Cellular Horror: How Cell Phones Are Changing The Genre

Cell phones have had a lasting effect on horror. Find out Lee's thoughts. 

We have become a society that can do nearly every task with a cell phone. A plethora of apps enable us to play games against friends, pay our mortgage, and locate every pizza joint within a five-mile radius. We use our phones to play music, take photos, and send emoji-filled text messages. While these conveniences have revolutionized the way we live, it has forced many horror screenwriters to reevaluate how to build suspense.

Look out! Sprint is sneaking up behind you. 

The old-fashioned landline was prominent in many classic horror films. It was used to set up some of the genre’s most famous scenes. Remember the climactic ending to When A Stranger Calls (the 1979 original)? - “We’ve traced the calls, they’re coming from inside the house!” Or Freddy’s sexy tongue wagging out of the phone receiver in A Nightmare on Elm Street? And who can forget Drew Barrymore’s scene during the first fifteen minutes of Scream? The landline phone was used to create a unique tension in all of these iconic horror moments. As technology continues to advance, the cell phone has become a permanent fixture in society, causing many horror writers to adapt to the times.

If a car breaks down on the side of the road, drivers no longer need to walk to the creepy farmhouse to use the phone. If a group of teens get lost on their way to spring break, they can use a GPS app to help guide them to their destination rather than accidentally driving down that dead-end road where a family of cannibals live. No one leaves home without their phone nowadays. This has created a new and often difficult dilemma for modern horror writers. To add suspense, a screenwriter is now faced with three options: No signal, dead battery, or a lost, or broken, phone.

Bro. This is so erotic. 
The evolution of technology has made horror a challenge. Sadistic killers can no longer sneak up to a sorority house and cut the phone line before picking off scantily dressed teenage girls one by one. Campers who get separated in the woods while being chased by a machete-swinging manic can now just text each other their location to reunite and call the authorities. Unless writing a pre-2000 period piece or an apocalyptic zombie takeover that completely destroys society, writers are being forced to come up with new ideas, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

What’s next? Cell phone found footage? An entire film that plays out in real-time via Facebook Live? Instead of The Ring, will we get a similar themed film called The App? Despite every new convenience cell phones offer, there will always be a classic quality to the good old landline, or more often than not, the lack thereof.

This is arguably most famously displayed in John Carpenter’s Halloween. The back-and-forth phone tag between Laurie and her girlfriends comes to a sudden end when Michael Myers uses the phone cord to strangle Lynda to death. Laurie listens as Lynda gasps for her life, wondering if she is playing a joke.

Gone are the days of watching victims leave bloody fingerprints on every number on a rotary dial. There was something special about the tension it created, waiting for each dial to slowly roll back into position. As technology continues to connect the world and simplify every aspect of our lives, the element of surprise will become more difficult to execute in horror. While it will force many to create new and original ideas, it will be tough to match the suspense achieved during the golden era of landline cinema.

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- Lee L. Lind -