Ghosts in the Machine
How horror stories process a cultural fear of communication technology
The demon-summoning VHS cassette. The computer virus that opens a portal to the afterlife. The phone that connects you with a murderous ghost from the past. For decades, our scary stories have been suffused with conscious killer technology and communication tools that let us talk with beings from the beyond. From Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to the upcoming horror flick Email, the social shake-ups and innovative possibilities afforded by new technology also make our imaginations run wild.
When cameras first gained notoriety in the late 19th century, many believed that they could capture images of the dead. The telegraph became popular at the same time as table-tapping spiritualists who claimed to receive missives from the beyond. Alexander Graham Bell’s assistant Thomas Watson—receiver of the world’s first phone call—was also a medium who held seances and communicated with ghosts.
We’ve had connected devices for ages, but horror movies reveal that we’re still feeling the aftershocks of innovations that enable presence without physicality. Technologies like the camera, telegraph, and telephone utterly upended the way that people understood distance and proximity, jarring them into new relationships and behaviors. For the first time in the history of human experience, you could see or speak with someone who was not physically present.
Like magic, we use smartphones to observe and talk to people without being there. Deep in the dark recesses of human thought, there’s a sliver of a wonder as to whether the same device couldn’t just as easily call a future self, a diabolical spirit, or a ghost. Movies like The Ring, White Noise, and Pulse all use this trope of the technologically connected dead, and they all grew from the same mysticism and superstition as the Victorian spirit photograph. At base, these stories echo the same terrifying idea: that new technologies meant to bring us closer together might also bring us closer to previously unknowable realms.
When we don’t fully understand something, we resort to magical thinking. Not knowing the limits of an innovation, we expand its capabilities outside of the bounds of natural possibility. If we don’t know how cameras capture an image, who’s to say it can’t capture our souls? If my video chat program lets me see and talk with my sister in Seattle, why can’t it help me talk to my Grandfather in the afterlife?
Jeffrey Sconce, cultural historian and author of Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television, points out that as “sound and image without material substance, the electronically mediated worlds of telecommunications often evoke the supernatural by creating virtual beings that appear to have no physical form.”
Our spooky stories about terrifying technology are more than superstition and nostalgia, more than the Luddite’s anger at technological progress. It’s a process for mentally digesting the new. We use stories to try and understand our world. Techno-horror plays out our greatest fears in the new innovations and devices surrounding us. Perhaps it’s a way of finding the limits of those new capabilities, or exploring feelings of powerlessness. If we don’t feel that we have complete control over our use of technology, we imagine agency and evil intentions in everything from ring tones to video games.
There’s no denying that new devices create new relationships, new realms of existence, and new social orders. As innovations ripple through culture, they give us more than increased capability; they give us the uncanny suspicion that something nefarious lurks within the machine, the digital realm, or the electronic pulse. But with time and the march of technological progress, every new innovation becomes obsolete, and, hopefully, every ghost-in-the-machine loses its power to terrify and possess.
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