Even as I type this, I’m still living partially in the world of the new Unfriended: Dark Web. Does that ever happen to you? You see a horror movie and can’t quite shake the feeling. Just like when I saw the remake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre in theaters, or any of the Saw films, or Hereditary or Mother!—there are always a couple days where I’m looking over my shoulder, listening for danger, feeling like every stranger is suspect. The difference is, with a social media-based horror film, just sitting and staring into a screen all day becomes a possible nightmare.
The thing that is so cool about internet horror movies is that they hit a specific nerve in all of us.We spend so much of our time looking at the same screen, and so many of us even have the same interface, the same pre-chosen screen backdrop, we use the same apps, the same social media sites. When a movie like Unfriended or its recent stand-alone sequel get going, you immediately feel inside the film, because you are looking at almost the exact screen you are so used to.
The sounds are the same sounds you hear day in and day out. You hear someone calling on Skype, the ding of a Facebook message, the same iPhone ring that we are all so used to hearing. These sounds hit a switch inside you, and you are so much more inside the movie because of this sound recognition. The fact that many of these films also use the actual apps, that they get permission from the companies, makes it so much more real than if they created a knock off Facebook or Skype.
When I watched the first Unfriended, it was on my own MacBook. Because of this, I kept thinking that the movie wasn’t in full screen, that the messages popping up in the right hand corner were for me, that I was getting a Skype call of my own. We are so tuned into the internet at all times, that it’s almost like Pavlovian classical conditioning: different sounds and sights elicit emotional and physical responses. I get a little kick of anxious excitement when I hear the sound of a text or instant message, and it all builds into the experience of the movie.
And, just the Dark Web shows, there is a lot to be scared of beyond the trolls and the political arguments, the bad photos posted of you without permission. The internet churns out horrors constantly, whether it be something like ElsaGate, the bizarre and disturbing takeover of Kids YouTube videos by seemingly nefarious bots, overseas provocateurs, or something even darker. Remember the Cannibal Cop? The man who was charged with conspiracy to commit kidnapping because he was in a deep internet fetish community of people who fantasized about killing and eating women? And that’s just the beginning.
Just like real life, horror urban legends act themselves out in the modern age of the internet with something called Creepypasta. Creepypasta are essentially horror shorts written by anonymous authors, spread first in the early days on forums like 4chan. These stories are fiction, of course, but just like urban legends they often build and build, with people providing new pieces to the lore, things like doctored photographs masquerading as proof that the story is real. Sometimes, certain folks may have more difficulty separating a fun, realistic story from the truth itself. Just take the story of Slenderman, and what would happened years later when the legend was taken as real, and a young girl was almost stabbed to death because two of her classmates couldn't separate fact from fiction. Of course, in 99.9 percent of cases, Creepypasta has simply been an enjoyable past-time for folks into horror, in fact, they are being made into one of the best horror shows on TV, Channel Zero.
Still, the internet seems to be a wild west of unregulated darkness. More and more Google, Reddit, and other sites like them are cracking down on the worst of the worst. But there is still a terrifying underbelly, one that is only possible to access through specific software and permissions. Yep, I’m talking about the dark web.
Urban legends abound about the dark web, or deep web. The most prominent are the murder-for-hire sites, as well as the alleged market for specific videos of torture or murder (known as snuff films), which rich people pay millions of dollars to have made special for them and their particular sadistic tastes. Most, if not all of these, have been proven to be hoaxes. And let me be the first to breathe a sigh of relief, because I’d been believing in this a long time, right up until the research for this very paragraph. However, studies have shown that the majority of the content on the dark web is child pornography, so I guess my relief came too soon.
Just like Dark Web, The Den plays on the urban legend of modern snuff films, which, I also didn’t know until right now, are also an urban legend. Truly the stuff of horror movies, this premise, based solely on rumor, has definitely influenced the horror sector for a very long time.
For the most part, the real Dark Web acts as a black market for illegal drugs. In 2013 however, the site known as Silk Road closed down when the FBI arrested the creator, Ross Ulbricht, on eight charges related to the drug site. He will spend life in prison.
So, the premise of Unfriended: Dark Web is a bit more fiction than fact, more urban legend than Based on a True Story. Nonetheless, I truly believe that the best horror movies come out of urban legends: those stories created by our subconscious are produced to our conscious mind as fact. When our fear is talks to us directly. Mix that with the semi-sweet anxiety that comes from the familiarity of the little world in your laptop, and you have a new brand of horror that is likely to evolve more and more alongside our technology.