I’ve been revising some of the arguments in my media horror article (I may have more to say about said article’s status in the near future), and watching White Noise last night has opened up some of the ideas in that paper considerably. At least one reviewer (I’ll track her/him down later) noted that the screenwriter for White Noise ws inspired by the Japanese film, Ringu, which was remade as The Ring and which may have inspired Blair Witch Project as well. But the film has me thinking about some other questions about the portrayal of communications technologies as haunted.
First, I’m trying to think about the role of cell phones and land-line phones in these films. Of course, The Ring’s premise includes the fact that viewers of the killer videotape receive a phone call from the dead (usually on a land-line phone). But it also seems significant that the film’s major characters often fail to make contact because their cell phones are out of service or out of range at inopportune moments. In White Noise, Jonathan (Michael Keaton) becomes convinced of the existence of EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomena) when he receives a cell phone call displaying his wife’s cell phone number even though he can see that her phone is not in operation. I’m trying to remember similar “haunted” moments involving cell phones in media horror films, but more crucially, this sense of ghostly cell phones seems to be a larger discursive phenomenon. One example I’ve recently discovered: Digital artist Leslie Sharpe has a “ghost story” for wireless handheld devices (PDAs), Haunt>Pass. She comments that the project is “about a ghost, in the form of an electronic signal, which is discovered haunting the ship. It jumps onto people’s devices.” Sharpe’s art, of course, expresses a great deal of self-consciousness about the ways in which communications media shape perception, including our concepts of “presence,” something I believe to be at the heart of these media horror films.
White Noise also has raised my curiosity about Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP), the belief that the dead can communicate with the living via electronic devices, an idea inspired in part by Edison’s fantasies of such a device (a more skeptical take is available here). This premise clearly informs White Noise, but it also seems to be a subtext in The Ring, as well. I’m tempted to read the current vogue for EVP in horror films in several unrelated ways, including the continued understanding of electronic technologies as “living” (a concept already unpacked by Jeffrey Sconce). But I also wonder to what extent something like EVP might be connected to blurred definitions of living and dead produced by medical technologies that can keep people alive even when they are, for example, in a permanent vegetative state. In this regard, Bill Frist’s tele-diagnosis of Schiavo might be an interesting cultural touchstone. And an early plot twist in White Noise itself hinges on Jonathan’s doubt about whether or not his wife is actually dead because her body has not yet been discovered (note: because of the emphasis on shared grief, it’s also tempting to wrap the film’s pervasive gloominess into some general post 9/11 malaise, but that seems a little too simplistic
Update: The Wikipedia entry on the topic reminds me that Cayce’s mother in William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition uses a form of EVP to try to communicate with Win (Cayce’s dad), who disappeared during the 9/11 attacks.
Update 2: An Indianapolis Star article on “cell phone addiction,” which starts with an anecdote about an assignment requiring students to turn off their cell phones for three days. I don’t think the article covers any new territory. Cell phone addiction stories are commonplace, as are suggestions that a lost cell phone can cause people to feel absolutely “helpless.” Mostly thinking out loud here about how popular narratives about cell phone use overlap with how they are represented in these horror films and novels.