Ghostly Machines

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.

11 Comments »

  1. Nick Said,

    July 25, 2005 @ 9:02 pm

    A subject near and dear to my heart, Chuck. The connection to Edison is fascinating. I know I’ve mentioned him before, but I think several of Chuck Palahniuk’s novels circle around these topics in interesting ways. He’s one of those writers who is sort of dismissed critically because of the success of Fight Club, and also because he seems symptomatic of the very postmodern excesses and hypocricies he critiques. That’s inelegantly put, I know.

    But in Lullaby (2002) for example–which centers on a culling song or lullaby that, when spoken, kills those who hear it–there are some passages that touch on digital-era communications in eerie, haunted ways. The culling song, the novel suggests, is so terrifyingly dangerous today because of the potential for reproduction or replication: “The culling song would be a plague unique to the information age. Imagine a world where people shun the television, the radio, movies, the Internet, magazines and newspapers,” the narrator says. The creepy thing about this novel (and much of Palahniuk’s work) is that we are never entirely clear whether the primary voice or narrator of his novels endorse or condemn the terrible things they describe. In this sense, his novels themselves are plague-like, infecting readers with their unstable ideas that are never fully disciplined in the way we expect them to be…

    Anyway, glad to see you’re working on an article on this topic.

  2. Chuck Said,

    July 25, 2005 @ 10:35 pm

    Oh, glad you reminded me about Lullaby. I haven’t read it in two years, so it had slipped from immediate memory, but the viral effects of the culling song fit this concept perfectly.

    I generally like Palahniuk’s novels, even though I also find them frustrating at times, probably in part because it’s unclear whether or not the narrators are “endorsing” what’s happening.

  3. Amber Said,

    July 26, 2005 @ 8:03 am

    What about The Mothman Prophecies? Does that go along with your EVP theories as well?

  4. Chuck Said,

    July 26, 2005 @ 11:45 am

    Haven’t seen it, but maybe I should take a look….

  5. alison Said,

    July 26, 2005 @ 5:28 pm

    Takashi Miike made a film that’s literally about haunted cell phones (not a particularly good film, but one that’s reportedly up for a US remake nonetheless). The central ghost’s victims receive calls from their own number, dated in the future, at the moment of their deaths, and as the film progresses, the remaining girls go through various contortions to save themselves, including cancelling their phone plans and keeping their phones off — only to have them turn themselves back on, all ghost-like.

  6. Amber Said,

    July 26, 2005 @ 8:58 pm

    You should definitely see it… I was freaked out by it.

  7. Chuck Said,

    July 27, 2005 @ 12:08 am

    Thanks for the suggestions. The cell phone film premise sounds interesting, even if the execution is poor. I’ve also heard rumors of a remake of the 1979 film, When a Stranger Calls (a 2006 release date according to IMDB) .

  8. marc Said,

    July 27, 2005 @ 12:17 am

    A couple more for you, Chuck:

    1) Premonition, a Japanese horror flick about haunted newspapers which cause their readers to die.

    2) What Lies Beneath has, I believe, a moment of ghastly cellphone malfunction.

    3) Saw, though not dealing with hauntings, per se, has everything to do with media and death.

    4) Poltergeist is another obvious one. Sure you thought of it already.

    5) Shocker, an ’80′s flick about a serial killer that travels through phone and cable lines.

    6) Fear Dot Com, a particularly crappy film with a rather relevant premise: a website that show what may or may not be an impending murder.

    Chuck, I could go on and on. Perhaps we should discuss this on our maybe-Thursday meetup.

  9. Chuck Said,

    July 27, 2005 @ 12:41 am

    Marc, all good suggestions. As much as possible, I’m trying to keep things limited to a timeframe running from the mid-1990s to the present. I have a brief section on Fear Dot Com already, but I’m not sure if I can bring myself to watch it ever again. I’ll check out Saw ASAP, and yeah, I’d enjoy talking about this, hopefully on Thursday….

  10. Chris Martin Said,

    July 29, 2005 @ 11:05 am

    I found this cell phone study particularly disturbing:
    http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,1564,1551223,00.html

    You might find this interesting too:
    http://www.flong.com/telesymphony/

  11. Chuck Said,

    July 29, 2005 @ 11:26 am

    Chris, I remember hearing about those survey results, and in some ways, I find it fascinating (and sometimes troubling) to see how sex and communications technology interact. The “telesymphony” is also pretty fascinating.

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