by Robyn Banks

Video media have always had a way of tapping into the current fears of the watcher. Be it in horror movies or films aimed at children, they show us topical fears in either exaggerated gory fashion or in subtle ways that stay with you well past the end of the credits. This has never been more true of the fear of screens. Over the decades, the screen has often been used on screen as a device that either projects our worst fears or captivates us and holds us against our will. The fear of screens warping our minds is a form of mild technophobia, an attitude dismissed by many as socially conservative. Nonetheless, many filmmakers have used it to their advantage to create horror and thrills, as well as using it as a form of social commentary.

This trend started not long after the television became a standard feature in the homes of families in Western countries, but the most memorable use of it came a little later in Poltergeist (1982). Set against the backdrop of the Reagan presidency and the growing discourse surrounding the nuclear family, the movie uses the TV screen as a way to both show the literal horror of the situation, but also the subversive horror of what is happening to the family and their reliance upon the TV screen. This two-pronged approach informs how the movie advances its plot using the TV as the main point of contact with the ‘other side’, and culminates in the now infamous scene where the ghosts enter the home via the TV set. In the original, unlike the 2015 remake, the subversive critique of the TV’s increasing role in the family resonated with its audience, firmly lodging itself in the minds of parents and the media.

Poltergeist was quickly followed by David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983). This weird and wonderful movie follows the story of James Woods, a cable TV programmer, as his mind and perception of reality is altered by the titular show. It’s far more surreal than Poltergeist but it still carries that fear of the screen and what it could be doing to our minds. The oh-so-80s trailer demonstrates the abstract ways in which the story deals with this fear whilst also hammering home the message of the dangers of the TV screen.

Both of these movies have the benefit of being able to comment upon the social conservatism that was prevalent in society in the 80s, but also build upon the growing fear that had increased in society due to the way that TV screens had increased in prominence in the home, exploring and satirising what has become a long standing, if often hidden or undiscussed, fear within society.

Fast forwarding a couple decades, the infamous Ring movies saw the horror play out both on the screen and through it, with the creature the horror focuses around appearing almost exclusively on the TV screen itself. Even when the creature isn’t around, the original film in the series makes the TV the centrepoint of the horror throughout the film, exploiting common fears about the increasing accessibility of screens to young children. The use of the VCR tape as a central device sets the tone beautifully, given its vulnerability as a way to record images, with the jumping tape and poor quality playing up the suspense of the film.

2006 saw the release of a Doctor Who episode entitled ‘The Idiot’s Lantern’. Set on coronation day 1952, when record numbers of people in the UK tuned in to the live broadcast, various people have their faces literally sucked into the TV screens. Building less subtly on from Poltergeist’s subversive message, it again symbolises the critique of how the screen draws people away from family and turns them into lost, faceless beings. Whilst the message is far more in your face (pardon the pun) in Who, it exploits that constant fear that we can lose ourselves to the screens around us in a very similar way, despite the quarter-century between the two works. And while the monster is eventually defeated and people get their faces back, the moral of the episode is clear: too much time staring at a screen is bad for you.

The fear of the screen is also pivotal to the newest Incredibles movie, released in recent weeks, in which the main villain ‘Screenslaver’ has the ability is to control people’s minds whenever they’re watching a screen sending out their broadcast. Released amidst rising concerns about the amount of time we spend look at screens (mostly smartphones), the movie and its 60s-parallel setting remind us that these fears have always existed in one form or another. It demonstrates in many ways that the fear of the screen has never gone away, while reinforcing the fears of the viewer about what they may be experiencing in their own life, albeit on a smaller, pocket-size scale.

The five examples demonstrate the power of the screen to both present the social concerns of the time and the subtle horror of the very screens that they’re being projected on. Works like this bring the undercurrent of social conservatism and technophobia that has for so long been associated with screens, and the potential power they have over us, to the forefront of our minds. When successful, they leave the viewer sceptical or afraid, even if just for a short time, of the screens that they use in their homes. Whilst these films could seem hypocritical for criticising screens on the screen, it is actually by doing this that they can so effectively play to our fears. If we learn to fear the screens too much then we will turn them off forever, losing the film as an art form, but it is in the grip of that fear itself that we enjoy every moment we watch, building up our immunity just enough until the next scare puts us back in our unsettled place.

Featured image credit: dapoopta

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