an anti-gay mayoral candidate, leading to his public suicide. As the ensuing investigation zeros in on the culprit, more leaks follow, and the suddenly exposed mean girl texts and salacious photos of the town’s teens soon triggers (ahem) all-out gender-based street warfare. It’s wild stuff. Use two-factor authentication, people.
Social media goads us into trying to appear to be something other than we are; to create a fantasy based on our own lives, but diverging in significant ways. For many of us, the online version of ourselves is practically a different person: smarter, more confident, sexier, or just better lit. Cam, in Black Mirror-style, makes that distinction literal in the story of online sex worker Alice Ackerman, aka Lola_Lola, who discovers one night that there’s another Lola out there…a cam girl who’s identical to Alice in appearance and general vibe, but whose willingness to go further puts her out in front in terms of viewership. Writer Isa Mazzei’s screenplay draws from her own experiences, and Madeline Brewer’s strong enough performance sustains the eerie premise.
The computer screen thriller earned a glow of prestige with this mystery starring John Cho and Debra Messing. After his 16-year-old daughter goes missing with no leads, Cho’s character examines her laptop, diving into an entire world of photos, videos, and online interactions. Those clues eventually lead him to form conclusions about his daughter’s death that turn out to be rather off the mark. Cho is characteristically great in a movie that looks at the ways our online presence reveals and obscures us.
Stranger Things’ Joe Keery (as dorky rideshare driver Kurt Kunckle) has a can’t lose plan for staving off boredom and becoming internet famous: he’s going to murder his passengers and livestream the whole thing. I suppose there’s something here about the potential horrors of rideshare apps, but it’s mostly played for dark comedy. Keery’s charm, and a smart twist ending, are highlights.
Cleverly filmed, Initiation has a fair bit going on — perhaps too much — in its story of a college campus plagued by rapists and power drill-related murders. It has admirable intentions, but its blending of slasher tropes and serious sexual assault themes produces mixed results, and isn’t be to every taste. Still, it is ambitious in its goals, and operates using a clever conceit that’s more than a gimmick: many of the character beats are revealed via DMs and social feeds that float over characters’ heads, nodding to the primary ways we all interact in the 2020s.
The Hater (2020)
Following his expulsion from law school, Tomasz Giemza (Maciej Musiałowski) begins a dubious smear campaign against a health and fitness guru, drawing the attention of a public relations firm that’s ultimately more of a troll farm. Tomasz becomes a rising star as a right-wing social media, at first motivated by what he sees as the hypocrisy of a wealthy family of liberals, but soon losing any sense of the value of truth and using racism and homophobia as mere tools in his arsenal. Circumstances turn his rise into a downward spiral and, eventually, bloodshed, but Tomasz remains a complex, if not particularly admirable character, throughout. We’re left wondering if he’s a villain or the victim of a system designed to breeds people just like him.
The all-on-a-screen sub-genre has taken on a new relevance and immediacy in the age of COVID. The story of a seance-turned-demonic summoning set entirely over Zoom, Host was filmed not just with an eye toward the increasing ubiquity of online interactions beginning in 2020, but also out of a need for new ways to make movies — the actors in it were never in the same room during production, which lends a verisimilitude to the performances and gooses the themes of anxiety and isolation. The spooky bits are effective if not particularly novel, but the movie pretty effectively captures a bit of pandemic-era zeitgeist.
We’re introduced to several of Shook’s main characters via their Instagram (well, Instagram-esque) profiles, a clever way of kicking off a film that’s most interested in exploring the contrast between the real lives of influencers (and wannabe influencers) and their less-flawless real lives. Daisye Tutor is Mia, a makeup influencer who becomes the target of an online terror campaign that forces her into a series of dangerous games in order to save the lives of her friends. Shook might not be the sharpest or most incisive horror movie dealing with social media, but it’s an enjoyable bit of creepiness with a point to make.